Whether it’s the aroma of your family’s home-cooked meals or the experience of indulging in a decadent dessert, you’ve probably experienced food’s ability to comfort. You know the feeling — taking a bite of ooey gooey chocolate cake or diving into creamy mac ‘n cheese — you get all the feels from head to toe. You might associate comfort food with a particular person or time in your life, or it could be food that simply makes you feel good. The mere aroma of a comforting dish can send waves of nostalgic memories from your childhood flooding in.
While these foods are undeniably satisfying and enjoyable in the moment, that feel-good moment doesn’t typically last long. (If you’ve ever enjoyed endless servings at Thanksgiving dinner, you know that food coma feeling well.) This is because most comfort foods are processed — loaded with refined sugars, unhealthy fats, sodium, or refined carbohydrates, or they include animal products that are inflammatory and wreak havoc on your health. Fortunately, there’s a solution to enjoying comfort foods and feeling really good after eating them — nutrient-dense, magical plants that transform into the most decadent and delicious dishes! By making healthier, plant-based versions of the comfort foods you know and love, you can enjoy those same textures and flavors while nourishing your body with what it needs to thrive — in that moment and in the long run.
In this article, I’ll offer tips and tricks to help you make comfort food healthy by swapping out animal products and processed ingredients with healthy whole-food plant-based substitutes. And, I’m including seven tasty recipes that demonstrate how plants transform into comforting — and healthy! — decadence. But, first, what is comfort food and why is it important to minimize added sugars, sodium, animal products, and oils if you want to feel your very best?
What Is Comfort Food?
Whether it’s Mom’s famous mashed potatoes or Grandma’s irresistible apple pie, many comfort foods evoke memories of home, childhood, or cultural heritage. It makes sense, considering Merriam-Webster defines comfort food as “food prepared in a traditional style having a usually nostalgic or sentimental appeal.” But not all comfort food has to have a deep, sentimental meaning attached to it. Sometimes you just love a food simply for its deep, rich flavor or satisfying texture. Some prefer savory comfort dishes, like Shepherd’s Pie, while others get cozy on the couch with their spoon and a pint of ice cream (perhaps while watching Friends reruns or The Great British Bake Off). (P.S. If the latter is you, check out 7 Sugar-Free and Dairy-Free Chocolate Desserts.)
While “comfort” food is often associated with “unhealthy” food, it can actually come packed with nutritional goodness. For example, many classic comfort comestibles — like mac ‘n cheese (and other pasta dishes), chocolate, pizza, chili, soups, stews, dumplings, and baked goods — can be created with nutrient-dense plant-based ingredients that create that same comforting experience. Really!
Comfort food doesn’t have to be indulgent, either. Sometimes a warm, nourishing meal — like homemade soups or stews filled with veggies and beans that pack a healthy dose of nutrition — on a cold winter day can satisfy your belly and soothe your soul.
How to Make Comfort Food Healthy
If you can’t fathom living without your favorite comfort foods but want to avoid their negative health consequences, eliminating animal products from them is the most impactful action you can take for your personal health and the health of the planet. Fortunately, simple swaps can “veganize” your favorite comfort dishes, like replacing dairy milk with plant-based milk or using a flax egg in place of a traditional egg.
If you want to optimize nutrition in your comfort meals, choose whole or minimally processed plant-based food whenever possible. Swapping in chickpeas or tofu in place of meat, using a nut or seed milk instead of dairy milk, or blending cauliflower and squash into a (nut-free!) creamy cheese sauce are just a few ideas.
And that’s just one example of a vegan substitute for dairy. Nut cheese made with cashews is a delicious alternative to any cheese product. Nutritional yeast is the key ingredient that provides a remarkably cheesy flavor in plant-based recipes. Swap out dairy milk (as well as the saturated fat and inflammatory compounds that come with it) for one of the many options of nondairy milk substitutes — almond, soy, oat, cashew, hemp, and coconut. These plant milks can be significantly healthier for both you and the planet.
Using plant-based meat and cheese may be okay occasionally — they can be decent replacements for traditional meat and dairy when it comes to mimicking flavor and texture — but they have their pros and cons, so it’s best to use them sparingly. The healthiest options are whole foods like beans, lentils, tofu, and tempeh. Beans and lentils are whole foods, while tofu and tempeh are minimally processed, but also nutrient-dense, protein-rich, and mimic meat in texture and their ability to absorb flavors. Mushrooms and eggplant also make great whole-food substitutes with their meaty textures, and can be used as a meat replacement in anything from burgers to hearty soups to sandwiches.
Replacing Sugar and Oil
Many comfort foods also contain vegetable oils. However, since oil is processed and only contains a single component — fat — of the food it came from, and none of the fiber or other nutrients, it’s best to use it sparingly. Oil may be especially problematic for those who struggle with heart disease or obesity. (The next time you’re craving a salad, try these 5 Easy Oil-Free Salad Dressings for a Healthier Mealtime.)
