5 Ways To Make Comfort Foods More Nutritious

By Carolina Schneider, MS, RD (@thegreenrd)
Originally from Brazil, Carolina moved to Florida in 2010 to complete her bachelor’s degree in Public Relations and Journalism, followed by a Master of Science in Nutrition & Dietetics. Carolina recently relocated to New York City to pursue her career as a dietitian in the health food industry. She is a Nutrition Consultant for JOI and one of our biggest fans! Carolina believes in the power of a whole-food, plant-based diet combined with physical activity for optimal health. Her favorite foods are dark chocolate and broccoli (preferably not together), and her favorite JOI recipe is the Golden Milk!


Photo by Sheila Pedraza Burk

There is nothing like digging into a creamy bowl of mac & cheese on a rainy day. When you think of comfort foods, what comes to mind? If you thought of buttery mashed potatoes, cheesy spaghetti, and sweet apple pie, you’re not alone. Cooking with or for your family should be a pleasurable and fun activity, and creating delicious meals for your loved ones is nonetheless satisfying (no pun intended).
 
While we may be spending more time at home in recent days, it’s easy to get carried away in the kitchen after digging into grandma’s old recipe book. However, although we believe food is pleasure, we also believe food is nourishment. So, why can’t we enjoy the meals you love, while nourishing your body with good-for-you foods that make you feel great?

Well, we’re here with five tips on how to add a healthy twist to comfort foods and make them the best versions of themselves. Try these practical ways to optimize the nutrition of your favorite dishes!

TIP #1: Sneak in some veggies


Photo by Sarah Pflug

One easy way to add more fiber, vitamins and minerals to your traditional meals is by adding cooked, shredded or chopped vegetables into baked goods, pasta dishes, or blending veggies into sauces. But don’t worry, this doesn't mean you’ll be eating broccoli cookies, and we can guarantee your family won’t even notice it. There are various ways to add nutrient-rich veggies into your favorite meals, without compromising taste or texture.

PASTA SAUCES AND DIPS

  • Add finely chopped veggies to any pasta sauce; make sure you cook them thoroughly.
  • Make vegetables the base of your pasta sauces (see below how to make alfredo sauce with cauliflower, and mac & cheese with carrots).
  • Use nuts or nut base (cough, JOI, cough) in traditional dip recipes to replace high-fat creams and cheeses. Try our french onion dip with veggies for an appetizer!

BAKED GOODS

  • Try vegetable-rich baked goodies like zucchini muffins, carrot cake, pumpkin spice cookies, beetroot chocolate cupcakes, black bean or sweet potato brownies!
  • Use egg replacements to lower the saturated fat in baked goods! To substitute one egg you can use: ¼ cup applesauce (unsweetened), chiaseeds or flaxseeds!*

* For each egg, mix 1 tablespoon of chia seeds OR 1 tablespoon of ground flax seeds with 3 tablespoons of water and let it sit until a gel forms (about 5 minutes). Chia seeds and flax seeds are excellent sources of protein and omega-3 fatty acids!

RICE & MASHED POTATOES

  • Try cauliflower rice (grated, cooked cauliflower) in place of, or mixed into your standard rice dish to boost nutrition!
  • Add chopped veggies to your rice (snow peas, broccoli, carrots, etc.)
  • Make mashed potatoes using sweet potatoes (rich vitamin A) or cauliflower (high in fiber and antioxidants).

PASTA DISHES

  • Try adding spiralized vegetables (zucchini, sweet potato, butternut squash) into your regular spaghetti; make sure to cook vegetable spirals thoroughly for a soft consistency.
  • Opt for whole wheat, brown rice, quinoa or legume-based pasta (black bean, chickpea, lentil) in place of white pasta.
  • If making lasagna, layer thinly sliced veggies in between your lasagna plates (zucchini and eggplant are great options), or mix in cooked spinach into the sauce.

    TIP #2: Go for whole grains


    Photo by Sheila Pedraza Burk


    Refined grains such as white flour, white pasta, white rice, and white bread provide high amounts of carbohydrates with little fiber, meaning that the sugar from the carbohydrates gets absorbed quickly into your bloodstream, raising blood sugar levels and increasing fat storage. Overtime, consumption of refined carbohydrates can result in weight gain, type 2 diabetes, and heart complications. On the other hand, whole grains are known to help lower cholesterol levels, maintain a healthy weight and support digestive health. Here’s how you can easily increase whole grain while lower refined grains consumption:

    • Swap white rice for brown rice, wild rice, quinoa, or barley (or if taking baby steps, mix the whole grain with your rice).
    • When using flour, try whole grain flours such as oat (simply blend oats into a fine powder) almond, chickpea, brown rice or buckwheat flours.
    • Opt for whole wheat, brown rice, quinoa or legume-based pasta (black bean, chickpea, lentil) in place of white pasta.

    TIP #3: Switch up meat for plant proteins


    Photo by Henry Geddes


    Compared to animal proteins, plant proteins have no cholesterol, are significantly lower in fat, and are naturally high in fiber (animal protein has no fiber, by the way) and loaded with vitamins and minerals! There are many ways to implement plant proteins in your traditional “meaty” dishes:

    • Bolognese sauce: use lentils, walnuts, tofu or mushrooms.
    • Chili: try vegetarian chili with kidney, black beans and pinto beans.
    • Tacos: use ground tofu, walnuts or lentils with taco seasoning.
    • Meatballs: try recipes using lentils, chickpeas or beans with oat flour and tomato paste.
    • SloppyJoes: lentils with tomato sauce make a perfect meat-free sloppy joe alternative.
    • Burgers: try black bean or any veggie burger in place of your regular meat burger.

