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How to cook low-calorie comfort food

Harper's Bazaar (UK) logo Harper's Bazaar (UK) 5/01/2017 Charlotte Stirling-Reed

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Heading back to work after Christmas isn't traditionally the most fun time. Early starts and cold, dark mornings can leave us feeling somewhat low and down in the dumps - and that's without picking up the inevitable office cold to boot.

For many of us, food is a comforter at this time of year, something to warm us up and make us feel happier about the short days and lack of sunshine. Choosing the right foods during winter can also help to make sure that you're giving your body the nutrients it needs to keep the immune system in check, ready to ward off your colleague's cold just when it's needed.

Yet, as we all know, comfort food can easily lead to excess calories and, before you know it, weight gain - the opposite of what anyone is trying to achieve in January. However, there are plenty of filling, warming options that you can make at home, which should fulfil the need for comfort food, as well as pack in plenty of nutrients to keep your health in check at the same time.

Here are my top tips for cooking winter warming foods, but keeping your calorie intake down:

1. When cooking or frying, avoid using too much oil or try to measure the amount of oil you use, keeping it to roughly one teaspoon per person. This can significantly reduce the calorie content of your final dish.

2. Whatever you're eating, try and include at least one portion of vegetables with it (if not, two). This way you boost the fibre and nutrient content of your meal, helping you to be full and satisfied, but without adding too much to the calorie content. It's win, win. Vegetables are also full of nutrients such as vitamin C, which can help to support the function of the immune system at a time when you need it the most.

3. Try swapping some of your meaty meal options for plant alternatives such as beans, nuts and pulses, or even trying out the popular "Meat-Free Monday", which will help to boost the fibre content of your meals - something that most of us need to eat more of all year round.

4. When using cheese, it's best to grate it and sprinkle over your dish. This helps it to go just that little bit further, while also reducing the calorie content of your meal.

5. Swap creamy sauces for tomato-based ones where possible.

6. Use herbs and spices to flavour and leave out the butter and salt in recipes. Experimenting with new flavours can be interesting too, giving your taste buds something different to enjoy.

To help you decide what to cook this evening, here are 9 of my favourite warming winter recipe ideas:

Remember that when you're reaching for food for comfort, make sure you take time to eat, digest and enjoy, and always avoid eating too much on the go.

1. Fish and chips (but not from the local chippy!)

Try making some fresh steamed fish of your choice which is full of healthy fats and protein and combining it with peas and/or beans and some homemade sweet potato wedges tossed in paprika. This is a great, flavour-rich and nutrient-dense option. The government also recommends that we should try to aim for two portions of fish a week (one of which should be oily) so this helps you move towards that goal too.

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2. Soup

A perfect winter warming food, soups are quick, warm and filling, and they allow you to use up all sorts of leftovers. I tend to add anything that I need to use up in the fridge to my soups – carrots, broccoli, potatoes and greens such as spinach or spring onions. Add herbs and spices to alter the final flavour to taste. 

3. Homemade pizza

You don't have to be a pizza chef to knock one out; try using pitta bread, ciabatta or even a couple of wholemeal wraps as the base. Scattering the top with tomato sauce (or puree), plenty of vegetables and any other toppings of your choice, plus some grated cheese. Pop them in the oven and voila – you have a pizza in about 10 minutes. Quicker than a takeaway.

4. Chicken and vegetable pie

Swap the more fatty pastry for mashed potato on top and make sure you include plenty of vegetables such as mushrooms and broccoli with your chopped chicken filling for extra fibre and nutrients.

5. Stir-fry

This is one of the easiest and simplest healthy meals you can make and you can toss in pretty much any ingredients you want. Try adding plenty of vegetables such as baby corn, onion, peppers or green beans. I quite like to use bean shoots instead of noodles, but either will work. You can also add in some chicken or fish, or tofu/nuts to the dish to make sure you're getting some protein and iron which helps to support the immune system and reduce tiredness and fatigue. Iron is a must in the winter months. To flavour you could also add 100% peanut butter or a few splashes of soya sauce.

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6. Beans on (wholemeal) toast

Sounds simple, and it is, but choosing wholemeal bread and adding a little cheese to the top makes this option completely balanced – ticking off all your food groups, giving a great balance of proteins and also offering some iron, calcium and fibre too.

7. Mac and cheese (yes, really)

If you're looking for something that is creamy and/or cheesy to satisfy your needs, why not try some homemade macaroni and cheese? Make using wholemeal pasta and add in some greens like broccoli, kale or spinach. All these will give you a boost of extra nutrition, add to your five-a-day and help you get a good dose of those all-important greens.

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8. Quiche

Quiches and fritattas are also great comfort food options, as they are made with eggs and so contain protein, iron and zinc. If you can, fill them once again with other healthy ingredients such as dark green leafy vegetables, beans, fish or meat; this can make another really balanced and wholesome meal.

9. Vegetarian Mexican enchiladas

This is another of my favourite quick and warming recipes. Packed with iron and protein (plus counting towards your five-a-day) these are not only delicious, but also top up your nutrient stores and boost your fibre intakes. 

There are plenty of other recipes that you could try at this time of year. Just remember to try and keep them them delicious and healthy - you'll feel much better for it. Happy New Year!


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