Now that lazy summer beach days are gradually turning into cozy fireside nap times, the season’s favorite foods get a radical makeover.
In Chicago, you might think of warm “comfort foods” — pizza, gyros, pulled pork, macaroni-and-cheese and hot apple cider — as the season’s foods and drink of choice. While that might make you salivate, it can also contribute to feeling sluggish, tired and just plain lousy.
No worries. The Chicago area is home to a growing number of retailers, produce growers and even startup businesses aimed at keeping you eating fresh and healthy regardless of falling leaves or piled-up snow.
The easiest way to stay healthy is to think of tasty substitutes for old standbys when you’re preparing meals, says Dr. Stephen Devries, a cardiologist and executive director of the not-for-profit Gaples Institute for Integrative Cardiology in Deerfield, which provides educational programs about healthy lifestyles and nutrition to the community.
— For breakfast, prepare plain oatmeal (not instant) — best to avoid the prepared versions that can be loaded up with sugar — and add your own nuts, cinnamon or fresh or frozen fruit.
— Make your own chili or vegetable-based stews to avoid the extra salt in prepared versions. Enrich the chili with tofu, beans and fresh vegetables.
— Plug in the crockpot or invest in one. Make stew and let it simmer on auto-pilot while you go about your day.
— Make summer vegetables in new ways. For example, zucchini and summer squash are non-starchy versions of the summer staples. So, for example, split a squash in half and add vegetables and whole grains, then bake.
— Buy small containers of basil, rosemary or fresh mint at the grocery store and experiment with adding those flavors to your crockpot creations.
— Sautee minced garlic to create a wonderful kitchen scent.
— Turn to warming drinks such as green tea or ginger tea.
The secret is to experience the fun and adventure of eating appropriate to the season, rather than thinking of dietary changes as deprivation, Devries said.
Ashley Melillo, a school psychologist who blogs and creates plant-based recipes for Chicago’s changing seasons at Blissful Basil, says Fall vegetables — think chard, broccoli, kale, carrots, pumpkin, cabbage, leeks, onions, sweet potatoes and winter squash — work wonders when tossed into cozy soups, stews and creamier grain-based dishes like risotto, polenta, and grits.
“Best yet? Fall and winter vegetables like chard, squash, pumpkin and sweet potato can be easily incorporated into classic comfort meals like chili without drastically altering the flavor,” she said. “Since these vegetables are nutrient dense yet mild in flavor when they’re cooked, they’re an excellent way to up the vitamin and mineral content of a meal without overpowering it.”
Chicago-based Label Insight aims to go one step farther by showing you exactly what’s in your food, via “smart label” information. Its proprietary technology allows grocers, researchers, food manufacturers and the U.S. government to provide information for product/food labels.
Brothers Dagan and Anton Xavier, natives of New Zealand who now live in Chicago, started the company after Dagan faced the impossible task of trying to decipher food labels to buy things that his dad could eat to stay heart-healthy following a heart attack. Dagan, a nutritional science and physical therapy student at the time, compiled what became the largest data set of its kind — comprising 450,000 products in the U.S. food supply. Anton, a technology entrepreneur, hired experts to develop technology that unlocks the value of the ingredients listed in tiny type on food product labels.
For example, by clicking on the “smart label” ingredients in Hellmann’s mayonnaise dressing with olive oil, and then clicking on soybean oil (https://smartlabel.labelinsight.com/product/2676448/nutrition), you can see that the soybeans come from Iowa and are grown by conventional farming methods. The next steps will be to provide the consumer-friendly information to mobile app providers who can add it to their diet and calorie-count data, and offer it in coupons and digital marketing ads, says Patrick Moorhead, Label Insight’s chief marketing officer.
“I think this is the next wave as consumers refuse to relent in their quest for better food information value,” Moorhead said.
Chicagoans also benefit because local supermarkets and drugstores have expanded their selections of fresh fruits and foods with no artificial colorings or preservatives, thanks in part to several year-round indoor greenhouses that operate in Chicago.
One such enclosed greenhouse operates on the rooftop of soap manufacturer Method in the Pullman neighborhood. The two-acre greenhouse owner, Gotham Greens, a New York-based urban agricultural company, employs about 50 workers to produce leafy greens, herbs and pesto seven days a week. The company grows, packs and delivers the produce within 24 hours of harvest to area restaurants and grocery stores. Customers include Peapod, Jewel-Osco, Treasure Island, Sunset Foods and Whole Foods, as well as co-operatives The Dill Pickle in Wicker Park, Sugar Beet in Oak Park, and Beans & Greens Fresh Market in south suburban Homewood. Gotham Greens re-posts its fans’ favorite recipes on its Facebook and Instagram accounts.
“Pesto is a great way to incorporate basil into salads, pastas and sandwiches,” said Nicole Baum, senior marketing and partnerships manager for Gotham Greens. “It keeps that endless summer feeling going year-round.”
She also uses pesto in warm pasta dishes and cuts in either fresh, pickled or canned tomatoes to add to the mix.
“I also love to use the vegan and classic pesto to make salad dressing,” Baum said. “I’ll pick up a package of our salad, add a scoop of pesto and some leftovers, and have a healthy lunch.”
For those willing to pay to have fresh food delivered, especially in cold, nasty weather, the Chicago area offers a wide variety of apps (think Grubhub, DoorDash, Postmates and Seamless) and services (Peapod, Instacart, Amazon Prime Now and Google Express among them).
Or, if you’re willing to brave the weather, you’ll be rewarded with greater choices of healthy food from pickup-and-go eateries like Freshii (whose food is now sold at Walgreen’s flagship stores at 151 N. State and at the Wrigley building at 400-410 N. Michigan),
as well as Lyfe Kitchen, Protein Bar and Sweetgreen.
The Chicago area also boasts farmers’ markets that operate throughout the fall season. The Daley Plaza market, for example, runs through Oct. 26.