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Comfort food that’s good for you

Patsy Westcott / 14 January 2019

Winter warmers don’t have to widen your waistline with these easy, healthy swaps.

Baked apples
Baked apples make a healthy winter dessert

It’s that time of year when we yearn for hearty one-pot stews and casseroles, warming soups, belly-filling carb-heavy dishes such as mac ’n’ cheese, and rib-sticking desserts.

But, as we get older and metabolism slows, it’s all too easy to consume excess calories and, in turn, pile on the pounds – something which can go unnoticed while we’re wrapped in winter woollies but becomes all too evident once we shed those layers come spring. Happily, winter weight gain is not inevitable. There are plenty of ways to indulge cravings for comfort food the healthy way by making some simple tweaks to favourite recipes.

Five of the best

1 Soups

Most soups are low calorie and a good way to get one or two of your five-a-day with all the vitamins, minerals and plant chemicals these provide, as well as gut-friendly fibre. Research shows that a bowl of soup before a meal can help cut the number of calories you eat afterwards.

Make vegetables the stars, sautéeing them lightly first in a spoonful of vegetable oil or water in a non-stick pan if you’re watching your fat intake. Top the finished soup with a spoonful of garlic, pinenut and basil or walnut and parsley pesto to add flavour and healthy fats.

10 healthy reasons to eat soup

Easy soup recipes

2 Casseroles and stews

Meat-based casseroles and stews are great winter warmers and don’t have to be high in calories if you opt for leaner cuts of meat or poultry with the skin removed.

Replace some of the meat with beans, peas or lentils and add seasonal veggies – celery, carrots, kale and spinach – for fibre and added nutrients. And watch the sides: mashed potato is classic comfort fare but mash with a dash of olive oil rather than butter and cream – or go for that Instagram favourite, mashed cauliflower, instead.

Visit our winter recipes section

3 Mac ’n’ cheese

It may taste good but classic macaroni cheese is calorie-laden and high in saturated fat. The good news is you can get all the flavour with fewer calories by swapping some of the ingredients. Use skimmed milk or a plant milk instead of full-fat dairy and halve the amount of cheese by opting for a strong-flavoured variety such as parmesan.

And why not substitute vegetables such as cauliflower, courgettes or broccoli for some of the macaroni? Choose wholemeal macaroni for extra fibre, as well as minerals such as magnesium, manganese, phosphorus and selenium.

How to make a white sauce

4 Stuffed baked potatoes

There’s nothing quite as comforting for a winter lunch, but old potatoes are high GI (glycaemic index) foods, so the carbs they contain are broken down quickly, causing blood glucose and insulin levels to rise. This can add inches around the waist especially if, like so many of us with the passing years, you are insulin-resistant – where your body makes but can’t use insulin properly.

Reduce baked potatoes’ GI by going for fillings that contain healthy fats or protein – avocado, cottage cheese, tofu, chilli con carne or baked beans. Or use other stuffable vegetables such as courgettes, aubergines, peppers or portobello mushrooms.

Tips for the perfect baked potato

Stuffed butternut squash

Stuffed aubergine

Stuffed tomatoes

Stuffed courgettes

5 Apple crumble

A satisfying finale that isn’t as heavy on the stomach as other winter puds. Add nutrient value by ditching the traditional butter, sugar and flour topping for a spoonful of melted butter or vegetable oil mixed with cholesterol-lowering oats, plus chopped nuts such as walnuts, almonds or hazelnuts for a dose of healthy fats. Go easy on the sugar by choosing sweeter dessert apples rather than cookers, adding a handful of raisins, sultanas or other dried fruit, plus a dash of cinnamon, nutmeg or allspice. Alternatively, core and stuff a cooking apple with a spoonful of oat flakes, cranberries
or sour cherries, and chopped nuts for a healthier take on this old favourite.

Oaty apple crumble recipe

Baked spiced apples

Baked apples stuffed with cranberries and pecans

Damage limitation

Watch portion size

However healthily you eat, large portions can push up the calorie count. Use smaller plates and bowls to fool the eye, and pile your plate up with low-calorie veggies.

•  Cook smart. Steam, grill, bake, stir fry or slow cook, rather than frying or roasting.

•  Slow down. Eat s-l-o-w-l-y and put your fork down between mouthfuls to allow your brain time to recognise when you are full.

•  Eat water. Water-rich foods such as fruit and vegetables are low in calories, full of nutrients, help you feel
fuller and add fibre. What’s not to like?

•  Be a label watcher. When buying ready-prepared food, check the front-of-pack traffic-light label – go for low (green) and medium (amber) foods and steer clear of
high saturated fat, sugar and salt (red) dishes.

•  Walk it off. A brisk walk after lunch or supper helps to burn calories as well as lowering levels of triglycerides (harmful blood fats) that rise after meals.


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.