The Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins Thursday, has traditionally been good for the soul but terrible for the waistline. In much of the Middle East and South Asia, the long days of fasting — a symbolic spiritual sacrifice — are followed by heavy, sweet meals eaten at night and again before dawn.
But a new generation of health-conscious Muslims in the United States — especially busy professionals and mothers — are finding and sharing ways to cook more healthful Ramadan meals that also can be prepared in advance — in some cases to the dismay of their immigrant elders.
“Sadly, in our culture, Ramadan meals are typically not healthy; they are quite heavy, almost like a fear of starvation that never happened,” said Rabia Chaudhary, 40, a Pakistani American from Greenbelt and a fellow at the New America Foundation. “I have toned it down a lot in my house, but it is still hard for my parents to go through Ramadan without all those deep-fried snacks.”
Aya Owies, 23, an Egyptian American yoga instructor and food blogger based in New Jersey, has been posting her own experimental Ramadan recipes that are filling but not fattening, such as buckwheat with nuts or dates, roasted vegetables with light mayonnaise sauce, and kale salad with pecans and apples.
Owies said she has seen a major trend among younger Muslims who want to “eat healthy and stay active, even in a month like this. They can’t work out, and after fasting all day there is cake waiting for them. But they are looking for alternatives.”
Ramadan, she added, is “all about making connections between mind, body and spirit. It shouldn’t just be about starving yourself but about finding a balance.”
Some older, first-generation immigrants, under gentle prodding from their American-raised children, are also weaning themselves from the oil-soaked and sugary goodies that defined their Ramadan rituals back home, both for the fast-breaking iftar dinner and the pre-dawn suhoor meal meant to sustain one’s body through the coming day.
“In our household, it was always a tradition for suhoor to have parathas or heavy bread fried in oil, with fried eggs. And for iftar, about 70 percent of the dishes were fried,” said Bano Makhdoom, 60, a Pakistani American in Potomac, Md. “But with the last few Ramadans, all that has been eliminated,” she said. “We are trying to have more simple salads, bean dishes and soups.”
In addition to her concern for the health of her three American-raised daughters, Makhdoom said, she and her husband are thinking more of their own. “As you get older, you can’t put in all that fried food, because it is bad for the arteries,” she said with a laugh.
For families with older children who are fasting, especially when Ramadan falls during hot summer months, there are other concerns, such as how to make sure they hold up all day in camp or at sports activities. Fasting is optional for children, and some practice it a day or two at a time during the month.
Mona Malik, a social worker in Great Falls, Va., said her two teenage sons wanted to fast this Ramadan, so she plans to feed them a hearty but healthful morning meal for suhoor, such as omelets with avocado and lots of juice to keep them hydrated. She and her husband will drink “green smoothies,” a blend of greens, fruits and coconut water, which are refreshing and filling.
“When you wake up at 3 a.m., you don’t feel like eating. I want to make sure my boys have the energy to go all day, so I give them options,” Malik said. “Sometimes we go to a diner, because it’s a fun outing at that time of night. And if they want a doughnut, I let them splurge.”
One common obstacle to eating right at Ramadan is that iftar dinners are social occasions, often gatherings in private homes where hostesses might have taken pains to produce an array of sweet and fattening treats. Naba Sharif, a Pakistani American doctor in Arlington, said she has been spending more iftars at home lately, just to avoid such temptations.
“When I was growing up, we ate a lot of ethnic food, some oily, with a lot of carbs and curries,” Sharif said. “What I am trying to do in adulthood is keep the Ramadan meals lighter and more balanced. Iftar is tough, because we go to so many community gatherings, and you can’t control what you eat. This Ramadan, I plan to stay home more.”
For Asma Uddin, 34, a Rockville mother who edits a Web site for Muslim women, the priority for Ramadan meals is saving time, so she prepares most food in advance, filling jars with yogurt, fruit and honey and concocting batches of barley, lentil and meat stew that can be refrigerated and heated.
“In our South Asian tradition, when you broke the fast there was an array of delicious but horribly fattening foods waiting for you,” Uddin said. “But with my generation I am seeing a more analytical approach now. People want to stay true to tradition, but they also want to be healthy. They are looking for ways to maximize the benefits of Ramadan, not just spiritually, but physically too.”