Hooray for healthier mac 'n' cheese, chili and more!
January 11th, 2012
01:02 PM ET
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Georgiann Caruso is a CNN Medical Associate Producer

After a long, stress-filled day, you may just crave some comfort - and comfort foods like mac 'n' cheese or spaghetti and meatballs.

"Comfort foods are more about the heart than they are hunger," says Marisa Moore, registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition of Dietetics. "They serve to sort of bring up those happy memories from childhood or a time that you've spent with a loved one and they bring you psychological comfort."

Sating these cravings doesn't have to mean you’ve got to eat dishes that are high in fat, sodium or calories. Moore says you can still enjoy your favorite comfort foods while keeping them healthy and delicious.

Chef Jim Gallivan, chair of the Culinary Arts program at The Art Institute of Atlanta, agrees. He oversees the student-run restaurant.

"A lot of the food that we do put out is pretty and fancy but the idea is to make sure it has a good nutritional profile so that it feeds all of the senses as well as the body," Gallivan says.

The Art Institute and Moore offer these recipes and tips to make your own healthy comfort foods.

"Take for example macaroni and cheese. There's several things you can do," Moore says. "You can start with a lower-fat milk; that will help to cut back on the calories."

"You can add vegetables to it," she adds. "Any time you add vegetables to a dish, it helps to lower the total calorie count."

Try this healthier mac 'n cheese recipe

Moore also suggests volumizing chili with vegetables.

"Making a heart-healthy chili is actually very easy," she says. "The best thing to do is add more vegetables, particularly beans, mushrooms. You can even add carrots. That's a great way to increase the fiber content."

Try this heart-healthy chili recipe

And there's help for the old standby, pasta.

"One way to cut the calories in traditional spaghetti and meatballs is instead of using beef, you might use a lean ground turkey," Moore suggests.

"In addition to that, you might switch up your pasta option and use a spaghetti squash, which is a winter squash," she says.

When baked and flaked, the squash resembles spaghetti, but is significantly lower in carbohydrates and calories.

Try this spaghetti squash marinara

Since cravings sometimes occur on a chilly winter morning, Moore suggests trying oatmeal pancakes with fruit syrup.

"If you take traditional pancakes and add some oatmeal or a whole wheat flour to it, that's a great way to increase the fiber and the health profile," she notes.

Try this oatmeal pancakes recipe

In addition, she suggests fruit syrup over regular, bottled syrup for its fiber and antioxidant properties.

Try this healthier fruit syrup recipe

Last, but certainly not least, there's dessert.

"If you have a sweet tooth, using fruit in your dessert can naturally sweeten the dessert so you don't have to," she says. "It allows you to cut back on added sugars."

Try this healthier cranberry crisp recipe

The Center for Disease Control says you can still lose weight or maintain a healthy weight by figuring out how to include almost any food in your eating plan.

Moore suggests keeping a food journal to identify some of the things that you eat when you're not really hungry.

"The best way to conquer emotional eating is by figuring out what your triggers are," she says.

Read more about how to cook healthy foods on CNN Health and get the recipes below.

Healthy Macaroni and Cheese

Serves 4

10 oz whole wheat elbow pasta, cooked
1 1/2 lb winter squash, peeled, cubed, steamed soft and puréed
1 cup 2-percent milk
1 Tbsp butter (or non-hydrogenated margarine)
4 Tbsp plain, non-fat Greek yogurt
1 cup sharp low-fat cheddar cheese, shredded
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
To taste sea salt and ground black pepper

1. Combine squash purée, milk, margarine and yogurt in a saucepan over medium heat and stir to blend.
2. Once mixture is at a simmer, gradually add the cheeses and stir until melted.
3. Add cooked pasta and stir to coat completely.
4. Bake in an oven-safe casserole dish for 20 minutes at 400˚F.

