Marisa Moore is a registered dietitian, nutritionist, and culinary nutrition expert.
As a registered dietitian, I am often asked how to make certain dishes healthier. I love exploring ways to do this. But when it comes to cultural foods, and in this case, soul food, I tend to stay close to traditional recipes — especially when friends and family will be at the table (soon, I hope).
Luckily, many of the ingredients common in soul food are inherently wholesome. And there are many ways to add a healthy boost to recipes. You might try doubling the vegetables in a recipe, using an air fryer for a crunchy finish instead of deep frying, and swapping garlic powder for garlic salt if you’re watching your sodium intake.
What is soul food?
While its origins aren’t clear, historians believe the term “soul food” was coined as an expression of Black cuisine and culture in the 1960s, though it may well have been in use earlier.
Soul food has roots in the Deep South. The recipes reflect the sheer ingenuity of enslaved people to create meals from the meager rations they were given. Today, soul food has become popular fare for people across the United States to cook and enjoy. Soul food has a heavy West African influence, but it also takes inspiration from Native American and European traditions.
Is soul food healthy?
Foods common throughout the African diaspora serve as a healthy base. So, while at times you’ll see ingredients like fatback in traditional soul food dishes, you’ll also find abundant greens, beans, sweet potatoes, other vegetables, and fish. By and large, soul food has a solid base of nutritious dishes.
Smoked meat is often used to flavor vegetables, but it’s not the heart of the meal. Though using meat doesn’t inherently make a dish unhealthy, today, it’s easier than ever to find meatless options on restaurant menus and Sunday dinner tables.
To be clear though, the recipes here won’t all meet the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) definition of healthy. Most simply build upon many of the healthy ingredients common in soul food cooking.
Nutrition aside, soul food is rich in flavor, history, togetherness, and resilience. Enjoying soul food honors the culture of Black people. It’s comfort food that connects us to our family and ancestors.
And. I may be biased (as it’s what I grew up eating), but importantly, soul food tastes really good.
So, let’s dig in!
Jump ahead to:
Black-eyed peas >>
Sweet potatoes >>
(Oven) fried chicken >>
Fish and seafood >>
Hit the “plus” button on any Yummly recipe to add it to your Meal Plan.
No Sunday dinner is complete without greens. Where I’m from, “greens” usually means collards. But it can be any mix of turnip greens, collards, or mustard greens. No matter the mix, good greens are a treasure.
There’s an art to prepping and cooking collard greens. But everyone should try. Collard greens are high in vitamin A and fiber, among other nutrients. You can cook them in many ways, but traditionally, they’re simmered on the stovetop until tender.
Made with a meaty ham hock and a splash of vinegar, these collards from Grandbaby Cakes are a traditional take on a pot of greens. All you need is a piece of cornbread to close the deal.
You can absolutely enjoy the flavor of Southern-style greens without the meat. This nutritious blend of greens is full of flavor from onions, garlic, and a savory vegetable broth.
If you eat black-eyed peas only on New Year’s Day, you’re missing out. They’re high in fiber, iron, and plant protein, and you can enjoy them throughout the year as a stand-alone dish or add them to other recipes.
Seasoned with fresh thyme, bay leaf, onions, celery, and jalapeño, these savory black-eyed peas are simmered in a rich broth for an irresistible flavor. The dish is a natural fit for a leafy green side of collards, kale, or even spinach.
Hoppin’ John is a combination of black-eyed peas and rice with aromatics such as onion, celery, and bell pepper. This version has smoked turkey for extra flavor instead of the usual ham hock.
This bright and fresh salad is great for the warmer months. It’s an easy way to use up leftover cooked black-eyed peas, too. Simply combine with the vinaigrette, red bell pepper, and sweet corn for a pop of fresh flavor and crunch.
Sweet potatoes get their brilliant color from skin-nourishing beta carotene. These tasty tubers are also a good source of fiber and vitamin C. Plus, they provide potassium, which might help keep blood pressure levels healthy. By any stretch, sweet potatoes are a healthy and versatile addition to the table.
