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Healthier ways to cook comfort foods

With the arrival of the colder weather, people often turn to hearty foods to fill up and keep the body warm. Too often, however, so-called comfort foods tend to be big on fat and calories as much as they are big on flavor. With a few small ingredient changes, comfort foods can be both delicious and healthy.

Just think of all those hearty and filling foods you enjoy when winter arrives. The stews, casseroles, pastas, and soups that make cold days bearable are often not the healthiest choices a person can make. The average two-cup bowl of beef chili, for example, comes in at 595 calories and 25.9 grams of fat, according to Calorie King. That's before the addition of sour cream, cheese or bread is included. One entree of Lasagna Classico from the popular chain eatery Olive Garden weighs in at 850 calories and 47 grams of fat.

Unlike the salads and sandwiches of warmer weather, comfort foods tend to be built on meats, cheeses and carbohydrate-rich ingredients. Indulging too often can mean quick weight gain and extra fat the body simply does not need. However, you do not have to give up on your favorite comfort foods; simply find ways to make them healthier.

* Choose leaner meats. Substitute lean cuts of meat or alternatives to reduce the fat and calories. For example, ground turkey can be substituted for ground beef in many cases.

* Reduce the cheese. Cut down on the amount of cheese in a recipe. In a dish like lasagna, add vegetables to the recipe to beef it up instead of extra cheese. When using cheese, opt for low- or no-fat varieties.

* Use stocks for flavor. Soup stock can be used to flavor everything from rice to mashed potatoes, instead of relying on butter or heavy gravies.

* Select whole-wheat breads. A lot of extra calories are consumed when loading up on breads that are essentially devoid of nutritional benefits. When selecting breads and doughs, go for whole-wheat products that will offer more fiber.

* Opt for low-fat dairy. When a recipe calls for cream or whole milk, substitute skim milk and see if you can notice the difference. In many cases, the change in flavor will be negligible.

* Stock up on nonstick sprays. Lightly mist foods with some non-stick spray instead of coating pans and ingredients in a lot of oil to cut down on calories.

* Use vegetables and legumes to make a meal more hearty. Stews, soups and other comfort foods can be enhanced with mushrooms, beans or other filling items at a fraction of the fat and calories of adding meats or cheeses.

* Bake or grill instead of fry. Many popular comfort foods, like fried chicken, can be made healthier simply by changing the cooking method. Make popular recipes healthy by baking them instead of frying them.

* Fill up first. If you want to enjoy comfort foods as-is, fill up first on salad or soup before having a portion of the selected comfort food. This way you're less likely to overeat on the fattier dish but will still feel satiated.

* Use fruit in place of oil. In cake mixes and other desserts, applesauce or another pureed fruit or vegetable can often replace oil without drying out the end product.

Comfort foods are common when the mercury drops. Making some easy changes to some favorite recipes can mean enjoying these hearty meals without paying the price in extra fat and more calories.