Per serving: approx. 258 calories, 17g protein, 26g carbohydrates, 10g fat (5g saturated), 3g fiber and 4g sugar

Turkey Meatballs with Spaghetti Squash Marinara

Serves 2

1 spaghetti squash (4-5 pounds)

Marinara Sauce
1 onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
24 oz canned diced tomatoes
2 Tbsp low-sodium tomato paste
1/2 cup fresh basil leaves, finely chopped

3/4 lb lean ground turkey
1 egg white
2 Tbsp finely chopped shallots
1 Tbsp Dijon mustard
1 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley
1 tsp chopped fresh oregano
1/8 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2-3 dashes hot pepper sauce

1. Preheat the oven to 400°F.
2. Wrap the whole squash in foil. Place it on a baking sheet and bake 1 to 1 ½ hours, turning the squash over halfway through cooking until tender when pierced with a fork. Set aside to cool.
3. Heat a medium nonstick skillet over medium heat and coat with cooking spray. Add the onions and garlic and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until softened. Add the canned tomatoes, tomato paste and basil. Simmer gently for 15 minutes. Set aside.
4. In a medium bowl, combine the turkey, egg white, shallots, mustard, parsley, oregano, pepper and hot-pepper sauce. Mix gently and shape into eight meatballs.
5. Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat and coat with cooking spray. Add the meatballs and cook for 4 to 5 minutes, turning often, until browned all over. Pour the tomato sauce over the meatballs in the skillet. Cover and simmer for 8 to 10 minutes, until the meatballs are cooked through.
6. Cut the cooked spaghetti squash in half. Remove and discard the seeds. Scoop out 3 cups of squash from the shell (reserve the remaining squash for future use). Arrange the squash on a serving platter and top with the meatball-marinara sauce mixture.

Per serving: approx. 483 calories, 38g protein, 48g carbohydrates, 18g fat (4g saturated), 11g fiber and 12g sugar

Heart Healthy Chili

Serves 4

1/2 lb ground bison (or very lean beef)
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 large carrot, finely chopped
1/2 head cauliflower, stemmed and cut into small florets (about 3 cups)
1 medium green bell pepper, finely chopped
3 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 tsp ground cumin
2 Tbsp chili powder
1 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
1 (15-oz) can diced tomatoes
1 (28-oz) can crushed tomatoes
1 (15-oz) can kidney beans, drained and rinse
1/2 cup loosely packed cilantro leaves, chopped
To taste salt and pepper

1. Heat a large pot over high heat. When the pot is very hot, add bison and brown it, stirring often for 5 minutes.
2. Add onion and carrot, and cook until both begin to soften, about 5 minutes.
3. Add 1/2 cup water to deglaze the pan, scraping brown bits from the bottom of the pan as the water evaporates.
4. Add cauliflower, bell pepper and garlic and cook until vegetables begin to soften, about 5 minutes.
5. Add cumin, chili powder, vinegar, tomatoes and beans along with 1 cup water.
6. Bring to a boil; reduce to a simmer, cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are fork tender, about 45 minutes. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.
7. Serve garnished with chopped cilantro.

Per serving: 250 calories, 2.5g total fat, (0g saturated), 35mg cholesterol, 180mg sodium, 36g total carbohydrate (13g dietary fiber, 12g sugar), 24g protein

Oatmeal Pancakes

Serves 6

2 cup organic rolled oats
2 cup nonfat buttermilk
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
4 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted and cooled (or canola oil)
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 Tbsp sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp salt
Canola oil for griddle

1. Combine oats and buttermilk in a large bowl. Cover and refrigerate for 2 hours, or overnight.
2. Add eggs and melted butter to oat mixture.
3. Sift together sugar, flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and salt. Add to oat mixture.
4. Preheat griddle. Spread out batter with the back of the ladle. When bubbles appear, gently flip cakes and cook until golden brown, about 5 minutes per side. Serve hot.

Makes about 18 pancakes.

Fruit Syrup

Serves 12

3 cups raw fruit or berries* (pears, peaches, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries or other fruit), cored, peeled and chopped if necessary
1 Tbsp fructose (or sugar substitute)
2 cup water

1. Simmer all ingredients for 5 to 10 minutes.
2. Cool slightly and blend in a food processor or blender.
3. Screen out the coarse solids with a fine sieve.

