Want to look and feel your best? Eating healthy can help. Eating healthy can also reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.
For professional Chef LaLa, taking care of herself by eating well means she’ll be around to take care of the people she loves. Plus, she knows that eating for health can still be delicious and flavorful. Here are her tips for making time in the kitchen more enjoyable and meals healthier.
Q: You’re an accomplished chef. Will you tell us a little bit about how you got into cooking?
A: I come from a family of restaurateurs. My dad’s a chef, so I was inspired by my family’s cooking. However, I didn’t originally consider being a chef. I went to school so I could pursue a career in the medical field, but I got too emotionally invested in my patients’ well-being. So I went back to what I initially loved: cooking.
Q: You’re also a certified nutritionist. What inspired you to learn more about health and nutrition?
A: As a chef, I was invited to teach at a local church. A lot of the questions people were asking were about diabetes, and I couldn’t answer them. I thought, “If I’m going to teach people about wellness and health, I need to be a good teacher with the right information.”
I come from a family that’s plagued by diabetes. I want people to be able to enjoy their cultures and their traditions but also to be able to maintain a healthy lifestyle. It benefits their kids, too. I was teaching people whose kids had diabetes. When I learned this, I knew I needed to be able to give accurate information about eating for health. I knew becoming a certified nutritionist would help me be a better teacher.
Q: Have you always had a healthy relationship with food?
A: No. I wouldn’t say it’s an unhealthy relationship, but I’ve always struggled and have had to work hard at maintaining a healthy weight. It doesn’t take much for me to gain weight. I’ve never had a destructive relationship with food, but I have to be very conscious of what I eat.
When I started to better understand the association between food and disease, I made it a priority to feed myself in a healthy, delicious way.
Q: What are some of the benefits of cooking at home?
A: You have so much more control over the end product because you decide what goes into the meal.
The process of cooking at home with your family or friends is great. You’re creating traditions and sharing cultures. Food is the most intimate peek into someone’s culture. I share my family’s traditions with my son when I invite him into the kitchen. For example, we go out to the garden and see what herbs are sprouting. My son smells them and chooses what smells good. That’s how we decide what we’ll cook for dinner. That’s how my dad did it, so that’s what I do with my son. Plus, I’m teaching him how to eat for health.
My mom always taught me how to eat for health. She encouraged me to eat chicken for protein, carrots for eye health, and so on. That’s how I grew up, and I try to share that with my son. The best memories I have of my childhood are around the kitchen table. We actually stopped to have an explorative conversation. We talked about the past, the present, and the future. It was a great sharing moment. I learned a lot around that table.
Q: Do you have any tips for building healthier cooking habits?
A: You are what you eat. If you don’t recognize something on the label, don’t use it when you’re cooking. Stick to unprocessed foods, and remember to eat a balanced diet of proteins, fruits, vegetables, carbs, and healthy fats.
I understand that fat is flavor and when you remove it, you’ll likely remove some flavor. That’s why I suggest adding things like chilies, lemon, and herbs. That way, when you remove extra fat, you’ll still have a meal loaded with flavor. They’re natural flavor enhancers.
Q: Are there simple ways to make traditional Mexican dishes healthier?
A: Take a look at how you cook it. Instead of adding oil and deep frying something, try boiling, baking, grilling, steaming, or sautéing your food. You might also try a slow cooker. And again, use natural flavor enhancers like lime, cilantro, and chilies.
I also suggest going back to your cultural traditions. Think about your grandparents and their natural approach to cooking. Things weren’t processed. Choose leaner meats, and pack your meals full of veggies and fruits, because they’re healthier than processed foods and lower in calories. Right now I’m eating cantaloupe with chili and lime. It’s a delicious, flavorful snack.
Avoid sugary drinks like juices and soda. Instead, make your own drinks. Throw some strawberries in a blender and make strawberry water.
Q: For women who don’t necessarily love to cook, are there ways to make it easier or more fun?
A: Yes! You don’t have to do it all. Buy a rotisserie chicken and a bunch of fresh foods like avocados, lettuce, and peppers. Make chicken tacos for dinner. You’ll have plenty of ingredients left over to make a fresh salad topped with chicken for lunch the next day. I like to do this because I’m repurposing a healthy protein for a couple of meals, and I didn’t actually have to spend time cooking the chicken. You can also save time in the kitchen by buying precut and frozen veggies. They’re healthier options than canned vegetables.
Make it a party! I invite my friends over every Wednesday. There are four of us. We call it Wild Women Wednesdays. They’re not all that wild, but we went with it for the alliteration. Anyway, we all bring something different and make one big dish. The kids watch and learn as we prepare it, and then we all eat together. Food is a beautiful thing to share.
Q: What’s your secret to making healthy, kid-friendly meals?
A: My kitchen, my rules. I don’t offer a kids’ menu. I’ve always served my son what I eat. Now when he goes to the kitchen for a snack, he picks things like apples, bananas, and yogurt. They’re the things I eat, so I know I’m setting a good example.
Q: To women who may struggle to eat healthy, what’s your advice?
A: If you’re a mom, think about your kids. My legacy is my child. I know that whatever I do, he’s watching and learning from me, so I work hard to be a good role model for him.
I do my best to be good to myself. Women often put their loved ones before themselves. But if we don’t take care of ourselves, we won’t be around to take care of the people we love. If you truly want to be unselfish, be selfish when it comes to your health. Take time for exercise and eating well so you can be the best version of yourself.
Q: When dining out, what can women do to make healthier choices?
A: Eat a salad before you order a main course. It’s high in fiber and low in calories. Take your time when you’re eating. You’re dining out; enjoy yourself. Enjoy the moment and the social aspect. Drink lots of water throughout the meal, too.
When you order, keep in mind that your stomach is the size of your fist. Wait 20 minutes before you order dessert. It takes that long to realize you’re full.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share?
A: From someone who has struggled with weight my whole life, who comes from a family with diabetes and heart disease, and who has to balance being a single mom, an entrepreneur, and the 20 other hats I wear throughout the day, the best decision I’ve ever made was to stop and take time for myself. I enjoy meditating, spinning, and reading. I wake up a half-hour earlier than I need to so I can drink a cup of coffee alone before I have to drive my son to school.
Taking time for me helped me find inner peace. I feel more grounded. It makes me better for everything and everyone around me. It also shows in everything I do. This gratitude I have for life comes from taking a moment to realize what I’m grateful for. Every time I overcome a challenge, I pause and ask myself, “What did that teach me?” Then I go on and continue to enjoy life.
My son watches me, and he sees the vigor I have for life. I know I’ve inspired the same thing in him.
For more healthy eating suggestions, visit ChooseMyPlate.gov.
The statements and opinions in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office on Women's Health.