January 11th, 2012
01:21 PM ET

How to cook healthy comfort foods

Perhaps the cold weather is to blame, or the post-holiday blues. Whatever the reason, many of us use food as comfort this time of year.

"I think everybody eats for emotional reasons at one point or another," says Marisa Moore, registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "We eat when we're happy; we eat when we're sad."

Dishes like lasagna, spaghetti and meatballs, macaroni 'n cheese and, in the South, grits, may give you psychological comfort. However, they are often high in fat, sodium and calories, Moore cautions.

Chef Jim Gallivan, chair of the Culinary Arts program at The Art Institute of Atlanta, agrees. He says that when he tries to make recipes healthier, retaining the usual appearance of the food his first concern.

"[People] don't want the flavor to get weird," he said. "They don't want the texture to get weird."

Gallivan says spices and herbs will bring out the maximum flavor and eliminate the need for salt. He suggests using dried herbs during the cooking process, then using fresh herbs on top, for a texture that's not too gritty. The combination of using the same ingredient twice will enhance the taste.

The method in which you cook something is also important in bringing out maximum flavor of it.

Green peppers are a vegetable that, when steamed, require a lot of salt to extract the flavor. However, Gallivan said, if you fire-roast them over an open flame, the natural sugars carmelize and develop a great deal of flavor.

"One of the big problems is that fat carries flavor, but there are a lot of other ways you can carry flavor," he said. "You can carry it through chili powder or through acidity like fruit juices or wine."

The Mayo Clinic has tips for a few other healthy substitutions:

- Use applesauce for half of the called-for amount of butter

- Try whole-wheat flour for half for the called-for amount of all-purpose flour in recipes for baked goods

- Sugar content in recipes for baked goods can be cut in half; add in flavor with vanilla, nutmeg or cinnamon

- Instead of sour cream, try low-fat yogurt

For healthy comfort food recipes, visit CNN.com's Eatocracy blog.

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