* The original recipe used ripe prickly pear, either raw, peeled and chopped, or canned purée. Any highly flavorful fruit can be used. The amount of fructose may need to be adjusted if the fruit is very tart.

Per serving: approx. 25 calories, trace protein, 4g carbohydrates, trace fat (0g saturated), trace fiber

Apple Cranberry Crisp

Serves 6


4 large fresh apples (about 2 lbs), skinned, and sliced
1 cup fresh cranberries
1/4 cup sugar (or sugar substitute)
1 1/2 Tbsp cornstarch
1 tsp lemon zest

2/3 cup quick oats
1/4 cup firmly-packed brown sugar
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 Tbsp cold butter
2 Tbsp canola oil

1. Preheat oven to 375˚F.
2. Arrange apples in an 8-inch square glass baking dish. Scatter cranberries on top.
3. Stir sugar and cornstarch together and sprinkle over fruit, followed by lemon zest.
4. In a medium bowl, combine oats, sugar, flour, nutmeg and cinnamon. Cut or rub butter into the oat mixture. Add oil, then stir gently to combine.
5. Sprinkle topping over the fruit. Bake for 35-40 minutes, until the fruit is bubbling and the top is slightly browned. Serve warm.

Per serving: calories 191, fat 4.8g (saturated 1.5g), cholesterol 5mg, sodium 23mg, carbohydrate 34.8g, fiber 3g, protein 2g

soundoff (33 Responses)
  1. Ieat

    yum. made the squash mac n cheese yesterday. I usually mix mine with squash too, but still make a roux for the cheese sauce. I like how this one requires baking so the extra liquid is gone anyways. Never thought of using yogurt, but will do from now on. My little kid who refuses to eat vegetables love this. Thanks for the great recipe!

    January 12, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
  2. Sharon

    Noted that "Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics" instead of "Academy of Nutrition of Dietetics"

    January 12, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
  3. victor

    If anybody is going to be healthy and lose weight, the first thng you need to do is remove the term "comfort food" from your vocabulary. Food has two purposes...to give us the energy and nutrients we need to live. Any food that does not do this (simple carbs, processed sugars and sweetners, etc.) have no place in the human diet. If you want to be healthy and slim, simply stick to the produce aisle and eat whole grains in moderation with some lean meat every so often..and eat only when you're hungry. It's really not that tough.

    January 12, 2012 at 11:56 am |
    • CP

      Cutting things completely out of your diet that you really enjoy is really hard to do and only make you crave them more. I agree with fresh and unprocessed most of the time but making these 'comfort foods' more healthy and eating in smaller portions will keep a person from completely ditching the new way of eating. I love eating healthy and having fresh foods, but sometimes I just want a juicy cheeseburger and that is ok as long it isn't all the time.

      January 12, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
  4. goofy

    go organic

    January 12, 2012 at 11:24 am |

    thank you for alternating the recepies for healthier version

    January 12, 2012 at 7:57 am |
  6. s

    Few of these recipes sound good at all. If you want to eat a healthier dish than say, macaroni and cheese, make something else. Whole grain pasta is not very good, squash and yogurt mixed with plastic cheese...no thanks. I'd rather eat something designed for vegetables that was good on its own rather than mimic something else.

    January 11, 2012 at 9:18 pm |
  7. fred

    "Any time you add vegetables to a dish, it helps to lower the total calorie count."
    What a ignorant comment. Vegtables do not have a negative caloric value, if they did Vegans would have wasted away years ago.

    January 11, 2012 at 8:49 pm |
    • beachgalone

      exactly what i was thinking!

      January 11, 2012 at 8:54 pm |
    • BarbaricYawp

      Derp. My name is fred. Derp. I am a lonely troll. Derp. I call things ignorant that I don't understand.

      Fred, you homunculus mongoloid, MANY vegetables are what we, as humans, call "thermic." What this means is that, for instance, the more celery you eat, the more calories you burn. You see, the human body burns more calories in the process of eating and digesting a piece of celery than the same celery piece carries in caloric value. Now go have a KFC Snack Bowl and lie down.

