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Fill up, not out, this year

When bears hibernate, they don't eat. With people, it's just the opposite. When ice and snow drive us inside, what else is there to do but cuddle up with a plate of meatloaf and mashed potatoes?

The problem is that when hibernation gives way to bathing-suit season (which happens so quickly here!), lumpy mashed potatoes turn from a comfort food into a description of your hips and thighs.

When the days get shorter or it's cold outside "the main recreation inside is eating," notes Felicia Busch, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, who lives in St. Paul, Minn., where temperatures have averaged 20 degrees below zero this winter.

The foods people crave on blustery days are often the hearty, homey, he-man dishes that taste great but can wreak dietary havoc. Yet it's possible to have it both ways. Here are some quick tips to reduce the fat and calories in all-American comfort foods without being a traitor to tradition.

Mashed potatoes. Forget about all that butter and cream. "The tang of buttermilk is really nice in potatoes," says Susan Stuck, food editor of Eating Well magazine. (Most buttermilks have about the same amount of fat as 1 percent lowfat milk.) Add flavor with some chopped parsley or scallions. Or, moisten them with some of the potato cooking liquid, plus a drizzle of olive oil and a little grated parmesan cheese, suggests Anita Hirsch, a nutritionist and recipe creator for Rodale Press.

Macaroni and cheese. Many standard recipes start with making a white sauce by stirring flour into melted fat. Jim Fobel, author of seven cookbooks, including Jim Fobel's Diet Feasts (Doubleday, 1990), eliminates the fat by sifting the flour slowly on top of skim milk in a saucepan, bringing it to a boil and whisking constantly. He adds strong-flavored cheeses, so that less can be used. Stuck suggests replacing part of an extra-sharp cheddar with 1 percent cottage cheese that has been pureed in a blender.

Lasagna. Instead of using ricotta and mozzarella, Fobel layers his lasagnas with his low-fat white sauce, flavored with grated parmesan. Between the noodles and "creamy" parmesan sauce, he'll layer vegetables such as spinach and mushrooms, or red and green roasted peppers.

Beef stew. Reduce the amount of beef and go heavy on the vegetables, fleshing out the onions, carrots and potatoes with turnips, parsnips, green beans or white beans, suggests Hirsch.

Chili. It's simple to make full-flavored chili without meat. Add different-colored beans (black, white, pink) and a variety of vegetables (chopped carrots, fresh chopped plum tomatoes).

Chicken pot pies. Instead of light cream for the filling, make the sauce using evaporated skim milk. Skimp on the high-fat pastry by eliminating the bottom crust and using lattice on the top or a pastry chicken made with a cookie cutter, suggests Fobel. Alternately, eliminate the bottom crust and top the pie with rounds of low-fat biscuit dough.

Rice and bread puddings. Just use skim milk, less sugar and sit back and watch the snow fall.