Want a wonderfully inconspicuous way to garner that ever-elusive praise at family get-togethers this holiday season?

Chicago dietitians and health-food adherents offer this suggestion: Bring healthy foods that you want to eat and that won’t undermine your New Year’s wellness resolution, or take the family out for a vegan or vegetarian restaurant meal.

You can even take the one-upmanship a step farther with this enlightening tidbit: Eating meat might just be sacrilegious.

African Hebrew Israelites, including the founder of Original Soul Vegetarian restaurant on Chicago’s South Side — one of the oldest African-American vegan soul-food restaurants in the country — cites Scripture as the basis for eating plant-based food instead of meat, including on holidays many people consider meat extravaganzas.

“My dad and the initial pioneers of the African Hebrew Israelites cited Genesis 1:29 — “And God said, ‘Behold, I have given you every herb-bearing seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat,'” said Arel Ben Israel, who runs the 37-year-old restaurant with his sister, Lori Seay.

In fact, the holiday season also has a religious overtone. “We call this the season of gluttony,” Ben Israel said. That’s the season from Thanksgiving to New Year’s.

Original Soul Vegetarian, at 203 E. 75th St., and its Fulton Market spinoff, Vegan Now carryout, at 131 N. Clinton St., have started a program called “Restart Your Health and Restart Your Life.”

Spinach quice, cabbage, yams greens and black eye peas is food served at the Original Soul Vegetarian Restaurant in Chatham. The restaurant is 100 per cent vegan.. |Leslie Adkins/For the Sun-Times

Spinach quiche, cabbage, yams greens and black eye peas is food served at the Original Soul Vegetarian Restaurant in Chatham. The restaurant is 100 per cent vegan.. | Leslie Adkins/For the Sun-Times

The goal is to go vegetarian or at least vegan starting with the New Year — but the idea is to ease into the transition.

Vegetarians eat no animal flesh, so no chicken, pig, cow, seafood or any other animal. A vegan also eats no eggs, dairy products or any other product derived from an animal.

“We’re not trying to take things away from people,” Ben Israel said. “We don’t tell you, ‘Don’t eat meat.’ We say, ‘Add some broccoli, add some greens.’ We start with people where they are,” he said.

“As time goes on, the idea is you’ll lose some of the things you’d normally eat based on what you’re adding, based on your own experience [of feeling healthier].”

Original Soul Vegetarian’s holiday menu – made with no refined sugars, flours or rice – includes chemical-free and additive-free cornbread, macaroni and cheese, roasted gravy, cranberry sauce, cornbread, candied yams, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin and apple pies.

The restaurant, which plans to open a new take-out eatery in the Boystown neighborhood in late 2019, also offers no-salt dishes, as well as a juice bar and a salad bar.

The main dining room at the Original Soul Vegetarian Restaurant in Chatham. The restaurant is 100 per cent vegan. |Leslie Adkins/For the Sun-Times

The main dining room at the Original Soul Vegetarian Restaurant in Chatham. The restaurant is 100 per cent vegan. |Leslie Adkins/For the Sun-Times

The carry-out locations can make it easier to bring healthier alternative dishes to a family holiday spread slathered with salt-, sugar- and processed-meat-filled, artery- and kidney-clogging delicacies, local dietitians say.

It’s a serious issue for people with heart failure, kidney disease or other conditions.
That’s because ham and other processed meats are packed with sodium. Pot roast and fresh turkey free of salt and brine injections are better alternatives. And certain desserts contain baking soda rich in sodium.

Those ingredients can cause people to retain fluid, said Ratna Kanumury, director of Advanced Practice Services at Cook County Health and Hospitals System.

Even Tofurkey (faux turkey made of vegetarian protein, often from tofu or wheat protein) can be chockful of sodium if it’s manufactured, Kanumury said.

“Think of healthy sources of the ‘good’ sugars that our bodies use for energy: fruits, milk and unprocessed yogurt,” she said.

Ratna Kanumury, director of Advanced Practice Services at Cook County Health and Hospitals System. | Provided by Cook County Health and Hospitals System

Frozen vegetables are picked at their freshest peak, so they’re a healthy alternative, too, Kanumury said. Avoid canned vegetables because they’re loaded with sodium and preservatives.

