Healthier comfort foods for fall

September 21, 2015 

Butternut Squash Mac and Cheese

Just around the corner is the official start of fall, the time of year comfort food cravings really settle in. There are creamy and hearty soups and chowders, cheesy lasagnas and casseroles drenched in cream-of-something soup.

But that comfort often comes with a pretty hefty cost: lots of carbs and calories, fat and sodium. But it doesn’t have to be that way, nutrition and food experts say. There’s a way to indulge without overindulging and still satisfy those comfort food cravings.

Registered dietitian Gail Posner of Healthy Ways Nutrition Counseling advises clients to head to the farmers market and stock up on what’s in season. There, "prices are low now and the flavor is high," she says.

The fresher the produce, the better the flavor. So says Mary Spencer, a cooking instructor at Taste: A Cook’s Place in Northville, Mich. Spencer recommends cooking with lots of herbs, spices and flavored oils.

"When you add herbs at the beginning and the end of cooking, it brightens up the dish," she says. "What you’re trying to do is eliminate the salt and some of the fat, but keep the flavor."

Here are five tips to keep in mind for a healthier spin on fall cooking from Posner, Spencer and Christa Byrd, a registered dietitian at Beaumont Health in Royal Oak, Mich.:

1. Plan ahead: While it may seem like a no-brainer, planning ahead is one of the things healthy people often do, Posner says. "Things get hectic this time of year," she says. Take some time over the weekend to plan and prepare breakfasts, lunches and dinners for the week ahead. Having the menu set will make for a healthy dinner instead of a fast-food emergency pickup.

2. Shop smart: Don’t shop while hungry and stock up on foods when you can. But also plan to make what Posner calls the "10 minute shop" between your larger shops to replenish fruits, vegetables and lean proteins like low-fat yogurt, eggs and low-fat cheese. "Many people end up eating unhealthy meals because they’ve run out of the fruits, vegetables and lean proteins," she says. "People that have a healthy diet in general do not run out of food."

3. Read labels: A key component of shopping smart is reading labels and understanding what they mean. With sodium content, for example, there is a difference between "low sodium," "reduced sodium" and "no salt added." Use canned beans and vegetables like tomatoes (including tomato sauce and paste) that have labels stating "no salt added." With many brands, the "no-salt-added" versions contain half the amount of sodium of their regular counterparts. Products labeled low sodium must have 140 milligrams of sodium per serving or less. Reduced sodium means the product has 25 percent less sodium than the original version. Byrd says watch out for products that state "low" on the label. "Low sugar is usually higher in salt and low fat is higher in sugar," she says.

4. Roast vegetables or double up on them: Roasting is an easy way to add flavor to your veggies. (See recipe for Roasted Vegetable Lasagna.) "You can cut up vegetables, drizzle with some oil and roast," Spencer says. "It’s nothing. There’s no recipe; it’s whatever you brought home from the farmers market," she says. But what about those who don’t have time to chop tons of veggies? Just eliminate that step, she says. So instead of cutting that pumpkin into cubes, just cut in half, roast it with the skin on, seed it and enjoy. In most dishes including casseroles, Posner and Byrd say, increase the amount of vegetables for more nutrition in every bite. With one-dish meals, Byrd says, "get those veggies in there. It’s all mixed together anyway."

5. Swap out ingredients: Byrd suggests using vegetable purees instead of high-fat ingredients to provide texture and thickness in some dishes. "Cook northern white beans, puree them and use them in place of the higher-fat dairy," she says. Beans, she says, have more fiber, vitamins and nutrients. "Using pureed beans is also a recommendation we use when people are allergic to milk," Byrd says. Eggs provide a creamy texture while adding more protein than high-fat dairy. And don’t add sugar to casseroles that have ingredients with natural sweetness, such as sweet potatoes. Today’s recipe for Butternut Squash Mac and Cheese uses cooked and mashed butternut squash to replace a good amount of the cheese. The squash adds color and a creamy texture.



Serves: 10 / Preparation time: 45 minutes / Total time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Don’t be discouraged by the long recipe. Once you prep all the ingredients and roast the vegetables, the lasagna goes together fairly quickly.

