Can healthy food be fun?
Can healthy food be fun? Photo: Steven Siewert

Dani Valent

Obviously, I want to be healthy. If I'm sick, how am I going to get to restaurants, sit up straight for hours and heave the dessert spoon to my mouth? But I don't believe healthy eating should be too complicated. I don't want to count anything, weigh stuff (especially myself) or say no to birthday cake. I know many people are obliged to rule out or restrict certain foods because of their own particular constitutions, but as a happily average human eating-machine I just want some simple tips, ingredients and ideas to keep me fit for the occasional degustation dinner, cheese party (yes, you should have one!) and chocolate appreciation session.

 

Keep it simple

Preparing your own meals is the perfect way to know exactly what you're eating.
Preparing your own meals is the perfect way to know exactly what you're eating. Photo: Steven Siewert

''Eat food, not too much, mostly plants'' is the underlying dictum of author Michael Pollan's Food Rules, an eater's manual for our hydrogenated era. This isn't very good for the diet industry or producers of so-called superfoods but it's an elegant and simple way to think about what you put in your cakehole (apparently, not too much cake).

 

Love your seasonings

Chef Pete Evans.
Chef Pete Evans. Photo: Danielle Smith

Eating fresh, unprocessed food is paramount for Neil Perry, one of a number of prominent local chefs who are taking healthy eating seriously. Though Perry has access to some fairly decent beef in his restaurants, he has a steak only once every couple of weeks, preferring to make a hero of vegetables. ''Just make them taste great with really good olive oil, a couple of vinegars, good sea salt, freshly ground pepper and - always - fresh lemon. Or you can go Asian and season everything beautifully with good quality soy, black vinegar, chilli oil or chilli flakes.''

Perry has dessert a couple of times a week, doesn't mind a small Kit Kat from the freezer and takes very seriously the notion that red wine is a health drink. ''My doctor said six or seven glasses maybe isn't what they meant,'' he says, ''But I'm hoping it's still good for me or I'm rooted.''

 

Eat seasonal fruits and vegatables of different colours.
Eat seasonal fruits and vegetables of different colours. Photo: Quentin Bacon

Go coco-nutty

Clinical naturopath Catie Gett is a coco-nut and owner of wholefood haven, the Staple Store in Ripponlea, Melbourne. ''The benefits of coconut are phenomenal,'' she says, pointing to its use in ayurvedic medicine as a gastrointestinal balm, and in trials for anti-fungal and anti-bacterial applications.

''It also helps keep you regular and has the potential to reduce cholesterol because it's full of good fatty acids,'' she says.

Buy dark chocolate or cocoa.
Buy dark chocolate or cocoa. Photo: Janet Briggs

Gett uses coconut oil in stir-fries because it is stable at high temperature; adds flaked coconut to muesli and trail mix; and loves coconut flour for its high-fibre content and its power as a thickening agent in cakes, crumbles and pancakes.

 

Carry snacks

Chef Ian Curley was stirred into action when his five-year-old daughter said, ''Daddy, you have a fat belly.'' Since then he's started biking and boxing and become more conscious of what he's eating. ''I wouldn't say I'm on a diet but I'm trying to get healthy. I'm an older dad and I want to live longer for the children.'' Mindless snacking has been his curse. ''In this industry I can eat what I like any time so I have to police myself.'' Key to his program is a trail mix that includes currants, macadamias and other nuts. ''Rather than snacking on chips or a sandwich, I'll have the nuts,'' he says.

 

Get cinnamon in

Naturopath Catie Gett is big on cinnamon. ''It's important for people to understand that food is medicine and because we eat so much of it it's actually one of the most powerful medicines we have,'' she says. She loves cinnamon for its anti-oxidant and blood-sugar stabilising properties, because it's so easily available and simple to use. ''It lends itself to almost every single cuisine and can be used in savoury and sweet dishes.''

Try Karen Martini's cinnamon-packed garam masala spice mix. Recipe here.

 

Eat together

Professor Avni Sali, director of the National Institute of Integrative Medicine, is a huge supporter of olive oil, seafood, spinach, dark chocolate and green tea, but he thinks how we eat is at least as important as what we eat. ''It's the getting together, the social aspects that turn food into superfood,'' he says. ''Communication around the table, sharing issues and unloading stresses are key factors in maintaining health. Storing up problems can lead to stress and depression which leads to all kinds of other health problems.'' That's part of the reason he thinks coffee and red wine are good: yes, people point to physiological benefits, but the fact that these drinks are often consumed in social situations is a big plus.

 

Turn to turmeric

Byron Bay chef and clinical nutritionist Sam Gowing is passionate about turmeric. ''It's my absolute number one ingredient,'' she says. Gowing thinks fresh and ground turmeric assist with immunity, inflammation, eyesight and healing - she'll rub fresh turmeric on cuts. She says turmeric contains curcumin which is being studied for its cancer-killing properties. It's grown in Australia, too, which is a big plus for Gowing.

''I'm a big believer in the healing properties of some ingredients but a good dollop of scepticism is valuable around the trends,'' she says. ''Eating locally resonates with me. I think I'm better having honey from up the road than agave from Mexico, even if I do think the agave has nutritional benefits. I'd rather look at sustainable trends than follow the fads.''

 

Cook it yourself

Chef and healthy eating campaigner Pete Evans believes cooking at home is key.

