Craving Childhood Comfort Foods? Here Are the Healthier Versions to Try Today

Childhood comfort foods
Photo Credit: Lexi's Clean Living

Updated Jul 6, 2020 @ 12:17 pm

By Beth Lipton

My story of childhood is not all that different from other Gen-X-ers: I was a latchkey kid, and my single working mom expected my brother and me to manage a lot for ourselves. Packaged snacks and heated-up frozen food eaten in front of the TV were very common in our house. Even though I’ve been eating healthy for eons and I make my living largely by developing healthy recipes for magazines, I can still taste those mini quiches and pigs in blankets I loved snacking on after a long day at school.

Whether that describes your experience or not, without a doubt there are flavors from childhood that bring you comfort. Maybe it was sugary cereal that turned the milk pink as you watched Rocko’s Modern Life, tater tots dunked in ketchup or creamy, bright orange mac and cheese. Sweet or savory, we remember those flavors and textures forever, no matter how long it’s been since we had them.

If you find yourself craving those foods right now as we experience the COVID-19 pandemic, you’re not alone. “We tend to want those foods because we’re in a stress response, and we want something that’s going to turn off the pain,” says clinical psychologist Dr. Sandra Scheinbaum, founder and CEO of the Functional Medicine Coaching Academy. “We associate it with immediate pleasure. It allows you to divert your attention. If you’re scared or anxious or in pain, you’re experiencing that as a physical sensation. Maybe it feels like your brain is on overload, or you feel muscle tightness. It’s almost a reflex to reach for those foods; you know certain tastes are going to be instantly pleasing.”

You already know eating those foods isn’t a great idea in everyday life — but that’s even more true right now. “Sugar weakens the immune system,” Dr. Scheinbaum says, noting that aside from sweet foods, other favorites like pizza and pasta that are heavy in refined carbohydrates turn to sugar in your system. Avoiding sugar and carby foods is essential because “we want to be the worst possible host for the virus,” she says.

We channeled our inner child and found some healthier alternatives for some of the most tempting nostalgic foods — some that you can buy, others you make yourself using simple ingredients.

If You’re Craving Sugary Cereal Try: HighKey Keto Protein Cereal, $12 for an 8-oz box
We were not allowed sugar cereals in our house growing up (it was all Product 19 and Wheaties, all the time) — but my mom would relent during our once-in-a-while road trips and let us get those variety packs of individually sized cereals.The sweet crunch of Cocoa Puffs and Rice Krispies was pure indulgence and joy. If that’s what you’re hankering for, these low-carb sugar-free cereals are made for you. On the one hand, they’re grain-free, gluten-free, paleo- and keto-friendly; on the other, for the kid in you, they taste like those sweet cereals of yore. They’re available in frosted, cinnamon, or cocoa flavors, so there’s something for everyone. They’re made with milk protein isolate, erythritol, monk fruit, inulin, and MCT oil — so they’re more “not terrible for you” than actually good for you. But as a treat, they will satisfy that desire to feel like your 10-year-old self munching cereal in front of Saturday morning TV.

If You’re Craving Taster Waffles Try: Birch Benders Paleo Toaster Waffles, $5 for 6
Leggo… that other brand and grab these better-for-you waffles. From the moment the aroma of them toasting hits your nose, you’ll be right back in your childhood kitchen. Crunchy, with just a touch of sweetness, they’re made with wholesome ingredients like cassava flour, fiber- and nutrient-rich tigernut flour and eggs. They’re lower in carbs and higher in fiber than other brands — so you can feel good about putting a little butter and maple syrup in every little box (I know it isn’t just me who does this… right?).

If You’re Craving Tater Tots Make: Cauliflower Tots with Herbed Mayo
Golden, crunchy, savory, these tots — made with cauliflower rice, mozzarella, and a few spices from your pantry — are good for your grown-up body while satisfying your inner child’s taste buds. They’re loaded with nutrients (including immune-boosting vitamin C) and healthy fats (with an extra boost from the herby mayo dipping sauce), and so satisfying — plus they’re simple to make.

If You’re Craving Mac and Cheese Make: Low Carb Cauliflower Mac and Cheese
Yup, cauliflower again — this time as a stand-in for noodles in classic mac and cheese. This 5-ingredient wonder satisfies that yen for something rich, creamy and cheesy — but won’t leave you in a carb coma. Use frozen cauliflower florets for a softer texture. Dairy free? Try this vegan version, with a magic “cheese” sauce made from cashews, nutritional yeast and a few other simple ingredients.

If You’re Craving Toaster Pastries Make: Homemade Healthier Pop Tarts
These are a bit more of a project, as you make the dough, let it rest, make the filling, roll out the dough, etc. — but they fall into the treat category, so it’s probably not a bad thing that they take some doing. With a grain- and gluten-free dough and chia jam filling, they offer nutrients and healthy fats. We’d skip the sugary icing, these pretty treats don’t need it.

Remember, even if you do have the original every once in a while when you have those cravings, don’t beat yourself up about it. “It’s really important to not stress about it,” Dr. Scheinbaum says. “Let it go, and think about how you can do it differently next time, have a different strategy. If you stress about it, then not only is your body processing the food, now you’re also dealing with the additional stress from negative self talk, and more stress also challenges the immune system.”

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