Creativity key to making healthy foods appealing

Carolyn O’Neil is a registered dietitian and co-author of “The Dish on Eating Healthy and Being Fabulous!” E-mail her at

There’s a lot of talk about eating more fruits and vegetables and fewer sugar-coated, super-salty and deep-fat fried foods. But when you take a look at the reality piled up on most people’s plates, the picture isn’t so healthy.

“Americans eat according to the My Plate nutrition guideline meal patterns only 2 percent of the time, which translates to only seven days a year,” said Boston-based registered dietitian Elizabeth Ward.

Consumer food trends and nutrition research presented at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ 2013 Food and Nutrition Conference held in Houston included current challenges and suggested solutions to help improve the nation’s health through better diets.

“It’s not what we eat so much as how much of it we eat,” said Jim Painter, a registered dietitian and professor at Eastern Illinois University. He suggested simple strategies such as using smaller plates, slowing down to eat more mindfully and keeping fruits and vegetables in reach.

While scientific research sessions are the backbone of the annual conference, this year the significance of teaching cooking skills took center stage. Ellie Krieger, cookbook author, dietitian and host of “Healthy Appetite” on the Cooking Channel, told the conference crowd, “Food and culinary expertise is critical for RDs (registered dietitians) to be effective. We traded our aprons for lab coats, and we need our aprons back.”

Dawn Jackson Blatner, dietitian and author of the Flexitarian Diet, includes cooking classes in her list of nutrition support services to clients in the Chicago area.

“It’s sometimes about taking the mundane and elevating it to the next level,” she said. “I like peanut butter on celery, but add a little cinnamon and you’ve elevated the taste experience.”

Taste and health on the menu

Throughout the nutrition conference, special event meals showcased health on the plate.

Greek yogurt, popular dairy for its rich taste and significant protein content, starred on the menu at a dinner for dietitians at Sparrow restaurant in Houston. Chef Monica Pope showed the versatility of Chobani yogurt in every course including an appetizer of chickpea fries with a Greek yogurt Raita sauce, chicken tandoori marinated in Greek yogurt, and panna cotta for dessert made with Greek yogurt.

Chef Robert Del Grande of RDG in Houston created a menu using California figs, a good source of dietary fiber. Nutrition note: Less than 4 percent of Americans consume the 25 grams of fiber recommended per day.

He noted that many people fall into two categories when it comes to food and health: “They say, ‘I’m so healthy but I’m unhappy,’ or ‘I’m so happy but I’m unhealthy.’ We can bring those two worlds together so you’re happy and healthy.”

His recipes including chilled Gulf shrimp with Thai & California Fig Curry Dressing and cucumber salad and roasted salmon, with Asian-style California Fig BBQ Glaze, proved the point deliciously.