Making the traditional tamale healthier

or many households of Mexican descent in the United States, the weeks following Thanksgiving aren’t only about wrapping gifts but also about wrapping tamales. The savory treats – traditionally prepared with generous amounts of lard and lots of salt – don’t have to be unhealthy. 

talames-recipeFor those unfamiliar with the delicacy, a tamale is made with seasoned, cooked pork surrounded by cornmeal, or masa, encased in a corn husk (or banana leaf). It is then steam cooked. Tamale recipes can vary greatly with the only mainstays being the masa shell and the husk. Unfortunately for those who enjoy tamales, they are often not very healthy.

“My grandmother would use an entire carton of lard when preparing the masa. The amount of salt is also extensive as salt is often added to the meat as well as the masa,” said Jennifer Pascoe, a registered nurse in the Houston Methodist Hospital Weight Management Center, who educates patients on how to eat healthier and maintain special diets. “Salt should be limited in all diets especially those with diabetes, hypertension, and congestive heart failure. The recommendation is to not exceed 2 grams per day.”

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), heart disease is the leading cause of death for Americans. Latino populations face even higher risks of heart disease as a result of their preponderance for obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes.

There are many substitutions that can be made to make the traditional tamale healthier, according to Pascoe. In addition, you can use a healthier recipe for tamales.

“For starters you can buy a leaner cut of pork or at the very least trim the fat off the meat before cooking, and then make sure you drain the fat off the meat before preparing the mixture,” Pascoe said.

Here are more tips for healthier tamales:

  • Replace the pork with a healthier alternative such as ground or shredded white chicken or turkey meat, beans or vegetables. Popular vegetarian tamale recipes call for cooked vegetables such as serrano peppers or spinach, black or pinto beans, and low-fat cheeses.
  • Replace lard or vegetable shortening with vegetable oil.
  • Replace the pork drippings some people use to flavor the masa with chili powder since it’s the chili powder that gives the pork drippings some of its flavor.

Pascoe said the biggest challenge to removing the lard or vegetable shortening in the mixture will be spreading the masa on the corn leafs, which will take more time and patience but will be worth the fat and calories saved.

There are many substitutions that can be made to make the traditional tamale healthier Click To Tweet

“If you know you have high blood pressure or diabetes, you probably shouldn’t eat traditional tamales,” Pascoe said. “For these people I would recommend preparing a dozen or so healthy tamales, which use all of our healthy substitutions.”

And everyone should limit the amount of tamales they eat regardless of how they’re prepared.

Healthier Chicken Tamales
Yields 16
A healthier version of the traditional chicken tamale
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253 calories
26 g
60 g
5 g
25 g
1 g
216 g
358 g
2 g
0 g
4 g
Nutrition Facts
Serving Size
Amount Per Serving
Calories 253
Calories from Fat 46
% Daily Value *
Total Fat 5g
Saturated Fat 1g
Trans Fat 0g
Polyunsaturated Fat 2g
Monounsaturated Fat 2g
Cholesterol 60mg
Sodium 358mg
Total Carbohydrates 26g
Dietary Fiber 3g
Sugars 2g
Protein 25g
Vitamin A
Vitamin C
* Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your Daily Values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs.
  1. Filling
  2. 2.5 pounds chicken breasts
  3. 3.5 cups water (or enough to cover chicken in pot)
  4. 1 teaspoon canola oil
  5. 1 medium onion
  6. 1 medium bell pepper
  7. 3 garlic cloves
  8. 1 tomato
  9. 2 teaspoons cumin
  10. 2 teaspoons dried chili peppers, crushed
  11. 1 teaspoon low-sodium salt
  12. 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  13. 1/2 cup tomato paste
  14. Masa
  15. 4 cups masa corn flour
  16. 4 teaspoons canola oil
  17. 1 teaspoon baking powder
  18. 2 teaspoons chili powder
  19. 1/2 teaspoon low-sodium salt
  20. 2 cups chicken broth (reserved from cooking the chicken)
  21. 18 to 20 dried corn husks
  1. Place the chicken breasts in a pot and add enough water to cover them. Bring pot to a low boil. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes until the meat is cooked.
  2. Remove chicken from the broth (set broth aside) and let it cool. When the chicken is cool enough to handle, shred it and chop. You may add a little broth to keep it moist.
  3. Heat the canola oil in a large skillet and sauté the onion, garlic and peppers until tender. Add the tomato, chili peppers, pepper, cumin, and low-sodium salt. Add tomato paste and 1/2 cup of the chicken broth and simmer for about 15 minutes. Stir the mixture as needed.
  4. Puree the sauce in a food processor or blender and return it to the pan. Add the shredded chicken, stir and let the mixture simmer for 10 to 15 minutes on low heat. Allow to cool.
  5. Soak the corn husks in a large bowl of hot water for about 20 minutes. Make sure they are pliable.
  6. Prepare the masa mixture by combining all ingredients and mixing until the mixture clumps together. Add broth as necessary to make the masa pliable. Turn on to a lightly floured surface and knead lightly for a minute. Divide the masa mixture into 16 equal balls.
  7. Drain and rinse the corn husks. Pat dry and keep covered with a warm damp towel. Tear two or three corn husks into 1/4 inch strips to use for ties. You will need 16 corn husks for the tamales.
  8. Flatten the corn husk on a flat surface. With a spoon or spatula spread one ball of dough over the husk leaving about a 1-inch margin on all sides. You may add a few tablespoons of warm chicken broth to the masa to make it more pliable and easier to spread. Add about 2 or 3 tablespoons of filling to the center. Roll up lengthwise into a cylinder and wrap with the corn husk. Secure the ends by tying with a strip of husk. Repeat with remaining dough, filling the remaining husks. You may freeze the tamales to cook at a later date or steam cook immediately.
  9. Place the tamales in a steamer basket and set over one inch of boiling water. Cover tightly and reduce heat. Steam the tamales between 30 to 45 minutes until cooked. Check frequently and replenish water as needed. Frozen tamales should be thawed for at least one hour and will require a longer cook time.
Healthy Knowledge

