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Nutritional Change: Q&A with Kripalu Executive Chef Deb Morgan

by Jessica Atcheson

How and what we eat is such a fundamental aspect of our lives—and often a particularly challenging one. Deb Morgan has 25 years’ experience in the world of natural foods and approaches food and cooking with the belief that love is the main ingredient in a healthful diet. In this Q&A, former Kripalu Editor Jessica Atcheson spoke with Deb about tough questions and practical strategies around healthy cooking and eating.

Jessica Atcheson If you’re interested in cooking and eating healthier, where is a good place to start?

Deb Morgan First do an assessment. What are you eating now? What works and what doesn’t? What foods do you like? Where can you upgrade? How is your energy level? What are your goals? Why do you want to change your diet and what do you hope to get out of it?

What makes up a healthy diet is different for different people. If you have a major health concern and want to do a really radical shift, you might need to do a 180-degree turn. If you just want to lose a little weight or have more energy, that might call for a more gradual change.

That’s the first thing: getting clear about where you are. The second thing is: Where do you want to go? And the third is: What support do I need to get from Point A to Point B? If you already know some steps you need to take, move forward with those. Get rid of anything with hydrogenated oils and white sugar, or at least high fructose corn syrup, and start doing what I call trading up.

Jessica Tell us about the concept of trading up.

Deb If you and your kids are used to having Oreo cookies around, instead of replacing them with nuts and raisins, move up to organic Newman-O’s. If you’re eating white pasta, you could go to whole-wheat pasta, or you could just go to organic pasta. You’re still getting something more nutritionally sound.

Go through your cupboards and remove those things that don’t support you—that aren’t life-giving—because if they’re not there you can’t eat them. Whatever you or your kids do or don’t eat outside the house, inside the house you have 100-percent control. Do it in little increments with this trading-up concept. Do your kids like apples? Great, get apples. If they don’t like broccoli, don’t push the broccoli. Or maybe they’ll eat broccoli if you put cheese sauce on it. Then they discover they like broccoli and gradually need less cheese sauce.

Jessica One of our readers writes, “I’m a single woman who lives alone and I have difficulty finding healthy meals to cook, especially after working all day. I find myself getting carryout and generally eating unhealthily. Any suggestions on quick, healthy meals I can make at home?”

Deb It’s all in the prep. Think of your morning routine. Crockpots work really well. If you can get yourself up just a few minutes earlier in the morning and get some things in your crockpot, you’ll come home to the start of a great meal with a lentil soup or a stew. I actually find it energizing to cut vegetables in the morning. Then it’s that much easier when you get home to do a simple vegetable stir-fry with tofu, for example.

Jessica In terms of staples, are there ingredients we should all have in our cupboards?

Deb That depends on your taste. The staples in my household are olive oil and balsamic vinegar, because I often eat in the Mediterranean style. Then I have my Asian staples—sesame oil, tamari, brown rice vinegar, garlic, ginger. Then an array of spices for Indian dishes.

I had somebody come up to me yesterday to tell me the recipes she learned in my program are staples in her diet now. Try writing down your staple meals, putting them on a recipe card, and keeping them in a file box. Then sit down once a week, and even if you just make a rough outline, say, “Okay, here’s my dinners for the week,” and then shop for those. Then you’re not walking in the door at 6:00 or 6:30, thinking, “Now what do I do?” because that’s daunting, and then you just go out to dinner.

Jessica One of the things I’ve had difficulty with in the past is I’ll discover a healthy food or two, like kale and quinoa, and that’s all I’ll eat for three months. I struggle with finding more variety.

Deb Menu planning helps. Equipment’s good, too, for quick cooking. A rice cooker is a great investment. Before you go to work, put your rice in and set the timer. If you’ve already prepped your veggies in the morning, now all you have to do is stir-fry those veggies and you have a meal.

You could try a two-week menu rotation like we have at Kripalu—and then on weekends, you can give yourself more time to experiment with completely new recipes. Always think of cooking in bulk, too. Think about ways you can reuse or change it up a little bit, so you don’t get bored of eating the same thing. You can freeze it, or better yet, find a friend and say, “I’m going to make a big pot of soup every Monday. Why don’t you make a big pot of soup and we’ll meet on Tuesday and I’ll give you half of mine, and you give me half of yours?”

Jessica Breakfast is often a tough meal to eat right. Any thoughts on starting your day off right?

Deb For balanced energy, I recommend upgrading from coffee to green tea, because you get a little bit of caffeine but it’s more nourishing. I love cooked grains with some things added in. Think oatmeal, but upgrade it—try quinoa or millet cereal. And try to get out of the concept of thinking breakfast food has to be American breakfast food. Vegetables are a wonderful breakfast. My other favorite breakfast is a big bowl of veggies with some olive oil on them.

Jessica One reader likes to make pumpkin bread, but she doesn’t want to use the nasty fats her recipes call for. Do you have any substitution recommendations?

Deb At Kripalu we often use palm shortening. It’s non-hydrogenated, but it creates a nice flaky crust. We also use safflower oil and sunflower oil in our baking. For sweeteners, go with agave or an organic cane sugar. But keep in mind those kind of things are fun food, they’re not staple foods.

The main thing is to have fun and be conscious of what you’re doing while you’re doing it. I love going out to dinner, so my diet includes some foods that from a dietician’s perspective are not so great, but the experience of those foods enhances my life. What the dietician isn’t looking at is the life-giving force and the happiness in that experience. Don’t lose that ingredient for the sake of other ingredients. As you’re trading up and changing, keep that happiness factor, and then gradually get your food as nutrient-dense as you can without losing the love factor.

Jessica You don’t want to feel deprived.

Deb Right, because you’re not going to get healthy from that. It’s not just what you eat, it’s what you digest and what you assimilate into your body. Without joy and happiness—which are themselves vital nutrients—you’re not digesting well, even when you’re eating organic brown rice and miso soup.

Deb Morgan, Kripalu’s Executive Chef, started her first natural-foods café when she was 21 years old. Since then, she has been a resident of Kripalu and a caterer, taught cooking classes, and opened her second restaurant.

© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. Originally published in the March 2010 issue of Kripalu Online. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail