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Photo Credit: Katrina Malakhoff / Rooted Santa Barbara

Rethinking the Role of Produce at Your Holiday Table

By Rooted Santa Barbara
Photo credit: Katrina Malakhoff

In this life-shifting, game-changing, challenging year, our local food system has shined brightly. Santa Barbara County food producers met the seemingly impossible task of feeding our community in the middle of a global pandemic with an incredible amount of hard work and resilience. With our health front of mind this holiday season, it is the perfect time to support our local farms by sharing celebratory meals made of healthy, wholesome, locally-grown produce.

Bringing local produce front and center is central to our mission and full of opportunity for both a delicious holiday and building a foundation for a healthy life. At a recent virtual presentation hosted by the FoodBank of Santa Barbara County and Rooted Santa Barbara, 120+ participants were encouraged to “Rethink Protein.” While protein is an essential nutrient, and often thought of as the centerpiece of meals, the talk focused on how we may actually be getting too much protein from less optimal sources and not nearly enough fiber and other vital nutrients.

Longevity Lifestyles

The presentation also briefly touched on the Blue Zones, an extensive study of the cultures and characteristics of the longest-lived people around the world, demonstrating how our environment and habits influence our long-term health.

The Blue Zones include five very diverse cultures around the world:

  • Ikaria, Greece
  • Okinawa, Japan
  • Ogliastra Region, Sardinia
  • Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica
  • Loma Linda, California

Commonly shared characteristics between these communities include how they live, how they connect, how they move, how they eat and how their natural environments nudge residents towards healthy behaviors, making healthy choices natural and easy.

So, how do they eat? Their meals are rich with whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and herbs and spices native to their region. They lead plant-rich lifestyles with meat and animal-based foods eaten sporadically or saved mostly for celebrations.

Blue zones inhabitants live longer because they’ve eaten the right foods – and avoided the wrong ones – for most of their lives. Ninety to 100 percent of their diet consists of whole, plant-based fare. They eat this way not because they possess heroic discipline, but because fruits, vegetables, tubers, nuts, beans, and whole grains are cheap and accessible. Their kitchens are set up so it’s easy to make those foods; they spend time with people who eat the same way; and they possess time-honored recipes to make healthy food taste good. – The Blue Zones Kitchen, Dan Buettner

Santa Barbara County offers a strong foundation for a Blue Zones lifestyle with beautiful surroundings, easy access to outdoor activities, multi-generational living, and strong community networks. What’s more, our local farms provide produce and plant-based foods in abundance, year round, with growing regenerative agriculture and organic, biodynamic farming practices to maximize the health of our food.

Shifting Plant-Forward

While they’re often the sides, with a simple mindset shift, plants can become the centerpiece. Focusing on plants makes it easy to enjoy simple, affordable, delicious, healthy meals centered around locally-sourced foods that celebrate our love of family and embrace our hope for their health and longevity. It’s just a matter of learning a few new tricks to reset your kitchen.

The holidays are definitely different this year. Making shifts to better support our health is an empowering silver lining we can focus on this season. A more plant-centric lifestyle has been shown to have important benefits in overall health and, in fact, major health organizations like the American Heart Association, American Diabetes Association, and the American Cancer Society have published guides and research demonstrating the opportunity for plants to improve overall health and longevity and reduce risk and improve outcomes for leading causes and contributors of disease – including heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and certain cancers. Leading experts on regenerative agriculture, the Rodale Institute, also published a joint paper this year speaking to the power of our plates:

Shifting to a predominantly organic, whole foods, plant-based plate can provide the body with all necessary vitamins, minerals, fiber, macronutrients and antioxidants to maintain health, build immunity, and prevent, suspend and often reverse lifestyle- related diseases. – The Power of the Plate: The Case for Regenerative Organic Agriculture in Improving Human Health, The Rodale Institute and The Plantrician Project

Whole plant-based foods are rich in nutrients with unique qualities like fiber and phytonutrients. Unprocessed plant-based foods also contribute to building a healthy gut – where around 70% of our immune system resides – and support heart, metabolic, and brain health, and more. We can prioritize health, enjoy what we eat, support local agriculture, and create new traditions at home this holiday season by centering our celebrations around beautiful, bountiful plants.

So, let’s look together at how we can shift this holiday season plant-forward with some of our tried-and-true tips for affordable and enjoyable plant-filled meals.

Make Your Sides the Centerpiece!

Traditions are incredibly important but if there’s one thing we’ve learned in these last few months, it is that traditions can also evolve. Our food can take on new looks, tastes, and ingredients and still be just as respectful, delicious, and even healthier to share with those we love. ⁠There are endless ways for local plant-based foods to take center stage, so get creative and fill your platter with a rainbow of local lovelies.

To help you get started, we put together a Stay at Home (and Eat Local) resource page to bring together tips for preparing fall vegetables and links to some of our favorite holiday inspired recipes.

Here are just a few of our favorite celebratory dishes to get your creative juices flowing:

  • Cauliflower or Portobello Mushroom Steaks with Gravy
  • Cranberry, Wild Rice & Chard Stuffed Acorn Squash
  • Creamy Cauliflower Carrot Soup with Nutmeg
  • Sweet Potato Shepherd’s Pie with Lentils, Kale & Mushrooms
  • Arugula & Pear Salad with Pomegranate
  • Balsamic Brussel Sprouts with Chestnuts and Dates
  • Green Bean Casserole
  • Vibrant Greens Soup (collards, fennel, zucchini, broccoli with cilantro, parsley, basil & hemp seeds)
  • Roasted Vegetables (squash, carrots, potatoes, parsnip, celeriac, broccoli, beets – any of your favorites)

There are more simple ways to bring more plants in, too! Beans, cauliflower, nuts, silken tofu, potatoes and more can be blended to make everyday soups, sauces and dressings – thick, creamy and nutritiously delicious.

Some Quick Swaps for Plant-Forward Changes

At Rooted we try to limit our use of processed foods. There’s a plant-forward swap for almost everything including butter, cream, whipped cream, and eggs. Here are some quick whole food alternatives:

  • Buttery mashed potatoes? Use olive oil or add a dollop of cashew cream (blend one part pre-soaked cashews with one part water).
  • Whipped cream for your pie? Refrigerate a can of full fat coconut milk, scoop out just the thick part, and whip with a hand-mixer and a bit of sweetener and vanilla. Coconut milk whipped cream is also a great substitute for ice cream.
  • Instead of chicken stock, use vegetable stock. Make your own by adding vegetable scraps such as the ends of onions, leeks, carrots, fennel, celery, and/or garlic to a few cups of water and simmering for one hour.
  • Making quiche? Find a chickpea flour recipe and add broccoli and mushrooms. There are also versions with cashew-based or puréed squash filling.

These swaps can be fun and help you begin rethinking traditional meals, but the real value is in whole, seasonal, minimally processed plant-based foods.

From our Rooted family to yours, we are sending you our very best wishes for a safe, healthy, happy holiday at home. We hope as you celebrate special times with your family, you enjoy all the goodness and health that uniquely comes from locally-grown produce.

Rooted Santa Barbara is a community-centered plant-based lifestyle initiative that believes optimal health is rooted in prevention. Our mission is to empower every community member to take a leading role in their preventive healthcare through evidence-based, whole-food plant-based nutrition education and support. To learn more about our growing organization and to sign up for our newsletter for upcoming programs, events, and resources, please visit RootedSantaBarbara.org.

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