3 cups sliced zucchini

3 cups sliced mushrooms

3 cups eggplant, peeled and quartered

2 red peppers, seeded and sliced

5 tablespoons olive oil, divided

3 teaspoons dried oregano, divided

3/4 teaspoon salt, divided

3/4 teaspoon ground black pepper, divided

8 cups plum or Roma tomatoes, quartered

3 cloves garlic, peeled, sliced

1/2 teaspoon fennel seed

1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes

2 teaspoons sugar

1 container (15 ounces) low-fat ricotta cheese

2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese, divided

2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped

Nonstick cooking spray

9 no-boil lasagna noodles

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Have ready 2 large sided baking sheets, such as a jelly roll pan.

On one baking sheet place the zucchini, mushrooms, eggplant and red peppers. Drizzle with 3 tablespoons olive oil, 2 teaspoons oregano, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper and toss to coat.

On the other baking sheet, toss the tomato wedges with the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil, garlic, remaining 1 teaspoon oregano, fennel seed, 1/4 teaspoon black pepper and red pepper flakes.

Place both in the oven and roast uncovered for 15 minutes. Turn the vegetables over and bake an additional 15 to 20 minutes. Remove roasted vegetables and roasted tomatoes from oven.

Carefully place the tomatoes and all pan juices in a bowl and add the sugar and remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt. Mash the tomatoes to create a sauce.

In a medium-sized bowl combine the ricotta cheese, mozzarella cheese, 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, parsley and remaining 1/4 teaspoon black pepper; set aside.

Coat a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with nonstick cooking spray. To begin layering the lasagna, place about 1/3 cup of the tomato sauce in the baking dish, spreading to cover the bottom of the dish. Top with 3 noodles, half the ricotta cheese mixture, half the roasted vegetable mixture and one-quarter of the tomato sauce. Begin again with 3 noodles, remaining cheese mixture, remaining roasted vegetables and remaining 3 noodles. Top noodles with remaining tomato sauce and 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese. Bake lasagna uncovered for 30 to 35 minutes or until edges are bubbly and the cheese topping is golden brown.

Created by Darlene Zimmerman, MS, RD, for Heart Smart and tested by Susan Selasky for the Free Press Test Kitchen.

277 calories (42 percent from fat), 13 g fat (5 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat), 26 g carbohydrates, 14 g protein, 369 mg sodium, 25 mg cholesterol, 284 mg calcium, 4 g fiber. Food exchanges: 1 starch, 2 vegetable, 2 lean meat, 1 fat.


Serves: 8 / Preparation time: 30 minutes / Total time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

1 pound lean ground beef (labeled 93 percent-96 percent lean)

Salt to taste

1 large white onion, finely chopped

3 garlic cloves, peeled, minced

1 1/2 teaspoons sweet paprika

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

2 cans (14.5 ounces each) petite diced tomatoes

1 can (8 ounces) regular or no-salt-added tomato sauce

5 cups unsalted beef broth or stock

4 cups chopped green cabbage

Freshly cracked black pepper

1 cup cooked brown rice

In a large soup pot set over high heat, season the ground beef with salt and cook, using a potato masher to break the meat into small pieces as it browns.

Drain any fat from the pot and reduce the heat to medium low. Add the onion, garlic, paprika and thyme and cook until the onions are soft, 5-7 minutes. Add the tomatoes, tomato sauce, beef stock and cabbage, and season with the remaining salt and black pepper to taste.

Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer until the cabbage is soft, about 35 minutes.

Add the cooked brown rice and simmer 5 more minutes before ladling the soup into 8 serving bowls to serve.

From Mary Spencer of Taste: A Cook’s Place, Northville. Tested by Susan Selasky for the Free Press Test Kitchen. Analysis per 11/2 cups serving using no-salt-added tomatoes and sauce.

159 calories (17 percent from fat), 3 g fat, 18 g carbohydrates, 15 g protein, 248 mg sodium, 35 mg cholesterol, 3 g fiber.


Makes: 6 servings / Preparation time: 40 minutes / Total time: 1 hour

12 to 16 ounces dried rigatoni

1 1/2 pounds butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into chunks (3 1/2 cups)

2 3/4 cups 1 percent milk, divided

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

8 ounces smoked Gouda cheese, shredded (2 cups), divided

4 slices thick bacon

2 small sweet onions, cut into chunks

3 ounces firm 100 percent whole wheat or multigrain bread

2 tablespoons butter, melted

Fresh flat-leaf Italian parsley

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Lightly butter a 3-quart au gratin or baking dish; set aside. Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain; transfer to a large bowl.

