THE BLOG
06/10/2016 10:50 am ET

5 Ways to Make Soul Food Healthier

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June is National Soul Food Month so I'm sharing a few quick thoughts on how to make it a little healthier.

Merriam-Webster.com defines soul food as, "the type of food traditionally eaten by African-Americans in the southern U.S." I define it as the food I grew up on. Growing up in the rural south, I had soul food on a regular basis. Greens seasoned with fatback, peas or beans with ham hocks, and fried chicken and macaroni and cheese were staples and continue to grace many tables every Sunday.

What makes soul food so good is that it comes from the heart. It's associated with love, family, tradition and fond memories. When done right, soul food is a delight for the taste buds. It's a bite of macaroni and cheese with just the right amount of creaminess and chew. It's savory, tender greens with perfectly baked cornbread on the side. It's knowing that someone spent a lot of time in the kitchen developing those deep, delicious flavors.

It tastes great going down. But some of the traditional preparations are what make soul food less-than-healthy. But there's good news. Peel away the excess salt, fat and sugar and you'll uncover one of the healthiest diets available. I love the research that Oldways did in creating the African Heritage Diet Pyramid, which emphasizes eating more leafy greens, vegetables, beans, fruit, nuts and whole grains and less sugar and animal products. Packaged foods are limited and so is the sodium. This is all supported by a healthy and active lifestyle as the base of the pyramid.

You might be surprised to learn that eating the traditional foods of African heritage may help lower your risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity and certain cancers -- but it's true!

Here are 5 ways to get the best that soul food has to offer and enjoy a healthier plate:

Fill Up on Vegetables
Cabbage, collards, peas, beans, okra and sweet potatoes -- vegetables are soul food superstars. Fill your plate with these options for incredible nutrition and to naturally lower the total calories in the meal.

Remix Traditional Recipes
Try a spicy okra and tomato stew instead of the standard fried okra side dish. Or lighten up macaroni and cheese with a boost of vegetables. Cauliflower in mac and cheese may sound weird but it works! Be sure to only make small changes at first and test it out before the family comes over.

Skip the Deep Fryer
Who doesn't love a fish fry? It's fine to enjoy fried fish and chicken every now and then but not every time you're at the table.

Try this instead. Dredge fish in crushed nuts or panko, then bake it for a crispy finish. Marinate chicken in citrus for incredible flavor. Try pan-seared chicken with lemon and rosemary or orange and thyme for a flavorful change of pace from typical fried chicken.

Make Meat a Part -- Not the Heart -- of the Meal
Small pieces of meat can go a long way on flavor. Use them to flavor greens or other foods traditionally made with a smoky flavor. Instead of a pack of fatback, try using a couple strips of bacon to give the greens flavor like I did in these Honey Cider Greens.

I know the thought of changing traditional recipes is not a popular one. But. You're reading this because you're looking for healthier options, right? This is just a little step. A complete overhaul would be no meat at all. And that can be just as delicious. Spice greens up with hot peppers, apple cider vinegar or simply sauté them in garlic and oil.

Try Fruit for Dessert
Instead of making double-crusted cobblers, bake peaches or blueberries with maple syrup and cinnamon topped with a crunchy topping made of oats and nuts.

Of course, sometimes, you're just going to eat the fried chicken ... and that's OK! I don't believe in strict diets that deprive you of the foods you love. Instead, the key is to find the right balance and make sure the foods you choose on a regular basis are good for you and your family.

Start small. Make progress. Tell me how it goes!

Follow Marisa for nutrition tips and recipe inspiration.

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