March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.
Inspired by a lush Caribbean island with an abundance of tasty and nutritious food, Puerto Rican cuisine is filled with tropical fruits, fresh fish, flavorful herbs and spices, and plenty of fiber-packed beans. As with any cuisine, however, cooking methods and portion sizes can mean all the difference between what's healthful and what's not. The following foods represent the typical Puerto Rican plate, plus we've included tips you can use to make them healthier for you and your family.
Arroz con Habichuelas
"Rice and beans, or arroz con habichuelas, is the staple dish," says Ximena Jimenez, MS, RDN, LD, registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Packed with fiber, vitamins and minerals, arroz con habichuelas is a health-boosting dish. However, the rice is frequently cooked with salt and oil, with additional oil drizzled over the prepared rice to make it shiny and prevent sticking, says registered dietitian Lorena Drago, MS, RD, CDN, CDE, owner of Hispanic Foodways, a culturally-aware developer of nutrition education programs. Drago encourages making a healthier version by using just a little oil.
Arroz con habichuelas is usually served with stewed or fried beef, pork, fish or chicken. Stewing is recommended because it's lower in fat and calories, Jimenez says. Another favorite in Puerto Rican homes — both in the continental U.S. and on the island — are cuchifritos, an array of fried foods such as pork skin, blood sausage and fritters, says Drago. There's not really any way to make these healthier, so your best bet is to limit yourself to small portions and only on occasion.
"Plantains are ubiquitous in Puerto Rican cooking," says Jimenez. They are a type of starchy banana that cannot be eaten raw. Twice-fried plantains are called tostones, and, when fried and mashed, they're called mofongo. Save calories by eating plantains boiled or baked, recommends Jimenez.
Vegetables and Tropical Fruits
Fill your plate with okra, tomatoes, onions, chayote squash, watercress, eggplant, peppers and other low-calorie, non-starchy vegetables. Satisfy your sweet tooth with mango, papaya, pineapple, guava, passion fruit, oranges, pomegranates and tamarind.
"Puerto Rican food is highly seasoned, but not spicy," says Drago. Dishes commonly are prepared with oregano, bay leaves, garlic, parsley, cilantro, culantro, basil and Caribbean thyme, Drago says. With so many flavors, the meals can be delicious without salt. Sofrito is key to making Puerto Rican food unique, says registered dietitian nutritionist Betsy Ramirez, MEd, RDN, of the Washington, D.C. metro area. Though there are variations, sofrito is typically made from fresh tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic and cilantro, and is used as a base in many dishes including beans, soups, stews, chicken and meats.
To prepare your favorite Puerto Rican dishes at home, focus on some of the healthiest ingredients: fish, fruits, vegetables, beans and herbs. It's acceptable to indulge in fried meats and appetizers now and then, says Jimenez, just don't make it an everyday thing. And watch your portions to control your weight, warns Drago. It's easy to overfill your plate, especially with rice and starchy vegetables like cassava, taro and plantains.