Seven healthy comfort food ideas without the calories

Skip the usual cream and add extra vegies for a healthier potato gratin.
Skip the usual cream and add extra vegies for a healthier potato gratin.  Photo: Katrina Meynink

Whether you're in lockdown or simply battling the chilly temperatures of the season, chances are the last thing you feel like eating right now is salad.

When the thermometer drops, you'll probably want warming, filling meals that aren't necessarily healthy. 

So if you've been craving pies, puddings and roasts but would also like to keep your weight under control over winter, here are some easy tricks to help make your favourite comfort foods a whole lot lighter.

Potato gratin

There are far worse options nutritionally than a creamy vegetable bake. Even with a potato base and cheesy sauce, it's easy to make a healthier version of this family staple. Opt for mixed vegies including pumpkin, cauliflower and broccoli as well as a couple of potatoes to reduce the amount of carbohydrate. And rather than using cream, a white sauce made from a little milk and butter with flour will result in a creamy base that's much lower in fat. Using shredded parmesan rather than cheddar will also give you that rich flavour while using less cheese overall.

SMH GOOD LIVING - Caroline Velik Noodle Images: Spicy Prawn Laksa. Photo: Marina Oliphant mko110510.002.003.jpg

Lighter proteins such as prawns will make your laksa a little healthier. Photo: Marina Oliphant

Laksa

With its base of chilli, garlic, turmeric and spices, laksa is a great choice nutritionally to give your immune system a boost. The trick to making your laksa a little lighter comes down to the mix of ingredients. Opting for lighter proteins such as prawns, white fish or tofu as your base will lower the kilojoules significantly, as will going easy on the noodles or swapping them for a low-energy konjac version. The final step towards a healthier laksa is to opt for lower kilojoule alternatives to full-cream coconut milk. You can find reduced fat varieties of coconut milk, or even better, try evaporated milk combined with laksa paste, which will create a creamy laksa with a fifth of the fat and energy of a traditional creamy version.

Lasagne

One of the heartiest meals you can enjoy is a decadent, rich lasagne. If better health is your goal, however, forget the meaty, cheesy versions and look at family-friendly recipes loaded with vegetables. First of all, opt for the leanest mince you can find, and cook it with extra grated vegies such as carrots, zucchini and mushrooms. Next, layer your pasta sheets and meat sauce plenty of vegetables – for example, pumpkin, eggplant and zucchini. Finally, a lighter creamy sauce made with a little butter, reduced fat milk and flour plus a topping a grated parmesan and mozzarella will create a delicious, vegie-rich lasagne with fewer carbs and kilojoules. 

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Helen Goh recipe : Apple and Oat Bars
Photograph by William Meppem (photographer on contract, no restrictions)

Helen Goh's apple and oat bars are apple crumble in slice form. Photo: William Meppem

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Puddings

Winter is synonymous with pies and pastries but it can be difficult to create healthier versions of pastry dishes, especially desserts. One way to lighten sweet dishes, however, is using wholegrain cereals such as oats and granola to make a crumble that can be served with warm fruit, custard or ice-cream. They only use a few ingredients, too – a little cereal with wholemeal flour and a bit of sugar that won't have the heavy fat load of pastry. Maple syrup is another lighter option, or you can even sub in natural sweeteners such as monk fruit sweetener to keep your sugar intake to a minimum.

Creamy pasta

While there are plenty of healthy tomato-based pasta options, sometimes a creamy pasta is all you're really craving. The good news is that it is relatively easy to lighten creamy sauces while retaining loads of flavour. All you need to do is base your creamy sauce on milk instead of cream, thicken it with a little flour and use stock to give it a rich flavour. Wholemeal pasta works especially well with a lighter sauce, or you could take it to the next level by using low-carb konjac noodles or zucchini noodles.

Neil Perry's Moroccan-style chicken pie. Serve with rice or cous cous and a salad.

Lighten up with Neil Perry's Moroccan-style chicken pie. Photo: William Meppem

Chicken pie

Who doesn't love a chicken pie? The creamy filling and crisp, crunchy buttery pastry is synonymous with winter warming. The issue is that pastry is especially high in saturated fat and when this is teamed with a creamy filling, chicken pie can pack in upwards of 30 or 40 grams of fat per serve. Opting for lean chicken breast or tenderloin rather than thigh fillet will instantly lighten your favourite pie filling, while making a simple flour-and-milk sauce removes the need for cream and slashes the fat by at least 50 per cent. Load up your pie with plenty of low-calorie, fibre-rich vegies such as celery, carrots and peas, and top with a single sheet of reduced-fat puff or filo pastry to keep the overall fat content of your crunchy pie to a minimum.

Chili con carne

Spicy and warming by its very nature, it is incredibly easy to make chilli con carne exceptionally healthy. If you prefer a meat base, buy the leanest mince or steak you can find, and bulk up your mix with extra kidney beans and loads of vegies. For a lighter option, stick to beans and vegies, serve with a little chopped avo and go easy on the cheese and sour cream. Or even better, swap the creamy toppings for a little natural or Greek yoghurt.