Pumpkin recipe possibilities

Each fall, a frenzy of pumpkin products become available in just about as many forms as one can imagine. From the long-awaited pumpkin spice latte that has come to signify the start of fall to pumpkin spice M&Ms, fall’s signature squash takes the food market by storm.

How do these pumpkin-themed treats capture that festive fall feeling? Surprisingly, they often do so without any real pumpkin! Many of these pumpkin-themed products contain pumpkin spice flavoring.

That’s right, there’s no pumpkin in your pumpkin spice latte (quite a revelation to many). Go ahead and indulge in these seasonal treats in moderation, but don’t miss out on the nutritional perks of real pumpkin recipes!

Many popular Fall pumpkin treats contain no real pumpkin and instead contain pumpkin spice flavoring Click To Tweet

Packed with nutrients like potassium help regulate blood pressure and beta-carotene promotes good vision and a glowing complexion.

One cup of pumpkin has 141 percent of your daily vitamin A and 12 percent of your fiber! Here are some pumpkin-perfect recipes that are a great way enjoy this earthy native North American gourd.

Pumpkin Soup
Pumpkin soup
If you want to up your presentation, you can pour your pumpkin soup into a carved-out pumpkin.

Pumpkin is a natural addition to cool-weather soup, imparting a burnt-orange autumn color, velvety-smooth thickness and rich flavor. Curry and pumpkin is a match made in heaven flavor pairing. Canned pumpkin is available year-round and is excellent in pumpkin soup, but if you want to create your own pumpkin puree, here’s how:

Scrape seeds and pulp from a couple of small pumpkins cut into chunks, roast at 350°F for about 45 minutes or until pumpkin is fork tender, remove the softened skin and puree in a food processor. For a darling presentation, serve pumpkin soup in hollowed-out petite pumpkin halves, top with a dollop of light sour cream and chopped chives.

Pumpkin-Protein Pudding
Pumpkin protein pudding
This pumpkin pudding recipe is simple on ingredients and low in calories.

This pudding will satisfy your pumpkin pie craving without a hefty calorie load! Simply blend together 6 ounces of low-fat vanilla Greek yogurt, 1/4 cup pumpkin puree, a dash (1/8 tsp) of cinnamon and a dash of nutmeg.

The protein from Greek yogurt and filling fiber from the pumpkin gives this pudding major staying power. Top with 1 tbsp crushed cinnamon graham cracker or toasted chopped pecans for a delicate crunch.

Shopping tip: When buying canned pumpkin, be sure and look for 100% pure pumpkin as many shoppers pick up sugar loaded canned pumpkin pie mix by mistake.

Pumpkin-Pie Oatmeal

Add festive fall flavor to your morning bowl of oatmeal by stirring 1/4 cup pureed pumpkin, 1/4 tsp pumpkin pie spice, 1/4 tsp vanilla extract and 1 tbsp maple syrup or brown sugar into one cup prepared oatmeal. Top with 1 tbsp toasted nuts.

