Easy Baked Falafel: A Healthy Twist on a Middle Eastern Classic

My love of falafel started in Key West. My parents would take our family there every summer growing up and we’d walk along Duval Street to explore and eat. We’d rent jet skis and my brother would take pleasure in throwing me off by going really fast then taking a sharp turn. My dad would usually charter a fishing boat and we would fish, snorkel, and enjoy our time in the sun. He always reminds us of the time when my sister and I had our feet hanging off the back of the boat and he casually tells us to bring them in. It wasn’t until years later my dad informed us that he saw an 8-foot hammerhead shark swimming in our direction. I’m glad he didn’t tell us at the time, since I had seen the movie Jaws one too many times at that point and probably would’ve had a heart attack.

My mom was the one who always insisted we get falafel while in Key West. If I remember correctly, that was the only time we ate it. Maybe they didn’t have good falafel in Jupiter. Maybe it became more of a tradition while we were there. I know my mom looked forward to it all year. Needless to say, we’d always make sure to stop at the little stand and get our falafel, wrapped in a fresh pita bread with lettuce, tomato, and Tzatziki sauce. Yum.

Sprouted whole grain pita stuffed with falafel, cucumber slices, tomato, and Tzatziki sauce, garnished with cilantro.
Sprouted whole grain pita stuffed with falafel, cucumber slices, tomato, and Tzatziki sauce, garnished with cilantro.

I found a place in Manitou Springs, CO that served authentic Middle Eastern food. You better believe every single time I went there I ordered falafel because it was so dang good. The place was called The Sahara Cafe and I think I probably ate there 20 times while we lived in Colorado. We took all of our visitors there, because it was delicious but also because Manitou Springs was a really cool town to explore. I went to Sahara a couple times after hiking The Incline, an intense hike that starts at 6,600 feet and goes up 2,000 feet in less than a mile. I had heard about this hike before we even moved there so of course I had to conquer it.

Falafel is a Middle Eastern food and traditionally deep fried. As we all know, deep fried anything is delicious but probably not something you want to eat regularly. Fried foods are not only a lot higher in calories (versus the same food baked or grilled), but also likely contain trans fats, which are the bad fats that you want to avoid. Trans fats contribute to everything from heart disease to diabetes to infertility.

Before you think that you can never enjoy some of your favorite foods again, the good news is that most foods that are traditionally fried can also we baked or grilled– like falafel! This recipe uses the same ingredients as traditional falafel, but is baked in the oven. This allows you to enjoy falafel regularly, as it’s actually a healthy option for the entire family, kids included! So what’s in it?

Garbanzo beans. Fear not carnivores, in 1/2 cup of garbanzo beans, also called chickpeas, you get a whopping 20 grams of protein. The beauty of plant-based protein is that you typically get a healthy dose of fiber too, about 15 grams to be exact. They’re loaded with vitamins and minerals as well. Chickpeas are a great addition to your salad or bean chili but are the star of the dish in falafel.

Fresh herbs. Speckled with green, falafel is not only healthy, but it’s pretty, thanks to the fresh herbs in this recipe. Cilantro and parsley add flavor that make your taste buds sing. Herbs are the best way to add flavor to a dish without adding a bunch of salt. They contain an array of healthy stuff as well, including anti-inflammatory properties and several essential vitamins.

Garlic. Just do a quick online search for the health benefits of garlic and you might be surprised at the millions, yes millions, of articles you find. Garlic has been used for centuries for its medicinal properties and it’s widely used for the tremendous amount of flavor it provides. To put it simply, garlic is good for you: your heart, your blood, and your GI tract too.

The ingredients of falafel minced in the food processor.
The ingredients of falafel minced in the food processor. Almost done!

When I was making my falafel, I probably said 10 times “Mmm it smells so good.” When herbs, garlic, lemon, and onion are minced together in the food processor, the aroma is intoxicating. I wonder if they sell a falafel scented candle… 

Forming the falafel is easy by hand, although I’ve heard they sell fancy falafel-making scoops. I emptied the minced falafel ingredients into a bigger bowl which made scooping by hand easier for me. Bonus: Your hands will smell delicious during this process.

falafel patties ready to be cooked
The patties have been formed, now to be brushed with olive oil and put into the oven.

