If you want to know what Brits turn to in a crisis, the answer, it seems, is custard.
Sales of this childhood comfort food increased by more than 300 per cent during lockdown – and it wasn’t the only retro favourite to find itself back on the menu.
While there’s no doubt many traditional comfort foods are laden with fat, salt and sugar, nutritionist Paula Werrett, from the Institute of Nutrition, says it doesn’t have to be that way.
A few simple tweaks and everything from rice pudding to cottage pie can be given a healthy makeover…
Sales of rice pudding have soared by 67 per cent at Waitrose, and it’s no surprise this delicious dish is high up on our list of comfort favourites. And it’s not all bad for us.
“Rice pudding is high in calcium and protein,” says Paula. “It’s also a source of fibre, as well as some micro-nutrients and minerals, so it’s better for us than many desserts.
“However, it’s still quite high in calories and sugar.”
Smart swap: Make it yourself – use brown rice to increase the amount of fibre, and minerals such as magnesium. Low-fat dairy products will reduce the fat content.
There are few things as comforting as hot custard, which is perhaps why sales of the powder rose by 336 per cent at the Co-op in lockdown.
“Custard is a useful source of calcium and contains some protein from the milk,” says Paula.
Smart swap: Choose one which doesn’t contain any artificial colourings or preservatives.
Make your own, and swap the double cream for single.
At the beginning of lockdown, panic-buying led to shelves being stripped of canned foods.
It eventually settled down, but tinned fruit continued to be popular.
“It’s a good source of vitamin C, which is good in the winter when we might need extra to boost immunity,” says Paula.
Smart swap: Tinned fruit often comes in syrup, which is high in sugar, so opt for those that are canned in their own juice instead.
Pickled onion sales at the Co-op increased by 166 per cent during lockdown.
“They contain a lot of the nutrients found in fresh onions,” says Paula. “This includes vitamin C, essential for a healthy immune system, folate to maintain energy levels, and a phytonutrient, quercetin, which has anti-inflammatory properties.”
Smart swap: Pickled onions contain quite a lot of salt, which can increase blood pressure, so reduce salt elsewhere in your diet.
Ready meal versions of macaroni cheese have been popular in recent months.
“Although this dish tends to be high in salt and fat, it’s also high in protein,” says Paula. “But be aware, it can often contain additives.”
Smart swap: Make it yourself using whole grain pasta, which is higher in fibre. Replace a third of the pasta with vegetables. Use skimmed milk and low-fat cheese.
Alongside tinned tuna, super-markets saw a rise in popularity for tinned meats such as corned beef.
“There’s not as much protein in corned beef as meats such as chicken, but it’s still a good source,” says Paula.
“The main thing is it’s very high in sodium and, like beef generally, it’s high in saturated fat. It also contains additives, such as sodium nitrate, which can damage blood vessels, increasing our risk of heart disease.”
Smart swap: Eat in small quantities occasionally or, better still, opt for slices of beef. These typically contain less salt and sodium nitrate.
“Instant mash can be very convenient and contains vitamin C and fibre, but slightly less than homemade mash. It also contains less oil than other potato products like oven chips,” Paula says.
Smart swap: To boost your vitamin C and fibre intake, heat a baking potato in the microwave for seven minutes after pricking it with a fork.
Scoop out the potato with a spoon and mash with a splash of milk before putting it back in the skin.
Bake the skins in the oven for a few minutes so they go crispy.
Online searches for recipes for this comfort food favourite increased in recent months.
“There are a lot of minerals in cottage pie from the beef and the vegetables,” says Paula.
“Beef is a good source of protein, while both carrots and peas are a source of vitamin A.”
Smart swap: Try a sweet potato topping to provide vitamin A.
Sweet potato releases energy more slowly than white potato, which is better for blood-sugar control.