The Dietary Guidelines for Americans and its associated MyPlate graphic are commonly referenced resources for learning about healthy and nutritious eating. The recently-updated 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans put a stronger focus on meeting dietary recommendations while keeping cultural preferences in mind, and resources highlighting culturally inclusive approaches are valuable tools for translating the general messages of MyPlate and the Dietary Guidelines to more Americans.
This article is part of a series that shows how healthy eating can take on many different forms outside of the Western diet. While for many, meals might not exactly resemble MyPlate, the featured guest authors will demonstrate what healthy eating looks like in their culture, and how many of the food groups and principles can translate across cultures and cuisines. Each article in this series is written by a registered dietitian who is experienced in integrating culturally inclusive approaches into their work.
About the Author
My name is Nazima Qureshi and I am a Registered Dietitian with a Masters of Public Health, as well as the co-founder of The Healthy Muslims. I primarily work with the Muslim community to help clients implement healthier lifestyle changes without giving up their cultural food.
When it comes to my cultural identity, it is a bit of a mix. My parents are from India, I was born in Saudi Arabia and I came to Canada with my family when I was only a year old. I grew up eating my mom’s homecooked traditional South Asian food and we rarely ate out at restaurants. Another aspect of my cultural identity is my religion; I am Muslim, which means that I can only eat halal. Halal follows specific guidelines for how meat is slaughtered and also involves abstaining from alcohol and pork. Now that I am raising my own family with my husband and two daughters, I notice that there are a lot more halal options when we are out on the road or reading labels at the grocery store.
About South Asian Muslim Cuisine
There is such a wide variety of food in South Asian cuisine, and many subsets of cultures fall under this broad category. Note that there may be some similarities across certain South Asian cultural subsets, as well as differences. I classify my family’s cuisine as South Asian because our meals include curries, flatbreads (rotis, chappatis and parathas), rice and South Asian vegetables (such as okra and squash) which are similar to foods found across different South Asian cultures.
Growing up in North America my family looked for any South Asian ingredients that we could use to replicate authentic homemade meals. In the early ‘90s, there were few stores where you could find South Asian produce, spice blends and dry ingredients. We would also look for a halal butcher shop, and often these butcher shops would have a section with South Asian groceries.
How Religion Influences Cultural Foods
Religion plays a role in the type of meals that a South Asian family may consume. For example, a Hindu family may eat vegetarian meals and have specific food guidelines based on religious holidays. As a Muslim family we follow halal guidelines and our food and diet are most significantly impacted during Ramadan, which is a month when Muslims around the world fast from dawn to sunset.
In order to help Muslims make healthier choices and feel more energized during the month of Ramadan, I co-authored The Healthy Ramadan Guide. During Ramadan many families end up breaking their fast with cultural foods that are often deep fried. To avoid digestive discomfort as well as tiredness after overeating and consuming deep fried foods, I recommend making a shift to healthier choices such as eating a bowl of fruit before having cultural food for dinner. The morning meals before fasting also play a significant role in how one feels during a fast; The Healthy Ramadan Guide addresses how to pair protein, complex carbohydrates and healthy fats in an ideal way in preparation for a long fasting day.
A Typical South Asian Muslim Meal
Every South Asian meal is accompanied by a carbohydrate with either some variation of roti/flatbread or long grain white rice. It is common to make a pot of rice daily or every other day for the family to consume. When it comes to flatbread, they can be made with ghee, which would be more of a paratha. Flatbreads can also be made without added fat, which is a roti. Some families will make their rotis from scratch daily while others may purchase a frozen or premade option from the grocery store.
Living in North America has varying influence on what South Asian families’ plates look like. For example, some families may adopt more North American breakfast foods but may still keep their traditional foods for lunch and dinner. My parents are from Hyderabad, India; on special occasions we often made authentic Hyderabadi meals such as Hyderabadi Biryani (a meat and rice dish) paired with Bagaray Baigan (stewed eggplant curry).
Included below are some examples of typical meals:
- Breakfast: Breakfast is the meal with the most variation depending on the family. It can be as simple as a bowl of cereal or something like an egg omelet and curry with paratha. Often, families will have more of a traditional breakfast on weekends.
- Lunch and Dinner: These meals often look similar, with one to two curries and either rice or roti. The curry may be a meat curry with chicken, beef or lamb with various spices, or a vegetable curry may also be made as a side, consisting of veggies cooked with a gravy, or kept a bit drier. Alternatively, a lentil dish can be made as a curry. Common vegetables include okra, eggplant, cauliflower, potatoes, green beans, spinach, squash and cabbage, which are cooked with spices and oil. When plates are made, carbohydrates are the base. For example, this could look like a full plate of rice with curries on top. Every single bite of curry is taken with a spoonful of rice or roti. Eating with hands is also a common practice especially with roti, whereas a spoon or fork may be used for rice dishes.
- Snacks: Traditional snacks include spicy flour-based trail mixes and fruits such as mangos and guava. Chai (milk tea) is served with biscuits for an afternoon snack.
- Special Meals: Special meals often include heavier curries like Nihari, a stew called Haleem, or a rice and meat dish known as Biryani. These are often prepared for family gatherings, weddings or other special occasions. Meals are served buffet style and usually include multiple main options to choose from.
How Do the MyPlate Food Groups Align with the Dietary Preference of South Asian Muslim Cuisine?
When it comes to South Asian cuisine, vegetables are often cooked. Common vegetables include okra, eggplant, cauliflower, potatoes, green beans, spinach, squash and cabbage. Salads are served occasionally and often kept simple, made with lettuce, cucumbers and onions.
Favorite fruits are more seasonal during the summer and include mangos, guava, lychee and papaya. Fruit salad known as fruit chaat is generally made during Ramadan and includes common fruits such chopped apples, bananas, grapes and oranges and is seasoned with spices and fruit juice.
Common animal-based proteins include spiced chicken, lamb, beef and fish. Plant-based options include lentils, chickpeas, beans and paneer (a type of cheese).
Common grain options include a variety of flatbreads such as roti, paratha or the occasional puri. Long grain white rice is a staple in South Asian households as well as Basmati rice, which is used for special occasions.
Drinking a glass of milk daily, especially for children, is quite the norm in South Asian households. Other dairy products include yogurt, lassi (a yogurt drink) and paneer.
The Bottom Line
South Asian Muslim cuisine can vary from family to family, especially when influenced by religion or where a family is currently living. The focus should be on continuing homecooked meals and enjoying the various South Asian flavors. South Asian meals can meet MyPlate recommendations and incorporate healthy eating principles without compromising the inclusion of cultural foods.
South Asian Muslim cuisine is one of many diverse cuisines that can serve as examples of healthy and nutritious eating. This cuisine can broadly encompass the recommendations promoted in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and their associated MyPlate graphic.