Mexican food is known for being flavorful and indulgent, with plenty of cheese, sour cream, guacamole, and tortillas. However, there are many ways to still enjoy authentic Mexican cuisine while choosing healthier ingredients and preparation methods. With some simple substitutions and smart choices, you can turn traditional Mexican dishes into nutritious meals.
What makes traditional Mexican food unhealthy?
Many classic Mexican dishes are high in calories, saturated fat, and sodium. Some common unhealthy ingredients include:
- Refried beans made with lard
- Cheese sauces and sour cream
- Fried tortilla chips
- Fatty meats like chorizo sausage
- Lard or oil used for frying
- High-fat shredded cheese
- Sodium from salt, condiments, cheese, and canned foods
Eating these types of ingredients often and in large portions can lead to weight gain, high cholesterol, and other health issues. Luckily, there are easy modifications you can make to create healthier Mexican meals.
Choose lean proteins
Opt for leaner cuts of meat, chicken, seafood, eggs, beans, or tofu instead of fatty meats like chorizo. Some healthier protein options include:
- Chicken or turkey breast
- Fish like tilapia, shrimp, tuna, salmon
- Pork loin or tenderloin
- Lean beef like sirloin or 95% lean ground beef
- Beans, lentils, chickpeas
These protein sources are lower in saturated fat and calories than high-fat meats. Prepare them simply by grilling, baking, poaching, or pan searing with just a small amount of oil.
Use healthier cooking oils
Choose oils higher in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats instead of lard or vegetable shortening for cooking. Some good options include:
- Olive oil
- Avocado oil
- Canola oil
- Safflower oil
- Sunflower oil
- Peanut oil
Measure oil instead of pouring freely into the pan to control how much fat you use. Just 1-2 tsp of oil is often plenty for sautéing veggies or proteins.
Skip the sour cream
Sour cream is high in saturated fat. For a lighter alternative, try:
- Plain Greek yogurt
- Fat-free sour cream
- Lite Mexican crema
- Evaporated skim milk
You can also top tacos, burritos, and other dishes with chopped cilantro, salsa, roasted tomato sauce, or guacamole for added flavor.
Use reduced-fat cheese
Regular cheeses like cheddar, queso fresco, Cotija, and Jack can be high in saturated fat and calories. For a lighter option, use reduced-fat or part-skim varieties. Other choices include:
- Queso blanco
- Feta cheese
- Goat cheese
Measure cheese instead of sprinkling freely over dishes. Aim for 1-2 ounces per serving at most.
Choose healthier tortillas
Corn tortillas are naturally lower in calories than flour tortillas. Look for whole grain or high-fiber flour tortillas to increase nutrients. Smaller tortillas that are 6 inches or less also help control portions and calories.
For tostadas, tacos, and enchiladas, try replacing fried tortilla shells with baked tortilla bowls or plates. Cut corn or flour tortillas into wedges and bake at 400°F until crispy, about 10-15 minutes.
Bulk up with veggies
Add fiber and nutrients to Mexican cuisine by including plenty of vegetables. Some ideas:
- Chopped onion, tomatoes, peppers, cilantro
- Shredded lettuce, cabbage
- Sauteed zucchini, spinach, kale
- Roasted cauliflower, butternut squash, carrots
Use vegetables in place of rice in burritos, bowl dishes, tacos, and quesadillas. Try riced cauliflower or spaghetti squash instead of heavy rice or potatoes.
Choose healthier sides
Instead of Mexican rice, fries, or chips, opt for healthier sides like:
- Black beans, pinto beans, lentils
- Brown rice, quinoa, farro
- Corn on the cob
- Roasted sweet potatoes or squash
- Sauteed spinach
- Avocado slices
Baked tortilla chips or high-fiber crackers can also accompany meals for crunch. Just watch portions of carb-heavy sides.
Lighten up desserts
Traditional Mexican desserts like fried ice cream, churros, flan, and tres leches cake are heavy in sugar, fat, and calories. For a healthier option, try:
- Fresh fruit with lime juice and chili powder
- Baked apples or pears
- Poached fruit
- Coconut pudding made with lite coconut milk
- Chia seed pudding
- Yogurt parfaits with granola
- Angel food cake with berries
Enjoy sweets in moderation as part of an overall healthy diet.
Sample healthy Mexican dishes
Here are some ideas for putting together healthy Mexican meals:
Chicken fajita bowl
- Chicken breast, peppers, onions sauteed in 1 tsp oil
- Brown rice
- Black beans
- Chopped tomatoes, onions, cilantro
- Greek yogurt or guacamole
Shrimp taco salad
- Shrimp sauteed in lime juice and spices
- Chopped lettuce, tomatoes, avocado
- Baked tortilla strips
- Cilantro lime dressing
- Whole grain tortilla
- Refried beans
- Sauteed peppers, onions, spinach
- Reduced-fat Mexican cheese
Baja fish tacos
- Cod or tilapia baked in spices
- Corn tortillas
- Shredded cabbage
- Pico de gallo
- Avocado slices
Tips for healthy homemade Mexican food
Cooking authentically flavored Mexican food at home allows you to control ingredients and portions. Here are some tips:
- Use lean ground turkey or beef instead of pork or chorizo in dishes like tacos, enchiladas, chili.
- Make chicken tinga with pulled chicken instead of pork and minimal oil.
- Cook with spices like cumin, chili powder, paprika, oregano instead of relying on fat for flavor.
- Load up on veggies like onions, bell peppers, zucchini, mushrooms.
- Choose soft corn tortillas instead of crispy for tacos and enchiladas.
- Use Greek yogurt instead of sour cream on tacos, burritos, chili.
- Make fresh salsa chopped tomato, onion, cilantro, lime instead of using jarred varieties high in sodium.
- Try cauliflower rice instead of regular rice in bowls and burritos.
- Use just a small amount of oil for frying tortillas or sautéing veggies and proteins.
- Skip the cheese or use just a sprinkle of stronger flavored cheese.
Healthier ordering tips for Mexican restaurants
You can make smart swaps when dining out at Mexican restaurants too:
- Choose grilled fish, chicken, or steak instead of fried meats.
- Ask for soft corn tortillas instead of fried hard shells.
- Request lettuce wraps instead of tortillas.
- Order extra veggies like onions, peppers, tomato salsa as toppings.
- Avoid heavy rice, beans, chips, cheese, and creamy sauces.
- Order a side salad with oil and vinegar instead of fried sides.
- Ask for dressing and sauces on the side.
- Share high-calorie appetizers and desserts instead of overindulging.
- Opt for steak, chicken, or shrimp fajitas and fill up on the grilled veggies.
- Drink water with lime instead of sugary drinks like horchata.
With some simple substitutions and smart choices, traditional Mexican dishes can be lightened up and made healthier. Focus on lean proteins, load up on veggies, choose fresh salsas and sauces, and avoid heavy amounts of cheese, sour cream, tortillas, rice, and chips. Mexican food is so flavorful that you can enjoy moderated portions of the real deal on occasion or stick to healthier homemade versions the majority of the time.