How to Turn Your Favorite Comfort Foods Into Healthy, Plant-Powered Dishes

Photos: From Junk Food to Joy Food

“Why would you give up the stuff you love when you don’t have to?"

It's a question Joy Bauer poses in the introduction to her new book, From Junk Food to Joy Food, and The Today Show's nutrition expert has a point. When it comes to our favorite junk foods, maybe the problem isn't what we crave, but how we make them. (We've had a sneaking suspicion...)

Junk Food Joy Food book by Joy BauerIt's that very idea that serves as the premise of her recipes, in which the good-for-you guru gives healthy makeovers to the foods that seemingly define the word craving: cauliflower is riced to make gluten-free grilled cheese (a technique we firmly endorse!), whole grains are used to recreate classic diner pancakes, and pumpkin puree becomes the secret ingredient in shockingly healthy cinnamon buns.

"There’s no fun in following a program that forbids all the tasty comfort foods you crave,” she adds. Can we get an amen?

Ultimately, Bauer's goal is to make healthy eating achievable—not to mention, of course, eminently delicious and supremely Instagrammable—by eliminating the restrictiveness and rigidity that makes many diets fail.

And really, anything that replaces what she describes as "rabbit-food salads" (the '90s were a funny time) with healthy it-ingredients like zoodles is a win in our book.

Keep reading for two of Joy Bauer's favorite comfort food classics with a healthy twist: Vegetable Lo Mein (with a zoodle update) and Buffalo "Wings" made with super-popular, super-tasty cauliflower.

Vegetable Lo Mein

Makes 4 servings

Drop the take-out menu! Whip up this delicious Vegetable Lo Mein with zucchini noodles to cut the carbs and calories without cutting the flavor. Serve it as a side dish or toss in some diced chicken, beef, seafood, or baked tofu for a healthy (and tasty) meal.

4 large zucchini
1 onion, sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced, or ¾ teaspoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger, or 3/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1 red, yellow, or orange bell pepper, sliced
1 medium carrot, shredded
2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
4 tablespoons reduced-sodium soy sauce
Ground black pepper to taste
Hot sauce (optional)
1 scallion (green onion), sliced, for garnish

To make zucchini noodles, cut off the ends of the zucchini and julienne using a spiral slicer to create noodle strands. If you don’t have a spiral slicer, use a vegetable peeler or knife. (You can peel the zucchini or leave the skin intact.) Wrap the noodle strands in a few layers of paper towels and squeeze to remove some of the moisture.

Liberally coat a large skillet with nonstick oil spray and warm it over medium heat. Sauté the onion, stirring frequently, until it is slightly browned.

Add the garlic, ginger, and bell pepper. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes, or until the pepper is tender. Add the carrot, sesame oil, and 2 tablespoons of the soy sauce. Continue to cook for an additional 3 minutes.

Finally, add in the zucchini and the remaining 2 tablespoons soy sauce. Cook for about 2 minutes, or until zucchini noodles are tender. Add pepper and hot sauce, if desired. Serve with scallions on top.

Buffalo Cauliflower "Wings" with Bleu Cheese Dip

Makes 4 servings
I have a creative health-ified recipe for buffalo wings that gives you the delicious kick of traditional wings without all the extra junk. It works perfectly for a party appetizer or if you just want to indulge in bar-like fare while watching the big game at home. And definitely serve it with the creamy Bleu Cheese Dip (below). Touchdown!

1/2 cup flour
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 head cauliflower, chopped into bite-sized pieces
1/2 cup hot sauce
1 teaspoon butter

Preheat the oven to 450°F. Coat a baking sheet with nonstick oil spray and set aside.

In a mixing bowl, combine the flour, garlic powder, and ½ cup water. Whisk until smooth. Toss in the cauliflower pieces and coat thoroughly.

Place the battered cauliflower pieces in a single layer on the prepared baking sheet and roast for 20 minutes, turning the pieces halfway through.

A few minutes before the cauliflower is done, pour the hot sauce and butter into a large skillet and melt over medium-low heat.

When the cauliflower is done, toss it into the skillet with the hot sauce mixture, stirring to thoroughly coat it.

Place the cauliflower back on the baking sheet in a single layer and roast for an additional 25 minutes, until it becomes crispy. Serve.

Bleu Cheese Dip

Makes 6 servings

6 ounces nonfat plain Greek yogurt
1/4 cup blue cheese, crumbled
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon onion powder
Ground black pepper to taste

Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and mix until velvety smooth.

This bread-free grilled cheese is another healthy eating game-changer. For dessert, try this decadent, superfood-packed turmeric milkshake.

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