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Extreme Makeover: Parfait Edition
By Tamara Duker Freuman, MS, RD, CDN (www.TamaraDuker.com)
An NYC-based registered dietitian who specializes in digestive disorders and food intolerances
In my work as a nutritionist, I encounter a variety of snacks that are “super healthy”… in theory. The problem is, they tend to get junked up in the translation. To the list of such foods—like granola, smoothies and popcorn — I’d add parfaits as well.
Conceptually, a parfait is quite wholesome: it’s got layers of high protein, calcium-rich yogurt, studded with fiber-rich fruit and given some crunch by nutrient-dense toasted whole grains, nuts or seeds. The appeal of the convenient layering of these tasty foods into a single cup is surpassed only by the hedonic delight of creamy, crunchy, tangy and sweet sensations, mingling all together in the mouth.
But most pre-packaged parfaits we encounter fall quite short of the ideal. Pre-packaged supermarket parfaits flavor their yogurts with sugary pie fillings instead of fresh fruit, and offer mix-ins like cookie crumbs and bite-sized candy for crunch. Super-sized parfaits offered at leading café/bakery chains range from 300-400 calories per serving — nudging them into meal territory rather than snack territory — and typically contain anywhere from 30-50 grams of sugar (the equivalent of 7-13 teaspoons)!
The parfait is overdue for a makeover of the extreme variety, but rest assured: taking it to a healthier place need not make it boring. With so many flavorful, nutritious superfoods available to dress up a wholesome yogurt base, there are dozens of healthy parfait combinations that can inspire your palate and breathe new life into breakfast, lunch or snack time. Here are some guidelines to get you started. For recipe inspiration on how you can upgrade your yogurt mix-ins and pack more of a nutritional punch into your parfaits, check out the Parfait Perfection pairings at GreenValleyLactoseFree.com and RedwoodHill.com.
- Start with a low sugar base: Plain yogurt is the healthiest base for a parfait to help keep its sugar content in check, and plain varieties of both cow’s milk and goat’s milk yogurt are available to satisfy every palate and degree of lactose tolerance. Even if you desire some added sweetness from, say honey, maple syrup or stevia, you will almost certainly add less sugar when flavoring a yogurt yourself than if you buy pre-sweetened. If plain yogurt is simply too tangy for your palate, the next lowest sugar option is likely to be vanilla. Choose the lowest sugar option available—as sugar content varies widely even among vanillas! For example, Green Valley Organics Vanilla Yogurt has 10g less sugar than the leading brand of lowfat organic vanilla yogurt per 6oz serving… that’s two and a half teaspoons less, or an 80% difference! Over time, try mixing some plain yogurt into your vanilla base to gradually acclimate your taste buds to the tang. Before long, you’ll have weaned yourself onto plain yogurt and come to enjoy its signature flavor.
- Flavor your base with unsweetened “super foods.” There are a variety of purees and powders packed with flavor and nutrients — not sugar — that mix seamlessly into a creamy yogurt base. Canned pumpkin puree, dark cocoa powder, matcha green tea powder, ground flax seeds and maca powder are just a few examples of flavorful enhancements to your yogurt base that will elevate your parfait to gourmet grandeur.
- Choose your crunch. There are so many more interesting ways to add crunch to a parfait than granola, and these can be thoughtfully combined with the other flavors in your parfait to create breakfast or snack harmony. Chopped nuts, toasted pumpkin seeds, your favorite healthy cereal, wheat germ, sesame seeds, bee pollen, goji berries… there’s no end to the colorful, flavorful and low-sugar crunch options available.
- Add fruit—fresh, frozen or dried: I love fresh berries in a parfait, but when they’re not in season, I’ve found plenty of other nutritious options to layer into my parfaits. Frozen and macerated fruits like wild blueberries, tart cherries or concord grapes pack a concentrated punch of flavor and an interesting element of texture to a parfait. Dried fruits like chopped figs, dried cherries, diced dried plums, pineapples or apricots add toothsome chewiness to every nutrient-dense bite.
- Save sweetness for the garnish: Keeping high amounts of sugar out of your yogurt base and crunch layers leaves room for a touch of sweetness on top — where it will hit your tongue first and deliver maximum flavor impact with minimal calories. A dusting of shaved dark chocolate or cacao nibs or a drizzle of honey or grade B maple syrup on top will deliver just the right note of indulgence in a mixed bite. Try not to incorporate the sweet element into the parfait’s layers, as the calories can really add up.