Heather Carey rarely gets angry, but the Southport-based culinary nutritionist will admit to being more than a little unhappy when she finds people indulging in soda, juice or alcohol.
“I am very anti-soda and anti-juice — they are all full of sugar,” she stated. “I would rather eat the whole orange than extract the juice out of it. And there are not many health benefits to alcohol. The mainstream media tries to promote it as healthy. I would say drink it because you want to relax, but don’t drink it because you think you’re getting a big health benefit.”
As the owner of the consultancy Green Palette, she is focused on helping people use food in a positive manner. Through a mix of one-on-one counseling, private cooking lessons and group culinary demonstrations in her oversized Green Palette kitchen, Carey views her professional mission as taking the mystery and confusion out of nutrition and making it a practical aspect of daily life — especially for those with health issues that can be alleviated with a better diet.
“My intention was to always be very hands-on with people and show them how to take all of that nutritional information and translate it into their own system,” she explained. “A lot of people are overwhelmed with a medical diagnosis and don’t know where to start. I try to make it very easy — healthy cooking can be simple.”
This was not Carey’s original career plan. After graduating from Syracuse University in 1990 as a political science major, she admitted that she was “kind of wandering through life” without a specific professional goal. A lifelong interest in healthy cooking and healthy eating helped guide her to Manhattan’s Natural Gourmet Institute for Food and Health where she earned a chef’s certificate. She launched a career as a private chef, but realized something was amiss.
“All of my clients had health issues,” she recalled, adding that her desire to learn more about the therapeutic aspects of the culinary arts encouraged her to pursue a Master’s Degree in culinary nutrition from New York University.
“Look at your plate — everything has a purpose,” Carey said, noting that the concept of healthy nutrition as the natural equivalent of a medicine cabinet “is my whole philosophy.” However, she draws the line at blaming doctors for not incorporating nutritional considerations into many of their diagnoses.
“Doctors cannot be specialists in everything,” she said. “We need the medical world. Their job is to diagnose and prescribe medications, so I don’t fault any doctor. That’s where someone like me, a nutritionist, comes in. I am an expert in food. So, I think there is a benefit for both.”
Carey observed the growing awareness of food allergies and insisted that no obstacle to healthy eating is too great. “A lot of people have gluten issues and sensitivities, but there is always an alternative,” she said. “There is always a good substitute.”
In her work at Green Palette, Carey guides her clients in conversations about nutrition and instructions on the basic skills of cooking — not just in terms of ingredients, but also the tools of the trade.
“If you don’t know how to set your kitchen up properly, it can be very frustrating,” she said, adding that her lessons include “showing you the best pots and pans to get, the best knives and how to sharpen your knife.”
Carey’s group classes can seat up to 10 in her Green Palette kitchen and she carefully details food preparation and stovetop protocol. A recent class on soups included demonstrations on making butternut squash soup with turmeric and ginger and chicken and barley soup with kale. She also detailed what she dubbed a “three-herb drizzle to make your soup taste better,” pointing out that the anti-inflammatory nature of herbs helps to encourage good health as well as good taste.
Carey stressed that her in-person instructions carry more resonance than hunting for recipes in a magazine or online. “They can come here to watch me cook, then take the recipes home and practice themselves,” she said of her classes. “It’s better than just reading a recipe and seeing a picture.”
Outside of the Green Palette kitchen, Carey has also hosted corporate presentations designed to bring her message to the office worker crowd. In these offerings, Carey advocates the importance of meal planning and bringing lunch to work while avoiding grab-and-go meals and junk-food snacks.
“Without planning, we are going to create a lot of confusion and overwhelm healthy eating,” she said. “It’s way too easy to order takeout or fall back on the deli down the street. I usually tell people what they made for dinner could be next day’s lunch — it’s an easy grab. And having good snacks on hand doesn’t have to be complicated. It could be an apple with peanut butter or almond butter. But make sure you are well-stocked at home if you are bringing food to work.”
As for the argument that this type of planning is too complicated in today’s busy world, Carey is not buying that excuse.
“I really get it — I’m a mom and I have a busy career right now,” she said. “But if your goal is to eat healthy and eat well it has to be a priority. You can make it a priority. And it doesn’t have to be complicated — it doesn’t mean seven new dinners a week. You can fall back on your favorites and reliables.”