There's nothing wrong with saving a special place in your heart for pizza, ice cream or chips. While they might not be kale and quinoa, these tempting foods can still fit into a healthy diet plan.
With a bit of creativity, you can easily replicate the flavors, textures and familiarity of your favorite comfort foods all while adding a nutritious twist. We chatted with three registered dietitians to get their take on realistic — yet still scrumptious — swaps for your favorite "junk foods."
If You're Craving Pizza, Try Pizza 'Croutons'
Here's a hack from Chicago-based dietitian Maggie Michalczyk, RD: Cut a slice of pizza into bite-sized squares and add it atop a salad.
"You'll still get that cheesy goodness in each bite, and you'll get greens into your meal, too," she tells LIVESTRONG.com. "This allows you to get more nutrition and fiber by way of the salad, but you still get to enjoy the pizza," she adds.
Sure, you can simply make a side salad to serve up alongside a slice, "but it's fun to have cheesy croutons on top," says Michalczyk, who recommends trying this with leftover pizza. Also, remember that veggies supply fiber and lettuce also lends a lot of volume to your meal to help fill you up on fewer calories.
Another option is to make a pizza pie at home. You can often buy whole-wheat crust, which will provide more fiber, and top it off with leftover veggies or protein from last week's meal prep, she says.
Recipes to Try
As if you needed another reason to try your hand at these 7 Healthier Pizza Recipes to Make at Home, these pies pack in the produce and serve up plenty of protein.
If You're Craving French Fries, Try Veggie Fries
Spuds aren't the only veggie worthy of turning into a batch of fries. Try one of the many varieties of squash, carrots, parsnips, turnips, zucchini or asparagus.
"Season them with different herbs and spices and bake them in the oven or air fryer for a healthier alternative," Michalczyk says. And get this: A small order of McDonald's fries supplies 230 calories while the same amount of carrots contain just 30 calories (spritz with olive oil spray to keep added cals to a minimum) — so you'll be saving nearly 200 calories by making this smart swap.
Simply preheat your oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit, slice veggies into fry shapes, spray with oil and sprinkle on salt and spices of your choice. Roast until veggies are soft and caramelized as desired.
You can also try this with avocado by slicing the fruit lengthwise into pieces, dredging it in flour and sprinkling with bread crumbs before baking or popping the slices in an air fryer. While this won't necessarily save you calories, the swap will add some good nutrition to your plate.
Recipes to Try
These 9 Crispy Fries Even Veggie Haters Will Love take all of your favorite veggies and transform them into a crispy snack that satisfies.
If You're Craving Cookies, Try Energy Bites
Cookies are a great treat, but if you're aiming to reduce your intake of sugar and refined carbs, you can make a healthier swap with a superfood-packed treat. "Energy bites are a great alternative as they contain more fiber from the dried fruit and seeds and protein from the nut butter," Melissa Mitri, RD, owner of Melissa Mitri Nutrition in Milford, Connecticut, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
"Choosing higher fiber snacks like energy bites will help keep you full and satisfied with less calories. Because of this, it is much less likely that you will overdo it on portions," she says. Plus, you can sneak in a bit of chocolate to itch that craving.
Energy bites are usually made with a base of nuts and dried fruit before they're rolled into a ball. Plus, they can be easily customized however you want (we love adding cacao nibs and coconut flakes). Try Mitri's easy recipe for energy bites:
- 1 cup (dry) oatmeal
- 2/3 cup toasted coconut flakes
- 1/2 peanut butter
- 1/2 ground flax or chia seeds
- 1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips
- 1/3 cup honey or agave nectar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
To create the bites, stir all ingredients together in a bowl, form into bite-sized balls and lay out on a sheet pan. Refrigerate for at least one hour and store them in portion-sized bags in the fridge.
You can also buy them in bags from the natural food section at your grocery store or online. Try Creation Nation No-Bake Energy Bite Mix for a ready-made mix. For more ideas, try these other great quick protein ball recipes at home.
A Brand We Love
Daily Harvest's superfood bites are akin to cookie dough, except they’re packed with good-for-you foods like pumpkin, chickpeas, avocado and flax seeds. Try the Cacao Nib + Vanilla if you love chocolate chip cookies. Each Daily Harvest bite packs 80 calories and zero grams of added sugar, compared to a conventional chocolate chip cookie, which contains 150 calories and 10 grams of mostly added sugar.
Read more: The 11 Best "Clean" Dark Chocolate Bars
If You're Craving Potato Chips, Try Crispy Chickpeas or Lentils
"Roasting chickpeas or lentils with different spices is a great way to get your crunch on in a healthy way," says Michalczyk. "Pulses [aka legumes like chickpeas and lentils] are a more substantial, healthy alternative to chips because they contain protein and fiber."
In fact, a single-serving bag of potato chips contains less than one gram of fiber while one ounce of crunchy chickpeas or lentils has 6 grams of fiber, which is about 20 percent of your daily recommended value.
You can make your own at home with this crispy roasted chickpeas recipe and toss them with ranch or barbecue seasoning for the same flavors you crave. Or you can buy them premade — just remember to check nutrition labels and make sure each serving clocks in under 150 milligrams of sodium.
