Did you know traditional, everyday soul food dishes could be heart healthy?
Before processed ingredients defined modern soul food, traditional soul food used fresh, seasonal vegetables, such as beans, tomatoes, summer and winter squashes, collard greens, turnips, beets and sweet potatoes. And meat was served mainly for special occasions, or a small amount was used for flavoring.
If your family meals typically include mostly processed ingredients, your family is missing out on the true taste of soul food cooking. Changing your family’s diet to fresher options is a process involving patience, strategic planning and some education. Here are a few tips to get started with healthy soul food cooking and the heart-healthy ingredients to consider.
Start an herb and vegetable garden.
This works if you have access to a backyard or a small space with soil along the side of your home that gets some sunlight.
- If an outdoor garden work doesn’t fit into your schedule or if you’re an urban dweller with a fire escape (check your building’s regulations), try growing herbs in pots as smaller, starter gardens on your porch or windowsill.
- If you lack a “green thumb,” join a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group or a food co-op.
Buy lean and extra lean meat.
It’s cheaper and healthier to use smaller quantities of meat for everyday cooking, because it’s only needed for flavor. Learn to think of grains and vegetables as the main course, and meat as a side dish.
Eat more greens.
Try to incorporate as many green vegetables into your diet by starting mornings with steame collard greens, mustard greens, turnips, swiss chard, beets or chard greens served with morning egg whites and whole grain toast.
Learn to use the whole vegetable.
“Waste not, want not” was a Southern mantra for many poor households. For example, a few root vegetables have edible greens. Use celery leaves the same way as parsley (they’re related). Cook beets and turnip leaves in small amounts of vegetable oils such as olive oil and garlic.
Prepare sweet potatoes and yams the healthy way.
Sweet potatoes and yams are the glory of modern day soul food. They can be healthy if they are prepared without a lot of extra fat and salt. Try buying them fresh to roast in a small amount of olive oil and herbs, add them to slow simmering greens or boiling them to whip with fat free Greek yogurt (just like potatoes). If your family still craves sweet potatoes with brown sugar, try reducing the amount of sugar you use over time until there everyone is used to only a tiny bit for flavor. Try a few unfamiliar Southern root vegetables, such as salsify, celeriac and kohlrabi, too.
Teach your kids about their food.
Teach kids to connect their food to a farm by taking them to a local farmer’s market and have them pick out their dinner. Get the kids involved in their meals by having them help cook.
Also, a lot of spice mixes are loaded with salt. For extra credit, visit a spice shop and make your own curry mix to add to all the fresh vegetables growing your garden. More tips to reduce salt are:
- Can vegetables and fruits. Involve family members as part of the process. Pickled vegetables and preserved fruit are classic garnishes to many Southern dishes.
- Use fresh herbs in cooking. Generally, basil is good in tomato-based dishes and salads, rosemary pairs with most meats, thyme goes well in soup and parsley goes with everything. Also try stirring in minced, fresh herbs in rice or grain dishes.
- Use apple cider vinegar. Add the flavor slowly to simmered greens, such as collards, kale and mustard.
Find heart-healthy soul food recipes in cookbooks available from the American Heart Association.