Pumpkin-licious Smoothie 

Jazz up your smoothie routine by adding a dollop of canned pumpkin with a dash of nutmeg and cinnamon. Blend together with vanilla yogurt and ice for a scrumptious smoothie.

And now for the finishing touch that can be sprinkled on top of each of the above recipes or seasoned for a yummy crunchy-munchy snack.

Roasted Pepitas
Roasted pumpkin seeds
Pumpkin seeds or pepitas are a good source of zinc and magnesium.

Pepitas are green-shelled pumpkin seeds that are more delicate and less chewy than the unshelled pumpkin seeds thanks to the husky outer layer being removed. Pumpkin seeds are a top source of minerals like skin-renewing zinc and heart-healthy magnesium.

To roast, preheat oven to 325°F, toss 1 cup pepitas with 1 tsp olive oil and layer onto a large baking sheet. Roast for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until golden.

Go sweet or savory with your seed seasonings by immediately tossing the seeds with a tsp of cinnamon and tbsp of sugar or 1/2 tsp smoked paprika and 1/4 tsp of cayenne.

Eating pretty: foods for radiant skin

When it comes to a glowing complexion, nourishing your skin from the inside-out is just as important as what you put on your skin. Eating the right foods can help protect skin from oxidative stress that contributes to the aging process, clear up acne and brighten a dull complexion. Here are some ingredients for attaining radiant skin.


As the name implies, this juicy, super-sweet fruit is over 90 percent water and keeps skin smooth and firm by hydrating cells so they’re plump and full. Watermelon is rich in lycopene, an antioxidant that gives watermelon its pink hue and provides protection against damaging ultraviolet rays. Enjoy a watermelon salad that’s bursting with flavor by simply cutting the watermelon into cubes and combining with spicy arugula, thinly sliced red onion, red-wine vinegar, a splash of olive oil and a sprinkle of crumbled goat cheese.

Lycopene in watermelon provides protection against damaging ultraviolet rays Click To Tweet


Pepitas are hulled pumpkin seeds that are loaded with zinc, a mineral that’s involved in many biochemical processes throughout the body, including skin-cell renewal. A great addition to a homemade trail mix or sprinkled into oatmeal or yogurt, these green seeds have a delicate crunch and a nutty, slightly-sweet flavor. To deepen the flavor of pepitas, stir frequently in a small skillet over medium heat until golden-brown.


This sweet, juicy tropical fruit is chock-full of vitamin C, an antioxidant that plays a strong role in the production of collagen. Collagen is a protein that is essential for keeping skin firm and elastic. Select pineapple with a sweet fragrance at the stem end and make sure it is heavy for its size. Create a dazzling salad that’s brimming with vitamin C by mixing pineapple with other tropical fruits such as kiwi, mango and papaya.


If you want a summer tan, crunching on carrots can give you a sun-kissed look without spray tans or damaging sun exposure. The carotenoid antioxidants in carrots, including beta-carotene, give carrots their deep orange coloring and provide a subtle natural tan by the pigments getting deposited in the skin. Beta-carotene keeps skin youthful by targeting and repairing skin damage as well as protecting skin from the ravages of excess sun exposure. Snack on baby carrots dipped in protein-rich hummus or almond butter. Shredded raw carrots add a sweet flavor and bright pop of orange to salads.

Here are three great recipes you can try that incorporate these ingredients.

Almond Butter Log

Almonds make up the base of this creamy recipe.
Almonds make up the base of this creamy recipe.

Time: 50 minutes


  • 1 ripe banana
  • 2-3 cups raw almonds
  • Cinnamon
  • Almond milk


  1. Blend the raw almonds in a blender or food processor.
  2. Stop and stir the nuts every 5 minutes. During the process, the almonds will have the appearance of crumbs but be patient; this can take up to 30 minutes.
  3. Continue blending until the consistency is even.
  4. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  5. Peel one ripe banana and cut down the center as if you were making a banana split.
  6. Place the banana on a baking sheet line with aluminum foil, and fill with 1-2 teaspoons of the homemade almond butter.
  7. Gently press the sides together and wrap with foil.
  8. Bake for 15 minutes.
  9. Garnish with a sprinkle of cinnamon.
  10. Let the banana log cool on baking sheet before eating.

Spicy Arugula Watermelon Salad

Watermelon can serve as an excellent base for a salad.
Watermelon pairs well with salad greens.

