Ellie Krieger ’88 isn’t the kind of healthy eating expert who packs her kitchen with nothing but kale and quinoa. In fact, during a chat with CAM one morning in February, the best-selling cookbook author and former Food Network host notes that her refrigerator is filled with leftovers from the taco dinner she made for her husband and thirteen-year-old daughter the night before. Of course, Krieger’s version is a mix of lean beef and black beans on whole-wheat tortillas, topped with loads of fresh vegetables. But that proves the point she’s been making for years: comfort food can be made in a way that’s good for you. “If you look at all the media out there, there’s very much this idea that you’re either cleansing or eating mounds of pork barbeque. Somehow we’re led to believe we have to choose between the two,” she says. “My whole outlook is that those two circles overlap, and in the center is this sweet spot where you can live happily having delicious and healthy food.”
I think “diet” is a four letter word. I’d rather have no show than sacrifice my core philosophy.
Krieger has built her reputation on that kind of straight forward approach, with the New York Times describing her as “a nutritionist who seems to actually love food and care about how it tastes.” That’s also the basis for her latest TV series, “Ellie’s Real Good Food,” which launches this spring on PBS stations around the country. Krieger believes it’s the sort of gimmick-free show that many fans have been waiting for–and indeed, she was able to raise $40,000 in three weeks from supporters on Kickstarter to fund the pilot. Offering an alternative to the umpteen cooking competitions and extreme-eating extravaganzas on the air these days, her program is recipe-based and instructional, à la PBS culinary legends Julia Child and Jacques Pepin. Each episode also features food challenges of viewers–such as a busy single mom with two teenage sons who don’t have time for a proper breakfast–with Krieger offering the sort of tasty, nourishing options that she calls “realistic solutions for every day.”
Sipping a cup of Earl Grey tea in a spotless studio apartment overlooking Central Park West that serves as her office and test kitchen, Krieger says she turned down several opportunities once the Food Network’s “Healthy Appetite” ended after five seasons in 2011. That’s because most pitches focused on weight loss, rather than wellness. “I think ‘diet’ is a four letter word,” she says. “I’d rather have no show than sacrifice my core philosophy.” Krieger notes that many trendy diet plans promote “a roller coaster of extremes” that have little effect in the long run, and make one feel guilty about any indulgence. For her, nothing is completely off limits–not even French fries, her own personal weakness. Instead, she groups food into three categories: usually (fruits, vegetables, lean protein); sometimes (refined grains, sugary foods); and rarely (soda, candy). “There’s no such thing as never,” she says. “It’s more about a broader pattern of what you’re eating.”
Krieger has had her own struggles, which she says gives her added insight into the dietary challenges that Americans face. Overweight as a child growing up in New York City, she had such a poor self-image that she once wrote her own name across a picture of an elephant. “I totally remember this–clear as day–hating myself,” she says. She lost the extra pounds through exercise and cutting back on snacks, and at eighteen she was signed by the famed Wilhelmina modeling agency. Modeling jobs paid for living expenses in college and for years afterward, but they took a negative toll, too. “I don’t think I ever had an eating disorder, but I kept journals, and when I read them back, I think, ‘Oh my god, you poor thing. You were obsessed with food,’ “ she says. Majoring in nutritional sciences in the College of Human Ecology and earning a master’s in nutrition from Columbia put her on the right path. “I discovered how to love food in a healthy way,” she says.
After Krieger’s first book, Small Changes, Big Results, was published in 2005, the Food Network tapped her for “Healthy Appetite,” the only show about healthful cooking on the channel at the time. “They basically let me do my thing,” she says. “It was like winning the TV lottery.” Since then, she’s appeared as a guest nutritionist on dozens of programs including “Today,” “Good Morning America,” the “CBS Early Show,” and “Dr. Oz.” In 2009 her second book, The Food You Crave, won the International Association of Culinary Professionals Cookbook Award and the James Beard Foundation Award, known in the industry as the “Oscars of food.” That year marked another milestone: First Lady Michelle Obama invited her to the Healthy Kids Fair at the White House, where she challenged local schoolchildren to “eat every color of the rainbow” from a vibrant array of fruit. She also helped harvest the White House vegetable garden, an event that showed that even skilled cooks have their limits. “I had no idea how to harvest fennel,” laughs Krieger. “I’m from Queens!”
Krieger’s latest cookbook, You Have it Made: Delicious, Healthy, Do-Ahead Meals, came out in January. She chose this recipe from it to share with CAM readers:
Blueberry-Chia Overnight Oats in Jars
Makes 4 servings
When you let rolled oats sit overnight in a mixture of milk and yogurt, the oats soften and absorb the liquid, and you wake up to a treat that has the luxurious texture of a pudding. With that as the base you can run with all kinds of fruit, nut, and flavor combos. Here, fresh blueberries and blueberry jam add magnificent color and light sweetness, and chia seeds and almonds punch up the crunch factor while adding healthy fats, satisfying fiber, and protein. Using individual jars makes for an easy grab-and-go breakfast, or a fun way to serve for a brunch.
2/3 cup whole natural almonds, divided
Toast the almonds in a dry skillet over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until lightly browned and fragrant, 3 to 5 minutes. Allow to cool slightly, then chop them coarsely.
In a medium bowl, stir together the milk, yogurt, jam, and vanilla. Stir in the oats, chia seeds, and half of the almonds. Then stir in 1 cup of the blueberries.
Divide the mixture evenly among four 12-ounce (1-1/2 cup) jars. Top each with the remaining blueberries and almonds. Cover tightly and refrigerate overnight or at least 8 hours. Serve chilled or at room temperature. (Note: the nuts on top will soften a bit in the refrigerator. If you want them extra-crunchy, sprinkle them on right before serving.) The jars will keep up to 4 days in the refrigerator.
Excerpted from YOU HAVE IT MADE, © 2016 by ELLIE KRIEGER. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.
Photos: Quentin Bacon