It’s rare that a craving for tofu strikes. Usually the foods we instinctively reach for are laden with too much fat and sugar. But your favorite foods don’t necessarily have to be off-limits. We asked expert nutritionists to re-imagine America’s most popular dishes, and find creative ways to boost these meals’ nutrition while lowering their calorie counts – and keeping their great taste. They came back with five dishes so tasty you won’t even miss the missing calories. So go ahead and dig in—really!
The comfort food: Pizza
THE CULPRIT: CARB-HEAVY CRUSTS. Fast food pizza is notorious for its calorie-dense pies (which can top 250 a slice), but there’s another reason why this favorite meal is a diet disaster: One regular serving can weigh in at 34 grams of carbohydrates – usually refined, processed ones that have next to no nutritional value.
THE FIX: Opt for a homemade whole wheat flour crust, which has more fiber and minerals than the regular variety, says Kath Younger, R.D. and blogger at KathEats.com. Or to make a personal pizza, use a slice of whole-grain pita bread, whole-wheat naan bread, or super-thin lavash as the base.
For toppings, Younger recommends choosing blue cheese, goat cheese or smoked gouda—these strong flavors will balance out the wheat flavor in the crust. And don’t forget the veggies: Pile on sliced tomatoes, bell peppers, spinach, and mushrooms to add fiber, minerals, and vitamins to each slice.
The comfort food: Macaroni & Cheese
THE CULPRIT: HEAVY, FATTENING SAUCES. The traditional version of this dish is loaded with saturated fat—not to mention that it packs a carb-heavy punch with white pasta and breadcrumbs.
THE FIX: For a creamy serving of macaroni and cheese that only tastes decadent, switch to whole wheat pasta and cook it in skim milk instead of water, says Laine Cooper, R.D. After draining the macaroni, add one cup of low-fat cottage cheese and a few handfuls of shredded cheddar made with 2% milk. (You can also add sautéed greens to the mixture to boost its volume and fiber, says Younger.) Stir until cheeses melt, then top with sliced tomatoes and bake until cheese bubbles.
The comfort food: Chili
THE CULPRITY: INGREDIENTS LADEN WITH SATURATED FAT. Thanks to the beef and sour cream, the number of calories in chili can add up quickly. But with a few substitutions, you can trim the fat without sacrificing flavor.
THE FIX: Substitute red meat for two or three varieties of beans instead, says Younger. Their meatiness not only mimics the heartiness of beef, but also matches their protein content: A half-cup of beans tends to have the same amount as a 1 ounce serving of lean meat. Most legumes are also low in fat and cholesterol, and are high in folate, potassium, and iron.
Choose fat-free Greek yogurt in lieu of sour cream, and add crumbled mini cornbread muffins and thinly sliced green onions for more texture and flavor, says Younger.
The comfort food: Meatloaf & Mashed Potatoes
THE CULPRIT: TOO MANY STARCHY CARBS. There’s a reason why meatloaf and mashed potatoes is an all-American standby: It’s hearty and filling. Problem is, because it’s loaded with fat and carbs, it fills you up in all the wrong ways.
THE FIX: You don’t have to rely on spuds for that creamy, airy flavor—you can also use cauliflower. Plus, the vegetable also cuts calories while adding a dose of fiber. Mix one part potatoes with one part cauliflower; simmer both in skim milk until tender. Drain, reserving the milk, then mash with low-fat sour cream and milk until you reach a creamy consistency.
To boost the fiber content in the meatloaf, Younger recommends adding finely minced veggies to the mixture. “Puree red bell peppers, carrots, onions and celery and sauté them in a drizzle of oil before adding to the ground meat,” Cooper says. The veggies also add moisture so you can use a very lean beef for the mixture without sacrificing the texture. Another tip: Make mini meatloaves for instant portion control.
The comfort food: Chicken Caesar Salad
THE CULPRIT: FATTENING DRESSINGS. Sure, a salad may sound like a healthy option, but store-bought dressings often contain trans-fats and are even overloaded with sugar—two tablespoons can run up to 160 calories.
THE FIX: Make your own version at home by whisking together lemon juice, olive oil, and a few cloves of finely grated garlic. Finish with a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese and a dose of cracked black pepper. For creaminess, add some Greek yogurt, and for a saltier flavor, add in a finely minced anchovy.
Another way to boost your salad’s nutrition and cut calories is to avoid frying chicken in vegetable oil—instead, try marinating boneless, skinless chicken breasts in a blend of nonfat yogurt, lemon juice, garlic powder, salt and pepper before either grilling or baking them. You can also make your own croutons instead of opting for the store-bought version, says Younger. First, cube a loaf of whole-grain bread, toss with a little olive oil, and place them on a sheet. Bake until lightly toasted.