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Comfort Food: Fat-busting Traditional Recipe Makeovers

What is it about the holidays and colder weather that makes our taste buds to gravitate toward warmer and heavier fare? Who doesn’t love a steaming bowl of hearty stew or some warm, cheesy pasta on a cold day? Unfortunately these foods can be higher in calories, fat, and the types of carbohydrates that don’t keep us satisfied for long, making it more difficult to keep our weight under control in the winter. Combine that with lots of holiday parties and celebrations and it can easily turn into a recipe for weight gain. Luckily, there are many ways to modify our favorite fall and winter comfort foods to make them fit into a healthy diet without causing weight gain. Check out some of our ideas, below.

Soups & Stews

A hearty bowl of stew can warm the heart without all of the fat, sodium, and calories traditionally found in these recipes.

  • Reduce Fat:
    • Replace high fat dairy for lower fat options. For example, if a recipe for clam chowder calls for whole milk, try low fat milk instead to save 45 calories and 3g of saturated fat per cup.
    • Choose lean proteins such as lean beef, chicken breast, turkey breast, 99% lean ground turkey, or 93% lean ground beef instead of higher fat cuts.
    • Reduce portions of high calorie ingredients such as cheese, butter, oil, etc.
    • Increase volume:  Adding low calorie vegetables will increase the fiber content to help make a soup or stew more filling without lots of extra calories.
      • Double the portion size of non-starchy vegetables such as celery, onions, broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, etc.
      • Reduce portions of starchy vegetables in half. For example, consider reducing the amount of potato in beef stew and increasing the carrots and onions.
      • Increase fiber content:  Fiber is filling and helps to keep blood sugar more stable after meals.
        • Switch to whole grain carbohydrates such as brown rice or barley instead of white rice or whole wheat pasta instead of white pasta.  For example, switching barley for white rice in chicken soup adds 9g of fiber and will be much more satisfying, even two hours later. Adding beans can also boost the fiber content and provide filling protein. Try adding white beans to chicken soup or black beans to turkey chili.

Pasta, Mashed Potatoes, & Rice

Just saying the words “mashed potatoes” can make you feel better! But here are ways to make adjustments so you actual are healthier. These changes still maintain the maximum taste and enjoyment.

  • Portion size: Carbohydrates are not forbidden when trying to lose weight. However some foods containing carbohydrates can also be very calorie dense, which can easily lead to overeating.
    • Reduce portion size to 1 cup cooked. A typical portion of pasta is anywhere from two to four cups of cooked pasta. By reducing your portion to one cup, you are saving anywhere from 440-660 calories.
    • Increase vegetables to provide bulk.  Add sautéed peppers, broccoli rabe, roasted cauliflower or fresh tomatoes to pasta dishes and it will make the portion seem larger. Adding a mixed salad before the meal or on the side will also bulk-up the meal without a lot of extra calories.
    • Fiber content:
      • Switching to whole wheat pasta or brown rice will provide more satiety and stabilize blood sugars.
      • Include lean protein: Make sure to include a 3-4oz portion of a lean protein with any pasta dish or on the side. This will provide long-lasting satiety.
        • Grilled or baked chicken tenders
        • Grilled shrimp or scallops
        • Tomato sauce with lean ground beef, chicken or turkey
        • Lean ground beef, chicken, or turkey meatballs
        • Reduce fat:  Reduce calorie and fat content by cutting the cream and high-fat dairy products in half.
          • Use butternut squash or sweet potato puree to mimic cheese sauce. The color will be reminiscent cheese with half the fat.
          • Carbohydrate alternatives: If trying to monitor carbohydrate intake, consider switching to a lower carb alternative such as zucchini noodles or spaghetti squash.
            • Zucchini/squash noodles can be substituted for pasta noodles in any pasta dish or soup. Just sauté for in a pan over medium heat for 3-5 minutes until warmed and serve with a favorite sauce.
              • (Note: For zucchini noodles, you’ll need a vegetable spiralizer, found on or at Bed, Bath, and Beyond).
  • Spaghetti Squash is a popular pasta substitute and only has 31 calories per cup. Just bake in the oven or microwave and then use a fork to shred the flesh to get squash “noodles” than can be used with any favorite pasta sauce.
  • Tofu Shirataki Noodles might sound strange, but they are a wonderful option for those trying to substitute their pasta. For only 10 calories per serving (about one cup) it can be used the same way that you would use any other pasta.
    • No need to boil the noodles, just make sure to drain and rinse thoroughly before using in your pasta dish. It can be found near the fresh produce and tofu at most grocery stores.
  • Cauliflower Rice is a quick and easy substitute for rice in any dish. Simply take a head of cauliflower and using a box grater, grate the cauliflower down to the base of the cauliflower head.  Sauté in a pan for 3-5 minutes or warm in the microwave for 3-4 minutes before serving. The texture is very similar to rice, but at only 25 calories per cup it saves 175 calories and 30g of carbohydrate.
  • Cauliflower mashed potatoes started getting popular back when low-carb diets were all the rage. Unfortunately, many recipes called for adding lots of butter, cheese, and high calorie toppings. No need to do that! Steam or boil cauliflower until fork tender and then mash or puree until smooth. Add low fat milk until the consistency is smooth and 1 tablespoon of butter or olive oil to give it some flavor. Use as a side dish paired with a lean protein and vegetable.


