By David Grotto, RD
Each year at this time, when Passover comes around, I get a yearning to know more about Jewish culture and the traditional foods used to celebrate this holiday. I grew up in a Christian household, but I had a Jewish grandfather on my mother’s side who was quite influential in my life. He inspired me to pursue a career in nutrition, but unfortunately, when it came to passing down Jewish culture, I really didn’t learn much from him because he wasn’t observant. So, for my own edification, I decided to turn to dietitian friends and colleagues who were familiar with the meaning and symbolism behind foods used to celebrate Passover and asked them to answer my many questions (thank you all so much!).
Passover is an eight-day celebration that commemorates the Jewish people’s freedom from years of slavery in ancient Egypt, according to Bonnie R. Giller, MS, RD, CDN, CDE Passover the Healthy Way. The “Passover” part refers to a 10th and final plague that God sent down to convince the Egyptian Pharaoh, Ramses, to release Jews from bondage. “So that death would not mistakenly take the life of their first born and “pass over” their homes, Jews painted their doorways with lamb’s blood,” relays Merav Levi, MS, RD who grew up in Israel and is now a dietitian in private practice in New York.
“What is unique about the Passover service is that it is celebrated at the dining room table, says Toby Smithson, RD, CDE, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics based in Chicago. “Every year, Jewish people retell the Passover story so all generations do not forget this monumental time in Jewish history.”
Passover begins with a traditional meal called a Seder. “The word Seder means ‘order.’ The Seder is held on the first two nights of Passover,” relays Giller. “It is a special dinner that is the highlight of Passover during which time we eat special foods, tell the story of the Exodus, read from the Haggadah, sing songs, and say special prayers.”
Maror: bitter herbs. Weisenberger uses horseradish to symbolize the bitter enslavement in Egypt.
Karpas: a non-bitter vegetable. Many use parsley and dip it into salt water as a symbol of the tears of the Jewish people of this time
Charoset: a mixture of fruit and nuts. There are many versions of charoset. “I usually make two versions,” says Weisenberger. “The first is a bit like a salad. It contains diced apples, walnuts, and pecans seasoned with cinnamon, ginger, sugar and/or honey, and sweet kosher wine. The second way I make it is with dates, raisins, and walnuts pureed together in a food processor with just enough sweet kosher wine to hold it together. You roll this into tiny balls. It’s amazingly delicious. Charoset symbolizes the mortar that the Children of Israel made during their enslavement.”
Shankbone: this is a roasted bone that symbolizes the Paschal lamb offered as the Passover sacrifice. It also symbolizes the mighty arm of God that persuaded Pharaoh to free the Israelites.
Roasted egg: symbolic food of mourners. “The egg should be dark and look burnt because it represents a symbol of mourning for the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem,” says Karen Kattan Moreno, MS, RD. “It is also a symbol of mourning for the destruction of the two Temples,” adds Giller.
Matzo: unleavened dough symbolizes the hasty departure of the Jews from Egypt. “Matzo can be made with many different types of grains but is generally made with wheat. (They now sell gluten free matzo),” says Shoshana Werber, MS, RD, owner of Werber Wellness.
The Seder plate serves more as part of the ritual rather than to satisfy a big appetite. “After the Seder is over, a huge feast is served with many different kinds of salads, meats, chicken, and potatoes or rice, depending on the family,” informs Moreno.
Unfortunately, the traditional Seder meal can get a bad rap when it comes to nutrition. “Because there is an ‘order’ to the Seder, the story of the exodus is told before the meal is eaten. By the time people get to the meal, they are over hungry and often eat beyond the point of satisfaction,” says Giller. “The traditional meal using traditional ingredients can wreak havoc on the health of people with diabetes and/or heart disease,” adds Smithson. “The majority of the recipes use eggs, oil, and sugar. The Seder meal itself is a large meal with several courses, although modifications can be made to recipes to still honor tradition.” Besides the abundance of fat and sugar, some of my experts pointed out that there is definitely a lack of fiber. “Some people complain that they get constipated over Passover because of all the matzo,” reports Felicia D. Stoler, DCN, MS, RD, FACSM, Author of Living Skinny in Fat Genes: The Healthy Way to Lose Weight and Feel Great. “I tease my mother that her traditional eastern European recipes are ‘artery-clogging’. Let’s face it, people didn’t know about the diet/health relationship back then. There’s lots of margarine and eggs used in many recipes. I can go through close to 100 eggs to prepare a big Seder.”
But there’s good news for those who want to put out a healthier Passover spread. Our experts offered these recommendations:
- Use egg substitutes or egg whites (replace one egg with two egg whites) to offer a healthier option that is much lower in fat and cholesterol. For baked recipes replace one egg with ¼ cup unsweetened applesauce.
- If you choose oil in your recipe make sure you are choosing unsaturated oil such as olive or canola oil. Use kosher for Passover vegetable cooking spray or vegetable broth in a non-stick pan when sautéing instead of extra fat (oil, butter, or margarine) to help cut back on fat intake.
- Kitchens are usually filled with calorie-laden Passover desserts; something as simple as reducing the amount of sugar by a third can still result in a fabulous dish. Or an even better option is eliminating the baked desserts of cakes or cookies and using fruit instead.
- Matzo, a Passover staple, now comes in many healthier alternatives: spelt, rye, and whole wheat to name just a few. Quinoa is a whole-grain alternative allowed during the Passover season. Quinoa provides a good source of fiber and protein. High-fiber matzo meals are also available. Make sure to include fresh fruit and vegetables at each meal to help boost fiber intake. Quinoa must have kosher Passover certification.
- I say that my Seders are Mediterranean inspired. I use grains like quinoa and kasha, beans, and lots and lots of vegetables and fruits in my side dishes. One year, my mother did the “traditional” night, and I did the second night with gazpacho soup, salmon, Israeli salad, vegetable matzo lasagna, and steamed veggies. Nobody walked away from my Seder table loosening their pants!
- Try to eat a small meal or snack before you start the Seder so that you don’t get to the meal starving and end up munching on matzo throughout the Seder until the food arrives.
- Instead of using potato starch in recipes you can use ground nuts as a healthy alternative.
- Remember to save room for the actual food and not stuff yourself with the appetizers.
- For breakfast, try and have a high protein yogurt to keep you full or as an alternative to cream cheese on matzo try peanut butter made only from peanuts for a high protein breakfast or snack on the go.
- When cooking for the Seder, try and balance out the main courses with vegetable side dishes such as a salad, sautéed broccoli and cauliflower, roasted mini peppers, and grilled asparagus. Fill half your plate with vegetables and remember that there are always leftovers and another Seder tomorrow, so don’t stuff yourself.
- Quinoa is an allowed grain and should be used for a fiber boost, along with baked potatoes and sweet potatoes eaten with the skin. I have written Passover the Healthy Way: Light, Tasty and Easy Recipes Your Whole Family Will Enjoy to help people enjoy their favorite holiday recipes without all the calories, fat, cholesterol and sodium.
But others put this once-a-year holiday in perspective. “I am a stickler for enjoyment. Just like we splurge on Thanksgiving and Christmas, it’s important to use potion control. If you overate today, exercise more tomorrow and balance it with more salads the next day,” says Levi.
Happy Passover! Please do share any of your Passover favorites in the comment section and check back next week for some healthy Passover recipes from my experts!