We've all been there. The numbers on the scale inching upward, the pants that fit better just a few weeks ago, the shirt that no longer buttons.
Following yet another indulgent holiday season, January is for many people a time for dieting and New Year's resolutions, new fitness goals and the hope of shedding a couple of those unwanted pounds.
But this is New Orleans, where dining out is often a decadent, butter-soaked affair. Restraint and moderation have never been counted among the city’s strong suits. Add to that the kickoff of Carnival season and the onslaught of king cakes in break rooms and at office parties, and temptations are once again running high.
“There’s about a three-week reprieve where people might have that in check, and then it all drops," said Molly Kimball, a registered dietitian and the founder of Ochsner Eat Fit, a nonprofit initiative that partners with local restaurants owners, chefs and markets to develop healthier alternatives on their menus.
"I think for us here, it truly is harder than it is anywhere else in the country," she said.
Kimball launched the healthy eating initiative in 2013, when vegetarian main dishes were seldom the norm at restaurants and gluten-free items even scarcer. Since then the program has expanded across the state, and New Orleans restaurants have evolved to include more options for healthy eating than ever before.
At the newly opened St. Claude Avenue French bistro and wine bar Saint-Germain, an all-vegetarian and vegan menu is planned for the third week of every month. And restaurants like Commander’s Palace and DTB, both Eat Fit participants, always offer at least a few dishes that meet the program’s requirements on their menu.
“Ten years ago, we wouldn’t have had the response that we’ve had,” Kimball said. “There is much more awareness of how what we eat affects not just our weight, but how it effects all of these things on a cellular level, from inflammation to our mood to our sleep.”
Local restaurant owners and entrepreneurs have picked up on the trend, and the city is now home to more healthy eating options than ever. This is good news for those hoping to lose a little weight but also for diners who are looking to make healthy, sustainable choices into the New Year.
Pioneers in the city’s healthy dining movement include places like the Lower Garden District vegan restaurant Seed, which recently expanded to a second location on St. Claude Avenue, inside the Healing Center. Here, diners will find vegan and gluten-free alternatives to comfort food favorites, like the chickpea flour-dusted Southern tofu nuggets, nachos drizzled in a cashew queso, and a fried eggplant po-boy.
Recent additions to the scene include Uptown café Max Well, where owner Maxwell Eaton has created a plant-based menu of mix-and-match salad bowls and cold-pressed juices, and The Daily Beet, which owner Dylan Maisel operates out of St. Roch Market and the Beacon building in the Warehouse District.
“Back in the day, people would equate health-conscious food with bland lettuce and no flavor — almost always compromising something in order to eat healthy,” said Maisel. “You could either have something really tasty, or you could have something healthy and just get through your meal, and I think that’s changing. There are now way more options. Because it’s getting more popular, there are way more offerings and there are so many new restaurants that are either opening with healthy food or kind of changing their menu to have more healthy options. “
The café, which serves a spread of grain bowls, toasts, salads, fresh juices and smoothies, recently added soups, including a sweet potato chili bowl topped with cashew crema and fresh herbs.
For those who still want the comfort of Southern and Creole cooking minus the meat, Sweet Soul Food on North Broad Street sells a tasty selection of vegan soul food favorites, like macaroni and cashew cheese, mushroom grillades, eggplant lasagna, stewed okra and collard greens.
Beyond restaurants, a number of organizations are working to get healthier food options into the hands of home cooks.
Weekly classes at the Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine include both continuing education courses for health care and restaurant professionals as well as home cooks looking to up their game in the kitchen in a healthy manner. And the Crescent City Farmers Market continues to expand — recent additions include a new location in Bywater’s Crescent Park on Wednesdays as well as a weekly Wednesday market outside Ochsner Medical Center on Jefferson Highway and a Friday market in Bucktown.
Part of the market’s ongoing initiative to make fresh food affordable for low-income residents includes a market match program, where the market matches dollar for dollar of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits of up to $20 per day, and many vendors accept WIC coupons and Electronic Benefits Transfer cards, and checks are accepted at the welcome tent.
One of the market’s vendors includes nearby restaurant Hippie Kitchen, which Harveen Khera and her partner Wayne Greiner opened early last year on a stretch of Jefferson Highway.
Over the past year, Khera said the restaurant has gotten an increasing number of visits from nurses and medical professionals who, after a long day of work, would want something healthy to take home. That served as the impetus for their concept at the market, where they are now offering their best-selling dishes prepackaged and ready-to-go at discounted prices — including a baked sweet potato stuffed with greens, feta cheese and pecans; vegetarian lasagna; and vegetable gnocchi.
“This way, it’s ready to go — and at $2 to $4 off the retail price,” Khera said. “People are embracing healthier eating. It’s just a matter of where to find it.”
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