My wife Kathy relates a recurring scenario of coming home after a stressful day and craving macaroni and cheese.

Psychologists tell us that when under stress, adults often choose comfort foods to “feel better.” Consuming high-calorie, high-fat, salty or sugary foods triggers chemicals in the brain’s pleasure center, which provide a temporary sense of mood elevation.

Comfort foods are foods that bring back feelings of home and security. We ate these foods as children when life was simpler. Some common comfort foods in the U.S. are macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, mashed potatoes, cupcakes and chocolate chip cookies.

Comfort foods are specific to individuals, but they can also apply to cultures or generations. In 1937, a boxed “dinner” that contained macaroni pasta and processed cheese powder was introduced in the United States. This inexpensive and simple-to-make meal sold millions during the scarce years of the second world war and went on to become an iconic American comfort food. There are whole generations of kids that grew up eating instant mac and cheese from a box.

But is it real food? Well, the pasta is real. The milk and butter that are added are real. What exactly is processed cheese powder? The ingredients tell us that it is mostly whey, modified food starch, salt, milkfat and milk protein concentrate with 13 other ingredients that make up 2% of the mix.

The newer “Deluxe” dinner replaces the processed cheese powder with a package of yellow plastic goop. Its ingredients list whey, milk, canola oil, milk protein concentrate, sodium phosphate, salt and whey protein concentrate with 10 additional ingredients comprising 2% of the recipe. A few of the ingredients are recognizable as food.

Processed foods have been altered from their whole food origins by having parts removed and chemicals added. Food additives add color, enhance flavor or increase shelf life. They are approved by the FDA under the clause, Generally Recognized as Safe. But there are several examples of approved additives that have been shown to pose health risks.

The food dyes FD&C yellow No. 5 and No. 6 used in candy and cereals cause allergic asthmatic reactions in children; sodium nitrites used in bacon, wieners and sandwich meats are linked to increased risk of pancreatic and colorectal cancer.

All food additives are not necessarily bad. Consuming small amounts may be safe but health risks can add up if we rely heavily on highly processed foods. Diets rich in processed foods are linked to chronic diseases such as obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease and cancer. It is estimated that highly processed foods make up nearly 60% of the American diet.

Comfort foods do not have to be highly processed or contain food additives. The national trend to return to home-cooked meals is a good response to the changing nature of our food supply.

I’m all for shortcuts in the kitchen, but trading quality for convenience is a better exception than rule. Usually the home-prepared version of an instant food only takes a few minutes longer to prepare and simply tastes much better.

This month’s easy-to-make, delicious recipe is an excellent real food alternative to the highly processed cheese powder and yellow plastic goop in box dinners. There are only 11 ingredients, most of which you have on hand and all of them are real food. You can use any pasta but choose one that holds this flavorful sauce well like macaroni, shells or rotini. The cheese really makes this dish. Use a good quality cheddar cheese, not the pre-grated stuff.

Eating macaroni and cheese may not take away whatever is stressing you out, but if you make it from real food your family will be happier and healthier. And you will never go back to the fake stuff again.

Homemade Macaroni and Cheese

Serving Size: 1/8 of recipe

Serves: 8

Ingredients

8 ounces elbow macaroni

3 tablespoons salted butter

2 tablespoons flour

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon coarse black pepper to taste

¼ teaspoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon yellow mustard

1¼ cups 2% milk, set out at room temperature

¼ cup 2% plain yogurt, room temperature

2 cups (4 oz) sharp cheddar cheese, finely grated

½ cup Parmigiana Reggiano cheese, finely grated

Directions

Cook the macaroni according to package directions for al dente. Drain and set aside.

In a large sauce pan melt the butter over medium heat. Stir in the flour until it absorbs the butter and begins to bubble. Stir in the seasonings and mustard and reduce the heat to low. Gradually add the milk, stirring until blended. Gradually add the yogurt, stirring and cooking over low heat until it begins to thicken. Do not let the sauce boil. Taste and adjust seasonings as desired.

Add the cheeses and continue stirring until the cheese melts and the sauce is smooth and creamy. Turn off the heat and add the pasta. Stir to combine. The sauce will begin to thicken as is cools.

Serve immediately with a fresh salad or sautéed spinach. This dish can be a feature item or it can accompany a main dish. Create this dish in minutes for a superior alternative to the highly processed box version. You might want to double the recipe. It will disappear quickly!

Exchanges per serving

1½ Milks, ½ Starch, 2 Fats

Nutrients per serving: calories, 246; calories from fat, 108; total fat, 12g; cholesterol, 32mg; sodium, 322mg; total carbohydrate, 25g; dietary fiber, 1g; protein, 11g

Tim Scallon is a registered dietitian nutritionist with many years’ experience practicing nutrition therapy in local hospitals and clinics, teaching nutrition and developing healthy recipes. He helped create the popular TV show Memorial Cooking Innovations celebrating the world of food and health. Memorial Cooking Innovations is produced by CHI St. Luke’s Health and the City of Lufkin. It currently runs in 62 cities and is locally available on Sudden Link cable TV channels and online at chistlukeshealthmemorial.org.

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