Now let's combine these principles to modify a delicious baked mac and cheese recipe.

Original Recipe (Homestyle Macaroni and Cheese – Modified Recipe (Butternut Squash Mac and Cheese –
7 oz uncooked pasta (macaroni) 5 oz (about 1 ½ cups) uncooked high-fiber pasta
¼ cup butter 4 cups cauliflower puree
3 T all-purpose flour 3 cups butternut squash cut into ½ inch cubes
2 cups whole milk 1 ½ tsp chopped garlic
1 (8oz) package cream cheese ½ tsp chili powder
½ each salt and black pepper ½ tsp onion powder
2 tsp Dijon mustard ½ tsp each salt and black pepper
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese ½ cup fat-free milk
1 cup dry bread crumbs 5 wedges Laughing Cow Light and Creamy Swiss Cheese
2 T butter ½ cup light sour cream
2 T chopped fresh parsley 3 slices reduced fat cheddar cheese
Calories: 641, Fat: 40g, Carbs: 47g, Fiber: 2.5g
Sodium: 828mg, Protein: 22.6
Calories: 255, Fat: 5.5g, Carbs: 39g, Fiber: 6.5g Sodium: 549, Protein: 13.5g

The modified recipe uses several techniques for cutting calories and fat while also increasing the fiber content. Using a smaller portion of high fiber pasta will make the dish more filling for fewer calories. Instead of making a high calorie cream sauce with butter and whole milk, the recipe calls for puréed vegetables such as cauliflower and butternut squash to replace half of the cream sauce. By using reduced fat cheese and sour cream, it reduces fat and calories as well.

So as the weather turns cooler, remember that you can still enjoy your favorite winter comfort foods. All it takes is a little modification to create tasty and satisfying meals without worrying about winter weight gain.


When satisfying your sweet tooth, you can make substitutions that make the goodies just as good but healthier.

  • Replace half of all purpose flour with whole wheat pastry flour
  • Cut sugar in half and/or substitute with applesauce or other fruit puree
  • Replace all or some of the butter, oil, or margarine with applesauce, canned pumpkin or black beans (yes it’s possible and really tasty—do a quick search!),
  • Intensify sweetness and flavor with holiday spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves.
  • Create your own DIY treats like this homemade hot chocolate recipe: 1 cup of low-fat milk, 2 tsp cocoa power, and 1-2 tsp sugar.  It tastes great, contains less sugar than the packaged varieties, and makes a great drink after that stroll you just took viewing holiday lights. 


Contributions by  Michelle Huber, RDN, LDN

For more tips and information from the dietitians at the Tufts Medical Center Weight and Wellness Center, check out their Resources Page!

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