Another solution is to swap out meat for healthier entrees, like those centered on fish or beans and whole grains, said Dr. Stephen Devries, executive director at the Gaples Institute for Integrative Cardiology in Deerfield.

Try to include seasonal foods. One popular dish is acorn squash stuffed with spices, cranberries and whole grains, he said.

“There are a lot more kinds of whole grains than most people realize,” Devries said. “Barley, farro and bulgur can be terrific side dishes with added spices and herbs. You can buy them pre-cooked, and many require only 10 minutes of prep time.”

Dr. Stephen Devries, executive director at the Gaples Institute for Integrative Cardiology in Deerfield. | Provided by the Gaples Institute

For kids, try serving vegetables sliced into spirals, Devries said. “Kids especially love vegetables sliced into fancy shapes,” he said.

A kitchen spiralizer, available for as little as $10, can turn a carrot or zucchini into exotic-looking ribbons that kids find irresistible, Devries said. To up your game with cooked vegetables, Devries suggests roasting them to bring out their natural sweetness.

Jenné Claiborne, an Atlanta native and author of the new cookbook, “Sweet Potato Soul: 100 Easy Vegan Recipes for the Southern Flavors of Smoke, Sugar, Spice, and Soul,” said she grew up eating no meat because her mother had been grossed out by cleaning the game that her father would bring home from hunting trips.

Another part of her family adhered to the Hebrew Israelites’ belief in abstaining from meat.

Jenné Claiborne, author of the new cookbook, “Sweet Potato Soul: 100 Easy Vegan Recipes for the Southern Flavors of Smoke, Sugar, Spice, and Soul.” | Provided by Jenné Claiborne

Claiborne spent years as a chef working to give plant-based foods the flavor and depth of the kinds of food traditionally thought of as feeding the soul.

The results include a coconut collard salad and dishes with non-processed traditional ingredients like okra, dandelion, mustard, turnip greens and black-eyed peas.

“I want to show people you can be vegan and still eat the foods you love, whether your background is Southern or whether you’re from another country,” she said.

If you’re not a vegan or vegetarian, be mindful of others who may be by bringing toppings or cheese on the side of a main dish of broccoli and cauliflower, said Kirsten Straughan, clinical assistant professor of kinesiology and nutrition at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s College of Applied Health Sciences.

Kirsten Straughan, clinical assistant professor of kinesiology and nutrition at the University of Illinois at Chicago's College of Applied Health Sciences. | Provided

Kirsten Straughan, clinical assistant professor of kinesiology and nutrition at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s College of Applied Health Sciences. | Provided by UIC’s College of Applied Health Sciences

Straughan, herself a vegetarian, is also alert to others’ lactose-intolerance or food-allergy issues. She searches online for recipes using dairy alternatives such as olive oil instead of butter.

What else to do?

Here’s some advice from Devries, Kanumury and Straughan:

•Go to holiday parties or family get-togethers with a plan in mind – and never starve yourself beforehand. Eat an apple or a high-protein snack before you go, or even a salad, so you don’t snarf down everything in sight.

•Chew, talk and mingle. Put down your fork between bites. Think portion control.

•Avoid salt-laden dips, gravy and dressings. Bring or choose hummus instead.

•Replace white potatoes with sweet potatoes, whole grains or cauliflower mash.

•Start or keep family hiking or sledding traditions that get you moving, or go outside and walk the dog together. “Don’t throw exercise out the window,” Straughan said. “Have some family fun that’s not focused on food. Our family divides into teams to play games like Wii or Twister. It gets everyone to laugh and get into the spirit of the season.”

Cookbooks and recipes for healthier eating

Sweet Potato Soul: 100 Easy Vegan Recipes for the Southern Flavors of Smoke, Sugar, Spice, and Soul

The Oh She Glows Cookbook: Over 100 Vegan Recipes to Glow from the Inside Out

The Superfun Times Vegan Holiday Cookbook: Entertaining for Absolutely Every Occasion

Real Foods for Healthy People: A recipe and resource guide