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. For many people, it’s associated with love, family, tradition and other 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.
Yes, it tastes great on the tongue, 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!
Unlike the high-calorie fried chicken, macaroni and cheese and greens common to many soul food or Southern tables, the traditional foods of people of African heritage are actually very healthy. Try these five ways to make soul food healthier at home.
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 and get an almost undetectable vegetable boost by adding pureed butternut squash or cauliflower to the mix.
Skip the Deep Fryer
Dredge fish in crushed nuts or panko, then bake it for a crispy finish. Marinate chicken in citrus to impart 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.
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 going to eat the fried chicken … and that’s OK! I don’t believe in strict diets that abolish 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.