Commonly transformed into candied yams or pie, sweet potatoes are naturally sweet and are excellent roasted, mashed, stewed, and prepped in other ways.
These sweet potato wedges get to flaunt a bit of spice from chili powder and tanginess from lime before hitting the grill for a smoky finish.
For a lighter — but still tasty — take on sweet potato casserole, try whipped sweet potatoes. The toasty brown butter takes this whip up a notch in flavor.
This stuffed sweet potato recipe brings together the flavors of a backyard barbecue. It’s filled with chicken and topped with tangy, crunchy coleslaw.
Rich in vitamin C, cabbage is a Sunday dinner staple loaded with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. It’s also inexpensive and cooks up quickly.
The “fried” part of this recipe is actually more of a saute. You can make this cabbage recipe vegan simply by leaving out the meat.
Coleslaw is a staple at cookouts and picnics. Served on the side or on top of a barbecue sandwich, it’s a crunchy, cool way to enjoy raw cabbage.
With possible origins in Ethiopia but popular throughout West Africa, okra is rich in fiber and vitamin C, among other nutrients. This polarizing pod is one of the healthiest soul food staples. It’s often served fried. But when I was growing up, I ate okra prepared in other ways: sauteed, stewed with tomatoes, and as part of vegetable soup and succotash.
For best quality, cook fresh okra within a couple of days of purchasing or picking it. Use frozen when fresh okra isn’t in season.
Along with sweet corn and beans, okra is a common ingredient in succotash. This fare highlights the Native American and West African influences in soul food. With bright flavors from garden-fresh vegetables, succotash is a satisfying summer dish.
This creole recipe makes a meal of the popular okra and tomato combination by adding chicken. Here, the okra helps thicken the dish into a stew.
(Oven) fried chicken
Though the subject of many stereotypes, fried chicken is one of the beloved dishes born from soul food. Visit any soul food restaurant, and you will no doubt find fried chicken on the menu.
It’s usually fried in a cast-iron skillet to make it crispy, juicy, and full of flavor. Luckily, there are many ways to enjoy a similar crunch and flavor without the mess.
This top-rated recipe from a Southern blogger who knows her way around an air-fryer is a fantastic fix. Soaked in buttermilk and seasoned just right, this chicken is a treat you’ll enjoy making at home — and you’ll appreciate the absence of oily aftermath or grease spatter on the stovetop.
Don’t have an air fryer? Use the oven. Made with a traditional blend of garlic, onion, and paprika, this crispy oven-fried chicken is just what Sunday dinner ordered.
Fish and seafood
Seafood boils and backyard fish fries are a big part of the soul food experience. This is especially true for Black people living in coastal South Carolina and Georgia, where you’ll find shrimp, crab, catfish, or whiting gracing the table a few times a month.
Developed by Cooks with Soul, this bold recipe combines spicy Cajun seasonings and a squeeze of lemon for a fish dish you’ll want to make over and over again. If you’re craving a crispy fillet, mix up a peppery cornmeal dredge for Spicy Oven Fried Catfish.
Great for breakfast, a snack, or part of dinner, salmon croquettes are a soul food staple. These patties are made with canned salmon and are a delicious way to get those all-important omega-3 fatty acids, known for heart and brain health benefits.
Though black-eyed peas get a lot of attention — and even their own spot in this article — you’ll find various types of peas and beans in soul food cuisine. Lima beans, pinto beans, white beans, and field peas are a few popular options. Most are served as a side dish but can be the star of the show.
Savory, slow-cooked beans in a pot are a soul food favorite. Add a side of rice and call it dinner. Packed with fiber and plant protein, these Southern pinto beans are a nourishing and comforting choice.
I didn’t grow up with lentils. But grits were an everyday occurrence. And this protein- and fiber-rich twist is genius. It’s flavorful, comforting, and a solid addition to the soul food table.
Explore more healthy cooking
Did you feel like a kid in a candy store while reading about all this delicious and nutritious soul food? It’s OK — salivation is a sound response to so much temptation. But that’s not the only good news. You can have your fried chicken and eat it, too! Learn more from these articles on healthy Southern cooking and air fryer cooking. Just don’t overthink which recipes to make first.