Registered dieticians and BFFS, Jessica Jones and Wendy Lopez are all about helping people from diverse backgrounds eat healthier one bite at a time. 

Since meeting in 2008, the dynamic duo has been on a mission to help people in their communities eat healthier, make peace with food and take care of themselves.

After working together at the New York City’s Farmer’s Markets doing nutrition education in low-income communities in Harlem, The Bronx and Brooklyn, the two wanted to continue their work to inform people about nutrition education. From there, their platform, Food Heaven Made Easy came about. Since its creation, Jones and Lopez have continued to help people from all over transform the way they eat through recipes, articles and other resources. 

Jones and Lopez spoke with Blavity about ways to eat healthier, the best foods to fuel your body and information on holistic health. 

This interview has been condensed, rearranged and edited for clarity.

Blavity: Can you tell us about why you all created the multimedia platform, Food Heaven Made Easy?


We really wanted to help people live healthier, more balanced lives. So we saw a lack of diversity and representation, particularly in the wellness space and in the nutrition space when it came to seeing messages for people of color by people of color. So we’re really passionate about putting that information out there so the communities can see different people in the wellness space who look like them. That was talking about foods that they ate and not focusing only on kale, quinoa and cottage cheese. You know having soups and stews and different types of dishes that are culturally relevant and a lot of this was stuff that we kind of were able to see firsthand working in the community and what really resonated with people. It was really this idea of showing people how to make these nutritious, balanced dishes using local food and produce from the community and that was really powerful so we tried to do that with Food Heaven on a larger scale.

Why did you find it important as dietitians to help “people transform the way they eat, make peace with food, and live their best life?”


So as dietitians we find it important to help people transform the way they eat, make peace with food, and live their best life because we see firsthand the impact of having a really healthy relationship with food and approaching food from a balanced way can really have on the impact that it has on people’s lives is so positive and so transformative. When we say transform the way you eat it's not like you know, again, you’re only eating like cottage cheese and kale. It's really transforming your approach to food. Usually [people] think of dietitians as diet police but that couldn't be farther from what we do. It's really helping people learn how to take care of themselves and feed themselves in a complex and comprehensive way, and that’s different from everybody. It takes time and there’s no one size fits all or quick formula. Our platform is really helping people be curious about themselves and get in touch with what their unique self-care and needs are when it comes to food and also beyond food.

Black people are becoming more conscious about their health. More people are becoming pescatarians, vegetarians and vegans. What are your thoughts about this? 


Absolutely, I think there are definitely more people of color, more black people becoming more health-conscious. My thoughts are, I’m very much about doing what’s best for you and I do not think that people have to be a vegetarian or pescatarian or even vegan to be healthy. I really don’t. I think that you can have any kind of diet that is your preference and you can tailor that to make it something that works well for you. So if you’re going vegetarian because you think it's going to be the answer to all of your problems, unfortunately, like what I’ve found is that is not the case for folks and typically if you are doing it for just because you think you should, it doesn’t really last that long anyway. I think it’s really about asking yourself what are you doing and why. I do have people who are vegans for ethical reasons and that does mesh with them and that is something that they’re passionate about and so, therefore, they’re able to keep it up. I think really asking yourself  “the why” is really important and remembering that you can have any kind of eating pattern and still make it healthy or balanced. 

What advice or eating would you provide for those who are just starting their journey of eating healthy and becoming more conscious about their diet?


I think starting small. So I have private clients and we do nutrition coaching. I purposely only work for people for a minimum of three or six months because I know that usually people are really excited in the beginning and they really want to do everything and they want to do it all now, but it typically doesn’t work. One thing that I'm really passionate about is the science of behavior change and how do we actually take what it is that we want to become — and when I say want to become I don't mean like changing your body or anything like that, I mean more of what are the habits that you feel will make you feel your best. How do we work on cultivating those so that it is something that you can do long term? Again, figuring out the why for you and so that takes time and it takes curiosity about your body. It takes trial and error and I think just trying to take things one thing at a time and trying to think of it as instead of your goals being like ‘oh I want to lose 50 pounds’ or all of these arbitrary numbers or things, but thinking more about what are the values that are important to you. 

Thinking about it in those terms as a value base can really be effective and even if we feel like we’re kind of all or nothing or maybe our bodies are not meant to lose 50 pounds, we can still continue with those values and still aim to be healthy people from the inside and out regardless of what those external factors are or aren't doing.

Photo: Wendy Lopez and Jessica Jones

What are the best meals for millennials who are interested in eating healthier but grocery shop on a budget?


I would recommend sticking with very simple recipes that have minimal preparation. I think oftentimes, in trying to meal prep, we go for the really beautiful, intricate recipes that are great but if you’re starting off, especially if your grocery shopping on a budget, you want to stick with staples like grains, legumes and vegetables and frozen is totally fine. It goes a long way.

If you’re starting out with meal prep, you might not be using a lot of the foods initially that you're buying so you might have some food waste. So when you buy frozen, it’s nice because it goes a long way and it’s a more affordable option. Also buying in season is a great way to save money and you can look online what the best foods are. Foods that are in season are better for the environment. It's a great way to save money if there are farmer’s markets that you have nearby, support your local farmers. 

How much of an impact does food have on your diet and health compared to exercising? 


