Expanding Healthy Food Horizons: New Veggies, Textures and Flavors that Take Normal Up a Notch

A key goal of Bridging the Gaps’ nutritional program is to meet clients where they are while encouraging them to begin incorporating healthier foods and healthier habits into their daily routines. This is a great way for any of us to start on a path to healthier living. That said, it’s not always easy! Many of us have long-standing taste preferences – even food biases (often dictated by family, friends, finances, or lifestyle) – that we have to work to challenge, or expand, slowly.

Often, lasting change starts one day, one meal, one small, smarter, healthier choice at a time. But, with each step and incremental adjustment, you begin to establish a nutritional foundation that enhances overall health, boosts energy and  focus, and expands your horizons with respect to good foods that are good for you too.

In this spirit, we recently set out to design, shop for, and create a meal that put a creative spin on foods the clients are already familiar with, and enjoy. In my experience, these kinds of meals are not only the most memorable, but tend to be the ones that clients are most likely to replicate on their own. They decided beef was a tasty foundation that most liked, and as we worked through a collaborative planning process we landed on a very Vietnamese-influenced meal.

Asian cooking, and certainly Vietnamese cuisine, often seeks to balance 5 primary tastes which relate closely to the 5 natural elements : sour/wood/, bitter/fire, sweet/ earth, spicy/metal, and salt/water. In this approach, one is always seeking a connection: between nature or the environment, one’s life style, and food. Each influences and balances the other. Food naturally lends itself to such an approach because there are so many choices, types of food, and flavors. It can be an element of balance, supporting you in the rest of your life. When we cook with different ingredients it is always an exploration with each individual bringing their own tastes and preferences to the table. But in the end there must be a balance; a balance between the flavors, between energy and time, between the preferences of the group and the individual, and a balance between what you are comfortable with and what you are willing to reach out and try.

As a creative and different way of using the steak, we decided to make Vietnamese steak sandwiches. On the surface of things, they might look like any other sandwich: hot and seared meat and dressing if you want it. But the Vietnamese twist adds a whole new dimension of color, texture and freshness – a carrot slaw seasoned with rice vinegar and fresh cilantro bring a pleasant crunch and provides a cool contrast to the seared meat. Vietnamese cooking often looks to contrast the textures as well as balance tastes cool with the hot, smooth with the crunchy.

We used the same approach with fresh wraps that we decided to make. There are 3 herbs that we added to the wraps so that they almost burst with flavor: basil, mint, and cilantro. And soft noodles as part of the filling balanced well with crunch of delicately sliced cucumber, carrots, mung sprouts, and onion. But what I found most impressive was how attentive this class was to putting together the wraps. Rice wraps are very delicate, so they requires real attention as to how long you soften them , how quickly you assemble ingredients and how well you wrap them so that they don’t tear but come out beautifully. Our group created a nearly perfect product! One of the reasons I think these wraps are so exceptional is they aren’t fried, but they are full of flavor, full of contrast, and full of possibility; ingredients can be added and taken away to suit one’s taste and create your own version of balance. They offer a great and different way to eat more fresh vegetables.

The last of our creations was a whipped mango pie. We kept the ingredients very simple using fresh mango, whipped cream, a little sweet maple syrup. I challenged the clients to consider the addition of nutmeg to add distinction to the sweet and creamy flavors that were already present. They were willing and the pie was better for it. A strong flavor doesn’t have to overwhelm a dish – it can be a subtle contrast accentuating the great flavors that already exist. Our pie filling was added to a toasted granola crust, and stowed in the fridge to set until after dinner.

What I found teaching this class was that each of the clients was willing to challenge their own assumptions about what they like and don’t like to try something new. Each client did that in their own way according to their own willingness. For one, it was being willing to cook with strong flavors and see the effect doesn’t have to be as overwhelming and pungent as when each stands alone. Another ate beef when that is usually not her thing at all. Most enjoyed the wraps; some tried the dipping sauce made with fish sauce. Everyone enjoyed dessert. The conversation we returned to often was do you like this particular taste or ingredient? Could we add this other thing and would it be ok with you? They were being considerate of each other but dancing on the edges of new tastes, and possibilities.

As we embrace new possibilities, it becomes less about removing food from our diet and more about what we add to take up space and crowd out the less healthy. It is important to ask if we are adding food that is a good source of protein, vegetables, and fruit. Do you eat colorful veggies raw or cooked? Is there one new thing you might try?

Practice embracing something new, especially when it involves fresh, distinct spices or brightly colored vegetables. You might find, as some of our clients frequently do, that what seemed so far out of your realm was really just a step away offering a better nutritional balance with great taste!

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