5 Healthy Comfort Foods From the Experts

As we approach Labor Day weekend, I feel the disappointment of summer coming to an end. Soon, the fun weekend barbecues and social activities will be distant memories. And although I'm in no rush for the cold, blistery days of winter, I thought this would be as good a time as any to discuss the comfort food cravings we'll face in the months to come.

So let's get a head start on making a few of our comfort foods healthy, delicious meals instead of diet disasters.

Fried chicken. Unfortunately, this year-round favorite of many can double as a diet saboteur. To make a healthier version, I asked Robyn Webb, MS, who is a cookbook author, culinary instructor and the food editor of Diabetes Forecast Magazine. Here's what she suggests:

"Marinate chicken pieces in low-fat buttermilk for several hours to make it tender, as the buttermilk protects the chicken from drying out. Coat the chicken in whole-wheat panko crumbs for a great and familiar crunch, and spray the tops of the chicken with olive oil cooking spray. Oven roast the chicken on a flat rimless baking sheet so air can properly circulate around the chicken, [allowing it to] crisp up properly. Make sure the chicken is skinned."

Personally, I use ground oats and flax seeds for breading and dip my chicken first in egg whites - a modified version of my mom's recipe.

Mashed potatoes. Who doesn't love creamy mashed potatoes? Unfortunately, the typical recipe with butter and whole milk negates some of the nutritional benefits of potatoes. Holley Grainger, MS, registered dietitian and culinary nutrition expert recommends the following:

"To keep [potatoes] creamy without adding loads of high-fat, high-calorie ingredients, prepare them with low-fat milk and Greek yogurt or stir in a mild soft cheese such as Camembert, Brie or chévre. You can also add flavor and nutrition without the guilt by roasting a garlic head and mashing the sweet pulp in with the potatoes or [by sprinkling] in herbs such as thyme, chives and rosemary."

To make your mashed potatoes creamy, you can also use chicken broth instead of adding any milk or cheese. Or for a different (but still yummy) variation, try smashing the potatoes, skin and all, with a little mustard, olive oil and ground white pepper.

Grilled cheese. This classic sandwich has been one of my favorites ever since I was a kid at home, when my sister was the grilled cheese-making queen. These days, I start by toasting two slices of bread (whole wheat, of course) and then making a sandwich with sliced tomato and one-and-a-half slices of Swiss cheese. I place the sandwich in the microwave on high for about a minute and - viola - the perfect, healthy grilled cheese.

Here's Grainger's input: "Ditch the white bread and full-fat cheese, and choose whole grain bread and reduced fat cheddar. Add a serving or two of veggies to your sandwich by layering sliced tomatoes and fresh spinach, or try a medley of grilled onions, bell peppers and zucchini for a [boost of] color, flavor and vitamins."

Mac and cheese. This is a very popular comfort food for many people, but because of its high fat and calorie content, the feeling after eating macaroni and cheese isn't always so comforting. Jackie Newgent, RDN, CDN, culinary nutritionist and author of "1,000 Low-Calorie Recipes" makes this suggestion:

"Start with whole grain pasta. Select sharper cheese so you can use less while keeping the full taste. Then prepare sautéed baby spinach or kale and combine it with prepared mac and cheese. Cup per cup, you'll have more nutrients and fewer calories."

Meatloaf. While, honestly, I've never been a big fan of meatloaf, I know it's a favorite of others. Instead of using a fatty piece of meat, like ground chuck, make a healthy swap for skinless white meat poultry, such as chicken or turkey, or a combination of both.

Ellie Krieger, RDN, host of the Food Network's "Healthy Appetite" and author of "Comfort Food Fix," uses extra-lean ground beef (90 percent or higher) in her classic meatloaf recipe below. "Adding extra beans and veggies to dishes helps cut back on high-[calorie] starches and meat without skimping on portions," Krieger says, hence, her brilliant addition of mushrooms.

New Classic Meatloaf

Servings: 8

--1 tablespoon olive oil

--1 small onion, diced (1 cup)

--8 ounces white button mushrooms, finely diced

--1 small carrot, finely grated

--2 tablespoons tomato paste

--1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

--1 clove garlic, minced

--1 1/2 pounds extra-lean ground beef (90% lean or higher)

--3/4 cup quick-cooking oats

--2 large eggs, beaten

--2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce

--3/4 teaspoon salt

--1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

--One 8-ounce can no-salt-added tomato sauce

--1 tablespoon unsulfured molasses

--1 tablespoon yellow mustard

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion and mushrooms and cook until the mushroom liquid is evaporated and they begin to brown, about 8 minutes. Add the carrot, tomato paste, thyme and garlic and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Allow to cool completely.

In a large bowl, mix together the beef, oats, eggs, Worcestershire sauce, mushroom mixture, salt and black pepper until well combined. Transfer the mixture to a 9-by-13-inch baking dish and shape into a loaf about 5 inches wide and 2 inches high.

In a small bowl, whisk together the tomato sauce, molasses, and mustard and pour over the meatloaf. Bake the meatloaf until a meat thermometer registers 160 F, 55 to 60 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to rest 15 minutes before slicing.

Nutrition information per serving (one 1-inch-thick slice): 250 calories 250; 12 g total fat (4 g saturated; 5.5 g monounsaturated; 1 g polyunsaturated); 21 g protein; 14 g carbohydrates; 2 g fiber; 110 mg cholesterol; 370 mg sodium

(Recipe from Ellie Krieger's "Comfort Food Fix")

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns and feedback.

Keri Gans, MS, RDN, CDN, is a registered dietitian/nutritionist, media personality, spokesperson, and author of The Small Change Diet. Gans's expert nutrition advice has been featured in Glamour, Fitness, Health, Self and Shape, and on national television and radio, including The Dr. Oz Show, Good Morning America, ABC News, Primetime, and Sirius/XM Dr. Radio.