The type of sugar that causes inflammation is refined sugar, not the sugar found naturally in fruits. Refined sugar can be addictive, harmful to your health, and may contribute to several chronic diseases. Instead, sweeten your favorite comfort dishes with fruit or natural fruit-based sweeteners, such as Medjool dates. Minimally processed maple syrup is also a favorite here at FRN, as a little bit goes a long way. Plus, there are lots of antioxidants in maple syrup!
Plant-Based Comfort Food Recipes
Comfort foods often feel like a warm embrace. Or they may help to remind us of life’s sweet moments, thanks to their mesmerizing aromas and mouthwatering flavors. Whatever the reason, comfort foods always seem to do the trick! Inviting a sense of comfort into your home through food can be both tasty and nourishing — and these recipes prove it! So whether you’re reminiscing about pizza nights with your family or missing the taste of Mom’s mac ‘n cheese, we hope these yummy (and ultra comforting) vegan comfort food recipes are exactly what you need to feel nourished!
Can’t believe that a bowl of creamy and delicious risotto can be rich and mouthwatering yet still be healthy? You’ll believe it once you try this scrumptious recipe, made with whole-food plant-based ingredients! Risotto can sometimes take some time with lots of steps, but this recipe couldn’t be simpler (with a little bit of prep). To achieve that creamy — and oh-so-comforting — mouthfeel, cashews are blended into a silky, creamy, umami cheese sauce and then simmered with asparagus, spinach, and brown rice. Feel the plant-based nourishment fill your body and soul!
Pineapple on pizza may be a debatable topic, but after just one bite there is no denying that pineapple belongs on top of this sweet and savory delight! Jackfruit Carnitas Pizza hits the nail on the head when it comes to healthy comfort food. Jackfruit mimics the texture of meat and takes on any flavors you add to it, making it a versatile ingredient that is perfect for a “meaty” pizza. The robust spice blend and the array of colorful fruits and veggies add the most exquisite flavors! We think you’ll be extra happy with the textures, flavors, and nutrients in this comforting meal.
You can always count on a hearty bowl of pasta to wrap you in warmth and create all the feels after a long day. Tempeh Sausage Pasta hits all the right notes for a wholesome meal that has tons of flavor and nutritional value. Tempeh is a hearty plant protein that takes on any flavor you add to it. In this case, savory herbs and spices transform tempeh into meaty sausage crumbles. The result is a healthy and delicious hearty meat substitute that gets even better with the addition of red tomato sauce and pasta!
If you like mashed potatoes — one of Ocean’s favorite comfort foods — then you’ll love this recipe. And it’s easy to see why he loves them, considering potatoes are packed full of nutrients and do a great job of satisfying your appetite with healthy, comforting carbohydrates. Layers of high-fiber and high-flavor plant-based ingredients might make this Shepherd’s Pie more satisfying than any other version you’ve probably tried. Omega-3-rich walnuts, protein-packed lentils, vitamin C-abundant potatoes, and beta-carotene-filled squash come together to make one spectacular meal!
This wonderful cheesy Comforting Mushroom Casserole delivers satisfying cheesy goodness and so much more! Cauliflower Squash Cheese Sauce and Vegan Walnut Parmesan give this yummy casserole two remarkable cheesy flavors that will really hit the spot. The best part is that they have veggies! If you are of the notion that veggies can’t be comforting, this recipe may change your mind. We promise the rich flavors and veritable cornucopia of veggies — cauliflower, squash, onions, mushrooms, garlic, carrots, and kale — will have your heart singing!
Let’s take a trip down memory lane: Remember mac ‘n cheese when you were a kid? We sure do! Mac ‘n cheese is a classic comfort food that’s a favorite of many of Food Revolution Network’s staff. Whether homemade or from a certain blue box, chances are that, at that time, it was one of the most delicious things you’d ever eaten on the planet. What if you were able to recreate that fond memory to satisfy your inner child, but with plant-based ingredients to satisfy your wise adult? Now you can! This Broccoli Mac ‘n Cheese — a new favorite of the FRN team — is made with whole-food healing ingredients, like cashews, nutritional yeast, and miso, and is as creamy and satisfying as the fun mac ‘n cheese you had as a kid.
Indian food ranks high among our team’s favorite comfort dishes here at FRN. Creations like this Lentil Spinach Dal are creamy, loaded with tons of spices, and get more satisfying with each bite. Our home-cooked version is fragrant, flavorful, and packed with nutrients from lentils, spinach, tomatoes, aromatic herbs, and spices to give you all the comforting feels!
Enjoy Comforting & Healthy Food
While comfort food is often associated with nostalgia and emotional contentment, it can also provide physical comfort in terms of nourishment and warmth. Such comfort can be deeply satisfying and nutrient-dense when using plant-based ingredients. For ultimate comfort and health, swap animal products, refined sugar, salt, and oil with whole plant ingredients. By using whole plant-based foods in your comfort meals, you’ll ensure they give you back the love you deserve — and provide not only comfort but health and nutrition, too.
Tell us in the comments:
- What’s your go-to comfort food or meal?
- Which plant-based comfort food recipe are you going to try first?
- What other healthy food swaps do you make?
Featured Image: iStock.com/RuslanDashinsky