I just opened an email invitation to a New Year’s Day “Open House” and couldn’t be more thrilled! My son and I have fun plans for an otherwise “let’s-lay-low” kind of day, but also the menu sounds “safe” —diabetes-wise, that is. Our host, Alyssa, who hails from Virginia, is putting out a traditional New Year’s Day buffet of black-eyed peas, collard greens and ham. I grew up in an Italian-American household, where our New Year’s Day dinner was very similar: lentils, plus some form of pork along with a dish of escarole sautéed in olive oil and garlic. I’ve since learned that many other cultures serve some variation of these ingredients, because of what they signify.
Legumes like black-eyed peas and lentils resemble little coins and thus symbolize prosperity and good fortune. Greens, such as collard and escarole, represent “folded money.” As for the custom of eating pork on January 1st, according to Epicurious.com, it is based on the idea that “pigs symbolize progress, because the animal pushes forward, rooting itself in the ground before moving.”
If you ask me, I think that pork won its reputation as a harbinger of good fortune, because centuries ago in some cultures, only the wealthy could own a pig (or a goat, or a few chickens).
If you want to sign on to this Happy New Year culinary tradition but still need recipes that are delicious and diabetes-friendly, read on! Just last week, I’d asked Laura Diaz—the author, nutritionist and chef who is known internationally as “Chef LaLa” —for a Latino menu based on her background as the child of Mexican immigrants. (Her father is from Guadalajara, and mother from Colima.)
While growing up in Los Angeles, LaLa helped in her family’s Mexican restaurants and, later, studied at Le Cordon Bleu. Having watched three of her grandparents and her father struggle with type 2 diabetes, LaLa decided to pursue a career that linked her passion for Latino cooking and her knowledge of health and nutrition. Today, as both a chef and a certified nutritionist with a specialty in weight management, LaLa creates diabetes-friendly recipes that the entire family also can enjoy. She also owns SAVOR! Catering in Los Angeles and is the author of two cookbooks, Latin Lover Lite and Chef LaLa Presents: Best Loved Mexican Cooking.
LaLa lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their son, Maddox, who, his mother proudly notes, is 2 ¾ years old.
Did your family’s medical history, which includes several cases of type 2 diabetes influenced your decision to become a nutritionist?
I don’t think it influenced my decision as much as it made me aware of the prevalence of diabetes. Diabetes is a subject that is very close to my heart. Three of my grandparents and my father have struggled with diabetes. As a chef and a nutritionist, I have dedicated a big part of my life to showing people that it is possible to enjoy healthy Latino food without sacrificing traditional family flavor. That’s how I became involved in the Journey for Control campaign, which encourages people with type 2 diabetes to recognize that small changes can have a big effect on managing diabetes.
Seeing diabetes at such an early age in my grandparents has helped me realize the evolution of diabetes care and how much things have changed for individuals with diabetes. It is an exciting time in the diabetes-care management—a person with diabetes can live a long healthy life—a nd I want to be able to teach them how. I know my grandparents would have wanted to know I lost three of them to complications of diabetes. And now my father asks questions all the time so that he can manage his diabetes and live a long healthy life.
Do you ever worry that you or your children will develop diabetes?
I am very conscience of the statistics. I am Latina, with a family history of diabetes. Those are things I can’t control. I do, however, pay close attention to the things I can exert some control over, such as controlling high blood pressure. I also managed my weight before trying to get pregnant to help avoid having gestational diabetes or delivering a large baby over that weighed over 9 pounds. Now, I manage my weight daily and I eat foods that are well-balanced, nutrient-rich, and low in fat and calories. Also, I exercise regularly because exercise lowers blood-glucose levels by using some of the glucose in your blood.
With my son Maddox, we give him well-balanced, nutrient-rich foods that will help him grow strong. I believe that good eating habits start at home and are lessons learned that will last a lifetime. If he has healthy habits, he has less chance of developing type 2 diabetes—and that is all I can really give him…a chance.
Do you agree with what many people say about “healthy cooking,” which is that “healthy food can not possibly taste as terrific as regular cooking”?
