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Can Soul Food Be Healthy?

Updated: Aug 24, 2023

A Brief History of Soul Food

Photo: Traditional Soul Food Nursing

Soul food called comfort food comes from the American South, the Carribean, South America, and Africia. It was developed by African Americans during the time of slavery in the south and after they migrated to the North and West when slavery was abolished.

Author Adrian Miller who wrote the book Soul Food defines soul food of the South as originating in the cotton belt of Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama. It is more about what blacks ate outside of the south than the traditional southern comfort food.

Traditional soul food includes rice, beans, kale, okra, fried chicken and fish, pork with gravy, ham hocks, mac and cheese, and grits. It includs plenty of greens and vegetables dishes too.

Soul food has a more intense flavor than typical southern comfort food. It was food that was eaten on special occasion and holidays during colonial times. Today it is eaten more frequently because consumers have the income to buy the food more often.

Home healthy soul food recipes takes traditional dishes and reduces fat, sodium, and calories. In these recipes cooks use more vegetables, grill, bake, or broil the meat, chicken or fish to reduce calories. They use healthy oils to cook and may air fry or bake items instead of deep frying.

Vegan soul food recipes use vegetables, rice, cornmeal, and small amounts of vegan meat, chicken, or fish. During times of slavery African Americans received rations that included cornmeal, rice, sweet potatoes, vegetables, and small portions of dried meat and fish. They had to make do and stretch these supplies to make meals.

Slave owners provide these rations and the black families often supplemented meal with hunting, fishing and growing gardens to supplement their meals. Many families planted crops from Africa like okra, kale, and eggplant.

Soul food has been in existence from the colonial period and after slavery was abolished. Soul food came to the North and West in the United States as blacks moved into the large cities.

Between 1910-1970 share cropping and community churches were established. The churches often had dinners and special celebrations with food and connected people in the community. They were source of support and provided meals and community events.

Share cropping was established and wealthy plantation owners divided their land for families. The families had to raise crops and give half the profits to the landowners. This forced poor families to borrow money to buy farm equipment, supplies, and groceries. This system kept poor families in poverty and did not promote equality.

Black families that lived in the city lived in crowded apartments and tight spaces. Relief organizations, restaurants, and street vendors gave them access to soul food. They helped to relieve hunger for the poor.

Vegan soul food today is made in many restaurants. Some recipes use plant-based meats. Traditional soul food can be modified to be healthier by following home healthy soul food recipes or trying vegan soul food recipes. The Internet has many websites with recipes on these two types of cooking. Soul food restaurants opened in the 1960's and today serve traditional soul food, vegan soul food, and home healthy soul food.

Image Source :Oldways Organization in Boston MA

The Oldways African Diet Pyramid

Oldways is an organization in Boston that designs healthy diets and recipes for different populations ,They designed the Oldways African Diet Pyramid utilizing nutritionists, food historians, and health experts, The pyramid is designed from culinary traditions. found in the American South, the Carribean, South American, and Africia

The food pyramid has several categories including two categories with vegetables and greens. It focuses on traditional foods from Africa and the Americas and has a heavy emphasis on vegetable.

The purpose of the Heritage Pyramid is a way to encourage people to try new dishes and eat healthier like their ancestors did. The organization reaches out to non-profit organizations, doctors, nurses, and churches to promote this new and healthier way of eating.

Popular Soul Food Recipes

  • Southern Collard Greens

  • Candied Sweet Potatoes

  • Marconi and Cheese

  • Cornbread

  • Gumbo

  • Shrimp and Grits

  • Fried Chicken and Fish

  • Pork Chops with Gravy

  • Red Beans and Rice

  • Oxtails and Rice


Soul Food: The Surprising Story of American Cuisine One Plate at a Time By Adrian Miller

Texas Food Truck Owners Share What Makes Soul Food, Soul Food by Lyndsey Cordell, Wide Open Spaces.

The Salt: How Soul Food Can Be Good For Your Health by Eliza Barclay, Nov. 10 2022

Oldways Cultural Food Traditions, Boston MA

Healthier Soul Food Recipes

Red Beans and Rice

You will need a measuring cup, fry or sauté pan, microwave safe bowl, medium saucepan for boiling beans, sharp knife, plastic container and cutting board.

1 cup uncooked or dry red beans

2 cups or more of water

1 cup long grain white rice or brown rice

2 cups water

1 red bell peppers diced

1 red onion diced

2 teaspoons hot sauce

1 teaspoon minced garlic

2 teaspoons pepper relish

1 tablespoon avocado oil or olive oil

2 tablespoons tomato paste

Salt to taste


In a medium sized saucepan pour a few cups of water and bring to boil on stove and add beans. Lower heat and if the beans were not soaked cook for about 45 minutes to 1 hour until tender. Add water occasionally to keep the bean from drying out. . Use the oil instead of salt to cook them.

Wash the pepper and onion in a colander or bowl of warm water. Drain. Remove the seeds and stem of the pepper and discard. Cut off the ends of onion remove the peel. Dice pepper and onion into small pieces on cutting board. Put aside in a bowl or plastic container.

In a sauté pan over medium heat add one tablespoon oil, diced peppers, onion, and garlic. Sauté for about 10 minutes or more until cooked. Put aside in small bowl. to add to rice and beans.

In a microwave safe container measure one cup of rice and two cups of water. Cook in microwave about 10 minutes or according to package directions. When finished add the pepper, onions, and garlic mixture and stir evenly into rice. When beans are cooked drain and add to rice and vegetables mix well. Mix in two teaspoons hot sauce and pepper relish. Add 2 tablespoons tomato paste and stir well with spoon. Return to microwave and heat for a few minutes. Serve in a bowl as a side dish. Serves 4

Whole Chicken Creole Style

You will need a roasting pan, Dutch oven, platter, knife, cutting board, measuring cup, and serving spoon.

1 free range or regular chicken about 3 pounds

2 tablespoon avocado or olive oil

2 red bell peppers diced

1 red onion diced

1/2 cup of diced tomatoes from can in juice

1 tablespoon paprika

1 cup chicken broth

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 tablespoon of mixed or dried herbs. They can be parsley, basil, oregano, or and thyme.

1 tablespoon tomato paste


Defrost the chicken and remove innards. In a small or medium pan coat the chicken with oil and roast in oven at 350 degrees for about 1/2 hour. Remove chicken and put on a plate. Sprinkle or rub paprika into the chicken skin.

Wash the bell pepper, and onion in a colander or bowl of warm water. Remove the stems and seeds of the bell pepper and discard. Cut the ends off the onion and remove peel. Dice the pepper and onion into bite sized pieces.

In a Dutch oven add one tablespoon avocado or olive oil to bottom of pan. Add diced peppers, onion, diced tomatoes in juices, minced garlic, and stir well. Roast in oven about 20 minutes at 350 degrees. Add chicken broth and herbs after vegetables are cooked. Place chicken on top of vegetable mixture and continue to cook in the oven 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Remove chicken and cut on platter. Place Dutch Oven in safe place on counter with metal base. Cut chicken pieces and white meat add sauce from the Dutch oven. Ladle sauce over the chicken. Serve with white or brown rice.

Serves 4

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