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.
South of the border fare can be nutritious, delicious and fun! Follow our tips and remember: "Enjoy every single bite of your healthy choices with friends and family, and use moderation," says Ximena Jimenez, MS, RDN, LD, former spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
An excellent place to start the party is the produce aisle. Many Mexican favorites feature fresh fruits and vegetables. Standbys include tomatoes, peppers, avocados and mangoes — but it doesn't end there. Have you tried jicama? This crisp and slightly sweet root vegetable is an excellent source of vitamin C and fiber, and a good source of potassium. Serve it in salads or as a crunchy addition to salsas. What about nopales? These prickly pear cactus paddles are a good source of fiber and can be sautéed, boiled or even added to juice or salsa.
Speaking of salsa, it's the condiment of choice for Jimenez. "[Choose] Mexican tomato salsas to get more nutrients such as antioxidants and lycopenes," she says. Guacamole is great, too, with all its healthy fat. "But use portion control since fat adds calories easily."
A great veggie-friendly way to start your meal is with a cup of gazpacho, a chilled tomato soup, or black bean soup, which is nutrient-packed and low in calories.
Produce can also shine in desserts. Jimenez recommends dessert enchiladas: tortillas filled with fresh fruits (apples, strawberries or other berries) baked and covered with a sauce made with raisins.
Watch the Fat
Take it easy on the sour cream, cheese and crispy, fried tortillas. Basket of chips — we're looking at you! "Mexican food is not only tasty but has lots of healthy ingredients such as beans, chicken, tomatoes, cilantro, onions, green peppers, corn, lemon and avocado — all rich with vitamins and nutrients. Use more of these items in your fajitas, burritos and soft corn tortillas, and less sour cream, cheese and lard," says Jimenez.
When ordering at a restaurant, look for descriptions such as "asada" (which means grilled), "served with salsa verde" (a green chili sauce) and "Veracruz-style" (which means it includes a tomato sauce).
"Always prefer broiled, baked, stir-fried or grilled," says Jimenez. "Grilled chicken or fish with vegetables and a small side of guacamole is an excellent choice."
Many restaurants are happy to honor customer requests, so don't be afraid to speak up. Ask for sauces and toppings such as guacamole, cheese and sour cream to be served on the side, or request tomato salsa instead. "For a taco salad, request it to be served on a plate rather than the fried taco shell," says Jimenez. For tacos, enchiladas and quesadillas, choose soft tortillas to save calories, and choose corn tortillas instead of flour for more nutrients and antioxidants.
At home, make tortillas with canola oil instead of lard. Mash boiled beans and add low-fat milk or vegetable broth to give them the texture of refried beans. Try fat-free condensed milk or fat-free half-and-half instead of cream in coffee and puddings.
Twist and Spice
When it comes to Mexican eats, adding flavor without fat, calories and sodium is as simple as a twist of lime, a dash of cilantro and a sprinkle of chilies. Look for limón, a relative of Key lime, for a traditional take. Try ceviche, fish marinated in lemon or lime juice, for a healthy citrus-inspired dish.
For cilantro, chop the leaves and use fresh, or use the dried seeds whole (coriander) or ground (cumin).
Chilies are also used dried or fresh and come in many varieties, such as jalapeno, poblano, chipotle, serrano and habanero, just to name a few. As a general rule, the larger the chili, the milder it is. Add them to just about anything — soups, meats, salsas — for a punch of flavor and vitamins A and C.
Drink in Moderation
It is OK to enjoy a celebratory alcoholic beverage from time to time. "Go for light beer instead of high-calorie margarita and cocktails," says Jimenez. If you do want to splurge on a margarita, order it on the rocks for fewer calories than frozen, and skip salt or sugar around the rim of the glass.
Here are a few recipes to add to your menu for a homemade Cinco de Mayo celebration.