Cooking for Health and Wellness (Caribbean Style)

A breadfruit

Photo: Hans Hillewaert

Actually, we cook for health and wellness Jam-Can style (Jamaican-Canadian). With a cross-cultural, inter-racial marriage with a number of health issues on either side, cooking for health and wellness is down to a (home-made) science in our house. Here are four of our guiding principles:
1) Consult your medical professional: Aside from your family doctor (if you have one), a registered dietician or nutritionist is an excellent resource. With extensive training in how what we eat affects our health, these professionals can guide you in making informed choices when dealing with your family’s known health issues.
Having said that, it is important to know your family’s medical and health background. Are you pre-disposed for any particular diseases/conditions? Can this pre-disposition be regulated or managed through a healthy diet and adequate exercise? To use our family as an example, both my paternal and maternal grandparents had diabetes and high blood pressure. Knowing these facts about my family’s medical history means I consciously manage the presence of sugar and sodium in my cooking.
2) Eat whole foods that are in season: This really can’t be emphasised enough, simply because we can take what we are used to for granted. We have a wide variety of fruits and vegetables locally-grown available in our islands, yet sometimes we find ourselves reaching for expensive imports merely because of the novelty factor. Instead of choosing the import, can you cook the locally-grown, in-season foods differently? Experiment with different cooking methods (my husband grills everything), new herbs and spices, different combinations of foods; you may be pleasantly surprised!
Growing up, I hated the taste of callaloo. I would only eat it when I absolutely couldn’t refuse it, and when I became an adult and moved out on my own, you would seldom find it in my home. From time to time, it would appear, usually because my family doctor informed me that I was verging on anaemia due to heavy menstrual periods. I knew the health benefits of this leafy green in relation to iron levels, but it felt like punishment to eat it.
Enter my husband, who has a different form of anaemia, similar in effect and treatment (but not of hereditary origin) to sickle cell anaemia. On moving to Jamaica, one of the first meals he prepared was callaloo and baked chicken. Being used to North American leafy greens such as spinach, Swiss chard, and kale, he prepared the callaloo the way he would spinach: with an abundance of garlic, a dash of salt and a generous pat of butter added to the leaves but not the stems. The result was a totally different flavour take on something I had known all my life. Today, I don’t need to be persuaded to eat my leafy greens.
3) Get to know your herbs, spices and condiments: I love my pepper as much as any Jamaican, but even that can get wearisome if the only flavour your tongue knows is “hot”. Quite often the abundance of salt and preservatives and dyes present in foods are used to preserve and enhance flavour, when this job can be done by herbs in a much more healthy fashion. You’d be amazed at the abundance of information available on how to use and combine the abundance of herbs and spices available, I know I was!

Local preserves, jams and jellies are an excellent starting point for sauces (try your pork chops one day with a cherry or guava sauce) instead of the usual gravy. Making the Sunday chicken? Instead of frying it, try rubbing the whole chicken (or pieces) with a little butter or margarine, sprinkling with a generous tablespoon or two of dried rosemary, a “toops” of basil or oregano, and baking at 350 *F for an hour or until the juices run clear. Simple, healthful, highly reduced in fat and sodium content, and very flavourful.

4) Use a menu plan: This tip has worked, not just for our personal health and wellness, but for the health and wellness of our wallets, too! Planning ahead of time what your family is going to eat takes cooking into the conscious realm, rather than just something we know we have to do. A menu plan allows you to take advantage of what is available and in season (see above), rather than blindly shopping then hoping that what you prepare will meet your family’s needs.
Consulting with family members while preparing the menu plan will aid family health and wellness. How? Having their needs and preferences considered during the planning process leaves everyone feeling affirmed. While compromise over choices will/may be necessary (I prefer meals that take no more than an hour to prepare and having an ingredient list with no more than a dozen items, my husband does not mind complicated meals), just knowing that their input is valued is often enough to make everyone feel validated.

If we are or we become what we eat, make sure you are eating healthily, with an eye to your overall wellness and enjoyment of life!