Delicious and Nutritious: A New Perspective on ‘Comfort’ Food

My Italian heritage was very influential in my career choice because of my family’s focus on food. Since I can remember, every holiday, birthday and special occasion revolved around traditional family foods. Recipes that have been passed down between generations are still a part of our special occasions, which I think brings us all closer together and bonds us.

Many people think of a traditional family recipe as being a nostalgic type of comfort food. Comfort food is satisfying and evokes a sentimental feeling, reminding you of beloved family and friends. Unfortunately, comfort foods are often deemed unhealthy, loaded with fat and simple carbohydrates. Still, people tend to give themselves permission to overindulge in them when they feel happy, excited or even sad. Why?

Emotional eating. It is best described as attempting to manage mood with food and is often linked with comfort foods. Learning to distinguish physical hunger from emotional hunger is the key to refrain from emotional eating, but might not be an easy feat for some. Finding alternative ways to deal with feelings like walking or calling a friend are ideal strategies to keep from emotional eating and/or overindulging in comfort foods. I think the key to behavior change is not only to develop alternative ways to cope with feelings, but to learn to celebrate with healthier versions of food. 

As a registered dietitian, I focus on balance, variety and moderation. Yes, some foods are OK to indulge in once in a blue moon, but it is important to realize that most of the time, one should focus on making healthier food choices. One of my life missions is to help people develop a healthy relationship with food and enjoy the company of family and friends while gathering — all sans guilt!

I've helped my mom and grandma prepare foods for the holidays ever since I was a little girl. Their passion for cooking definitely rubbed off on me at an early age. Today, I try to take those same recipes and make them just a little healthier.  Below is one such version of my great grandmother's Italian Wedding Soup that my grandma now makes every Thanksgiving and Easter. I swapped out ground red meat for lean ground turkey, added more veggies, used low-sodium broth and, of course, used whole grain pasta! Ask your family to help create the meatballs for the soup — it can be a great activity to do together. All around, this one-pot dish is a well-balanced, healthful and satisfying family meal. I hope you enjoy!


Healthy Italian Wedding Soup

Recipe developed by Amanda Proscia, RDN

Serves 8-10

Ingredients

Meatballs
1 tsp sea salt
¾ lb ground, extra lean turkey meat
1 tsp fresh ground black pepper
¼ cup fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley
¼ cup Parmesan cheese
¼ Plain dried whole wheat breadcrumbs
¼ cup sun-dried tomatoes packed in olive oil, drained and chopped
¼ cup egg whites

Pasta
1 tbsp sea salt
2 cups whole wheat ditalini shaped pasta

Soup
1 cup carrots, diced
1 medium onion, diced
1 cup celery, diced
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp sea salt
7 cups low sodium chicken broth (or vegetable broth)
1 head of fresh escarole
½ canned plum tomato (no salt added)

Directions

  1. To make the meatballs: Stir sea salt, black pepper, parsley, parmesan, breadcrumbs, sundried tomatoes and egg together in a bowl, blending evenly. Mix mixture into ground turkey meat until well- combined. Shape each meatball into about a 1-inch sphere and place on a lined baking sheet. Set aside.
  2. For the pasta: Boil water, add sea salt and cook pasta until al dente. Drain pasta and reserve some pasta water for the soup (about 1 cup).
  3. To make the soup: Sauté onion, carrots and celery in the olive oil along with sea salt in a large pot. Add low-sodium chicken broth and about 1 cup of pasta water. Also add the plum tomatoes.
  4. Bring the broth to a boil in the pot over medium-high heat.
  5. Add the meatballs and escarole and simmer until the meatballs are cooked through and escarole is tender (about 8-10 minutes.)
  6. Serve the pasta (about ½ cup each) and soup into individual bowls. Season the soup to taste with sea salt, if desired.
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Amanda Proscia Capriglione
Amanda Proscia Capriglione, RD, CDN, is a dietitian based on Long Island, NY, and owner of Food Balance Inc, specializing in nutrition for families and children. Read her blog and follow her on Facebook and Instagram.