For his mother’s 86th birthday last year, celebrity chef Rocco DiSpirito prepared an elaborate Italian meal for a large family gathering. But he kept one thing secret until after it was over: He substituted healthy alternatives for many of the traditional ingredients in the meatballs, lasagna and other dishes.
DiSpirito has made healthy eating a cornerstone of his culinary experience in restaurants, television shows and cookbooks. But it was only recently that his toughest critic relented.
“My mom was the hardest sell before,” said DiSpirito of his mother, Nicolina. “Every time I cook a recipe of hers, she’s critical. As much as she loves me, if I cook one of her recipes and make a mistake, no mercy - until recently, when she tried the healthy meatballs from my last book and she actually said they were better than hers. So my worst critic is now very, very supportive.”
This holiday season, DiSpirito will be hosting dozens of family members and will be cooking healthy, including the Feast of the Seven Fishes, an Italian holiday tradition.
And he’ll be cooking with healthy substitutes for high-calorie items.
For example, standing rib roast, a holiday favorite, has a lower calorie alternative in crown roast of pork, which has 150 less calories for a 4-ounce portion.
When it comes to drinks, the mixers in cocktails add hundreds of calories. A better bet is champagne, at just 76 calories for a 4-ounce glass. By comparison, eggnog can contain up to 550 calories.
But what about dining at a restaurant where substituting ingredients is just not possible? DiSpirito called eating out “a minefield.”
A few of his tips: Skip the bread, ask for sauce on the side and split an appetizer and entrée.
“A big red flag is anything that sounds like ‘-ooey’ at the end,” DiSpirito said. “That’s ‘gooey,’ ‘chewy,’ ‘cheesy.’ Stay away from those. Anything with a ‘-y’ is usually fried or breaded or has cheese in it. You want things that end in a ‘-d,’ such as ‘grilled’ or ‘sautéed.’”
He also cautioned that portion sizes in restaurants are decided not by the reasonable amount you need to feel full, but what looks good on the plate. That’s usually two to three times what you actually need to eat. DiSpirito said the Italian tradition helps with healthier servings.
“In Italy, you don’t see the gigantic portions that you see here,” said DiSpirito. “They’re focused on the right amount, what’s called giusto. It’s the right amount of something that’s authentic, delicious, full of flavor.”
But eating healthy is more than just the ingredients or portions, especially when faced with the abundance of holiday meals and treats.
“You need to save for a rainy day," DiSpirito said. "I eat really healthy during the year and during the week. So when the time comes to splurge, I can withdraw a little money and spend it.”
Perhaps the only time he would not take stock of the calories in a meal is his all-time favorite: his grandmother’s fried eggs.
“It’s a meal that makes me feel the most loved and the most happy,” DiSpirito said. “It’s one of the first meals that I could remember. And my grandmother would sit across from me at the table and watch me eat it with bread that she made - and just look at me with the kind of love that a grandmother has.”