    TIP #4: Sweeten it up with natural sweeteners


    Photo by Sarah Pflug


    Whether you’re baking a cake or making your breakfast pancakes, sugar seems to be irreplaceable for those with a sweet tooth. Yes, we all love it, but refined sugar (whether in powder or liquid form) raises blood sugar levels and may result in many unwanted results when consumed in excess (think: weight gain, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and some types of cancer). Therefore, it’s nice to know how to keep the sweetness in a more natural manner. Here are some great sugar replacements:

    • Applesauce (unsweetened)
    • Bananas (the riper the better)
    • Blackstrap Molasses
    • Dates (shout out to our friends at Just Date Syrup)
    • Honey
    • Lucuma Powder
    • Monk Fruit Sweeteners
    • Pure Maple Syrup

    TIP #5: Embrace your inner chef 


    Photo by Sarah Pflug


    It’s no surprise that homemade meals are usually more wholesome options than store-bought packaged foods. That’s because at home, we are much more likely to use whole, unprocessed foods, and season it with natural spices, herbs and flavors. Plus, ready-prepared meals from a restaurant or a grocery store are usually heavy on the salt, fat, sugar, and artificial flavors (talking about you, MSG) that make for great taste, but are not the best for our health.

    That’s why embracing your inner chef and preparing meals at home will do your body a great favor. If your cooking experience revolves around popping microwavable popcorn or adding hot water to ramen noodles, that’s ok. You can easily find quick and healthy recipes online (more like an encyclopedia of recipes) with only a few ingredients. If you’re a beginner, stock up on chopped onions, minced garlic, canned beans and dried herbs to make your cooking experience a little easier. 

    A FEW OF OUR FAVORITES...

    MACARONI & CHEESE

    THE TRADITIONAL: 
    Requires whole milk, butter, and lots of cheddar cheese. Although it may taste delicious, these ingredients are high in saturated fats (the kind of fat we want to avoid) and increase levels of LDL-cholesterol (the “bad cholesterol”). 

    TRY THIS INSTEAD:
    Make a nut-based cheese (healthy fats that support heart health) instead of the regular cheese sauce. Try our vegan queso made with JOI or the recipe below for a nutrient-rich mac & cheese alternative.


    Healthy Mac & Cheese Recipe
    Yields: 4 servings 

    Ingredients:
    - 1 package of elbow or shell pasta (opt for whole grain version)
    - 2 medium peeled carrots, steamed or boiled until soft
    - ¼ cup JOI cashew nutbase
    - ½ cup low-sodium vegetable broth
    - ¼ cup nutritional yeast
    - ½ teaspoon garlic powder
    - ¼ teaspoon onion powder
    - 1 tsp sea salt
    - Black pepper to taste 

    Directions:
    1. Cook macaroni pasta according to package instructions.
    2. Blend all the sauce ingredients until smooth. Adjust seasonings to taste as needed.
    3. Pour mixture over macaroni pasta.
    4. Optional: add shredded plant-based cheese and broil for 5-10 minutes. 

    ALFREDO SAUCE

    THE TRADITIONAL:
    Requires heavy whipping cream, butter, egg yolk, and lots of cheese. As mentioned before, these foods are high in saturated fats, which raises cholesterol levels and promotes clogging of arteries, which can eventually cause heart complications. 

    TRY THIS INSTEAD: 
    Use cauliflower as the base of your Alfredo sauce (high in fiber, antioxidants, and choline for brain health!) Then add raw cashews (soak first) or JOI cashew nutbase for extra creaminess and healthy fats! Here’s a recipe worth trying:

    Healthy Alfredo Sauce Recipe
    Yields: 4 servings

    Ingredients:
    - 1 medium cauliflower (or 4 cups cauliflower florets)
    - 1/2 cup nut milk (use JOI milk for a more nutrient-rich option)
    - 1/4 cup nutritional yeast
    - 1 tbsp lemon juice
    - 1/2 tsp onion powder
    - 1/2 tsp garlic powder
    - 1 tsp sea salt
    - Black pepper to taste
    - 1 package pasta of preference

    Directions:
    1. Cook cauliflower in a steamer basket or boil in water, until tender, about 15 minutes. Drain well.
    2. Meanwhile, cook the pasta according to package instructions.
    3. Add cooked cauliflower and remaining ingredients to a high-speed blender. Blend until smooth.
    4. Heat cauliflower sauce over low-medium heat until hot and adjust seasonings as needed.
    5. Serve over cooked pasta and garnish with fresh parsley or vegetables of choice!

    Other healthy, nutrient-rich pasta sauces worth trying:
    Creamy Avocado Pasta Sauce
    Creamy Mushroom Sauce
    Romesco Penne Pasta

    With all that said, it’s important to note that healthy changes to your eating habits should be made in small steps, so that they can be sustained over time. Every step towards a healthier lifestyle, no matter how small it may seem, is a step in the right direction. Whether you incorporate whole grains a few times a week, adopt “Meatless Monday” in your home, or add an extra serving of vegetables with your meals, make sure you keep adopting positive changes at your own pace, so that these changes can become habits, and habits can become long-term lifestyle choices! Now, let’s get to the kitchen and bake some date-sweetened blondies...shall we? 

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