There's nothing like a heaping plate of mac and cheese, a steaming mug of hot chocolate or a crispy grilled cheese sandwich to take the chill out of the long winter season. (In fact, there's a scientific explanation for why we crave these foods during the colder months.) Comforting or not, though, those classics are typically loaded with butter, milk, heavy cream and refined carbohydrates, piling on pounds that can stick around long past the winter thaw.
But you don't have to give up on your favorites just yet. We spoke to three nutritionists -- Cheryl Forberg, R.D., a James Beard award-winning chef and the nutritionist for The Biggest Loser; Heather Bauer, R.D., author of Bread is the Devil and founder of Bestowed.com; and Dawn Jackson Blatner, R.D., author of The Flexitarian Diet -- to get simple tips and recipes to lighten up your favorites.
Read through, then tell us: How do you make your favorite recipes healthier?
Mac And Cheese
Nothing quite warms you from the inside out like a warm bowl of cheese, cream and refined carbohydrates. But, believe it or not, there are ways to lighten up even this hearty classic. "For the pasta, try using whole wheat, whole spelt or brown rice pasta. They have a high fiber content that can help on the digestion of the fat in the cheese," Bauer wrote in an email to HuffPost Healthy Living. "And for the cream, use olive oil, low fat milk and American cheese instead of cheddar." You can also add mashed cauliflower or pureed butternut squash to the pot, Blatner says. For a new, lighter take, try Forberg's "MacQuina and Cheese" recipe, excerpted from her book <a href="http://www.amazon.com/Cooking-Quinoa-For-Dummies/dp/1118447808/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1358545526&sr=8-1&keywords=Cooking+with+Quinoa+For+Dummies">Cooking with Quinoa For Dummies</a> -- it clocks in at 594 calories per serving (the recipe cooks up four), 28g of fat (12 saturated), 56 mg of cholesterol, 700 mg of sodium and 28 g of protein. Ingredients Cooking oil spray 8 ounces dry quinoa pasta elbows 2 teaspoons, plus 2 tablespoons grapeseed or olive oil 2 tablespoons quinoa flour 2 cups low-fat milk 2 teaspoons dry mustard 2 teaspoons gluten-free Worcestershire sauce 21⁄2 cups shredded, reduced fat Cheddar cheese, divided 1 teaspoon salt 1⁄2 teaspoon pepper 1⁄2 cup cooked white quinoa, for topping 1 tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese, for topping Directions 1. Lightly coat a 2-quart casserole or a 9 x 9-inch pan with cooking oil spray. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. If you don’t have cooked quinoa on hand, cook the quinoa, following the package directions. 2. Prepare the quinoa macaroni according to the package instructions, cooking for approximately 7 minutes. (Be careful not to overcook.) Drain well, rinse with cool water, and gently toss with 2 teaspoons of the oil. Set aside. 3. In a 4-quart saucepan, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil over medium-high heat. Add the flour and whisk until bubbly, about 1 minute. Slowly pour the milk into the flour-oil mixture and continue whisking until a sauce begins to thicken. Reduce the heat to simmer. 4. Whisk in the mustard, Worcestershire sauce, and 2 cups of the cheddar cheese. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from the heat and add the cooked macaroni, stirring well to combine. Transfer the macaroni to the prepared baking dish. 5. In a small bowl, combine the cooked quinoa, the remaining 1⁄2 cup of cheddar cheese and the Parmesan cheese. Mix well and sprinkle the topping evenly over the macaroni. Bake until golden and bubbling, 20 to 25 minutes. <em>Excerpted from Cooking with Quinoa For Dummies. Copyright (c) 2013 by John Wiley & Sons Canada, Ltd. Excerpted with permission of the publisher.</em>
This winter classic is comforting long past Thanksgiving. But combining pureed spuds with cream, butter and salt isn't exactly easy on the waistline. To start, Blatner suggests swapping out mashed cauliflower for some of the potatoes -- then substitute vegetable broth for cream and butter to add flavor. Parsnips also work as a potato substitute, Forberg adds -- she suggests blending it all together with seasonings, fresh herbs and caramelized onions for "rich, indulgent flavor." For a healthier bowl of mashed potatoes, check out this recipe from Bauer: Cut a whole cauliflower head in small pieces and cut one leek in half moon slices then sauté them with a little olive oil. Add one cup of millet and enough water or low-sodium chicken broth to cover. Bring everything to a boil, and then simmer until the cauliflower is completely cooked. Mash everything with hand masher and add a hint of Parmesan cheese for flavor.
