Healthy Comfort Food Recipes for Dinner (and Dessert!) Tonight
Healthy comfort food is not an oxymoron! Try these recipes packed with good-for-you ingredients along with cozy, creamy comfort.
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Marisa Moore is a registered dietitian, nutritionist, and communications and culinary nutrition expert. Her integrative and practical approach to food and wellness with science-based nutrition advice is regularly featured in leading media outlets. You can find her in front of and behind the camera as a media dietitian, on-camera talent, and content creator at marisamoore.com.
This year has given us many reasons to experience every single emotion there is to feel. And as a registered dietitian nutritionist, I’ve heard how many people are craving foods they haven’t eaten in years.
Let me just say. It’s OK. It’s perfectly normal to crave comfort during these days and times. Give yourself some grace. If a bowl of your grandma’s mac and cheese takes you back to a simpler place and time and elicits feelings of joy, dig in and enjoy every bite.
That said, while recipes with a healthier profile may not exactly compare to your grandma’s mac and cheese, they do have something extra to offer.
What is healthy comfort food?
“Healthy comfort food” sounds like a bit of an oxymoron. And to be clear, the recipes I’ve collected here won’t typically meet the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) definition of healthy. Instead, these recipes are packed with the cozy flavors you crave in fall, ones that make you feel a little warm and fuzzy inside, plus good-for-you ingredients that you can feel good about eating. I’m talking soups and stews with plenty of vegetables, fruit crisps that are a treat without being too sweet, and warm drinks with spices to soothe your soul.
When making comfort food a bit healthier, instead of taking away ingredients, I look for opportunities to add more vegetables, for example, and to build flavor. Here are some additional strategies to get you started.
1. Break out the slow cooker
You’re in for a treat if you haven’t pulled out your Crock Pot lately and experienced the joy of finishing a long day of work and walking into the kitchen to a dinner that’s already done.
This recipe turns common ingredients into an easy dinner that’s mostly hands off. It combines boneless, skinless chicken thighs with carrots, green beans, lemon, and a touch of white wine for a flavorful dinner that’s sure to bring a little comfort.
This savory and satisfying chili features extra-lean ground turkey with tomato sauce, onions, and plenty of spices. The red bell pepper and kidney beans boost the veggie and fiber factor so you can take comfort in knowing that it’s a truly nourishing dish. Black beans would be good here, too, if that's what you have on hand. You can also customize the toppings; consider Greek yogurt, cilantro, avocado, and jalapeño.
2. Stir up some soups and stews
Soups and stews are synonymous with comfort. And these deliver.
This top-rated vegan lentil stew combines onions, garlic, and celery with a perfect combination of pantry-friendly spices for a rich stew that nourishes.
Sometimes it’s comforting to know that you are truly nourishing your body. And this soup does just that. Packed with high-protein quinoa, canned white beans, and kale and carrots in a flavorful tomato broth, it comes together in 1 hour.
3. Remember ramen
Warm, versatile, and deliciously slurpable, ramen is comfort in a bowl. And since you may not be able to get to Japan or even to an American ramen bar right now, you can make it at home. Ramen bowls are the perfect place to steep a variety of fresh vegetables, different mushrooms, and aromatics such as scallions, garlic, and ginger.
This top-rated ramen recipe comes together in a flash using chicken tenders, store-bought chicken broth, and fresh bok choy and scallions.
Ramen traditionally uses a meat-based broth, but this vegan version is based on vegetable broth with coconut milk for a creamy, decadent twist. Plenty of shiitake mushrooms and bok choy, plus ginger, garlic, and curry for flavor, add up to a super-satisfying bowl.
4. Make mac and cheese
I don’t know if we can discuss comfort food without mentioning mac and cheese. While I’d never take away traditional macaroni and cheese casserole, you can add a little extra nutrition to it by simply tossing in broccoli, spinach, or other vegetables! Both kids and adults will love it.
Two full two heads of broccoli amp up the nutrition in this version of the classic dish, while two kinds of cheese — sharp cheddar cheese and Parmesan — ensure it’s plenty tasty. It gets more hits of savory flavor from the sauce, where onions and garlic cook with the roux and chicken broth is used for part of the liquid. This is an example of how building flavors can make any dish more delish.
Made entirely in a pressure cooker with precut butternut squash, this comforting mac and cheese recipe is ready in under 30 minutes. The squash vanishes into the dish for a creamy cheese sauce with no flour necessary. Sweet potato would be excellent here too, instead of the squash.
5. Rethink your meatloaf
I think every family has had a meatloaf recipe at some point. It’s classic comfort food. The following versions aim for a healthier profile by skipping the meat or going for a very lean choice.
Chickpeas are one of the most versatile foods and fit right into this vegan meatloaf. With vegan Worcestershire sauce, plenty of garlic and onion flavor, and a ketchup topping, this plant-based loaf provides the familiar flavors and feel of a traditional slice of meatloaf, but one that both herbivores and carnivores can enjoy.