There isn’t necessarily one thing that’s better than the other. It's really about whatever you can do right now to take the best care of yourself because there might be times again when you’re not in a position to make nourishing meals for yourself or you might not be in a position to move your body. It’s important to really think about what you’re realistically able to do right now and that might be getting restful sleep or making sure that your mental health is taken care of. Food has a huge impact on our health, but so does food and housing insecurities, stress, poor sleep and access. There are so many other things that can have a bigger impact depending on your individual situation. Especially now, living in this wellness culture, those things are often overshadowed by food, nutrition and exercise. It’s important to really look at the full picture. It doesn’t mean that you have to stick with one thing at a time. You can take on different approaches to health that address everything that’s going on with you. You might not be able to and that’s okay too and for most of us, we're not able to do everything at once. We do whatever we can.

What are the best foods to fuel your body?


I think there’s a variety of foods. For me, a healthy diet is a diet that has variety and it’s a diet that is flexible. The more rigid that we get, the more problematic things can become. So just in terms of best foods to fuel your body, the general recommendation is to have about three cups of vegetables per day and about two fruits or two cups of fruit per day. Also, having at least two servings of protein per day and getting those carbs in too. I tell people to try to make at least a quarter of your plate carbs, one-quarter of your plate protein and then half of your plate with vegetables. That’s one way to think about getting those proportions in and if you can work on having a variety of all those things. For example, a lot of people that I work with might just stick to the greens, like spinach and broccoli and that’s an amazing way to get in vegetables. But with time, I might encourage people to try other things and try different colors. If you get five colors of different foods a day like a banana, broccoli, orange bell pepper, brown rice and cauliflower, that’s five different colors right there. I think that can be a really effective way of getting that variety in. All of those different colors have different vitamins, minerals and vital chemicals which are helpful properties in foods. 

What are some advice/food tips would you give to those who still want to eat their cultural foods or meals but still want to eat healthy?


I would recommend thinking about what you can add to those cultural meals versus what you can take out because I’ve seen with a lot of folks that I work with, especially for people of color who want to eat healthier but they also don’t want to break ties with their culture in trying to healthier. Their whole thing is for me to tell them what they don't need to eat. I’m not a fan of that approach because its just very black and white. There’s room for flexibility and doing something like adding a few servings of vegetables can go a long way because you’re already promoting balance with your plate and naturally, you’re going to feel more satisfied because you’re eating more fiber. You’re not going to want as much of those rich cultural foods because the plate is going to be a little more balanced and you’re going to feel more satisfied. 

There are also really cool and creative things you can do during food prep. Using things like cultural herbs and spices, especially trying to incorporate more plant-based foods into your diet and using those herbs and spices is a great way to promote flavor and get more nutrients in. You can also introduce cooking methods that are considered to be a bit healthier like baking, sauteing and stewing versus cooking a lot of fried food and the foods that require more fat. So just getting creative with how you go about cooking your food is another way you can tackle that as well. 

Photo: Wendy Lopez and Jessica Jones

People’s mindsets are one of the reasons why they decide not to change their diet or be open to healthier food options, especially for people of color. Why do you think this is so and how do you encourage people who are like this to be open to a healthier diet?


I think wellness has been very whitewashed. It’s promoted as bland meals that don’t taste good. They don't feature a lot of the foods that are native to us. I think that’s why people feel very disconnected from it, especially people of color. That’s when the cultural celebration comes into play because when you’re honoring people’s cultural foods, they feel seen, they feel heard and they’re more open to engaging with you. We don’t have to disconnect from who we are to enjoy healthy food, and instead of telling people this is what you need to eat and this is what you shouldn’t eat, we should be creating a dialogue that’s really led by the person who is considering making these changes. So really asking, ’what is that you’re open to doing, how does this sound’ or ‘what are some ideas that you have for how to create balance in the kitchen.’

Can you describe holistic health in your own words and why do you believe people of color should become more invested in it?


Holistic health takes into account all aspects of a person's well being including mental, spiritual, social and physical health. I think oftentimes the focus is on physical health, but there are just so many other components to it. Especially for people of color, we have so much trauma that we’ve experienced and also that we’ve inherited through generations. It’s important that the unique needs of each person are assessed when coming up with an approach to health that’s effective and that speaks to that person's need because it's not a one size fits all formula. You really have to assess everything that’s going on because it could be for someone who is struggling with different aspects of their health, they might not be in a position to focus on their physical health right now because their mental health is lacking and that might be the focus at the moment. Just really having that flexibility and that individual approach is going to go a long way.

What do you think THRIVE means for the millennial generation?


I think thriving means taking an active role in your growth and development and also being rooted in what makes you feel good. Also, really thinking about what that looks like for you. I think especially for millennials, it's interesting because a lot of us grew up not having access to the internet and not having social media. Then it’s like social media and the internet kind of blew up and took over for the second part of our lives. It’s very interesting and I think it's really important to go back to when social media wasn't as dominant as it is now because I think a lot of our beliefs around thriving and health and wellness are informed by what we see on social media. I think in a way it disconnects us from our institution and really being in tune with what thriving actually means to us as an individual. It’s really important to think about that and what makes you feel good outside of all this external stimulation that’s telling you what you should do to feel good. 

What does the greater than concept mean to you? 


To me, the greater than concept means playing an active role in your growth and development, and as a result, inspiring those around you to do the same. Working on yourself allows you to become clear on your values and the kind of life you want to live. This radiates into the work you put out, and I think people are able to connect with that in a genuine way. 

This piece is brought to you in partnership with Toyota.