Dinner, Remixed: Tacos

Taco options

Taco night gets a nutritional reboot, courtesy of Paleo cookbook author Melissa Joulwan.

Taco night presents all kinds of opportunities to improvise and improve the nutritional quality of these favorites, says Melissa Joulwan, author of the Well Fed cookbook series. To remix this classic, Joulwan advises steering clear of “taco-in-a-box” kits and letting fresh ingredients take center stage. Tacos become a healthy choice, she explains, when you stuff them with good carbs, high-quality fats and proteins, and nutrient-dense veggies. Plus, they’ll taste great. “The best tacos are an explosion of complementary and contrasting flavors, textures, and colors,” she says.

Before

Food photography by Terry Brennan; Food styling by Lara Miklasevics
  • Mass-produced shells or tortillas. Usually made from refined white flour or genetically modified corn, these simple carbs offer precious few nutrients. They also tend to include hydrogenated oils and other lackluster industrial fats.
  • Iceberg lettuce. Other than water and fiber, there’s not much happening here nutritionally.
  • Grain-fed ground beef. Cows fed a diet of grains produce meat high in inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids. Feedlot cows are also often given growth hormones and subtherapeutic antibiotics, which can have detrimental downstream effects on human health.
  • Spice packets and pre-shredded cheese. Packet seasonings and jarred salsas typically feature lots of additives, preservatives, extra sodium, and even sugar. And those bags of shredded cheese? They often contain cellulose — wood pulp — as an anticaking agent.

After: Better Wraps

wrapsFood photography by Terry Brennan; Food styling by Lara Miklasevics
  • Buy (or make) fresh, soft corn tortillas with non-GMO ground corn (masa), water, lime, and salt. These can provide twice as much fiber as white-flour tortillas, as well as antioxidants including vision-protecting lutein. They’re also easier to digest for those who are sensitive to gluten.
  • Skip the tortillas altogether and build your tacos with butter lettuce or lightly steamed collard greens. They are great sources of bone-building vitamin K and digestion-promoting fiber, plus minerals your body needs to function optimally.
  • Prefer tostadas? Joulwan likes thin slices of inulin-rich jicama as crunchy stand-ins for fried corn taco shells. Inulin helps you absorb calcium from other foods; it also helps feed the good bacteria in your gut, supporting colon and immune health.

Protein Playlist

  • Choose grassfed ground beef or steak for a higher dose of omega-3 -essential fatty acids.
  • Change things up with mineral-rich pork tenderloin or chicken thighs, ground lamb (high in vitamin B12), or wild salmon or Pacific halibut (rich in omega-3 fatty acids).
  • Add scrambled eggs for a breakfast vibe and a dose of vitamin D.
  • Try crumbled tempeh or canned legumes like black beans or chickpeas packed in BPA-free cans for a vegetarian option.

Jazzy Toppings

  • Make your own antioxidant-rich salsa. Toss together Roma or cherry tomatoes, bell pepper, and white onion, plus a metabolism-boosting serrano pepper. Add fresh herbs like cilantro, basil, or mint, and a hit of lime juice.
  • Mix up your seasonings. Make your own spice blend with pantry basics like cumin, chili powder, smoked paprika, and dried oregano. Create your own meat marinade with lime juice, garlic, and cilantro.
  • Pile on textures and flavors. Joulwan likes pickled red cabbage, jalapeños, and carrots for an acidic snap; crunchy roasted pepitas that offer plenty of magnesium; and sliced pineapple or other fruit for sweetness and immune-supporting vitamin C.
  • Toss on a handful of dark leafy greens like baby spinach to boost nutrition and flavor.
  • Top with fresh avocado or guacamole for healthy fat, and belly-friendly plain Greek yogurt (preferably whole fat) for an extra dab of protein.

This originally appeared as “Dinner, Remixed” in the May 2017 print issue of  Experience Life.

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Matthew Kadey, MS, RD, is a Toronto-based health journalist.

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