Let me answer by example. At a recent diabetes education event, I passed out cold oranges to the audience. I asked them to peal them and enjoy while I spoke to them about healthy eating. When I asked how many people had forgotten how delicious a plain cold orange tasted, about 90‰ of the audience raised their hands. Sometimes the simple things in life are the most delicious, flavorful foods. Things that come in their own “package” —such as an orange— are natural, and provide the nutrients that we need. So they are good for you! People that don’t think healthy food tastes good can begin by making small changes to their food choices. It can be as simple as eating more fresh vegetables, or using sugar and salt substitutes if that helps them.
What foods or recipes do you usually recommend to people who want to eat healthfully?
Opt for natural flavor enhancers like herbs and chiles. The benefits of using spices in your diet would be to enhance or add flavors to food without having to use unhealthy measures such as adding too much sodium, sugar or fat for flavor. Also, use healthy cooking methods, use less fat, and add more vegetables, fruits and whole grains to your favorite recipes.
I also have developed many diabetes-friendly recipes, and they are available by visiting JourneyForControl.com.
What advice do you have for people who want to make a diabetes-friendly menu for a holiday dinner or for any other celebration meal?
With a few small changes, I made favorite holiday staples like mashed potatoes and gravy healthy for people with diabetes to eat. When you’re planning and preparing holiday meals, you have to know what’s in the foods you’re serving and eating and how it affects your blood glucose levels. It’s easy to guess what some foods contain, but others are more of a challenge. That’s where food labels come in. Food labels list a food’s ingredients, nutritional information, and calories. Eat regular meals with carbohydrates making up approximately 50‰ of meals; limit intake of foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar; increase intake of fruit and vegetables; and eat some foods less regularly than others but nothing should be “banned” unless instructed by your healthcare professional.
All people with diabetes need to make healthy food choices, stay at a healthy weight, and be physically active every day—even during the holidays.
Do you think that people with diabetes should bring their own food to a holiday dinner?
I come from a large family, so I always have to bring a dish. I take advantage of this by making a dish that I know has been cooked using a healthy cooking technique—that is, baking, sautéing, steaming, grilling, poaching, broiling. Then I make sure that’s the main item on my plate. If you go to a gathering where that is not possible, you must practice moderation. Serve yourself a plate selecting a wide variety of foods. Do not graze—this way, you are well aware of your daily intake and can manage your glucose to insulin levels. Also, keep in mind that it takes 20 minutes before your tummy knows you have eaten, so eat slow—wait a while before reaching for dessert. The holidays are a time for sharing meals and memories —at least in my house they are. Share a traditional holiday meal, but pay attention to your portion sizes and amounts consumed, so that you can continue to make memories and great food.
What dessert(s) if any do you recommend for people who have diabetes?
Make your own desserts because you can control the contents. The main ingredient in desserts is often flour, sugar and fat. Reduce the fat in home baked dessert by substituting oil with applesauce, mashed bananas, or yogurt (my favorite method). Also, opt for fruit-based desserts such as fresh berries, stewed apples, and cobblers.
Keep in mind that “fat-free” products often add extra sugar and extra sodium to compensate for lost flavor.
And most of all, practice moderation—products that are low-fat, fat-free and sugar-free do not mean that you have a “green light” to eat without limits.
Lentil Soup with Bacon
- ¾ cup lentils
- 5 cups water
- 2 strips bacon, medium dice
- 1 teaspoon garlic, minced
- ¼ cup white onion, small dice
- ¼ cup red bell pepper, small dice
- ½ cup celery, small dice
- ½ teaspoon fennel seeds
- ¼ teaspoon cumin powder
- ¼ teaspoon ground red pepper (cayenne)
- 2 cups of chicken or vegetable stock, low sodium
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 2 strips of bacon, cut in half, cooked, drained
- 1. In a stockpot, cook lentils with water, covered, over medium heat for 40 minutes. Most of the liquid should be absorbed and lentils should be soft.