Time: 20 minutes


  • ½ giant chilled watermelon, cubed or thinly sliced
  • 1 peeled cucumber, diced
  • 1 red tomato, diced
  • 1 yellow tomato, diced
  • 2 tablespoons red onion, sliced
  • 2 tablespoons tarragon leaves
  • 2 tablespoons chives, thinly chopped
  • 2 tablespoons basil leaves, cut into strips
  • 2 tablespoons cilantro
  • 1 avocado, diced
  • 4 ounces goat cheese, crumbled
  • 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil


  1. In a large bowl mix the fruit, vegetables, then combine with spicy arugula.
  2. In a small dish, whisk together red wine vinegar and olive oil, drizzle dressing over salad and garnish with herbs and goat cheese.

Pineapple Chicken Spread

Chicken spread works great on crackers or in sandwiches.
Chicken spread works great on crackers or in sandwiches.

Time: 55 minutes                                                      


  • 3 grilled chicken breasts
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • 1 ½ cups pineapple, diced
  • 1 lime
  • ¼ cup cucumber, diced
  • ¼ cup red bell pepper, diced
  • ¼ cup yellow bell pepper, diced
  • ¼ cup red onion, diced
  • 1 cup guacamole dip
  • 1 ½ teaspoons sea salt


  1. Halve the large pineapple lengthwise, and then hollow out one half.
  2. Reserve 1 ½ cup of the fruit for the chicken spread and save the remainder for future use.
  3. Lightly season chicken breasts with sea salt and pepper to taste and grill over medium heat in a large skillet in 2 teaspoons olive Oil.
  4. Once both sides are evenly grilled and tender, remove from heat and let rest for up to 5 minutes.
  5. While the chicken breasts are cooling down, use this time to wash and cut the vegetables. In a large bowl, combine all of the ingredients and mix gently.
  6. Juice the lime and add the remaining sea salt if necessary.
  7. Cover with plastic wrap and place in refrigerator for 15-20 minutes. This will give all of your ingredients time to settle which will intensify the flavor.
  8. Fill the hollowed pineapple with the chicken spread mixture and serve with crackers for party guests or serve in a whole wheat pita pocket for a handy, on-the-go lunch.

Recipes by Nitiya Spearman

Recipe: Fruit Salad With Cannoli Cream

Our goal at Houston Methodist is to make sure our patients get healthy and stay healthy. But we understand that we have to also be healthy if we’re going to help our patients. This is the reason that Houston Methodist has established a strong culture that promotes employee health.

Getting healthy and staying healthy sometimes requires us to establish good habits, such as getting exercise on a regular basis, and eating a healthy diet. Many people believe this entails long hours at the gym and sacrificing your favorite foods.

While that’s certainly one way to do it, it can be time consuming and difficult. Believe me, I know. However there are many simple habits you can develop to help you accomplish the same thing and they only require us to choose healthier alternatives. You’d be surprised how effective these simple tips can be:

  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
  • Don’t take the closest parking space at the mall – park farther away and walk.
  • Drink water or tea, instead of soda or sugary beverages.
  • Pack a homemade lunch instead of stopping at the fast food drive through.

Our president and CEO, Dr. Marc Boom, lives a healthy lifestyle and encourages all my fellow employees to do the same. He recently shared this fruit salad with cannoli cream recipe with me – and now I’m sharing with you.

It’s not as healthy as eating an apple, but it’s better than a slice of pie. And again, sometimes getting healthy is about finding a healthier alternative – and this one is loaded with delicious fruits. You’ll be amazed how wonderful and delicious cold fruit can be in the summer, making this dessert perfect for the Fourth of July.

