REVIEW: Healthy Starts Here!

By Mairlyn Smith


Cookbook review written by

Healthy Starts Here! is available for purchase through our online store or at local bookstores

Born in Vancouver (BC), Mairlyn Smith wears a variety of hats that include home economist, teacher, cookbook author, actor and comedian. Healthy Starts Here! (published by Whitecap Books, $29.95 USD) is her newest cookbook to be released. It includes over 140 recipes to help guide you through adopting a healthy lifestyle that is meant to be more of a long term commitment rather than just another diet fad. This book provides readers with an informative yet still lighthearted approach to eating healthy. Mairlyn’s signature comedic flair instantly puts you at ease, making the whole process of altering unhealthy eating habits less overwhelming. You’ve got someone in your corner and she won’t let you down!

Each chapter is organized around a particular nutrient-rich ingredient, and features nutrition breakdowns and diabetes food choice values for each recipe. It took me some time to get used to this particular style of recipe organization, as I tend to prefer when a book is broken down into different meal types or seasons. But that’s just me.

Geared towards busy families, the recipes in Healthy Starts Here! are all based around eating seasonal and locally grown foods. Each recipe highlights kid approved recipes and seasonally appropriate meals that use minimal ingredients but with each one providing maximum flavor and maximum nutrient content.

Something I’ve learned from this book? Trust Mairlyn. When she says that only soft silken tofu will work with the chocolate mousse…listen to her. When she says the Organic Traditions brand of cocoa nibs are the least bitter…listen to her and learn from my mistakes.

I love all of the personal anecdotes that are guaranteed to have you rolling on the kitchen floor laughing, but you will also walk away with an increased knowledge and awareness of food nutrition. Who says learning can’t be fun?! Helpful tips and tricks are scattered throughout the book, including ways of retraining your sodium-addled taste buds, effective and healthy grocery shopping techniques, and the truth behind legumes and flatulence. Yup – that’s right.

With only three recipes in this book calling for salt, you might think that the flavour of the food will suffer. Not the case! Through the use of carefully selected herbs and spices, the recipes in Mairlyn’s book are big on flavour but in a healthy way. When cooking from this book at no point did I ever feel like I was being deprived or having to eat ‘blah’ diet food. Everything tasted great and I felt great.

Good-for-You Chicken Fingers

RATING: 4 out of 5 (love the use of chili sauce to bind the crumbs)

THE TEST: What kid doesn’t like chicken fingers?! In our household chicken fingers rate as a top notch treat, but to be honest they kind of creep me out. Especially when they arrive on your plate in all sorts of different ‘fun’ shapes. Wanting to find a healthy less creepy way of quickly and easily serving at home, I decided to give Mairlyn’s version a try.

I was ecstatic at the speed and ease with which this recipe came together! It took less than 30 minutes from start to finish, making it a weeknight friendly dish. I opted to use stir-fry chicken (pre-sliced chicken breast) which was the optimal size for chicken fingers and made the prep even faster. The idea of coating the chicken strips in chili sauce prior to rolling them in the crumb mixture is genius – talk about a great flavour boost! The crumb mixture is made up of whole-grain cereal flakes and a variety of spices (including paprika, onion powder, garlic powder, ground sage, dried oregano, dried basil and black pepper), which is a healthier alternative to breading the chicken while giving it extra crunch.

The chicken fingers are baked in the oven for approximately 20 minutes, allowing you enough time to whip up the dipping sauce (low-fat creamy Caesar or ranch dressing mixed with low-fat plain yogurt).

Easy peasy.

THE RESULTS: I thought the chicken fingers turned out really well, but neither of my kids liked the flavour and found it to be too spicy. Wimps. Next time perhaps I will try the suggested plainer version that omits some of the more flavourful spices.

The chicken was moist, the chili sauce provided a nice yet subtle hint of flavour, and the cereal lent a wonderful crunch to the exterior which held a slightly sweet taste that went well with the overall savory nature of the dish. The dip was tasty without all of the usual calories. And let’s be honest…we all know chicken fingers are simply a vehicle for the dip!

Family-Style Meatless Chili

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 (simply bursting with flavour & health!)

(for a copy of this recipe, please click here)

THE TEST: This was one of the recipes that Mairlyn suggested I test, and since it was Meatless Monday in our house and I happened to have all of the ingredients on hand, I took it as a sign and got to work.

My family favourite version of chili is a Michael Smith recipe that involves ground beef and bacon and is insanely good. But I was excited to try a lighter, more health friendly option. As much as my two-year old would like to have bacon a part of every meal, probably best not to go that route.

THE RESULTS: This was one of the best meatless versions of chili I’ve ever made. The texture was perfect and full of lots of chunky goodness. At first I was skeptical that the recipe did not call for any salt, and I must confess that I did add a pinch but only a pinch which is amazing for a salt freak like me. All of the flavour came from the spices and sautéed vegetables.

Chockfull of black beans, red kidney beans and lentils, this recipe is healthy while still being hearty enough to satisfy even the most carnivorous eaters. By sautéing the onions and corn until nice and golden brown, it imparts a wonderful southwest flavour that tastes almost smoky. The combination of spices called for in the recipe carries such incredible flavour and yet are still mild enough for children. The Worcestershire sauce lends the dish a nice salty flavour that rounds out this chili perfectly, and when combined with a variety of toppings (avocado, tomatoes, sour cream, cheddar cheese, cilantro) what’s not to love?!

As with any chili, this dish tastes even better the next day so bring on the leftovers! Some of the creative suggestions for using leftover chili include Nachos, Mexican Jacket Potatoes, or Quickie Quesadillas.

Triple-Chocolate Brownie Cookies

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 (satisfies sugar cravings without the guilt)

THE TEST: At first glance the words ‘triple-chocolate’, ‘brownie’ and ‘cookies’ probably don’t belong in the same sentence as ‘healthy’, but when the recipe uses heart-healthy canola oil, natural cocoa powder, cocoa nibs and dark chocolate you can consume these treats without the guilt.

This recipe is basically a healthy cookie version of those famous two-bite brownies. Right off the bat Mairlyn warns that they don’t look pretty, but who cares so long as they taste great and contain significantly less calories than the grocery store version of these treats?! The cookie dough came together very easily and quickly, and because the cookies only need approximately 8 minutes to bake you can whip a batch of these bad boys up in no time.

THE RESULTS: I thought these cookies scored relatively high on the yum scale, the kids devoured them, but unfortunately they didn’t turn Mr. Spock’s crank. You win some, you lose some.

The cookies are quite dense and turned out a little on the dry side, but the intense chocolate flavour was wonderful! The combination of cocoa powder, dark chocolate and cocoa nibs work well and really ramp up the chocolaty goodness.

Unfortunately I couldn’t find the suggested brand of cocoa nibs (Organic Traditions), and Mairlyn warns that it is best to try and hunt this particular brand down as others can be overly bitter. The brand I ended up using was slightly more bitter than I would have liked (keep in mind that cocoa nibs are not supposed to be sweet or meant to be a chocolaty snack), but were by no means inedible. They gave an interesting crunch to the cookie which was similar to chocolate covered espresso beans. An odd yet not altogether unpleasant texture.