''I'm passionate about encouraging people to prepare their own meals because it's the perfect way to know exactly what you're eating,'' he says. ''Begin with fresh, fresh and more fresh ingredients and you can't go wrong. The only things that should be coming out of a packet are spices, nuts and seeds.''

Though he was taunted for confessing his devotion to activated almonds in a Sunday Life column, Evans remains a fan of activated (soaked) nuts. ''Yes, we activate our almonds, walnuts and seeds because it makes them easier to digest and they taste better too,'' he says. Evans avoids dairy, gluten and sugar. ''All that stuff is unnecessary, with little or no nutritional value and often does more harm than good,'' he says.

He doesn't really go for detox diets but likes ginger for its cleansing properties.

 

Don't get too hungry

Chef Guy Grossi thinks eating is the key to not over-eating. ''If I'm starving then I'm at risk of gorging,'' he says. ''I'll go on a spree and before I know it I'm asking, oh my God, what did I do that for?'' Ensuring he sits down for a meal at least once a day allays the midnight munchies that can be a curse for chefs. ''If I have some grilled fish with salad then I feel satisfied and I don't go into service ravenous and eat every offcut that comes across the bench, or take a bite of salami at midnight and watch my appetite go nuts.''

 

Eat breakfast

Neil Perry thinks too many people forget breakfast. ''Every day I have bircher muesli. I used to soak the oats overnight but now I just squeeze lemon juice and water over them.'' He adds grated apple, sheep's milk yoghurt, honey and seasonal fruits (peach, mango, raspberries and cherries are his summer favourites). ''We roast nuts too, but half the time we run out of them, but I have them if we've got them,'' he says. The oats are the thing. ''They're amazing. I love the taste of oats and you don't feel like eating anything else till midday at least.''

 

Walk or cycle to the shops

Yes, it's exercise but it also means you lug home fewer supplies at a time. This forces you to really think about what you're buying, means your fruit and vegetables will be fresher, and reduces the chance of losing stuff in the fridge until a few days after it's gone bad.

 

Restaurant rules

When Pete Evans eats out he smashes some sashimi and seaweed salad (''go easy on the rice'') or looks for meat and three veg options with a kibosh on sauces and dressing ''because that's where hidden nasties such as sugar are often added.''

Neil Perry encourages diners to share their meat. ''Eat a beautiful piece of steak, sure, but you don't need 400 grams of meat,'' he says. ''Think about sharing two steaks between four and having a bunch of sides.'' Ian Curley says restaurants are now better at offering healthier choices. ''You have to adapt to what's around you so we do steamed veg, raw dishes, lighter cooking.''

Guy Grossi thinks a good appetite is a blessing and he's not keen on outright denial. ''Eating succulent beautiful roast pork on a Sunday with friends is amazing, but maybe you don't have that every day,'' he says.

''It's not about ruling anything out, it's about finding a balance.''

 

Ferment

Nutritionist Dorota Trupp and chef Walter Trupp run a health-focused cooking school in Melbourne. ''Before we had fridges, fermentation was a way to preserve foods,'' Dorota says. ''Fermented foods are abundant in beneficial probiotic bacteria that live in the human digestive tract and help with immunity, digestion and detoxification.''

The age of refrigeration has had dire impacts on our immune systems, according to Dorota. ''The flora of our intestines isn't in good shape but we can help it by eating fermented foods.'' These include sauerkraut, apple cider vinegar and kimchi.

Dorota runs a course teaching students how to make 16 different fermented foods but if buying, she cautions people to look for unpasteurised products because pasteurisation kills the good bacteria as well as the bad.

 

Make broccoli brilliant

Everyone knows greens are good for you but it doesn't necessarily mean we thrill at the idea of eating them. Good recipes are key, such as a Guy Grossi dish which turns the humble brassica into a delicious side or a light, flavour-packed meal. It's on the menu at Ombra, 76 Bourke Street, Melbourne, 9639 1927. Here's Guy's recipe.

Broccolini with anchovy and aged parmesan

1 bunch broccolini

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 shallot, finely diced

1/2 small clove garlic, finely diced

6 anchovies, chopped

100ml chicken stock or water

salt and pepper, to taste

parmesan cheese, in the piece, to taste

Method
Bring a pot of water to the boil. Place the broccolini in the water and simmer until tender, just until a knife easily goes through the stalk. Drain and set aside.

Warm the olive oil in a fry pan and saute the shallot and garlic until translucent. Add the broccolini and anchovies and season with salt and pepper. Add the chicken stock or water and cook for a few minutes or until liquid is reduced by half. Serve the broccolini with a generous grating of parmesan cheese.

Great books include Simon Bryant's Vegies, Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian, Damien Pignolet's Salades and anything by Yotam Ottolenghi, Karen Martini and Stephanie Alexander.


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Shopping List

I've spoken to health professionals and chefs and steered clear of crackpot websites (30bananasaday.com!) and I reckon this is a hopefully healthy, fairly fad-free and tasty basic shopping list. It's actually surprisingly simple.

● Seasonal fruits and vegetables of different colours

● A little bit of free-range meat and sustainable seafood

● Olive oil

● Sea salt

● Spices

● Nuts and grains

● Coconut products

● Red wine

● Dark chocolate or cocoa

● More vegetables