Food & Drink

Healthier comfort foods for fall

Butternut Squash Mac and Cheese.
Butternut Squash Mac and Cheese. Tribune News Service

Just around the corner is the official start of fall, the time of year when comfort food cravings really settle in. There are creamy and hearty soups and chowders, cheesy lasagnas and casseroles drenched in cream-of-something soup.

That comfort often comes with a hefty cost: lots of carbs and calories, fat and sodium. But it doesn’t have to be that way, nutrition and food experts say. There’s a way to indulge without overindulging and still satisfy those comfort food cravings.

Registered dietitian Gail Posner of Healthy Ways Nutrition Counseling advises clients to head to the farmers market and stock up on what’s in season. There, “prices are low now and the flavor is high,” she says.

The fresher the produce, the better the flavor. So says Mary Spencer, a cooking instructor at Taste: A Cook’s Place in Northville, Mich. Spencer recommends cooking with lots of herbs, spices and flavored oils.

“When you add herbs at the beginning and the end of cooking, it brightens up the dish,” she says. “What you’re trying to do is eliminate the salt and some of the fat, but keep the flavor.”

Here are five tips to keep in mind for a healthier spin on fall cooking from Posner, Spencer and Christa Byrd, a registered dietitian at Beaumont Health in Royal Oak, Mich.:

1. Plan ahead: While it may seem like a no-brainer, planning ahead is one of the things healthy people often do, Posner says. “Things get hectic this time of year,” she says. Take some time over the weekend to plan and prepare breakfasts, lunches and dinners for the week ahead. Having the menu set will make for a healthy dinner instead of a fast-food emergency pickup.

2. Shop smart: Don’t shop while hungry and stock up on foods when you can. But also plan to make what Posner calls the “10 minute shop” between your larger shops to replenish fruit, vegetables and lean proteins like low-fat yogurt, eggs and low-fat cheese. “Many people end up eating unhealthy meals because they’ve run out of the fruits, vegetables and lean proteins,” she says. “People that have a healthy diet in general do not run out of food.”

3. Read labels: A key component of shopping smart is reading labels and understanding what they mean. With sodium content, for example, there is a difference between “low sodium,” “reduced sodium” and “no salt added.” Use canned beans and vegetables like tomatoes (including tomato sauce and paste) that have labels stating “no salt added.” With many brands, the “no-salt-added” versions contain half the amount of sodium of their regular counterparts. Products labeled low sodium must have 140 milligrams of sodium per serving or less. Reduced sodium means the product has 25 percent less sodium than the original version. Byrd says to watch out for products that state “low” on the label. “Low sugar is usually higher in salt and low fat is higher in sugar,” she says.

4. Roast vegetables or double up on them: Roasting is an easy way to add flavor to your veggies. (See recipe for Roasted Vegetable Lasagna.) “You can cut up vegetables, drizzle with some oil and roast,” Spencer says. “It’s nothing. There’s no recipe; it’s whatever you brought home from the farmers market,” she says.

But what about those who don’t have time to chop tons of veggies? Just eliminate that step, she says. So instead of cutting that pumpkin into cubes, just cut in half, roast it with the skin on, seed it and enjoy.

In most dishes including casseroles, Posner and Byrd say, increase the amount of vegetables for more nutrition in every bite. With one-dish meals, Byrd says, “get those veggies in there. It’s all mixed together anyway.”

5. Swap out ingredients: Byrd suggests using vegetable purees instead of high-fat ingredients to provide texture and thickness in some dishes.

“Cook northern white beans, puree them and use them in place of the higher-fat dairy,” she says. Beans, she says, have more fiber, vitamins and nutrients. “Using pureed beans is also a recommendation we use when people are allergic to milk,” Byrd says.

Eggs provide a creamy texture while adding more protein than high-fat dairy. And don’t add sugar to casseroles that have ingredients with natural sweetness, such as sweet potatoes. Today’s recipe for Butternut Squash Mac and Cheese uses cooked and mashed butternut squash to replace a good amount of the cheese. The squash adds color and a creamy texture.


Makes: 6 servings. Preparation time: 40 minutes. Total time: 1 hour.


12 to 16 ounces dried rigatoni

1 1/2 pounds butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into chunks (3 1/2 cups)

2 3/4 cups 1 percent milk, divided

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

8 ounces smoked Gouda cheese, shredded (2 cups), divided

4 slices thick bacon

2 small sweet onions, cut into chunks

3 ounces firm 100 percent whole wheat or multigrain bread

2 tablespoons butter, melted

Fresh flat-leaf Italian parsley


Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Lightly butter a 3-quart au gratin or baking dish; set aside. Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain; transfer to a large bowl.

Meanwhile, in a large saucepan combine the squash and 2 1/2 cups of the milk over medium-high heat. Bring to boiling; reduce heat to medium, and simmer until the squash is tender when pierced with a fork, 18 to 20 minutes. Stir together remaining 1/4 cup milk and flour; stir into squash mixture. Bring to a boil and cook until thickened, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in 1 1/2 cups of the Gouda until melted; keep warm.

Meanwhile, in a very large skillet cook bacon until crisp; drain on paper towels. Crumble; set aside. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon bacon drippings. Return skillet to the heat.

Add onions to skillet; cover and cook over low heat 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Uncover and increase heat to high. Cook 4 to 6 minutes more, stirring, until onions are golden.

Add squash-cheese mixture, onions and bacon to the bowl with the pasta. Toss well to combine, then transfer to prepared baking dish.

Place bread in a food processor and pulse with two or three on/off turns to form large coarse crumbs (you should have about 2 cups). Transfer to a small bowl; mix with melted butter. Sprinkle remaining Gouda and the bread crumbs over pasta mixture. Bake until top is browned, about 14 to 15 minutes. Cool 5 minutes. Sprinkle with parsley.

Adapted from