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Comfort’s healthy side

From meatloaf to fried chicken, lighter versions of classic comfort foods are being created by operators.

When Southwestern Vermont Medical Center, in Bennington, signed the Healthy Food in Healthcare Pledge in 2009, Director of Hospitality Services Tiffany Tobin had to start rethinking a customer favorite: cheesy, gooey, crispy quesadillas. houston isd gumbo

“People loved the quesadillas. But we have to be role models and show folks that there are ways to prepare comfort foods that not only taste good, but are better for you,” she says. To trim down the Tex-Mex snack, Tobin’s team first shrank the tortilla from 10 inches to six. A smaller base meant significantly less low-fat mozzarella and shredded chicken in the filling, plus less avocado and low-fat sour cream piled on top. The right-sized quesadilla comes in at a modest 330 calories and 17 grams of fat, compared to the larger version’s 880 calories and 43 grams of fat.

While Tobin improved this recipe by cutting the portion size, at the University of Rochester dining services got rid of the meat. In Danforth dining hall, students can feast on vegan versions of comfort favorites, such as a meatloaf made with tofu, lentils, oatmeal, seaweed, nutritional yeast and mushrooms. It comes with a side of dairy-free mashed potatoes and low-fat gravy made from mushroom broth, miso paste and cornstarch.

The lighter offerings extend to classic desserts such as coconut sticky buns made with nondairy margarine and coconut milk instead of butter and eggs. Fudgy brownies get their moist, chewy texture from high-protein black beans. “Everyone eats them, and a lot of them don’t even know that [they’re] vegan,” says Chef Erik Mack-Davis. 

Student demand also drove Oklahoma State University Dining Services Director Terry Baker to start serving healthier comfort meals last fall at the Market Buffet and in Red Earth Kitchen, the high-traffic student union dining area. Baker and her staff aimed to develop recipes that were cleaner, without sacrificing flavor, texture or quality. Ground turkey meatloaf and crunchy panko oven-fried chicken are two dishes that achieve that goal.

“The management team has heard only supportive comments from students, faculty and staff in response to the new, healthier menu options,” Baker says.

The comfort makeovers even extend to elementary and secondary school cafeterias, thanks in part to the USDA’s recently updated school nutrition guidelines. Given kids’ finicky food preferences, healthy updates haven’t always been easy to achieve, but tweaking familiar favorites seems to help.

“This is a big transition time for students. Instead of completely changing foods, we want to transition so the foods are familiar to them,” says Nan Cramer, R.D., community outreach dietitian for the Houston Independent School District. “Comfort foods are something that reassures when things are changing.”

In Houston, that means gumbo, which gets a healthy update by using chicken instead of sausage and cornstarch in place of a butter-and-flour roux. Chili, too, has been reborn. Houston ISD’s version is filled with hearty black and pinto beans instead of higher-fat ground beef.

So far, the changes have been a success. Cramer says she hasn’t seen any decreases in sales, and suspects that eventually the healthier fare will become the new normal. “As the older kids transition out and the younger kids move up, I think they’ll be more used to it,” she says. 

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