A little closer to the classic recipe, this popular turkey meatloaf is simple, using onion and seasoned breadcrumbs. The creator swaps in lean ground turkey for a healthy base that won’t compromise flavor.
6. Try oven-baked instead of fried
Let’s face it. There is just something about crunchy fried finger foods that makes them fun to eat. Luckily you can crank the heat way up in your oven (or use an air-fryer) to get a similar crisp texture on your favorite foods.
This simple recipe uses a flavorful (and Paleo diet-friendly) coating of almond meal, cayenne pepper, and cumin. For a crispy texture, Hungry Hobby gives the almond coating a spritz with cooking oil spray and suggests the option of setting the tenders on an oven-safe cooling rack as well. You can also try the recipe with crushed pecans!
Did you grow up with frozen fish sticks from a box? Now you can make your own, but using salmon, which is packed with good-for-you Omega-3 fatty acids. You’ll feel even better about picking them up because they get a nice crunch from whole wheat panko breadcrumbs. Complete the dish with herbed yogurt Greek dipping sauce.
7. Make a mug cake
Want to quiet a sweet tooth? Make a mug cake. These mini cakes are popular for a reason. They are generally made to serve just one, so you won’t be tempted by leftovers, and clean-up is a cinch!
This two-mug mug cake lets you and a family member experience a mini carrot cake complete with cream cheese frosting all to yourself. Made with almond flour for a protein and fiber boost, freshly grated carrots, and warming spices, this is a satisfying treat. It also happens to be low-carb, gluten-free, and sugar-free, in case you follow those diets. Note that the frosting makes enough for eight servings, so you’ll have extra.
This one uses nut butter to add moisture and healthy fats, and ripe bananas for sweetness. It’s a fun and easy vegan snack that’s also gluten-free, and will hit the spot when you want a little something sweet without committing to a whole loaf of banana bread.
8. Fall in love with fruit crisps
Apples and pears are ripe and ready for fall fruit crisps and crumbles. The key to making them healthier? Add whole-grain oats to the crumble topping, cut back on the sugar, and pump up the spices, as these recipes do.
You don’t have to make your desserts sugar-free. Try using less instead. Sugar helps with browning and adds incredible flavor, though you might be surprised how simply cutting back on sugar allows the natural sweetness of the fruit to shine through. Topping these desserts with a scoop of vanilla frozen yogurt or ice cream is optional but recommended!
This crisp gets its crunchy topping from heart-healthy walnuts. Pears and walnuts are a perfect pairing, especially in fall when both are in season.
Though it includes a full 6 cups of fresh apples, this harvest apple crisp uses just over ¼ cup brown sugar in the entire recipe. It includes a little full-fat coconut milk for a touch of creamy decadence.
9. Leave room for a latte
Cozy coffee shops may be on the back burner for now but you can be your own barista! What’s great about that is you get to add whatever you want to your cup. One teaspoon of syrup or two? It’s all up to you. And that’s a good thing.
Pumpkin Spice Lattes (PSLs) start making the rounds in late August and continue through winter. This one has real pumpkin puree and is sweetened with real maple syrup. For the ultimate fall perk, top it with a spoonful of whipped coconut cream.
This turmeric, or golden milk, latte is a comforting concoction that may offer up some additional benefits. Turmeric is rich in curcumin, a compound lauded for it’s anti-inflammatory properties. Feel free to get creative with the recipe. You can swap in oat milk for the steamed almond milk, add in more of your favorite spices, or even some protein powder for a more filling drink.
10. Bonus: Bake some bread
Looking for a project to help you unwind this weekend? From mixing the ingredients to kneading the dough and waiting for it to rise, the process of making homemade bread forces us to slow down. While the bread bakes, the buttery, malty, milky aromas elicit involuntary feelings of comfort. It’s a nice reward for a practice in mindfulness.
Though the nutrients in sourdough are about the same as regular bread, the fermentation process may improve the availability of certain nutrients such as folate. Plus, the bread itself may be a little easier to digest. If you want the reward of bread baking but you’re fresh out of sourdough starter, try a simple no-knead bread.
This lightly sweetened bread is filled with the warmth and fragrance of cinnamon, yet a slice provides 6 grams of fiber! Enjoy a piece with coffee to sweeten up breakfast, or as a light dessert after dinner.
Keep exploring healthy comfort food
Whatever favorite comfort foods you're craving, chances are good you can find some good-for-you dinner recipes to match on Yummly. For starters, how about a makeover on your clam chowder? If you’re in the mood for Italian, you might consider some healthy lasagna, low-fat Alfredo pasta, spaghetti squash with marinara, or pesto zucchini noodles. Looking for plant-based options? Try vegan meatballs, cauliflower tacos, black bean enchiladas, or vegan shepherds pie. You'll find additional ideas in the following collections.