Re-Define Comfort Foods

3 Ways to Re-Define Comfort Foods

May 26, 2021

What comes to mind when you think of comfort food? For some, it is savory, salty, and crunchy, and for others smooth, creamy, and sweet. Chances are when you are feeling stressed, tired, anxious, or angry, a very clear picture of your comfort food comes to mind. In fact, it can be so clear to the point that you can almost taste and smell it. That is how completely many of us have come to associate finding relief from uncomfortable emotions in a favorite food. This is why you need to re-define comfort foods.

Comfort Foods and How To Re-Define Comfort Foods

Food truly is a comfort, but a very temporary one. 

The momentary distraction often leads to feelings of regret. “Why did I do it…again!?” Few people, if any, have apple slices or celery sticks come to mind when they think “comfort.”

Typical comfort foods are high in calories, fat, sodium, and/or sugar. Typical comfort eating is mindless, fast, and often leads to uncomfortable physical symptoms and mental anguish. Not very comforting at all! 

Just as “comfort food” means different things to different people, to re-define comfort foods can mean different things. Some will choose to lighten up traditional favorites, others will choose to increase mindfulness and learn to guide themselves through tough times, and others will choose to find a replacement for eating at these times. Ultimately a combination of all three of these might be a good long-term approach to assist in weight management.

How to Re-Define Comfort Foods: Substitute 

If you are not ready to dig deeper into the meaning of your food-comfort association, try keeping lighter, portion-controlled options in the house. For example, if chocolate is your favorite mood-lifting ingredient, keep sugar-free chocolate pudding cups on hand, rather than a bag of bite-sized chocolates. Or, purchase a single chocolate bar. Either of these options is easier to recover from, both on a calorie level and a mental health level. 

If your comfort comes from cooking a cheesy casserole that was a childhood favorite, substitute ingredients to lower calories while helping your body and brain feel satisfied. Do this by choosing lower-fat dairy options such as skim milk, low-fat cheese, plain Greek yogurt, ricotta cheese, and cottage cheese instead of the full-fat versions, or even plant-based options such as almond milk or soy milk. Choose leaner protein options such as chicken breast, lean ground turkey, pork tenderloin, seafood, egg whites, beans, legumes or tofu.

You can also reduce calories in the cooking process by using non-stick butter or olive oil spray instead of pouring oil into the pan. 

To feel satisfied quicker, use fiber-rich whole grains or vegetables instead of refined carbohydrates. The fiber slows down digestion, so you get a definite “stop” feeling. Choose whole wheat pasta and bread, brown rice, quinoa, barley, or rolled oats. Try pasta alternatives, made with plant-based flour such as chickpea flour or red lentil flour, that are higher in protein and full of fiber. Substitute zucchini slices for lasagna noodles, lettuce wraps for tortillas, cauliflower crust for pizza crust, and riced cauliflower for white rice. 

Satisfy your sweet tooth while staying on track with your weight goals by reaching for healthier options such as fruit instead of cookies, cakes, and candies. Try topping a graham cracker with peanut butter, making a fruit parfait, having a flavored light yogurt, or blending frozen bananas to make an imitation ice cream. 

Lighten up your favorite dessert recipes by substituting some or all of the all-purpose flour with whole wheat flour, using evaporated skim milk instead of heavy cream, and unsweetened applesauce for some of the oil. Make other healthy recipes too.

How to Re-Define Comfort Foods: Control

Although most recipes have the potential to be reinvented with healthier ingredients, maybe you’d prefer to keep the family recipe as is. Avoid completely depriving yourself of those foods you love, which may lead to overeating and feelings of regret.

Instead, control the portion you give yourself, eat at a slower pace, and savor each bite while eating. You may find that you are satisfied with a smaller portion when using these strategies. 

Take the path of constraint during emotional moments by increasing mindfulness and evaluating your level of hunger at the moment. Are you eating these foods just because they’re there and feel strong emotions, or because you’re physically hungry? Ask yourself, “How hungry do I feel right now? Is this the best choice?” A great tool to assess and guide you through this process is the Hunger Scale.

Change your Relationship with Food

If you find that it’s not hunger that’s knocking, connect with your emotions to pinpoint what it is that you’re feeling and what you really need to cope. Maybe it’s a glass of water, a nap, or to vent to a trusted friend about something that is weighing on you. 

Keeping a food diary is a great way to take control of emotional eating. Tracking the food you eat along with the emotions you’re feeling at that time, can allow you to identify your patterns of associating stressors or environmental cues with eating.

Be aware of feelings and triggers that lead you to reach for comfort foods and the emotions you feel afterward. You can then prepare a plan to respond differently the next time these emotions arise.

How to Re-Define Comfort Foods: Replace

One question you may ask yourself during these times is, “What else comforts me?” Begin to identify and focus on the activities, people, or even places that console you, to break the food-comfort association. Could it be watching a funny movie or television show, listening to your favorite music or podcast, or curling up on the couch with a book? Maybe it’s playing with your beloved pet, painting or crafting, gardening or decluttering, or even taking a hot bath.

Immerse yourself in whatever activity or hobby you find serves as an outlet for emotions and delivers comfort.

Seeking social support can help you break through the food-mood connection. In times of angst, call an encouraging friend or family member, or reach out to someone you’ve been meaning to catch up with during the busy year. Alternatively, find comfort in a support group with others who can relate to you and help you stay on track.

Lastly, release some stress while becoming more physically active through exercise. Experiment with yoga, go for a brisk walk, ride a stationary bike or elliptical, or even get some chores done around the house. Challenge your friends to a friendly competition for the most steps taken in a week. Set exercise goals that motivate you to keep going while remaining realistic and attainable. Whatever it might be, find that happy place, and you might find yourself no longer looking to the kitchen for comfort. 

You Can Re-Define Comfort Foods

The first step to re-defining your comfort foods is acknowledging that typical comfort eating is an area of opportunity for improvement within your lifestyle. You work hard to establish and maintain healthier habits, and mindlessly falling back into the “food-is-comfort" trap is not the best way to take care of yourself. Once you have made the conscious decision to change those behaviors, decide how you want to address the issue: substituting healthier foods, controlling the habit or replacing it with another activity that supports your health.

Re-Define Comfort Foods
Gabrielle Marlow


Gabrielle Snyder Marlow is a registered dietitian, a certified diabetes educator and a trained chef. She manages Food & Nutrition Services at ChristianaCare’s Eugene du Pont Preventive Medicine & Rehabilitation Institute in the Department of Family & Community Medicine. A graduate of the University of Delaware and the Culinary Institute of America, Gabrielle has been with ChristianaCare for more than 14 years.
Kathryn Siemienski


Kathryn Siemienski RD, is a registered dietitian with ChristianaCare’s Weight Management Center & Bariatric Surgery Program in Wilmington, DE. She provides nutritional guidance for bariatric surgery patients and nutrition counseling for weight management patients.