NEW YORK (JTA) — Eating adventurously may be considered a virtue for 51 weeks of the year, but when it comes to Passover cooking, tradition rules with a matzah ball-shaped fist.
Unfortunately, the canon of Passover-friendly comfort foods is filled with unhealthy fats, sugar, sodium and cholesterol. And after a week of indulging on salty brisket and egg-laden cakes, seder goers often feel less than liberated.
With all respect to tradition, Bonnie Giller’s book, "Passover the Healthy Way" (self-published at AuthorHouse), posits that there’s a better way to enjoy the holiday.
As a registered dietician and certified nutritionist, Giller has spent the past 20 years helping clients meet their nutrition goals. And each year as Passover approached, she noticed the same concerns and struggles coming to the fore.
“Virtually every Passover recipe is based on eggs, oil and sugar,” she said. "Despite their best intentions, my clients were finding themselves overeating and gaining weight over the holiday."
Giller also heard complaints about the extra food preparation time Passover requires.
“People would tell me, ‘I spend the entire eight days in the kitchen, and I emerge smelling like a frying pan," she said.
After years of providing eating tips and developing simple Passover menus for clients, Giller decided to compile the information into a book. The resulting 100 recipes in "Passover the Healthy Way" feature familiar favorites (think sweet and sour cabbage and potato kugel) that have been tweaked with both health and the cook’s time in mind.
Most of Giller’s modifications are straightforward: swapping oil with unsweetened applesauce or another fruit puree; using egg whites in place of whole eggs; or simply reducing the quantity of unhealthy ingredients.
“In general, you can decrease the amount of sugar in any traditional recipe by a third and still get a delicious end product,“ Giller said.
The book also includes naturally light dishes such as steamed carrots dressed up with lemon juice and chopped parsley, zucchini and mushroom saute, and a simple roast chicken drizzled with honey-wine sauce.
Giller, of course, is not alone in her quest to reshape holiday eating.
In Chicago, chef Laura Frankel urges participants in her Passover cooking classes at the Spertus Institute to avoid heavy dishes and sodium-filled “faux” Passover products in favor of fresh, seasonal ingredients.
“People assume it’s too daunting to make clean food, so they use all of these Passover cake mixes filled with chemicals and unhealthy additives,” Frankel said. “Why not celebrate all of the fresh vegetables and lean meats that are available?”
Chana Rubin, an Israel-based dietician and author of "Food for the Soul, Traditional Jewish Wisdom for Healthy Eating" (Gefen, 2008), agrees.
“If people focus on what they can eat instead of the restrictions, they will eat more healthfully and contentedly,” she said.
Rubin suggests serving vegetables, both cooked and raw, at every Passover meal, making fruit compotes, poached pears or meringues for dessert in place of sugary cakes, and embracing heart-healthy olive and canola oils instead of saturated fats in both cooking and baking.
The common thread running through all of the suggestions is that following a strict diet is not the point.
“There is no reason to completely eliminate favorite foods on Passover,” Giller said. “Matzah ball soup can be on the menu, just make it healthier.” (For the record, Giller’s traditional matzah balls are bound with heart-healthy olive oil and egg whites.)
Giller believes that a good attitude and awareness about one’s eating habits is the most effective defense against holiday bloat. This awareness, she said, should extend from the kitchen to the table.
“It takes more time to change the Jewish habit of having an excessive amount of food on the table,” she said. “But that does not mean one needs to eat absolutely everything being offered.”
Giller recommends waiting until all the dishes have been served before taking food, and helping oneself to smaller portions from the serving platters. By scanning the entire range of choices, she said, it’s easier to make informed decisions that do not result in an overloaded plate.
While many of the guidelines in "Passover the Healthy Way" read like a manual of common nutritional sense, the statistics suggest that many in the Jewish community could benefit from the refresher.
A 2007 study of West Rogers Park, an Orthodox community in suburban Chicago, found that 31 percent of adults were overweight, while an additional 25 percent were obese. The numbers for children were even more distressing: 54 percent overweight and 26 percent classified as obese.
While the survey’s focus was limited to one neighborhood, the trend is reflected in other communities across the country.
Giller is hoping her book can play a role in curbing overeating and poor food choices during the holidays — and all year round.
“In the book, and in all of my work, I help people set realistic expectations,” she said. “Enjoying food is important on Passover, but with a bit of forethought, there is absolutely no reason to come away heavier than you started."
(Leah Koenig is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. To find out more about her work, visit www.leahkoenig.com.)