I've seen a trend at Tucos over the past couple years- more and more of my customers are asking me for ideas on how to eat healthier. The conversations usually start out by them mentioning that their doctor has put them on a diet.
The first case I remember well. It was the late Merce Cunningham who came to town each year with his world renown dance company. Merce was on a very strict doctor prescribed diet. I worked up a simple dish of Portuguese-style grilled chicken breast (heavy on paprika and some good olive oil), quick cooked collard greens dressed in olive oil and fresh lemon juice, and rice and black beans. He loved it and came every single night for it.
Around that same time a couple of my employees joined Weight Watchers and began asking me hilarious questions- "Pru, how many calories in the flan?", "Pru, how many calories in the Crab Raviolis". After weeks of laughing these questions off, it struck me- as a chef, what contributions could I make to their world by making exciting, tasty dishes that happen to be healthy options for them? I decided I would try creating a few things and that I would be guinea pig #1 for my new effort.
I must confess to some embarrassing ideas I had until recently about food and healthy eating in general. I'm hoping that some of you might see yourself in them and might consider looking at things differently, as I did. Here are some of the crazy ideas I had about eating healthy:
- I can eat whatever I want as long as I work it off
- I need to learn to stick to a diet
- Salads and soups are healthy things to eat
- A calorie is a calorie. I should be able to choose to eat whatever I want as long as calorie count is within my target
- Fiber? I'm not worried about how well I poop. Not a concern.
- Meat is not part of a healthy diet (unless its fish or chicken breast)
- All vegetables and fruit are equally healthy
- Fresh made fruit juice is healthy
- Pizzas, pastas and sandwiches can be healthy options if I choose the right toppings/sauces/types
- As wonderful as exercise is for our bodies, it is not a substitute for healthy eating. A simple example- it takes 1 hour of jogging for me to burn 600 calories. It takes me only a few minutes to eat a couple slices of pizza and take in those same 600 calories.
- Diets that have me feeling hunger pangs all day or have me eating things I don't like are unsustainable over the long haul. Learning to eat healthier is sustainable.
- Fiber and protein are our friends in healthy eating. Foods high in fiber or protein fill us up and satiate our appetites throughout the day and allow us to eat less over all.
- Fiber is not just about how well we poop, actually it's even more important in making us not feel hungry and not feeling hungry is the best way to eat less.
- Salads and Soups are often horrible categories of foods in that we rely on them being healthy options for us yet they are often full of calories from fat and offer little protein or fiber. We end up taking in a large number of calories and feeling hungry much sooner than had we eaten a high fiber, high protein meal.
- Any meal low in fiber, low in protien is not a meal. It's a treat. Think dessert. We're talking sandwiches, pastas, pizzas, most salads, many soups... all my favorite things
- Not all fruits and vegetable are created equal if you see them from a fiber/protein perspective. And if we juice them we're throwing away the fiber!
Eating Healthy Simplified
Here's what I've ended up doing and suggesting to my customers and friends:
1) I divide up the food world into three categories: Food, Treats, Garbage. It amazes me how often I used to have entire meals that were from the treat category.
a. Food (things high in fiber or high in protein)
i. Lean meats including poultry, fish, pork, and grass-fed beef
ii. Beans,Lentils, Peas and such
iii. All things whole wheat (5g+ fiber per serving)
v. Sweet potatoes
vi. Figs, Bananas, Asian Pears
vii. Sweet Corn, Cauliflower
ix. Greek Style non-fat yogurt
x. Non-Tropical Nuts- Walnuts, Almonds, Pecans, Pistachios
xi. Raisins, Dried Figs
i. Desserts and Ice Cream
ii. Pasta (non whole wheat)
iii. Pizza (non whole wheat dough)
iv. Sandwiches (non whole wheat bread)
v. Bread (non whole wheat)
vi. Beer, Wine
ix. Salads low in fiber or protein
x. Soups low in fiber or protein
i. Sugary Drinks
iii. Snack Foods low in fiber or protein
2) I try to average around 1500 calories or less a day and I prefer to eat most of those calories in one real sized high protein, high fiber meal a day. And I indulge in a treat each day. My treats are usually some sort of dessert, so I forfeit breads, pastas, sandwiches so that I can enjoy my desserts.
3) My body reflects how many calories I've been eating versus burning over recent months. I look in the mirror, I don't step on a scale, to see if I've been eating too many calories.
Tucos' Menu, Recipes and Beyond
Since realizing how far off my eating habits were from healthy eating habits, I've looked to make the menu at Tucos healthier. From our very beginning we we've based most recipes on olive oil versus butter and on fresh, wholesome ingredients, but I now want to be proactive about bumping up the fiber and protein in our dishes and do this while keeping our menu, textures, and flavors exciting and irresistible. The first product from my new view of the world was our Sweet Potato Nachos. (The dish is unique to Tucos, it's wonderfully delicious and it's one of our more popular dishes. It also happens to deliver a full day's worth of fiber!) The black bean and split pea soups were added. Garbanzos and lentils began to appear on the menu. Sweet Potatoes became a standard offering. Our soups, which in the past were based on a potato stock for thickness were switched to a garbanzo base to deliver both protein and fiber in most of our soups. Our new Mediterranean Platter with our homemade Hummus is delicious and delivers 25% of a day's fiber and our new Braised lentil & Beef Burrito delivers a full day's worth of fiber and protein! More healthy changes and additions to come....
Now our mission is to convince others to do the same with their menus. Eating out after all should be not just about sharing a good time with friends and family with creative dishes and precise service, it should also be about delivering healthy nutrition to our bodies. It's one thing to create something beautiful, creative, and tasty on a plate, but can we also make it something healthy? That's our mission here at Tucos and we hope to make it the mission at many more restaurants!