These days, it seems like everyone’s trying to eat healthier. Cooking with wholesome and unprocessed ingredients can have major benefits — it could slow down the aging process and boost your energy. A recent study by the American Medical Association found that packing more fresh fruits and veggies (think: spinach, kale, lemons, and berries) into your diet can actually help you live longer.
Neil Thibodaux, known as “Chef Nino,” is on a mission to teach people — especially seniors — how the right ingredients have the power to help you stay fitter and happier, and get sick less often. Over the last 10 years, he’s been teaching cooking classes to seniors at the Humana Neighborhood Center in Metairie, Louisiana. During the pandemic, his classes went virtual, and thousands of new people got access to his lively, action-packed cooking demonstrations.
His main message? Chef Nino wants everyone to understand that food can be medicine. “A lot of times, seniors will say they’re having a ‘senior moment,’ but that might be because they’re not getting enough Omega-3 fatty acids to nourish the brain. They’ve been inundated with candies, cookies, chips, and processed foods that aren’t helping their bodies work right,” says Chef Nino.
That’s why he calls himself a culinary evangelist. “I’m spreading the good news that nobody’s too far gone that they can’t start over,” says Chef Nino. “People will say, ‘I’m too old to change,’ or ‘I can’t do this,’ or ‘It’s too expensive to eat healthily,’ and I knock down all of those walls by giving them not only easily duplicable and affordable recipes but ones with flavor that use local ingredients.”
Below, Chef Nino dishes out tips on which foods to avoid (and which to fill your plate with). Plus, he shares four healthy recipes that use simple and nourishing ingredients like kale, cacao, and quinoa, just in time for summer nights spent chatting over the picnic table.
Foods that may speed up aging
Chef Nino’s first piece of advice on how you may be able to slow down the aging process? Avoid eating anything that’s processed or bleached. “Foods that generally age you are processed ones, like the nitrates in deli hams or the bleached flour in pizza, doughnuts, and cakes,” he says. “The body is breaking down and regenerating every second. You have to flush your cells out and give them CPR. That energy’s going to come from live food like fresh fruits and vegetables.”
While there isn’t a way to stop aging altogether, you may be able to avoid the unpleasant elements of getting older. “Through the foods you eat, you can get rid of a lot of aches, pains, and lethargy,” says Chef Nino. He knows firsthand the power food has over our bodies: After living with high blood pressure for years, Chef Nino lost 65 pounds by eating more fruits and veggies. “I’m an example and leader of how living a healthy and active lifestyle can change your life,” says Chef Nino. “At 60 years old, I’m on no medicine.”
Chef Nino’s Affordable, and Healthy Anti-Aging Recipes
Breakfast is considered the most important meal of the day, but it’s the one that’s probably skipped the most. Instead, start your morning off with Chef Nino’s deliciously filling spinach and kale frittata. It’s packed with dark leafy greens (which help fight inflammation), plus, the eggs are a healthy source of protein that’ll help keep you full until lunch.
“The darker the greens are, the better they are for you,” says Chef Nino. “Even though kale and spinach are amazing for you, help rebuild your cells, and are filled with fiber, dark greens aren’t an ingredient that everyone loves, since they’re bitter and full of chlorophyll.” That’s why this palatable (and easy-to-make) recipe uses a dash of Parmigiano Reggiano, nutmeg, garlic, and onion to give those greens a little kick.
Bring this pasta dish packed with fresh veggies to your next summer cookout as a delicious, good-for-you treat. “When you think of pasta, meat sauces probably come to mind,” says Chef Nino. “This dish doesn’t have any meat, but it’s still chewy, crunchy, colorful, and full of life.” The recipe is filled with fresh herbs like basil, parsley, and oregano, which all have a hidden benefit. “The more herbs you use, the less salt you need,” says Chef Nino. Why? “Because you’re able to give your taste buds a sense of satisfaction in a much healthier way.”
“If you come to New Orleans, restaurants typically make shrimp dishes with very heavy cream sauces and a lot of cheese. That makes the shrimp pretty unhealthy,” says Chef Nino. “You can put a nutritious spin on shrimp, and retain flavor, by using a blackening seasoning filled with paprika, granulated garlic, onion, and chili powder.”
Instead of serving the dish over white rice, “which can spike blood sugar, add pounds, and has hardly any fiber,” says Chef Nino, swap it out with quinoa. A gluten-free supergrain, quinoa is filled with protein, fiber, magnesium, and other goodies. “Anything you can do with rice, you can do with quinoa,” he says.
When your sweet tooth must be obeyed, this 7-ingredient sweet snack will hit the spot. And it’s way better for you than reaching for a gas station candy bar. “There are genuine ingredients here, like oats, flax, and cacao,” says Chef Nino. “The higher the percentage of cacao you use, the healthier it is for you. But in its raw form, it usually tastes bitter, so I’ve added some honey in this recipe to sweeten things up.”
Another tip? Keep wholesome ingredients stocked in your pantry so it’s easier to make nourishing choices when hunger inevitably strikes. “You’re going to be more likely to make a healthy choice if you’re prepared,” says Chef Nino. “And if you’re not prepared, you’re more likely to make an unwise choice.”
Katie met Chef Nino on her visit to Humana’s Neighborhood Center in Metairie, Louisiana. Check it out here:
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