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Those who celebrate New Year’s in the American South dig their spoons into a bowl full of black-eyed peas. These beige-colored beans with signature black spots are said to bestow good luck in the New Year.
Some food historians say pea’s luck dates to the Egyptian Pharaohs, who believed that eating this humble food showed humility to the gods. Others give a more modern explanation. That is, that these lucky legumes provided life-saving sustenance for southerners during the U.S. Civil War.
Black-eyed peas aren’t alone when it comes to serving as a culinary good luck charm. Greens, pork and grapes fall into this designation, too. What’s more, each of these is highly nutritious. Here’s the scoop on the superstition and the science behind good luck foods for the new year:
1. Black-eyed peas. While the exact origin of this food’s good fortune is unclear, what is well-defined are its nutritional plusses. Peas offer a wealth of dietary fiber; 8 grams per 1 cup or a quarter of the day’s recommendation for adults. Fiber helps to prevent digestive problems.
In addition, the type of fiber in peas — soluble fiber — can prevent fats from being absorbed and thus can act as a heart-healthy aid to lowering blood cholesterol levels.
Black-eyed peas are also rich in the mineral potassium, which keeps heart function healthful. Other benefits are virtually no fat, sodium or cholesterol, yet a good source of non-meat protein.
Throughout the year, add cooked black-eyed peas to soups and stews, serve cold in a salad, or mash and make homemade veggie burgers.
Many New Year’s dishes call for combinations of black-eyed peas and greens and/or pork, two other foods that are both lucky and nutritious.
2. Greens. Think collards, cabbage and kale, for example. The leaves’ resemblance to “greenbacks” or dollar bills is the lucky association. The rich color also denotes a wealth of nutrients. All cancer-fighting cruciferous vegetables, these greens are full of antioxidant nutrients such as vitamins C, A and E as well as phytonutrients such as quercetin. Dietary fiber, plus few calories, fat, sodium and cholesterol are other edible advantages.
Collards are traditionally simmered with bacon or bacon fat, but a more nutritious cooking method is steaming in beef broth or tossing in thin slices of lean ham after cooking. Enjoy greens all year long cooked in soups and sides or served raw in salads, wraps or sandwiches.
The U.S. isn’t the only country where greens get a prime place at the table on Jan. 1. In Denmark, stewed kale sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar is served, while in Germany sauerkraut graces the menu.
3. Pork. The old saying “living high on the hog”, or eating choice cuts of pork that once only the rich could buy, gives this meat its providential reputation. Luckily, nutrition-wise, pork cuts such as loin, upper leg and shoulder are the leanest. In fact, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture figures, a standard serving (3 ounces) of cooked pork tenderloin contains 120 calories compared to 140 for chicken breast and 141 for beef eye of round.
Pork provides an essential mix of other nutrients, including B vitamins, protein, zinc and potassium. Lean pork is a great alternative to chicken and fish during the rest of the year. Pork sausage, usually higher in fat depending from the cuts from which it’s made, is paired with green lentils in Italy and eaten just after midnight on New Year’s Eve. Germans like to eat their lucky pork as sausage, too, in a split pea or lentil soup.
4. Grapes. Eat a dozen grapes at midnight. That’s the custom in countries such as Mexico, Spain and Portugal, where each fruit symbolizes a month of the New Year.
Red, green or black, grapes are a powerhouse of nutrients and plant-based antioxidants that can protect against heart disease and cancer. One of the latter is resveratrol, which is also found in red wine, another likely addition to the New Year’s table. Grapes can also be a potent ally to keep New Year’s resolutions for weight loss. A 1-1/2 cup serving of these sweet fruits provides only 90 calories.
Carol Bareuther is a registered dietitian and freelance health and nutrition writer. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.