Written by Yan Yin Phoi
2020 was a year that reminded us about the frailty of life and the importance of good health. Scientific reports have highlighted that individuals who are obese, or who have diabetes, heart disease, or kidney disease are at increased risk of severe illness if they contracted Covid-19. I doubt this is going to change, whether it’s Covid-19 we’re dealing with, or other stronger, more contagious viruses that come our way in the future. Therefore, there is no better way to start 2021 than by promoting the importance of good health! You can do this by serving up healthier Chinese New Year food to your guests. In this article, I will go through 4 quick and easy ways that is of no additional work, and guarantee good taste too!
The recommendations that follow in this article seek to provide healthier alternatives for guests. This serves 3 purposes:
1) To allow guests who are already contemplating a change in the new year to make healthier choices (you might be surprised at the number of them out there!)
2) To encourage guests who are not yet ready to give up their usual indulgent Chinese New Year food to be aware that people around him/her are making an effort to prioritize their health.
3) For all guests to realize that healthy eating is not about avoiding “good food”. Instead, healthy eating is a balance of consuming both foods that are essential for health, and foods that are non-essential for health. These non-essential foods reflect culture and tradition and provide us with comfort and joy, and may be consumed in moderation.
1. Choose to grill, braise, or steam your proteins
When we think about Chinese New Year food, there’s always something that is deep-fried. From deep-fried fish with a spicy tomato sauce to deep-fried sweet and chewy nian gao. While the food that is fried to a golden crisp is irresistible, other cooking methods can bring out the flavor of seafood, chicken, or meat too.
When grilling chicken wings, there is a certain art required with temperature control to produce a paper-thin, crisp layer of skin (fat mostly rendered off) and tender chicken flesh.
On the other end of the spectrum, fish bought from the wet market at 7 am in the morning is only done justice when steamed with tomato, ginger, and preserved vegetables, or a soy and garlic dressing. In terms of showcasing the other wonders of the ocean, the flavors of seafood really come together when they’re braised in the form of pen cai. There is nothing in this world that tastes quite like it.
There are so many cooking methods, and they each produce different flavors and textures. As grilling, braising and steaming are low-fat cooking methods, you don’t end up with a kitchen sticky with oil by the end of the night. These cooking methods also do not require you to stand by the pot and constantly tend to it. All you have to do is assemble it and set the timer. When well planned, it translates to a lot less time spent in the cooking process. To learn about other ways to spend less time in the kitchen, check out my post here.
2. Choose fresh seafood and meat instead of processed ones
To me, the one Chinese New Year meal that contains the most processed food is steamboat. There is a myriad of processed products found in steamboats—from ordinary fishcakes and sausages to meat-stuffed fishballs and cheese tofu. Fat, sugar and salt are common additions to these products. As a result, these food items are energy-dense and low in protein, with poor nutritional value.
I cannot emphasize the importance of protein in helping us feel full after a meal, which is useful in preventing unnecessary snacking after a meal. I’ve also previously discussed the importance of protein for maintenance of muscle mass as we age.
So, do serve up fresh chicken, pork, or seafood to your guests. You can spice up these fresh meats and seafood by marinating them beforehand (think black pepper, teriyaki, or tom yum). To impress your guests and provide them with plenty of flavoring options, set up a side table of condiments (Haidilao style). You can’t go wrong with saucers of soy sauce, vinegar, chilli, garlic, coriander, lime, chopped peanuts, and toasted sesame seeds that guests can mix up on their own.
Of course, processed products can be quite tasty and lend a bit of flair to your steamboat…it is Chinese New Year after all! A good rule of thumb is to provide 75% of protein dishes as fresh produce, and 25% as processed ones.
3. Serve up the fibre!
In our day to day, a majority of the population often miss out on fruits and vegetables, which provide us with fibre. It is no different during Chinese New Year, where most of us load up on protein, carbohydrates, and snacks, but forget about fruits and vegetables.
As a responsible host who cares for the health of your guests, don’t forget to include a couple of vegetable dishes. If you’re short on time, quick dishes like blanched spinach topped with steamed abalone will appeal to the more traditional. On the other hand, the younger ones will enjoy teriyaki-coated vegetable skewers (broccoli, capsicum, mushrooms, and baby corn).
With the abundance of Chinese New Year goodies lying around, dessert is often optional. But if desired, a fruit salad is quick and convenient. After the feast you’ve served up, most guests would be appreciative of this light and healthy dessert. If you can afford a bit more time, blend up some fruit the night before and freeze it into popsicles. Otherwise, Konnyaku jelly with some chopped up fruits is another low-fat option that kids will love.
4. Keep your guests well-hydrated
Did you know that our body confuses thirst and hunger? When we are not well-hydrated, our bodies may be tricked into thinking we are hungry, when we are in fact only thirsty!
Set up a drinks station so your guests can help themselves to fluids of their choice. Also, be attentive and offer to top up someone’s glass if you see it running low.
What kinds of drinks should you offer? As it is Chinese New Year, after all, the usual suspects like alcohol and sweetened beverages will likely be there. However, always stock up on some sugar-free alternatives like diet soft drinks or unsweetened oolong and green teas.
Fruit-infused water is also in the rage as they are virtually calorie-free while providing a hint of fruit flavor. To impress your guests and encourage interaction, set up a few glass cups, each with different sliced fruits and vegetables. Strawberries, watermelon, orange, lemon, cucumber, celery, and mint are good options. Guests may then create their drink with fruits and vegetables of their choice, to be topped with unsweetened soda water. If they like, they can even add a splash of gin or vodka for a low-calorie alcoholic beverage.
Healthy eating doesn’t have to be boring, and definitely doesn’t have to be tasteless. Chinese New Year is a time for celebration and gathering. Like all festive periods, it is also a time for feasting. Do note, however, that there are many such festive periods across the year. If we let loose at all these occasions and eat to our hearts’ content, when will we prioritize our health? The key lies in moderation. Live a little, but remember that health is what allows us to celebrate these festive periods with our loved ones year after year. I hope this article has inspired you to change things up a little. This year, choose to provide healthier Chinese New Year food for your guests.
This article is first published at The Thoughtful Dietitian
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Yan Yin is an Accredited Practicing Dietitian. She is the founder of The Thoughtful Dietitian, where she provides dietetic services such as nutrition consultations, health writing, and recipe development.