Class Spotlight: Food as Medicine, Part One

We’ve all heard the adage, “You are what you eat” but what, exactly, does it mean and how does it work?

Since 2015, The Happy Kitchen has hosted a series of Food as Medicine classes with integrative medicine specialist, Dr. Shelly Sethi, and local chef and blogger, Shefaly Ravula. Food as Medicine is the study and practice of seeing food as not just calories, but as powerful tools for health and healing. Classes include nutrition education, cooking instruction, and, of course, lots of delicious food!

We asked Shelly and Shefaly to share their thoughts about Food as Medicine, cooking at home and the challenges of making healthy choices every day.

Part One, with Shefaly, is below. Part Two, with Dr. Sethi, is here.

Could you explain Food as Medicine in beginner's terms?

Food as Medicine is the concept of reminding ourselves that what the Earth naturally provides us is a sensible way of maintaining our health, preventing disease, and healing ourselves (in addition to Western and Eastern Medicine if needed).

What got you interested in FAM?

As a medical provider, I found myself perplexed about a specific case: one in which my father who was thin and strictly vegetarian developed heart disease despite a lifetime of presumably “healthy” homemade cooking. I then went on to research nutrition and evidence-based nutrition in medicine as well as epidemiology to discover that the whole world of nutrition science was an area that was never taught to medical providers in their training and that it is ever-changing to this day.

How has FAM changed your approach to cooking and eating?

Cooking and eating evolve over a long period of time for most people. For me, as I read new research or keep up with conferences, I may change a few things here and there. For example, I may decide to try to incorporate more fresh minced garlic in my cooking or emphasize cruciferous vegetables daily now, which I wasn’t making an effort to do a year ago. I pay attention to the latest on seeds and oils, but it changes! The market offerings change too. But I would say I have been eating at least “clean” or mostly “unprocessed” ever since that event with my Dad above 15 years ago. Each year I get more and more plant-based and incorporate less and less animal protein. Each year I year I maintain the philosophy of “everything in moderation”, but that phrase drives me crazy when I teach because what is one’s moderation is another’s near elimination. Does that make sense? Hahaha.

Have you or your family members found it hard to adjust to any of the changes you’ve made, and are there any foods you really miss?

Yes it can be hard for the family members. My husband is still a fan of more meat than I would prefer (he even was Paleo for a while), but he will eat anything. The grain/legume rich main courses are not as easily welcomed in my family, for example a quinoa and vegetable pie or a tofu burger. But I believe in continuous exposure to foods since my kids were little. I tell students and clients these key things: 1) to keep putting new foods on the plate and encourage tastes 2) get older kids in charge of the meal plan for the week—let them choose two meals and you choose three 3) your kids are not going to starve; do not feel bad for them if they beg for chicken fingers and mac/cheese and you don’t have that today 4) eliminate poor snacking habits and the last one is controversial 5) get used to food being wasted. Trust me when I say this, but I see the results of continuous exposure. I still have one picky kid but she eats every grain, every legume, and every vegetable out there. She just doesn’t like them in certain combinations J and she eats like a mouse and still drives me crazy!

To the question about foods I miss: I don’t have to miss any foods because we aren’t on any particular exclusivity diet. That is the beauty of food as medicine. You truly can and should eat everything; the question is how often. Million dollar question J Come to our classes and find out the answers J

Do you cook every meal from scratch?

No absolutely not. I used to when I was in a heavy recipe development period of my life establishing my recipe portfolio. So I did it more for work and for my classes. I still do that but only certain days. On regular workdays/weekdays, I either participate in our Meal Share Plan (3 families cooking for each other during the week) OR I cook flavorful yet approachable meals from scratch. If there is a day I don’t cook from scratch, we either use that as a night out to eat or buy some pre-prepared foods. We used to get take out from grocery stores but if you read those ingredient labels, sometimes the contents really are awful. And the meals get mundane. You’re probably better off eating out at a nice establishment, for nearly the same price.

How do you save time in the kitchen?

I plan to have chunks of time in the kitchen where I can make a mess, have a spread of ingredients, and knock out a bunch of condiments. I use my blender to make sauces and spice blends, like harissa (freeze in cubes), ginger-chili paste, or chutneys (some recipes on my blog). I use a mason jar to make a batch of salad dressing that lasts a week. If I have time, I wash and prep tons of veggie dippers and store them: great for snacking and lunchbox packing. Roasted veggies last several days in the fridge and can be used by themselves, in tacos, in wraps, in sandwiches, salads and more. I absolutely adore my steam oven and pressure cooker. And I know there are huge fans of the instant pot right now as a timesaving all-in-one appliance.

How can someone apply FAM principles when traveling or eating out, when the choices or quality of ingredients used may not be the best?

If you travel a lot for work, then you really need to have a system in place. If you travel only occasionally, use those times as your “indulgences”. Plane travel is the worst because the food is the worst and even on a 2 hour flight, it takes up half your day, so at least 2 meals. If you can pack a little nut butter packet, some fruit, maybe some hard cheese, you’ll at least be satiated. But it’s the veggies that are hard to get while travelling. Annie’s in our ATX airport has loads of satiating and hearty vegetable salads. Spend the money on those. You could take vitamins or travel with fish oil if you really wanted to, but you don’t need to.

What are your favorite foods and flavors (even if they are not perfectly FAM)?

Favorite flavors are all international spices. I am loving dukkhah right now. But other favorites are coriander, garam masala(s), chinese five spice, sumac, smoked paprika, anise, ajwain, oh it goes on and on. Once you think of making a meal based on a region of the world or a spice, the flavor comes forward and the ideas are out there. But some of my favorite meals are comfort foods and those aren’t always FAM, like a really good pot pie or an incredible roast chicken. I love classic French food and adore pasta. We still eat all of those sometimes J Food is Medicine, but Food is Life too! I want you to enjoy both!

What are your go-to dishes for weeknight or in-a-hurry meals?

A stir-fry with tofu and lots of vegetables. Maybe some meat too, but only a little. I tend to not find that as filling though as this type of meal: A hearty salad. Remember, a salad doesn’t mean just leaves. A grain/complex starch salad fills you up and tastes so good. But those do take planning or a little time.

If you do a simple green salad, you add some nuts and dried fruit or fresh berries to it: there you have your leafy greens, omega3’s, fiber, and antioxidants of the day. Then you need something with protein right? So you can add canned legumes to the salad OR you can do a quick salmon (coriander /soy glaze OR miso/ginger OR citrus) but you still need even more vegetables. I opt for cruciferous ones typically since you need those indoles daily: chop broccoli or cauliflower into stalks, season simply with anti-oxidant rich dried herbs, and douse with delicious extra virgin olive oil. Roast alongside the salmon. Done.

Any other advice on food and cooking?

Learn to cook. It’s so important. Teach your kids, slowly but surely. It’s the only way to eat well and enjoy the taste. Even if Whole Foods and Snap Kitchen fit your healthy eating philosophy, who wants to eat that everyday? I certainly don’t. I’d get bored!

And re-think spending on groceries. We as a country spend the least amount of our money on food and the most on medical care. What’s up with that? Change your mentality. That 10 dollar bottle of Texas olive oil? Worth it. Cubed butternut squash for 7$? That’s crazy, right? If it saves you time, do it. It’s a good investment.

Any future goals or plans you’d like to share?

I’m developing online digital products, like meal plans and online tutorials. I also plan to see patients of Dr. Sethi who need further kitchen coaching and meal planning help for their disease processes or health maintenance.