      January 11, 2012 at 9:12 pm |
    • Molly Q

      I think the logic is supposed to be that the veggies act as fillers in the meal.. a portion of the volume on your plate that would have been cheese etc is now filled with a veggie instead, i.e. "saving calories". Now, if you eat MORE of the dish because "there's veggies in it," it negates the point... make sense?

      January 11, 2012 at 11:42 pm |
    • Babo

      Nobody is saying the veggies have a negative calorie content, just that they have fewer calories compared with pasta or meatballs or whatever. So replace 4 ounces of meatballs with 4 ounces of veggies and you will have reduced the calorie content of the dish. That's all they are getting at.

      January 12, 2012 at 12:34 am |
      • fred

        That is exactly what she is saying. "Any time you add vegetables to a dish, it helps to lower the total calorie count."
        If I make 1 cup of fettuccine alfred, about 415 calories, and add 3 medium spears of asparagus, about 3 calories each the total caloric count for the dish is 424 calories. It can not possibly go down.

        January 12, 2012 at 8:23 am |
      • fred

        Fettuccine Alfredo, sorry.

        January 12, 2012 at 8:24 am |
      • Lulu


        At that point you'd have more than one cup of food....so if you were to take one cup of the alfredo pasta, and mix it with the other veggies and then only eat one cup of the mix...it would be less calories because it would be less pasta and more veggie in the same serving size.


        January 12, 2012 at 8:58 am |
      • fred

        Lulu, where in her statment does she say remove or replace? Besides eating less of anything would decrease your caloric intake.

        January 12, 2012 at 8:53 pm |
    • Amy

      Actually. They aren't saying that there's any kind of negative calorie count. What they're saying is that if you replace VOLUME with vegetables, it lowers the calories (and other stuff too). So if you normally would use 2 cups of pasta (high calorie), but you replace 1 cup of that pasta with cauliflower, then your new calorie count is much lower because that VOLUME is taken up by lower calorie food (cauliflower has MUCH less calories per cup than pasta). And your body uses it more efficiently, too. Get it?

      January 12, 2012 at 9:20 am |
      • fred

        The quote states "ADD", not substitute nor replace.

        January 13, 2012 at 6:38 am |
  8. BS

    Great sounding recipes. Thanks for sharing.

    January 11, 2012 at 8:26 pm |


    January 11, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
  10. coriolana

    Anyone who cooks can tell you that those so-called low fat cheese taste like library paste, don't melt well and result in a product that would be fine--in a prison cafeteria.

    January 11, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • Amy

      I find the LOW fat cheeses are find. The fat free cheeses don't have much flavor and don't melt well. PLUS when you're including milk, greek yogurt (like sour cream, but better), to your low fat cheese, I'm sure you can see where the healthier fats and creaminess combine to make that cheese even tastier. It's worth it to your heart and your waistline to at least TRY something different.

      January 12, 2012 at 9:22 am |
  11. RunnerGirl

    I just don't understand the low-fat cheese thing... real cheese *is* fat, so what is that stuff? Isn't it better to put the real deal in our bodies rather than some chemically pumped up junk? Just sayin.

    January 11, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • BS

      What "evil" chemicals are pumped into low-fat cheese?

      January 11, 2012 at 8:25 pm |
  12. kevin

    The term "comfort food" needs to be stricken from the English language. By definition alone, ALL food is comforting.

    January 11, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • Respectfully ...

      .... I disagree. I find no comfort in a salad or in vegetables. I eat them because they are good for me – not because I like them. Conversely, I find a great deal of comfort in eating chocolate, but I wouldn't try to live on it.

      January 11, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • JollyGreenBud

      I find eating deer and sleeping in the carcass afterwards to be comforting.

      January 11, 2012 at 8:32 pm |
  13. psrecipes

    great recipes! Love adding the squash puree to the mac & cheese. Can't wait to try it!

    January 11, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
  14. Laura

    I can't wait to try the oatmeal pancakes with strawberry fruit syrup.

    January 11, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
  15. Easy Peasy

    These are some great recipes. I can't wait to try the Turkey Meatballs with Spaghetti Squash Marinara. Thanks for sharing


    January 11, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
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