Happy National Nutrition Month (NNM)! I wanted to kick of my blogs this month by discussing something near and dear to my heart, how to eat healthy as a Mexican-American – which I am. Growing up in Corpus Christi, Texas I had access to flavorful food that evolved from the mingling of Mexican dishes given a Texas-flare and simply called “Tex-Mex”. The spices are plentiful, the meat is abundant, and the portions are well, Texas-sized. So when I moved to Northern Virginia and started to reevaluate my eating habits, I realized I needed to revamp how I ate as a Mexican-American if I wanted to stay healthy. Here are a few dos and don’ts that I adopted to help me enjoy the flavors of my heritage while keeping my waistline and health status in check:
- DO fill half your plate with the wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables that are native to Texas and Mexico including tomatoes, tomatillos, lettuce, onion, bell peppers, chili peppers, squash, cactus, potatoes, sweet potatoes, peas, corn, jicama, avocados, bananas, strawberries, melon, oranges, mangos and papaya.
- DO watch your portion-sizes. Everything is bigger in Texas. So much so, you hardly notice how big your plates and portions are while dining out. MyPlate is a great way to keep these things in check. First it helps you limit protein and grains each to 1/4 of your plate, leaving you room to pile on your fruits and veggies on the other half. Most people just need 3-4 ounces of protein (about the size of your palm). This includes beef, chicken, pork, fish, beans and eggs. It helps to think of the protein as more of a “supporting actor” and not the star of the show. Finally, consider leaner protein options including poultry, fish and beans.
- DO opt for healthier fats and cooking methods while cooking. I’m not going to lie, I grew up on food cooked with lard and bacon grease. Today, I typically cook with olive and canola oil which have higher amounts of poly- and monounsaturated hearty-healthy fats (liquid at room temperature) versus the artery-clogging saturated fats found in lard and animal fats (typically solid at room temperature). I also bake things like tortillas for chips and chalupas instead of frying. I sauté chicken, fish and vegetables with a little oil which absorbs much less fat versus deep-frying.
- DO take advantage of the zest, spice and flavors of Tex-Mex cooking by a using lime juice, garlic, cumin, chili pepper, cilantro and onion in your cooking.
- DO cut out the sugar-sweetened beverages. While not Tex-Mex specific, their use is certainly rampant in my home town and the size of these beverages is astonishing. Almost every fast-food chain and restaurant lets you treat yourself to unlimited beverages. What I did not realized until after college is how that was affecting my blood sugar, mood and frankly ,waistline. A Big Gulp – and that is the small one these days – has 350-400 calories and 90-100 g of sugar depending on how much ice you take. I would rather eat my calories and make them nutrient-dense.
- DON’T overdo the carbohydrates. Only a 1/4 of your plate should be grains and mostly whole grains at that. For most people this means one slice of bread, 1/2 cup of cooked rice, 1 small (6 inch) flour or corn tortilla OR 1/2 cup of cooked pasta. As Mexican-Americans, we tend to overdo this area of our plate. We have to choose between the rice and the tortilla and limit ourselves to one, not the typical two to three tacos that come with most meals.
- DON’T overdo the dining out. In Texas, it takes a lot of discipline to maintain a healthy MyPlate while eating out. You should probably only eat 1/2 to 1/3 of what your are served at some Texas restaurants to keep proper portions (take the rest home for tomorrow’s lunch). Also, you don’t know how the food is prepared so it’s likely to be full of unhealthy fats and salt that you can better control when cooking at home.
- DON’T derail your healthy plate with calorie-dense condiments like full-fat sour cream, salad dressing, mayonnaise and/or shredded or melted cheese.
Here are some healthy Mexican-American MyPlate dishes and recipes you can try:
- Taco salad – Baked flour tortilla bowl filled with beans or lean ground meat and topped with shredded spinach, tomato and avocado
- Turkey chili – Lean ground turkey, with beans, corn, bell peppers, onions and a small cornbread muffin
- Chicken fajita or grilled fish tacos – Flour or corn tortilla filled with grilled chicken or fish, jicama, bell pepper and pineapple salsa
- Beef carnita tacos
- Baked bean or chicken chalupas – Baked corn tortilla, beans or chicken, shredded spinach, tomato and mango salsa
- Breakfast burrito – Tortilla, egg, beans, salsa and grapefruit slices on the side
- Cilantro-lime chicken with avocado salsa
- Southwestern vegetable and chicken soup
- Chiles rellenos with chicken
- Chicken with quick mole sauce
- Mexican polenta pie
- Two-bean enchilada casserole
Look for additional inspiration by browsing MyPlate Recipes on Pintrest.
I hope this first NNM post helps other Tex-Mex lovers see that they don’t have to sacrifice their favorite flavors when eating healthy. With a few modification and tweaks you can still Eat Your Way, Every Day, the Tex-Mex Way! Let me know any healthy twists you have made on your Tex-Mex favorites!