Brands We Love
Read more: Are Chickpeas Good for Weight Loss?
If You're Craving Candy or Chocolate, Try Chocolate-Covered Nuts
There's nothing wrong with a handful of candy, except they do nothing for you nutritionally. In fact, just eight pieces of sour gummies contain 100 calories, virtually no vitamins and minerals, and 17 grams of sugar — that's more than four teaspoons' worth! Skip the candy and get that mid-afternoon pick-me-up with chocolate-covered almonds or peanuts for lasting energy, Mitri says.
"These are far more filling because nuts offer healthy fats and fiber," she says. A small serving of chocolate-covered almonds has vitamin E and healthy, unsaturated fat while packing significantly less sugar than traditional candy.
When shopping for chocolate-covered nuts, Mitri recommends looking for dark chocolate varieties. "Dark chocolate contains less sugar and more antioxidants [compared to milk chocolate]," she says. Alternatively, you can take a shortcut by grabbing a small handful of dark chocolate chips and a small handful of nuts and eating those together, says Mitri. It tastes exactly the same but you also get the option of choosing your favorite type of nut (think pistachios, walnuts, almonds) to turn into a chocolatey treat.
A Brand We Love
Go for Skinny Dipped Chocolate-Covered Almonds, which come in flavors including Dark Chocolate Espresso and Dark Chocolate Raspberry and pack in 3 grams of fiber and 5 grams of protein.
Read more: Dark Chocolate Goji Berry Bark Recipe
If You're Craving Chicken Wings, Try Cauliflower Wings
The issue with chicken wings is, as little as they may be, this is dark meat chicken with skin that's been fried and coated in a butter-laden spicy sauce. A snack-size order of traditional wings at Buffalo Wild Wings contains 360 calories and 20 grams of fat — and that's before adding the sauce.
Cauliflower saves the day again. The subtle taste of the on-trend cruciferous veggie means it can easily take on the flavors you add to it. That's exactly why it makes a worthy substitution for chicken wings, Mia Syn, RDN, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
The recipe below has just 134 calories and 1 gram of saturated fat per serving compared to a serving of buffalo chicken wings, which packs in 170 calories and 4.5 grams of saturated fat per two pieces. To make it, whip up a batter from hot sauce, flour and water, then toss with cauliflower florets. After baking for 10 to 15 minutes, they'll come out to crispy perfection.
Serve alongside sliced raw carrots and celery, and either make a hot sauce dipping sauce for more heat or go for a twist on traditional ranch dressing. Our recipe for Sriracha Skyr "Ranch" Dressing offers the best of both worlds, with spice from the sriracha and a health boost from protein-rich skyr yogurt.
A Recipe to Try
Coat the cauli florets in sauce and flour and baking them in the oven, like this recipe for buffalo cauliflower calls for.
If You're Craving Chips and Queso Try, Veggies + Hummus or a Nut-Based Dip
It's so easy to overload on chips and queso. A small order of chips and queso at Chipotle, for instance, has 770 calories, 41 grams of fat and 82 grams of carbs. Yikes.
You can get a similarly crunchy texture and rich flavor with crudites and plant-based dips that come in inventive flavors. You're probably already familiar with some go-to healthy faves, like guacamole, salsa and hummus.
"Guacamole contains healthy, filling fat, salsa is low in calories and tomatoes provide extra nutrition (like the antioxidant lycopene) and hummus is a great protein-packed dip," says Michalczyk. Other options include dairy-free queso (good if you're avoiding dairy by choice or if you're lactose intolerant) and bean-based dips, she adds
For a cheesy twist, try this recipe for pesto hummus that gets its heart-healthy monounsaturated fat content from tahini and extra-virgin olive oil. Alternatively, opt for a nut-based dip. Michalczyk likes to whip up the dip recipe below for a veggie dip or a topper on tacos and quesadillas — just mix the ingredients together and enjoy.
- 1 avocado
- 1 container plain greek yogurt (look for one that is low in sugar)
- 1/2 lemon, juiced
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Red pepper flakes (optional)
Dip crunchy veggies like jicama, carrots and taro for more nutrients and filling, satisfying fiber.
A Brand We Love
Syn likes Fresh Cravings Kickin' Queso, a dip made from cashews (they take on an extra creamy texture when blended), tahini, chia seeds and a whole lot of spices for big punch of taste.
If You're Craving Ice Cream, Try DIY Frozen Yogurt or 'Nice' Cream
Sometimes, you need a scoop of the real deal. Other times, what you're really craving is something sweet and creamy. As such, you've probably seen "nice cream" pop up on your social media feeds and have been meaning to give it a try. (ICYMI: Nice cream is made by blending frozen bananas in a food processor until smooth.)
But if you want more of the creaminess that you get from traditional ice cream or simply don't love bananas that much, you can freeze your own Greek or Icelandic yogurt, Mitri suggests.
Either go for lightly sweetened versions (like Siggi's) or blend plain yogurt with fruit and a bit of honey to taste, add a bit of granola into the base of mini popsicle molds (like these silicone ones from Zoku), pour in the mixture and freeze. You can get more filling protein this way, too: A half-cup of ice cream has 2.5 grams of protein compared to 10 grams in a half-cup of Greek yogurt.
Recipes to Try