After I made these for the first time, I broke open a steaming hot falafel and dunked it into a bowl of hummus. Falafel + hummus = a match made in heaven. Ryan is always amazed at my ability to eat food straight out of the oven, when in reality, I just don’t have the patience to wait for it to cool. Most of the time, I can’t even taste whatever I’m eating because I’ve burned the inside of my mouth. Why is it that I continue this habit? I’ll never know.

falafel with hummus
Falafel atop a bed of creamy homemade hummus, garnished with cilantro.

 

Easy Baked Falafel

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup dried garbanzo beans, soaked overnight
  • 1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves
  • 1/2 cup fresh parsley leaves
  • 5 cloves of garlic, roasted
  • 1/2 white onion, chopped and roasted
  • 2 tsp lemon juice
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil, plus more for greasing pan and brushing falafel

Suggested sides/toppings: Homemade Tzatziki sauce, hummus, cucumber slices, whole grain pita (warmed), sriracha, minced onion, diced tomato, shredded lettuce

Directions: 

  1. Put garbanzo beans in a large bowl and cover with 3-4 inches of water, (the beans will expand as they absorb the water). Let sit for 18-24 hours.
  2. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F and drizzle some olive oil on a baking sheet.
  3. Place the onion and garlic cloves on your baking sheet, roll the onion and garlic with your fingers to coat with olive oil. Roast in the oven for 8-10 minutes. The onion will be slightly translucent and the garlic with be slightly charred.
  4. After they have soaked, drain the garbanzo beans and add to your food processor. Pulse the beans alone for 5 pulses to break apart.
  5. Add all other ingredients to food processor and blend until minced (not pureed), scraping down the sides as necessary.
  6. Scoop falafel mixture with your hand and form “patties.” The mixture is very delicate so handle gently. Gently brush the tops of your falafel with olive oil.
  7. Bake for 15 minutes, flip, then bake for 10 more minutes.
  8. Enjoy your falafel warm from the oven, dipped in hummus or cool in a pita with cucumber and Tzatziki sauce. Falafel can be frozen, but try to consume within 2-3 weeks.

Adapted from: Just a Taste

8 Tips for Eating Healthier Meals at Home

I am often asked if I meal plan. Not only is meal planning a very trendy thing to do, it can help people eat healthier, save money, and achieve their health and fitness goals quicker. Although meal planning has a ton of benefits and I definitely think it’s a great idea for a lot of people, I do not do it. The reason I don’t meal plan is because I’ve found a good system of being able to make “last minute” meals based on the foods I have at home. I determine exactly what I’m craving for that meal or snack, and I make it on the spot! I typically eat 3 meals and 2-3 snacks daily.

Even when I was working full-time and hitting the gym after work, I was still able to get home and prepare dinner for myself and my husband. I continued throughout my entire pregnancy, while I was still working full-time and exercising regularly. I still continue to cook meals for my family which now includes an almost-toddler. My point is that no matter what season of life you are in, if you prioritize your health, you’ll “find” the time to eat smarter. Healthier eating has endless benefits from boosting energy, battling bloat, clearing brain fog and acne, weight loss, menstrual cycle regulation, boosting fertility, and so much more!

If you’re serious about trying to cook and eat healthier meals at home, I would encourage you to have a conversation with the other people in your household. I’ve seen numerous relationships where one partner was trying to eat healthier and the other would bring home tempting desserts or complain about the changes. If you and your partner are on the same page with starting a new routine, chances are you’ll be more successful long term.

My Grocery Shopping Habits & List

There are 4 main places I buy groceries: Whole Foods, Mom’s Organic Market, Harris Teeter, and Costco. When farmer’s markets come back around in the Spring, I’ll buy produce from there as well. Everywhere we’ve lived, there’s been a place like Mom’s Organic market- it’s a health food store, comparable to Natural Grocers (where I went in Colorado). Harris Teeter is a typical grocery store, comparable to Publix (but obviously not as good), King Soopers, or Safeway. I go to each place for various reasons, either due to quality, availability, or price. This winter, I’ve gone to Whole Foods only once or twice since I typically walk there when it’s warmer out.

Weekly I shop at either Whole Foods, Harris Teeter, or Mom’s Organic Market for everyday items including:

  • Proteins: sliced turkey breast, sliced cheese, canned tuna, almond butter, shrimp, plain Greek yogurt, nuts (mixed, walnuts, almonds), seeds (pumpkin, sunflower), grass-fed organic beef, ricotta cheese
  • Vegetables: sauerkraut, onions, garlic, others (seasonal)
  • Carbohydrates: taco shells, fruits (seasonal), potatoes, whole wheat pasta, whole grain tortillas, rice cakes
  • Snacks: I try to avoid that aisle
  • Other: condiments (mayo, mustard, ketchup, sriracha, jelly), butter, honey, seasoning packets (Simply Organic brand of spicy chili, vegetarian chili, fajita, and fish taco)

    Baby helping with groceries
    Laurel “helping” with the groceries.

