IFIC Celebrates National Hispanic Heritage Month and World Food Day: An Interview With Sylvia Meléndez Klinger

September 15th through October 15th marks National Hispanic Heritage Month, a special time during which IFIC seeks to recognize and connect with leaders in the world of Hispanic and Latinx food production and nutrition. This year, we spoke with Sylvia Meléndez Klinger DBA, MS, RD, a nutrition entrepreneur, educator, and author. In addition to writing cookbooks and scientific publications, Sylvia is an adjunct professor and the Professional Development Chair of the International Affiliate of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (IAAND). As a leading expert in cross-cultural nutrition and health issues, Sylvia offers deep insights on the impact of Hispanic heritage in our food system.

Many non-Hispanic/Latinx consumers enjoy foods from that heritage—like maduros, guacamole, and arroz con pollo—but don’t know much about the links between Hispanic culture and widely available, nutritious food. What do you wish more people knew about Hispanic and Latinx foods available in the U.S.—and how these foods can contribute to building a healthy diet?

Hispanic foods are incredibly nutritious, full of flavors, and colorful. The best part is that you can find many of these delicious foods in the U.S. When I think of Hispanic foods, I first gravitate towards beans. Canned beans are convenient, an excellent source of fiber and protein, and full of nutrients such as iron, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. Many Latinx people love them and eat them according to their traditional recipes. For example, Mexicans often eat refried beans, Puerto Ricans prepare them as guisados (stewed), and people in the Dominican Republic eat beans for dessert as habichuelas con dulce.

Other commonly eaten nutritious foods that are staples linked to Hispanic culture are mangos (which are high in fiber and vitamin C), oranges (which are rich in vitamin C), corn tortillas (which provide whole grains), and tomatoes (which are high in vitamin C and lycopene). Traditional dishes such as rice and beans, arroz con pollo, fajitas, mofongo, arroz con gandules, and chiles en nogada provide a variety of nutrients, flavors, and textures.

You co-authored the publication “A Systematic Review of the Relationship between Acculturation and Diet among Latinos in the United States: Implications for Future Research.” The paper discusses how some of the healthfulness of the Latinx diet has declined due to acculturation. How does our food system need to change to enhance the accessibility of healthy foods?

First, we need to remind Latinx people that most Hispanic foods are highly nutritious, and they should continue to consume them along with other food groups. Unfortunately, historically, when Latinx people have migrated to the U.S., they may have tended to decrease their purchasing of nutritious foods they love. Avocados are the perfect example. Research shows that while many Latinx people enjoy them, the longer we live in the U.S., the more our avocado purchases go down. I’ve also encountered patients in the U.S. who have been told never to eat tortillas or avocados because they are fattening. My response is that all foods can fit into a healthy diet, and we should focus more on adding nutritious foods we are lacking.

Second, I believe markets should be well-stocked with a variety of ethnic foods, so we don’t have to go out of our way to find them. Retailers should ask customers if there are favorite foods they would like to have stocked at the store—or make it easier to request them.

October also hosts World Food Day, which celebrates global food production practices that are environmentally sustainable and yield accessible, safe, and nutritious foods. Do you have thoughts about World Food Day and ways we can support sustainable diets?

Yes! World Food Day recognition should remind everyone that food is life, and therefore it is important to be mindful of meal preparation and consumption practices. I love recommending sustainable methods we can practice in our kitchens, such as using canned or frozen produce and animal products. Purchasing canned or frozen beans, vegetables, fruits, and fish (to name a few) is an easy method for practicing sustainability. These products are inexpensive and last longer than their fresh counterparts—while still preserving their nutrients. If you are worried about sodium or syrup content in shelf-stable produce products, rinse canned beans and veggies to decrease the sodium content, purchase low-sodium options, and choose canned fruit options that are sugar-free or packed in 100% juice.

You’ve written many different resources on nutrition. What are some key pieces of advice you would give consumers about following a healthy dietary pattern?

Planning meals ahead of time can be a major influence on healthy dietary patterns. As a dietitian, I aim to inspire and educate my people to plan weekly family meals. Studies have shown that children who regularly eat meals together with their family typically have a higher intake of fruits and veggies than those who don’t eat together as much. Some quick tips I encourage for families are:

  1. Take an hour out of the weekend (or a designated weekday) to map out meals for the entire week.
  2. Utilize dinner recipes for which you can double the ingredients and make more so that leftovers can be used throughout the week as future dinners, lunches, and snacks. Leftovers can be stored in air-tight containers and freezer bags for fast, portion-controlled meals.
  3. Select a day to take a hard look at your refrigerator and identify foods that are getting close to their expiration date so you can think creatively about how to extend them before tossing. If you don’t have an instant use for them, freeze them! Most food items—from peppers to meats to onions—can be stashed in the freezer for future meals.

Lastly, what are some plans you have this year to celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month—and if there is food involved this year, how can we get on the guest list?

I will be making our favorite Hispanic dishes, which will include enchiladas, fish tacos, arroz con gandules, quesadillas, and many more. Also, I’ll be teaching a few cooking classes featuring Hispanic dishes with a small healthy twist. You are more than welcome to join us!

Many thanks to Sylvia for sharing her insights! If you’d like to learn more about her work and Hispanic and Latinx heritage, we encourage you to click here.