Culinary Cheer for a Healthy New Year

By Natalie R. Toney M.F.A.,C.H.,
Healthy Planet Food Editor    

Photo: Zoodles with pesto and fresh mozzarella.

The new month, and new year tends to greet me with a bit of tranquility after the hustle and bustle of holiday fervor. I enjoy the decorations, music, generosity, and gratitude that is ushered in with the season, though it is a blessing in itself to have a bit of quietude to recalibrate and focus on my present being. While looking toward the days ahead, there are no resolutions, or “new year, new me” mantras, yet it is a time I set causes, intentions, and determine what modifications will be beneficial in various areas of my life. I’m not necessarily a fan of restrictive diets (unless medically necessary and overseen by a health professional), though swapping out ingredients for healthier alternatives, especially just coming out of a calorie laden and often tempting season, can be very effective without giving up favorite foods, or flavor. When it comes to maintaining a healthy lifestyle, my general rule is “modification and moderation”, in addition to a safe level of physical activity. Preparing meals with alimental ingredients can be budget friendly, which is an added bonus to replenishing those post-holiday funds.

I love food, even with my wayward allergies at the helm, and my fairly finicky tastes co-captain. Some would be surprised to know that my downfalls are much like anyone else…chips, fries, ice cream, and rarely am I not in the mood for pizza. Those who have dined with me usually remark about two things-the small size of the portions (“like a bird”, although I don’t know about that, because my birds can put away some food!), and the slow, or moderate pace of which I eat. I’m generally the last one finished, having savored both the food and conversation, and might even have some to take with me for later. The point is, I let myself enjoy those foods considered indulgent occasionally, as long as it does not pose risk to my health. There are also times when I fancy something a bit lighter, want to boost the vitamin and nutritional content, and/or need to make exceptions for my allergies.

Since I already have to eat gluten-free, cauliflower crust pizzas have become pretty much my norm, and most are quite good. There are also crusts made from other veggies, chickpea, or rice flour. However, making personal pizzas atop portobello caps, slices of eggplant or zucchini is a fun, flavorful, and fantastic healthy offering for parties, or small meals. Eggplant slices, and portobello’s make terrific bread substitutes for sandwiches, while adding some heartiness, large leaf lettuces, and nori are wonderful for wraps and rolls, and there are a variety of healthy options available that resemble the texture of a traditional one. Tortilla, or pita chips can easily be made by baking the wraps with a little oil and sea salt. Zucchini, beets, sweet potato, and plantain all crisp up nicely as well for scrumptious chips. Mashed potatoes are a core comfort during these colder, winter months, and jicama, parsnips, Daikon, turnips, or cauliflower all make delicious variations either mixed into them, together, or on their own. Couscous, barley, and quinoa easily fill rice’s shoes, as do the assortment of riced vegetables. Pastas of lentil, or bean are full of protein and have the chewiness of flour-based pasta, whereas spaghetti squash, heart of palm, spiraled zucchini, or carrots, have slightly varying textures that still complement and hold sauce like a pro.

My sauces are usually marinara, pesto, or olive oil based, and my salad dressing is balsamic or lemon with oil, a pinch of sea salt, or Greek seasoning. A few shavings of a delectable cheese, along with some nuts and berries sprinkled into my salad, is one of my favorites any time of year. I do know several who love creamy dressings, and Greek yogurt, or avocado mixed with a bit of seasoning satisfies the consistency, while providing some good, necessary fats. As is the case for making creamy dips, sauces, and spreads. Darker beans infuse the rich flavor and warmth in soups, stews, or chili that beef does, adding fiber and reducing the cholesterol.

Of course, there is always room for a small serving of dessert when the moment calls for it! Dark chocolate instead of milk chocolate, sorbet as opposed to ice cream (careful on the sugar content-sometimes a little dish of ice cream is better than a big bowl of sorbet), and fresh fruit are the obvious choices. What about when the appetite covets cobbler, cookies, or cake? Switching out white flour for another can make all the difference in the world and enhance flavor. Veggie, or fruit breads and muffins can be enjoyed plain, or with a choice of glaze. Coconut macaroons, fruit and nut bars, and fruit chips quell the cookie craving, while poached pears, baked apples, or stewed peaches with a little granola stands in for cobbler.

Experimenting with new ways to approach meals a couple of days a week is an excellent place to begin and can make a notable difference. Creative options are limitless and will soon become a daily part of the culinary venture. Occasions when only an original version of a favorite will suffice, go ahead and enjoy a few bites, and as always please refer to the care of a medical professional in regard to special dietary concerns.