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Healthy Comfort Foods

  • Blog Post by: Jen Emmert
  • August 7, 2011 - 5:58 PM

Healthy comfort foods. Until recently, I thought it was an oxymoron. Can it really be true that comfort food can be healthy, and dare I say, enjoyable? Comfort food, by a general definition, is food that we associate with childhood and/or home-cooked foods. Comfort food can be things like:

  • Spaghetti
  • Pizza
  • Meat loaf
  • Mac & cheese
  • Lasagna
  • Pot roast
  • Chicken strips

hhmmmm.... is that your stomach growling or mine? Just typing that list brings back memories of coming home from school. I'd pull open the screen door and instantly be greeted with whiffs of food being delicately mixed together with passion. Aromas that would float through the air and head straight for my nose as if the aromas only purpose was to comfort me through the sense of smell. Running up the stairs, typically two at a time, I'd find my mom in the kitchen by the stove. She'd look somewhat flustered as she'd rush from the stove to the kitchen table, shuffling five daycare kids down from the table. Mom's words often sounded as if they were tied together like musical notes. She brushed crumbs from the table with one hand and into her other hand while talking to the kids who were laughing and no longer eating but now playing with their snacks at the table. "Okay kids, snack time is done. Jump down and go find toys!" Mom would notice me standing in the door way and because her to-do list never seemed to get any shorter, she'd quickly glide back over to the stove to stir what was cooking while words flowed over her shoulder and toward me "Hi Jenny, how was your day at school?" I'd answer in a typical teenager way with "good" or "fine" or "okay" but only because my mind was more interested in trying to guess by smell what was for dinner.

Memories. Comfort food evokes so many memories.

But how does one make the jump from comfort foods to healthy? Can one not be healthy while eating comfort food? Dare I propose being healthy can be a balance of both? In my quest to find healthy things to do here in the Twin Cities, I stumbled on KitchenWerks. KitchenWerks was founded by Stacy Klone who spent more than three decades in the food service industry including multiple leadership roles on the corporate side of the industry. My path crossed with Stacy's a little over a year ago after being introduced to her because we shared something in common - weight loss and a passion for food, healthiness & helping others.

On a recent Saturday, I attended a class called Healthy Comfort Foods by KitchenWerks. It was an interactive class and by interactive, I mean we got to eat all the glorious foods cooked. The class started at 11:30am. There were about 20 of us in the class. I walked into the class room and was greeted by Stacy who, as she walked closer to me, I recognized she smelled not of any teenyboppers most recently launched fragrance but instead, the scent of spices and fresh produce. If you had any doubt that Stacy did not bleed passion for cooking, you would see the replica spoon earrings hanging from her ear lobes it would be confirmed that she eats.lives.breaths.sleeps this kind of stuff. 

The right & wrong way to eat mac & cheese:

Stacy started the class with an introduction to herself and what made her the self-proclaimed expert she says she is. Then, she rolled up her sleeves. We started with mac & cheese. Stacy talked about a general misconception about mac & cheese in that most people eat it for dinner which is the wrong way to eat mac & cheese. Whodathunk that mac & cheese is not dinner, but instead, a side dish served next to your protein, veggies and fruit?! Yep, it appears the correct way to eat mac & cheese is a quarter cup serving on your plate.

Lesson number one: mac & cheese is a side dish, not dinner.

Stacy walked us through how to make home-made mac & cheese. Throughout her instructions, she often interjected variations and suggestions for alternatives to what she was doing, giving us additional ways to umph up our mac & cheese. For example, Stacy suggested adding a little flax seed (for added fiber) to the top of our mac & cheese right before baking instead of bread crumbs because the flax seed will give the mac & cheese a crunchy topping and added fiber. Also, Stacy suggested adding broccoli or red peppers to the dish to incorporate vegetables.

A spaghetti dinner minus the pasta:

I know you are cringing at the thought of eating a spaghetti dinner without pasta but trust me when I tell you it is (1) possible and (2) enjoyable. Stacy showed us how to make a quick and easy home made pasta sauce (and even hid some vegetables in it.) Then, Stacy dared us to think out side the [pasta] box. 

Believe me when I tell you I actually enjoyed eating my spaghetti with the crunch of the romaine lettuce! I also liked eating spaghetti served broccoli slaw. Stacy also recommended serving the spaghetti sauce over spaghetti squash, which I already do often at home. (And let me confirm my carnivore eating, meat & potatoes fiance actually likes spaghetti squash as an alternative to noodles!).

Lesson number two: pasta isn't mandatory

The key takeaway for me was to try something new because I'd never know if I like it until I try it. Even if something doesn't sound appealing right away, you may actually enjoy it!

Breading without the bread:

There was no magic involved as Stacy moved on in her cooking lessons and showed us how to bread chicken strips without bread or bread-crumbs. A simple and easy mix of finely pulserized cashews and flax seed served as our "bread crumb" like coating for chicken strips.

Moms & dads pay attention because if you've ever fed your children out-of-the-bag frozen chicken strips out of convenience, than this lesson was for you! Within 4 minutes, Stacy had cut up chicken into strips, coated them with the healthy alternative and carefully laid them on a sheet pan. This was a recipe that is sure to send the frozen convenient food manufactures crying to their mommies because no one is buying them anymore.

Lesson number three: chicken strips aren't just for kids.

As we dined on crunchy breaded chicken strips, Stacy gave us ideas on how her clients use these for salad toppers throughout the week for their lunches, used them in wraps for quick and easy dinners and even kept them in baggies in the fridge for grab-and-go snacks.

As we worked through our last recipe, healthy pizza, it dawned on me. Not only was I enjoying quick & easy comfort foods, just like what I grew up with, but I was enjoying it without guilt. Over the duration of the two hour class, I felt inspired to think about comfort foods like I had never thought of before. I felt inspired to think about the possibilities with food and not what I couldn't have.

I had debunked my own myth. This tiny nugget of a class, right here in the Twin Cities, had done it. The KitchenWerks class helped proved to myself that it was possible to eat healthy comfort foods and actually enjoy it.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have some healthy comfort food to make!

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