Bi-weekly I shop at Costco for large amounts of certain items including:

  • Proteins: eggs, fresh cheese (mozzarella or goat), seeds (chia, hemp), organic meats (chicken breast, ground turkey), seafood (scallops, salmon), peanut butter
  • Vegetables: lettuce (Spring mix, spinach), asparagus, Brussels sprouts, mushrooms, frozen varieties (broccoli, cauliflower)
  • Carbohydrates: whole grain bread (Dave’s Killer Bread), frozen varieties (peas, berries), apples, kiwi, avocado
  • Snacks: cheese sticks, dried fruit, pretzels
  • Other: chicken broth (low-sodium), extra virgin olive oil, pasta sauce (red, pesto), pure maple syrup
IMG_1515.jpg
A recent Costco haul of some of our staple foods (+ books for Laurel).

Tips for Planning & Eating Healthier Meals at Home

  1. Keep a running list of items you need now or are running out of. I keep my list on my phone in the Notes app. I refer to my note often and add items to it frequently. Right now, my list includes honey, taco shells, walnuts, and cream of mushroom condensed soup (I like Pacific brand). I used the last of the honey the other night making spicy Thai peanut chicken. A few nights before that I made tacos and used the box of taco shells we had. Taco shells are a staple item I always have for a last minute dinner, since we also always have frozen meat, seasoning packets, avocados, cheese, and “sour cream” aka Greek yogurt to complete the meal. (Ryan didn’t notice for the longest time that we top our tacos, quesadillas, and chili with Greek yogurt, as I usually just put some in a little bowl with all the other fixin’s.) Be sure to look for taco shells and tortillas without shortening or hydrogenated oil.
  2. Always keep staple foods at home. What I mean by this is, always have foods at home you could throw together to make a complete meal, if in a hurry or you get home late. Since these will be foods you “always” have on hand, they will need to either be shelf stable or freezable. Build your meal by picturing your plate containing a protein source, a healthy carb, and vegetables. For protein, I always have chicken and seafood (usually shrimp and scallops) in the freezer and canned beans in my pantry. I also always have rice (wild, long grain brown, and short grain brown), quinoa, and whole grain pasta varieties on hand (and I always have red pasta sauce in the pantry and pesto in the freezer). For vegetables, I typically have salad ingredients in my fridge, along with several fresh vegetable options but I also always have vegetables in the freezer that I could steam in a pinch. Remember that a meal doesn’t have to be an intimidating fancy concoction with special sauces and exotic seasonings. Throw some chicken, veggies, and brown rice in a stir-fry with some salt and pepper and call it a day.
  3. Keep convenience items on hand too. Okay, so obviously the idea of cooking at home is so you can eat healthier, cut back on sodium, etc, but that doesn’t mean that every item in the meal has to be homemade. If you pair convenience items with lots of vegetables, lean protein, and/or whole grains, “semi-homemade” is still way better than eating out.  Some of the convenience items I usually have on hand include: seasoning packets, microwave steamer vegetables, microwave steamer grains (like rice or quinoa), meats/seafood/poultry that come in marinade or seasoned already, jarred pasta sauce, minced garlic, and canned beans. Throw a meal together incredibly fast by thinly slicing chicken breast and throwing it in a pan with canola or olive oil and a seasoning packet (like fajita, one of my favorites). Load the cooked chicken onto a bed of brown rice and sliced red and yellow bell pepper and Voila! The seasoning packet did all the work for you by flavoring the meal. Forgot to thaw your chicken and you’re hungry now? Make a quick bean chili with canned beans, seasonings, a splash of chicken broth, and top with avocado chunks and shredded cheese.
  4. Don’t buy something unless it fits into a meal or snack. People often tell me how they spend so much money at the grocery store but then get home and feel like there’s nothing to eat. Or they get home from work starving and stuff their face with “junk” foods. I ask them why they had the junk foods in the house in the first place. “For the kids” is a typical response. You know my response to that? Your kids shouldn’t be eating junk either! Don’t keep chips, Little Debbies, Oreos, soda, or Fruit Loops at home if you’re likely to eat them when you get hungry. I’m not saying that you should never have a treat or a dessert but spend your time, energy, and money more wisely when at the grocery store.
  5. Always cook enough for leftovers. It can be frustrating when you take the time to cook a meal and its gone in the 5 minutes it takes you to scarf it down. What makes it worth the effort is being able to enjoy that meal again, especially if eating those leftovers saves you from yet another takeout meal. My husband usually takes our leftovers for his lunch the next day. I know if he didn’t bring those leftovers with him, he would likely either skip lunch or grab fast food.
  6. Pack your lunch. Step 1: Buy a lunchbox. This is not a joke. I know you might think that using a grocery store plastic bag will suffice, but you’ll enjoy your lunch a whole lot more if it’s not squished or hot from sitting in your gym bag all morning (this is true, it’s scientifically proven). Seriously, go to Target and get yourself a cute lunchbox or cooler and grab one of those gel things you freeze and put inside to keep everything cold. Personally, I’ve found that having a lunchbox encourages me to actually pack it. Bringing your lunch to work could prevent you from skipping lunch or grabbing fast food, both not ideal options.
  7. Prep ingredients, not necessarily whole meals. What I mean by this is wash and cut fruit, slice or dice onions, clean mushrooms, chop vegetables, and/or mince garlic. Keep all of these items in a container in the fridge until you can eat or use them. You’re more likely to reach into the fridge and grab a few strawberries to eat if they’re already washed and stemmed, right? Are you more likely to eat an apple if its sliced? I noticed that sometimes Ryan’s apple would come back in his lunchbox whole, but if I sliced it, it never did. You’d be more likely to eat a salad if the ingredients were already prepared, right? I always keep sliced onions in my fridge. 50% of the time I have sliced cucumber and carrots too. I like to slice my veggies using a mandolin so its quick and uniform.
  8. Always eat breakfast. I never skip breakfast. If you typically skip this meal, it should be one of the first things you add to your day. If you’re thinking, “I’m not really hungry in the morning” or “I don’t have time to cook a breakfast meal,” my answer is, you still need to eat breakfast. Breakfast doesn’t have to be this elaborate meal like you’d get at IHOP. For me, breakfast is something quick. I’m usually getting ready to run out the door to workout, but before I can do that I get Laurel and myself ready and fed. Breakfast is important because it physically regulates you for your day. By eating breakfast, you’re stabilizing your blood sugar which in turn stabilizes your energy, mood, and stamina. This is especially important if you have Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), insulin resistance, or diabetes. My daily breakfast is one of three options: toast with avocado and eggs (takes an extra 5 minutes to cook the eggs), toast with peanut butter and cinnamon (quick & easy), or chia seed pudding (made the night before).
toast
Toast with avocado and egg & toast with peanut butter and toppings.