Meanwhile, in a large saucepan combine the squash and 21/2 cups of the milk over medium-high heat. Bring to boiling; reduce heat to medium, and simmer until the squash is tender when pierced with a fork, 18 to 20 minutes. Stir together remaining 1/4 cup milk and flour; stir into squash mixture. Bring to a boil and cook until thickened, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in 11/2 cups of the Gouda until melted; keep warm.

Meanwhile, in a very large skillet cook bacon until crisp; drain on paper towels. Crumble; set aside. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon bacon drippings. Return skillet to the heat.

Add onions to skillet; cover and cook over low heat 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Uncover and increase heat to high. Cook 4 to 6 minutes more, stirring, until onions are golden.

Add squash-cheese mixture, onions and bacon to the bowl with the pasta. Toss well to combine, then transfer to prepared baking dish.

Place bread in a food processor and pulse with two or three on/off turns to form large coarse crumbs (you should have about 2 cups). Transfer to a small bowl; mix with melted butter. Sprinkle remaining Gouda and the bread crumbs over pasta mixture. Bake until top is browned, about 14 to 15 minutes. Cool 5 minutes. Sprinkle with parsley.

Adapted from Tested by Susan Selasky for the Free Press Test Kitchen.

501 calories (32 percent from fat), 18 g fat (10 g saturated fat), 75 g carbohydrates, 26 g protein, 571 mg sodium, 59 mg cholesterol, 3 g fiber.


Serves: 6 (about 1 1/3-cup servings) / Preparation time: 15 minutes / Total time: 30 minutes

1 tablespoon canola oil

3 medium onions, chopped

1 carrot, chopped

1 tablespoon finely chopped jalapeño pepper

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1-2 tablespoons chili powder

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 can (28-ounce) plus one 14-ounce can whole tomatoes, chopped, with juices

1 teaspoon brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 cans (15 ounces each) regular or no-salt-added red kidney beans, rinsed

1/3 cup bulgur

1/2 cup nonfat plain Greek-style yogurt or nonfat sour cream for garnish

1/3 cup chopped green onions for garnish

1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro for garnish

In a Dutch oven, heat oil over medium heat.

Add onions, carrot, jalapeño, garlic, chili powder to taste and cumin. Cook, stirring often, until the onions and carrot are soft, 5 to 7 minutes.

Add tomatoes with their juices, sugar and salt; cook for 5 minutes over high heat. Reduce heat to low; stir in beans and bulgur. Simmer until the chili is thickened, about 15 minutes.

Garnish with yogurt, green onions and cilantro, if desired.

Adapted from Tested by Susan Selasky for the Free Press Test Kitchen. Analysis with regular canned tomatoes and beans.

217 calories (12 percent from fat), 3 g fat (0 g saturated fat), 40 g carbohydrates, 10 g protein, 697 mg sodium, 0 mg cholesterol, 13 g fiber.


Serves: 8 / Preparation time: 20 minutes / Total time: 1 hour

Nonstick cooking spray

1 cup (4 ounces) 2 percent Mexican blend cheese, divided

1/3 cup fat-free milk

1/4 cup egg substitute

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/8 teaspoon ground red pepper

1 can (14 3/4-ounce) no-salt-added cream-style corn

1 (8.5-ounce) box corn muffin mix (such as Jiffy)

1 can (4-ounce) chopped green chiles, drained

1 can (10-ounce) red enchilada sauce

2 cups shredded cooked chicken breast

1/2 cup fat-free sour cream

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Coat a 13-by-9-inch baking dish with cooking spray.

In a large bowl combine 1/4 cup cheese, milk, egg substitute, cumin, red pepper, corn, muffin mix and chiles; stir until just moist.

Bake for 15 minutes or until set. Pierce entire surface liberally with a fork; pour enchilada sauce over top. Top with chicken; sprinkle with remaining 3/4 cup cheese.

Return to oven and bake for 15 minutes or until cheese melts. Remove from oven; let stand 5 minutes. Cut into 8 pieces; top each serving with 1 tablespoon sour cream.

Adapted from Tested by Susan Selasky for the Free Press Test Kitchen.

354 calories (36 percent from fat), 14 g fat (7 g saturated fat), 36 g carbohydrates, 19 g protein, 620 mg sodium, 58 mg cholesterol, 2.5 g fiber.



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