Holiday time with Izabella Henter, FirstMed’s dietician

Holiday cooking

This month we are speaking with FisrtMed’s dietician, Izabella Henter, to ask her about the culinary habits and family traditions in her home during the Christmas season.

First of all I would like to point out that in Hungary dieticians actually can cook.

It is not like that in every country, something I first realized during my membership in the European Federation of the Association of Dietetics (EFAD), where shockingly members from one country, which will remain nameless, do not find this to be a skill necessary to our profession. In Hungary there are plenty of cookbooks written and cooking classes led by dietitians like “The Power of Cooking” organized by the National Institute of Nutrition (OÉTI). What’s striking is the huge difference between the way a restaurant chef and a dietitian cook their meals; it is worth the effort to see.

I take a bottom up approach to my meals.

My preparations usually start by first shopping for the ingredients rather than picking the meal. I normally organize my cooking around what fresh goods I can find, those which are appealing and at a good price at the market; my advice is to begin at your local market. I buy the ingredients, take them home, and then I start thinking about what dishes I can make from them. I try to keep to this routine even during the holidays, however, preparing a festive meal definitely requires a bit more planning. We are able to keep to the traditional recipes but need to be creative with ingredients as well methods of preparation. Let me provide you with a few tips.

Let’s start with food safety.

When keeping food in the fridge in plastic containers, only use those specifically made for food storage. Keep them scratch-free and once they start changing color it’s time to replace. When it comes to cookware, I believe the safest option is always stainless steel. I like glass- and pottery-ware too, but only those which are kitchen-safe. In good quality cookware, especially pressure cookers, more nutrients remain in the dishes with a shorter cooking time, and they are better at maintaining their natural flavors keeping you from needing to add too much salt. While we are at it, why not experiment with wide variety of herbs and spices available instead of using salt?

Now we can begin cooking.

Stuffed cabbage is a perfect example of one which actually can be a very healthy dish, as long as it’s not swimming in grease. We replace white rice with brown rice, or millet, and make sure we use the traditional sour cream (tejföl) which is made from milk, and not “frissföl”, made of hydrogenated vegetable oil. The problem with hydrogenated vegetable oils is the presence of trans fats (TFA), which are very unhealthy since they lower levels of good cholesterol (HDL) and increase bad cholesterol (LDL).

Trans fats were first developed during the war as a way to replace butter. The result was a chemical configuration creating a new fat with a longer shelf life, but one which the human body is unable to process above a certain amount. Excess consumption of these fats facilitates the emergence of cardiovascular disease, depression, or cancer. Fortunately there is a new act regulating the use of the trans fats by taxing producers using it in excessive amounts. Nowadays coconut oil has become more popular as one of our new cooking fats, but I also advise avoiding it due to its high level of saturated fatty acid. Cooks should use cold pressed oils instead.

Fish is also a traditional choice that we shouldn’t leave out of a holiday menu. Instead of breading and deep frying, which is clearly unhealthy, why not bake it with a pesto topping. There is also our very own rácponty (Carp a la Rác) dish. Dredge the fish in seasoned flour and lightly fry them. Layer the fried carp pieces in a baking dish on top of precooked potato rounds, top them with sliced tomato, bell pepper and rings of onions, followed by a spread of sour cream on top of the pile. Put the dish in the oven to roast.

I should certainly mention those wonderful soups you should be making. In heated buildings during the winter, the air dries out fast, making the body will more prone to dehydration, causing an ionic imbalance. We need to replace the lost fluid, for which warm soups provide an excellent solution. Following a big bowl of soup it is enough to have a slice of toast or fruit.

What about dessert time?

Desserts are a must at Christmas, the preparation of which is part a big part of the tradition. Unfortunately sugar is a prime ingredient in most desserts; excessive consumption of those yummy sweets is highly unhealthy. I only use two thirds of the sugar called for by a recipe and replace it with brown sugar or other healthier alternative, such-as Xilit/Xylitol.  By the way, if you’re not a baker you should know that yeast does not work well with substitutes. Remember baking as much as we like this doesn’t mean eating them all!  You can always give some of your treats away to friends, family, FirstMed staff, or since it’s holiday time, to those less fortunate.

When we’ve finished cooking and preparation, we can hardly wait to sit down and finally eat. Not only the “what”, but the “how” counts as well. Make sure the table is laid tastefully and a proper ambiance is created to surround the festive dinner. Let us play the part, like in the movies. Wear elegant outfits and light candles. Details are all part of the ritual so pay attention to them. The positive feelings created by the mood, attention, and respect help maintain our good health. To keep yourself from overeating try smaller portions; using smaller plates is an easy way. By eating slower and smaller, not only will it look more dignified, but it also frees us from the bowel problems many of us suffer from a gluttonous meal. It takes about 15 minutes for the hormone leptine, which is responsible for that full feeling, to reach our hypothalamus. Plus, eating slower will ensure we don’t over eat before the leptine kicks in.

Finally a word to my fellow women.

Do not work yourselves to death trying to maintain a healthy selfless attitude during the holidays, everyone is better off having a cheerful, relaxed, and well-rested mother, wife, girlfriend or friend. Pay more attention to yourself and your loved ones, reducing the workload you planned for this period. Why not visit the aunt you haven’t seen in ages or call the nephew you haven’t heard from lately? Family ties are so much more valuable than material things! We agreed with my family that apart from small children we will not give each other expensive presents. Everyone brings a thought, a topic, we will chat and play, everyone contributes to the festive dinner so it is not the sole responsibility of one ‘lucky’ winner. What is important is for us is to celebrate and reflect on the birth of Jesus and family bonds, which strengthens us inside and out.
Happy Holidays!