Harlem Word: Dr. Isobel Contento discusses the importance of home cooking

Editor July 28th, 2010

Dr. Isobel Contento is an Italian-American who has worked to make her traditional cuisine healthier.  As a Professor in Nutrition Education in the Department of Health and Behavior Studies Nutrition at Teachers College Columbia University, she knows a lot about healthy eating. She has some good ideas about how you can slightly change the way we cook to eat healthier while still enjoying your favorite meals. Read more below!

Q: How can someone begin cooking with fresh fruits and vegetables if they are not used to them?

A: Personally, I have come to enjoy the taste of healthy food. Once you become familiar with a certain food; you will begin to like it. People always say that they want to eat something because it tastes good, and that is true, we eat what we like. But people also come to like what they eat.  If you cook healthy foods, you will start to like the taste of them.

Q: How can people make traditional ethnic cuisines healthier?

A: I think there are many ways to do this while keeping family traditions and getting to eat foods you have grown up with. Many cuisines from around the world include unhealthy foods. For instance, for a lot of Chinese, the leading cause of death is related to high blood pressure. This is because their dishes have a lot of salt, especially with the use of soy sauce.  I think there needs to be a constant balance between your ethnic tradition and healthy eating.  For example there are a lot of dishes in Chinese culture that don't require soy sauce, or with Italian dishes (which is my ethnic background), you don't have to cover everything with cheese and sauce-there are other ways to do it. I think it's a matter of learning how to change traditional recipes to make them a little healthier so you keep your culture and, at the same time, eat healthfully.

Q: How would people learn how to change their traditional ethnic recipes?

A: Experimenting with recipes and food is the best way to change ethnic meals. As an Italian, I really love risotto, but the recipes all call for gobs of butter and cheese. I've learned that if I cook it with bullion cubes or chicken broth I can make it so it has virtually no fat.  It tastes great and it's hard to tell the difference. Now when I eat risotto in a restaurant, I think it's too rich because I got used to my version. Another example is when I'm making lasagna I put layers of ricotta cheese instead of some of the other higher fat cheese. Also, instead of making it with meat, I put some spinach for greens and crushed walnuts and mushrooms that taste like meat when you cook it. You end up with a meal that has a lot less fat and tastes great too.

To learn more about the Nutrition Program in the Department of Health and Behavior Studies at Teacher College of Columbia University and nutrition programs offered in Harlem, contact Pamela Koch, EdD, RD, the Executive Director for the Center for Food & Environment at pkoch@tc.edu.

Read more from Dr. Isobel Contento by clicking the links below:

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