Implementing Healthier Meals with Kids

To put it simply, your kids should eat what you cook them. Yes, I understand that kids can be picky eaters and temperamental when it comes to food. I’m here to empower you to offer your kids healthy foods, whether they like it or not. Notice, I used the word offer. It’s their choice to eat or not. Will your child scarf down all the asparagus on their plate the first time? Maybe not. That doesn’t mean that you should stop offering it. If your child throws a tantrum because they wanted a hot dog but you made salmon instead, for goodness sake, don’t then make them the hot dog. You’ll have just reinforced that behavior and non-verbally told your child, “If you throw a tantrum, I’ll give you whatever you want to eat.” It’s okay for a child to go to bed without dinner one night because they refused to eat your veggie chili. Under normal circumstances,* a child will not starve themselves. When they realize that they won’t get mac and cheese after refusing what you cooked, they will eventually eat their dinner. It might take time. It will take consistency. It definitely takes you and your partner being on the same page. Kids watch and model their parents behavior. If dad complains about the meal or doesn’t eat his vegetables, why would 7-year-old Timmy want to?

baby eating vegetables (broccoli, peas, carrots, cauliflower)
Laurel loves vegetables! I keep them frozen and heat them as needed (in the microwave).

Don’t make a big deal about the changes you implement and they might even go unnoticed. For example, if you switch to whole grain pasta from white, your family might not notice the difference once the sauce is added. But if you start the meal with, “This is a new healthy thing we’re trying…” you’ve already set the tone for the meal as Proceed With Caution.

*If your child is picky to the point of eating less than 10 different foods, throws tantrums when offered new foods, doesn’t want certain foods on his/her plate, or avoids certain textures of foods, discuss these issues with your pediatrician or registered dietitian.