Fruit Salad With Cannoli Cream
Yields 6
Write a review
Total Time
45 min
Total Time
45 min
179 calories
24 g
22 g
9 g
4 g
4 g
189 g
19 g
15 g
0 g
4 g
Nutrition Facts
Serving Size
Amount Per Serving
Calories 179
Calories from Fat 76
% Daily Value *
Total Fat 9g
Saturated Fat 4g
Trans Fat 0g
Polyunsaturated Fat 1g
Monounsaturated Fat 3g
Cholesterol 22mg
Sodium 19mg
Total Carbohydrates 24g
Dietary Fiber 6g
Sugars 15g
Protein 4g
Vitamin A
Vitamin C
* Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your Daily Values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs.
  1. 1/3 cup whole milk ricotta cheese
  2. 1/3 cup whipping cream; (plus 2 tablespoons)
  3. 3 tablespoons powdered sugar
  4. 1 pinch ground cinnamon
  5. 12 ounces fresh strawberries; hulled, quartered (about 2 1/2 cups)
  6. 1/2 pint fresh raspberries; (about 1 1/4 cups)
  7. 1/2 pint blueberries
  8. 1/2 pint blackberries
  9. 1 tablespoon sugar
  10. 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  11. 2 kiwi; peeled, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  12. 3 tablespoons sliced almonds; toasted
  1. Stir the ricotta and 2 tablespoons of cream in a medium bowl to blend.
  2. Beat the remaining 1/3 cup of cream, powdered sugar, and cinnamon in a large bowl until semi-firm peaks form.
  3. Fold the ricotta into the whipped cream.
  4. Place in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes to stiffen and yield a creamier filling. (This can be prepared 4 hours ahead of time. Cover and refrigerate.)
  5. Toss the strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and/or blackberries, sugar, and lemon juice in a medium bowl to combine.
  6. Let the fruit stand until juices form, tossing occasionally a few times for about 15 minutes. Add the kiwi.
  7. Spoon the fruit mixture into 4 dessert bowls.
  8. Dollop the ricotta cream atop the fruit.
  9. Sprinkle with the almonds and serve.
Healthy Knowledge
 Special thanks to BigOven user Debbie Painko for her photo of this recipe.

Summertime snacks fit for kids

In just a few days, my teenage son will come spend the next month with me, and there are three things I’m certain of: He’ll stay up long after he’s supposed to; he’ll sleep way longer than he should; and he’ll eat me out of house and home.

While I don’t have the energy to control the first and I have to work and can’t always control the second, I do know I have some power over what he eats when he’s at my house. As anyone with a teenage boy in the house will attest – they can eat … a lot. Just because he’s going to eat doesn’t mean he can’t eat healthy.

While we can't control everything our kids do, we can help them make healthier decisions when it comes to food Click To Tweet

I reached out to Kristen Kizer, R.D., L.D., a clinical dietitian with Houston Methodist Wellness Services for some healthy food suggestions for my son. She provided me some great (and simple!) summertime snacks that should keep any teenager properly fueled for most activities.

Guacamole and baby carrots:

“All this simple guacamole requires is jar of salsa and some avocados. You mix them together and you have an instant dip for veggies,” Kristen said. She recommends baby carrots because they’re already washed and ready to eat. “The vitamin C in the salsa will keep the guacamole from turning brown and the healthy monounsaturated fat from the avocado will keep your hungry teens satisfied,” she said.

Whole wheat rotini and veggies and pasta sauce:

“Pasta is versatile and can easily be made in large quantities. Take a bag of frozen mixed veggies together with a jar of pasta sauce and heat up in a sauce pot while you cook the pasta,” Kristen said. To make it easy for your teenager to heat up, Kristen suggests putting everything in the refrigerator in a covered glass container once it’s been cooked. “All your kids have to do is grab the complete meal and heat it up in the microwave, and with all the sauce and vegetables, they won’t even know they’re getting a healthy dose of fiber, magnesium, manganese and selenium,” she said.

Greek yogurt with fruit:

“I prefer to add frozen fruit to Greek yogurt over fresh because it makes it a cool, refreshing treat, and as the fruit melts, the juice spreads throughout the yogurt, making it sweeter,” Kristin said. She suggests buying 32-ounce containers of yogurt and adding your teenager’s favorite fruit. “The extra protein from the Greek yogurt will keep your hungry teen full and he or she will also be getting fiber from the fruit, as well as vitamin C, potassium, folic acid and calcium.”


When you don’t have time to leave something prepared, cereal is always an easy alternative. “Keeping a box of lower sugar cereal on hand can be helpful when teens are around. I suggest something with no more than 6 grams of sugar, like Kashi’s Heart-to-Heart or Honey Sunshine,” Kristen said. “Original Cheerios  can also be jazzed up with some vanilla extract and cinnamon, or PB2, a natural, dried peanut butter powder that can make plain Cheerios taste a lot more like their peanut butter variety without all the added sugar.”

Thanks to Kristen’s help I think I’m ready for the onslaught my kitchen will face these coming weeks, and perhaps more important, my son will have healthy alternatives to enjoy instead of typical junk food and snacks.

For healthy cooking ideas, check out our Snack Smart Pinterest board.

Follow Houston Methodist’s board Snack Smart on Pinterest.