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Kathy Whelan

Posted on April 17, 2020

As the weeks pass in quarantine, food has become a focal point of daily life. If you're like me, you think about it frequently, wondering what you’ll find in the store, worrying that each time you find what you want will be the last. A perception of scarcity makes us grateful for our food and household supplies. In this new world, where we cook and eat at home more often, our relationship with food is changing as we gain new respect for that which we took for granted.

Our meals are meant to support our bodies and minds. By being intentional in our cooking and eating, we help our food do its job in the present as well as safeguard our health for the future, which can lead to enjoying and appreciating it even more.

To be intentional, it helps to understand what we want from our food. Let’s face it: we’re afraid right now. We are not only seeking nourishment from food, we also want to be soothed. This brings to mind comfort foods: those special dishes that evoke feelings of contentment, often due to an association with a person, place or time. Last week I recalled an Easter cake my mother-in-law used to make, an angel food cake sliced horizontally into inch-thick layers separated by strawberry, chocolate and pistachio ice cream. The cake was frozen then frosted before serving with whipped cream. On top was shredded coconut dyed green to look like grass, and on the grass sat milk chocolate bunnies and eggs and colorful jellybeans. I thought of that cake many times last week and how much my mother-in-law and her Easter dinners had meant to my family.

And while I have fond memories of that cake and all it represented, the reality is that many traditional comfort foods do us more emotional than physical good. Dishes like lasagna, macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes serve up saturated fat from red meat, butter, cheese and cream, which are high in the bad kind of cholesterol that raises heart disease risk. Refined grains, as in white pasta, white bread and white rice raise blood sugar and the risk of diabetes. Sugary desserts do the same. And all of these can cause weight gain, which can be a risk factor in itself.

Should we abandon these foods for the sake of our health? In my opinion, absolutely not. We can continue to enjoy them for the comfort they offer if we approach them a bit differently.

One approach is to enjoy our favorite comfort foods just as they are but eat them less often and in smaller amounts. If you can’t imagine eating your mother’s pasta any other way, then don’t. Simply eat it infrequently and reduce your serving size. But a special challenge right now is that we want comfort food more often, not less.

Another approach is to redesign our favorite comfort food recipes, swapping out less healthy ingredients for healthier ones. With that intention, I made changes over the years that my family barely noticed (and others, quite honestly, that ruined a few favorite dishes). If you take this re-engineering approach, which can be very rewarding, consider your family’s preferences and health needs and be willing to experiment and compromise. Chef Lizzy Briskin, whom I have been consulting in the last month, can help you with this process and save you some missteps.

All in all, it seems to me a perfect time to consider yet a third approach: begin some new, healthier comfort food traditions to enjoy alongside the old ones. I ran this by Chef Lizzy, who had several suggestions.

Who doesn’t love chili, and what dish is easier to modify to our own tastes? Lizzy pointed me to Winter Vegetable Chili, which not only sounds delicious but can be pulled together from her Quarantine Shopping List. If you’ve never used hominy, it might be fun to try, but Lizzy says frozen corn or drained, canned corn can be substituted. Not eager to give up meat in your chili? Here’s a yummy recipe using lean ground turkey or chicken: Healthy Turkey Chili.

Lizzy also suggested Healthy Chicken Pot Pie, which has a vegetarian option. Without saturated fat in the filling and minus a bottom crust, this dish can be enjoyed for both comfort and health.

And now for the wine! Few things are more satisfying with comfort food than a great glass of wine. Since moving to San Francisco, my son Bobby has become a student, connoisseur and collector of fine wines. With nearly a thousand Instagram followers, @sfwines is becoming a go-to source of trusted recommendations for wine lovers everywhere. I asked Bobby which wines he would pair with the chili and pot pie dishes. Here’s what he said:

“With a dish like chili – vegetable or otherwise – you want a wine that will refresh your palate from the spiciness of the dish, while still providing enough structure and acidity to complement the bold flavors. A red wine like the 2019 Railsback Freres Carignan would work perfectly. Try throwing it in the fridge for 20 minutes before serving for some extra freshness. (~$35, available at

“Chicken Pot Pie and White Burgundy is a classic combination that can’t miss. No need to go fancy with the wine, so search out a Bourgogne Blanc, the entry level wine from the most famous Chardonnay region on the planet! 2016 Bernard Moreau Bourgogne Blanc is the entry-level option from one of the most famous producers there! (~$45 from”

What approach will you take toward comfort food? My approach will be to keep searching for healthy but satisfying options to become part of a family legacy, joining favorites like the Easter cake, which I will actually make one of these days.

To your health!

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