Southern Food: It's Not All Fried and Greasy

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Reviewed by Eleese Cunningham, RDN

The hallmark of a traditional Southern meal is often a plate of crispy, crunchy, calorie-laden fried chicken. But like any regional favorite, it's just one dish, not a representation of the area's food culture as a whole. "The biggest misconception about Southern food is that it's all fried, covered in gravy and cooked to mush," says Marisa Moore, MBA, RDN, LD, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Spokesperson. "The current food scene incorporates a wide variety of seasonal fresh produce and fish."

In fact, in 2012 the Southeast region saw a 13.1 percent increase in farmers markets listed in the USDA's National Farmers Market Directory. Couple that with the ever-growing farm-to-table movement, and it's apparent "fresh" and "local" are the words of the day when it comes to Southern cuisine.

With plenty of produce on your plate and a few tweaks to traditional cooking methods, Southern food can be enjoyed on a healthful eating plan.

Lighten Up Your Favorites

"Small changes can take a meal from greasy and heavy to healthy and light," says Moore. Let's start with fried chicken. Moore suggests soaking the chicken in buttermilk first to increase its juiciness, then lightly breading the chicken with panko breadcrumbs or cornflakes (instead of double breading). "Add flavor not fat by incorporating cayenne pepper and garlic powder into the breading mixture, or you can dash on a little hot sauce when it's done," she says. You can also "oven fry" (that is, bake) the chicken to get the same juicy, crispy results without all of the extra fat and calories.

Moore offers up some more ideas to lighten up Southern favorites:

  • For mashed potatoes, use low-fat milk and chicken broth instead of cream and butter.
  • Swap hydrogenated (solid) fats for the more heart-healthy canola, olive or peanut oil.
  • Choose fruits and vegetables that are in season and therefore at peak flavor. Try using half the salt or butter in dishes and let the veggies' true flavors shine.
  • Use smoked paprika or even a sprinkle of smoked salt instead of regular to impart a savory flavor in place of high-fat meat like bacon.

Eat Your Veggies

Thanks to its rich history in agriculture, lots of vegetables dot the landscape of Southern fare. Okra, black-eyed peas, sweet potatoes, greens—the list goes on. "Our hot summers and mild winters yield a long growing season. Because of this, there's an abundance of fruits and vegetables year-round," says Moore.

Loading up on veggies is a great way to make your meals more healthful. In fact, the "veggie plate" is Moore's favorite Southern meal, an alternative to the popular "meat and three" plates you might see at restaurants. Preparation is important though, so when you're cooking at home, try these calorie-friendly tips:

  • Pair okra with tomatoes to create an instant stew.
  • Roast sweet potatoes to bring out the natural sweetness. Add cinnamon, nutmeg and vanilla to enhance the flavor.
  • Sauté greens with olive oil and garlic. For a more traditional approach, slow cook greens in chicken or vegetable broth to add a savory element. "I like to add hot peppers or red pepper flakes to the pot and add vinegar at the table for extra flavor," says Moore.

Choose Fruit for Dessert

Fruit is a great option to satisfy a sweet tooth no matter the region, and enjoying it plain and simple is always an excellent choice. But in the South, pies and cobblers reign supreme—particularly those made with fruit filling. Think peaches and blackberries! Make these treats healthier by using vegetable oil for the crust and cutting out added sugar (mix fruit with 1/2 cup of flour and 2 tablespoons of lemon juice instead). Or nix the baked goods altogether and enjoy your Southern peaches like Moore does: Grilled with honey, a dollop of vanilla Greek yogurt, and toasted slivered almonds.

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