A Celebration of Comfort Foods

A Celebration of Comfort Foods

Familiar dishes like mac and cheese and meatloaf and gravy evoke warm memories and make you feel good…but guilty. Don’t feel bad! There’s nothing wrong with indulgence. Learn how to satisfy smartly.

Comfort food often gets labeled a “guilty pleasure.” But we’re here to separate the guilt from the pleasure. There’s no reason you can’t partake of favorite foods and feel good about the choices you are making. “I like to think of it as indulging responsibly,” says Panera Bread® chef and Food Team member Mark McDonough.

Quality makes the difference. Comfort food made with fresh ingredients is a smart balance between decadence and nutrition. Think about the contrast between boxed, mac and cheese and the kind you make from scratch: “Five hundred calories out of a box or a bag is not equal to 500 calories from whole, fresh ingredients,” Mark says. “Fresh, clean, whole foods are obviously better.”

Tweak your technique to ease up on the guilt. Make oven-fried chicken versus pan-fried, or mashed sweet potatoes instead of the white variety. Say your comfort food of choice is spaghetti and meatballs but you’re trying to cut down on massive servings of pasta. Try a swap our chef’s family loves: “We use zucchini ribbons instead of pasta noodles. We add our homemade sauce and meatballs, grated Parmesan cheese, and a fresh Sesame Semolina Loaf from our local bakery-cafe,” he says. “It’s comforting and delicious—and you’d never know you weren’t eating spaghetti!”

Eating smaller servings of indulgent foods is another way to dig in guilt-free. Take a tip from our menu, where combining a half portion of a hearty dish (Mac & Cheese, for example) with one that’s less filling (a Classic Salad) will leave you full and satisfied. “Having smaller portions of amazing food and pairing items with bold flavors to create a balanced meal is a responsible way to eat,” Mark adds.

Here are a few of his other ideas to try:

  • Lighten up lasagna. “I often layer zucchini and portobello slices with cheese and sauce, alternating just as I would with traditional lasagna,” he says.
  • Go leaner on beef. Ask the butcher to grind leaner cuts for your homemade meatloaf. To enhance flavor and keep the meat from drying out (the leaner the cut, the faster it dries out), add sautéed mushrooms to the mix.
  • Blend in veggies. Mashed potatoes are everyone’s favorite, but why not try a mix of half mashed potatoes and half pureed cauliflower?
  • Make smart swaps. Substitute lean ground turkey or pork for ground beef—use it for burgers, stuffed peppers, meatballs, and more.
  • Go vegetarian. Plenty of warm and hearty soup, stew, and chili recipes bypass meat entirely! Try mushroom barley soup (skip the beef) and stewed lentils over rice.

Finally, think about why those traditional comfort foods are so, well, comforting. Often, they pull up warm family memories, such as sipping your grandma’s chicken soup when you were sick, or scarfing your dad’s super-cheesy mac when you were feeling blue. The memories are where the comfort comes from, not the cheese or the butter or the bread. “There’s something grounding about cooking and eating with family and friends,” Mark says. “Sunday dinners, weekends in the kitchen—those things are important. The truth is the social aspect of eating is just as comforting as the wholesome food we eat.”