It'd practically be criminal to go all winter long without a warm, indulgent cup of hot chocolate. But if it's more than an occasional splurge, you might want to cut down on the calories, while still maximizing flavor (and the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/28/chocolate-health-benefits_n_1383372.html">health benefits of chocolate</a>). Blatner suggests swapping the regular stuff for hot chocolate almond milk -- for extra flavor, you can brew a bag of mint tea in the cup, as well. "The quality of your recipes is a function of the ingredients you put into it," Forberg says. She recommends buying the best cocoa powder you can afford and mixing it with low-fat milk and a drop of pure vanilla. For a lighter version (using <em>quinoa</em>), check out Forberg's recipe from her new book, which totals 171 calories a cup: Ingredients 1⁄4 cup unsweetened natural cocoa powder 6 cups low-fat or fat-free milk 1⁄4 cup agave nectar 1⁄2 cup cooked quinoa One 3-inch-long cinnamon stick, broken in half or 1⁄4 teaspoon ground cinnamon 10 whole cloves or 1⁄8 teaspoon ground cloves 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract Directions 1. If you don’t have cooked quinoa already available, cook the quinoa according to the instructions on the package and allow it to cool completely before proceeding. 2. Place the cocoa powder, milk, agave nectar, and quinoa in the jar of a blender. Blend or process until very smooth. 3. Pour the mixture into a 3-quart saucepan. Add the cinnamon and cloves to the pan and place over medium-high heat. Bring the hot chocolate just to a simmer, but don’t boil. Reduce the heat to very low and allow the chocolate to steep for 5 minutes. Stir in the vanilla. Strain the hot chocolate into 6 mugs. <em>Excerpted from Cooking with Quinoa For Dummies. Copyright (c) 2013 by John Wiley & Sons Canada, Ltd. Excerpted with permission of the publisher.</em>
While a wholesome cup of chicken noodle soup can actually have <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/17/chicken-noodle-soup-flu-delivery-order-gatorade-matzo-ball_n_2497340.html?utm_hp_ref=healthy-living">healing powers for those wintertime sniffles</a>, many cold-weather soups are loaded with heavy cream (read: calories). To get that indulgent creamy, thick texture without all the guilt, Blatner suggests using a hand blender to puree soup. You can also puree certain vegetables -- like white beans and caramelized onions -- to thicken a brothy soup, Forberg says. And when you must use milk? Opt for 2 percent instead of whole. Bauer likes this <a href="http://www.jamieoliver.com/recipes/vegetables-recipes/corn-chowder">lighter take on corn chowder from Jamie Oliver</a>.
Warm Apple Cider
This cold-weather staple is a delicious way to stay toasty throughout the winter -- but a mug-full is also loaded with tons of sugar. Forberg points out that most of us get too many calories from sweetened drinks, and typically recommends people eat their calories rather than drink them. But if you simply can't resist, try diluting the caloric effect by blending half a cup of apple cider with half a cup of spiced, herbal tea. You can also mix it with calorie-free sparkling water, Blatner suggests. And remember: apples are sweet enough on their own. "The smart tip here is not to add extra sugar to your apple cider," Bauer says. "The apple cider itself is already super sweet. So enjoy them with only the natural sweetness of the apples."
While this one isn't full of butter and heavy cream, red meat and bread crumbs aren't exactly the picture of health, either. Keep it lighter by mixing in lentils in place of some of the ground beef, Blatner says. You can also "hide" shredded vegetables in the mix, such as carrots, zucchini and broccoli. And Bauer suggests swapping the beef out entirely for turkey. "Just one serving of turkey provides 65 percent of your recommended daily intake of protein," she says. "Turkey contains B vitamins, selenium and sulphur, making it a great antioxidant and anti-inflammatory food." For a lighter meatloaf recipe, check this one out from Forberg, which is 194 calories per serving (the whole loaf is six servings): Ingredients 1 pound ground turkey breast 2 cups cooked quinoa (red is preferred) 1⁄2 cup quinoa flakes 1⁄2 cup minced yellow onion 1⁄2 cup shredded, low-fat cheddar or Pepper Jack cheese 1⁄4 cup gluten-free barbecue sauce 2 teaspoons minced garlic 2 teaspoons gluten-free Worcestershire sauce 2 teaspoons chili powder 1 teaspoon ground mustard 1 teaspoon smoked salt Directions 1. If you don’t have cooked the quinoa on hand, cook the quinoa, following the package instructions. 2. In a large mixing bowl, combine all the ingredients until they are well-mixed (you’ll have about 4 cups) and place the mixture into the refrigerator for at least 1 hour or overnight. 3. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Shape the meatloaf mixture into a rectangular loaf on a nonstick sheet pan. Bake for 1 hour, or until the internal temperature is 160 degrees and the meatloaf is cooked through. Serve hot or at room temperature. <em>Excerpted from Cooking with Quinoa For Dummies. Copyright (c) 2013 by John Wiley & Sons Canada, Ltd. Excerpted with permission of the publisher.</em>
Chicken Pot Pie
Believe it or not, you can make a healthier version of this cold-weather favorite at home. "First, choose a whole grain crust instead of the classic white crust," Bauer says. "Second, pick skinless chicken breasts, which are much lighter and contain much less cholesterol than the other parts of the chicken." Finish off by adding in-season veggies, low-fat milk and low-sodium chicken broth. <a href="http://www.eatingwell.com/recipes/chicken_potpie.html">Check out this lighter version from Eating Well</a>.
A cheesy, carb-filled comfort food that <em>also</em> takes us right back to childhood? This one is impossible to resist. The first step to crafting a healthier grilled cheese is choosing better bread. "Why use a loaf of white bread full of calories and no nutrients?" Bauer says. "Try whole grain bread or even a sprouted bread for better digestion. They have much more fiber and retain the vitamins and minerals found in the whole grain." As for the inside? "When choosing the cheese, pick a cheese that has lots of flavor, such as sharp or even extra-sharp cheddar," she says. "You’ll be able to use less of it and still have a flavorful sandwich." While some people slather butter on the outside for a perfect crunch, Bauer recommends using a Panini maker instead. Don't have one? "Heat one tablespoon of olive oil in a non-stick skillet and press the sandwich for two minutes on each side until golden brown," she says. "If you want to go beyond, add some arugula leaves or any other green leaves to your sandwich."