- In the meantime, cook diced bacon in a separate pot until brown and crisp. Add garlic and onion, and cook until clear. Stir in bell pepper, celery, fennel seeds, cumin, and ground red pepper, and cook for 5 minutes. Add chicken stock to pot and transfer the lentils to the pot with the onion mixture. Simmer covered for 15-20 minutes. Add salt if needed.
- In a sauté pan, cook the remaining 2 strips of bacon until crisp, drain. Use for garnish.
|* Per Serving|
- Nonstick cooking spray
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- ½ teaspoon saffron powder
- ½ pound chicken breast; skinless, boneless, thin slices
- 2 cups paella rice (or calrose rice), rinsed thoroughly
- ½ medium red onion, thinly sliced
- 1 medium red bell pepper, thinly sliced
- 1 medium yellow bell pepper, thinly sliced
- 5 cups unsalted chicken stock
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 dash black pepper
- 1 pound small manila clams, washed thoroughly
- ½ pound jumbo shrimp; peeled, de-veined & tail on
- 1. Heat large roast pan over medium-high heat. Spray evenly with cooking spray. Add olive oil, garlic and saffron to pan; reduce heat to medium. Cook for about 3 minutes.
- Add chicken to pan and cook for 5 minutes; add rice and continue to cook for an additional 5 minutes. Add onion and bell peppers and stir all ingredients for 3 minutes.
- Pour chicken stock, salt, and black pepper; cover and bring to a boil (about 10 minutes). Uncover and stir once. Add clams and shrimp to rice. Cover and cook for an additional 5 minutes. Serve immediately.
|* Per Serving|
- 8 ounces flank steak, fat removed
- 3 peppercorns
- ¼ onion, sliced
- 1 clove garlic
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 teaspoon olive oil
- 3 ounces onions, sliced
- 1 ounce garlic, minced
- 1 ounce tomato puree
- 3 ounces beef stock (reserved from boiling)
- 1 bay leaf
- 3 ounces white wine
- Salt to taste
- 3 ounces red bell pepper, sliced
- 3 ounces green bell peppers, sliced
- 2 ounces green pitted olives
- 1. Place steak in a stockpot; add water to cover. Cover stockpot. Simmer steak with 3 peppercorns, ¼ onion, garlic, and bay leaf. Steak should be boiled until tender and able to be shredded thinly, about 3 hours, making sure to check the water level occasionally. Remove steak from liquid, reserve liquid, and discard vegetables. Shred steak into thin strips.
- Heat a medium sauté pan, add olive oil. Cook remaining sliced onions and garlic until tender. Stir in shredded meat. Add tomato puree, beef stock, bay leaf, and white wine. Simmer for 5 minutes. Add salt if needed. Add bell peppers and olives, stir to combine and cook for 5–10 minutes. Remove bay leaf. Serve with boiled yucca or white rice.
|* Per Serving|
Apple Nut Tart
- 1 large (2 small) sweet delicious apple, peeled, cored, sliced thinly
- ¼ teaspoon cinnamon
- 5 sheets pre-made fillo (phylo) dough
- Cooking spray, butter flavor or regular
- 2 tablespoons walnuts, coarsely chopped
- 2 tablespoons raspberries
- 1 teaspoon sugar substitute or sugar (optional)
- Preheat oven to 350°F.
- In a medium bowl, combine apple slices and cinnamon. Stir to combine. Carefully remove fillo dough packet from the box and unfold spreading sheets out on a clean counter. Take 1 single sheet, transfer onto another area of the flat counter and lightly coat with cooking spray. Lay another sheet on top and lightly coat with more cooking spray. Repeat until you have a total of 5 single sheets. With a sharp knife, cut fillo sheet into six squares. Coat a 2-ounce muffin pan with cooking spray. Press squares into prepared muffin cups. Fill center with apple filling and 1 teaspoon of walnuts. Top with raspberries and sprinkle with sugar (optional). Bake for 20-25 minutes.
Yields 6 tarts.
|* Per Tart|
For more diabetes-friendly recipes from Chef LaLa and to learn more about how small changes to your diet can make a BIG difference in managing type 2 diabetes successfully, visit Journey for Control.