Versatile and packed with flavor, the best tacos are those with the perfect balance of savory protein and fresh ingredients bundled in a tortilla. Here’s your step-by-step DIY to building your own.
Since I was born and raised in Los Angeles (which is basically the mecca of delicious Mexican food in the U.S.), I consider myself to be an expert in eating tacos. Imagine slicing into some nicely charred carne asada hot from the grill, or watching the taco truck guy carve thin pieces of al pastor from the spit, dripping with juices and fat.
I don’t know about you, but my mouth is watering!
I think we can all agree that tacos are delicious, but sometimes, especially when you order them in a restaurant, they’re not exactly the healthiest. Here are the steps to make your own healthier versions at home:
1. Choose a lean cut of meat or even use plant-based protein.
When choosing the protein to go inside of your taco, choose one on the leaner side. Chicken (without the skin), flank steak, sirloin, top round, bottom round, london broil, skirt steak, pork loin, shrimp, and fish are all great choices. If you’ve got the extra cash, you can even use filet mignon! If you use ground beef, be sure to choose a leaner grind, such as 90% lean/10% fat, 93/7, or 96/4.
Lean ground turkey is also a great option to make turkey tacos! The extra lean tends to be a little dry when cooked, so go with 90/10. To add some more moisture, flavor and nutrients to ground beef or turkey, finely chop some mushrooms and saute with the meat! Or, try using plant-based proteins as the main taco ingredient! Examples are beans, lentils, tofu, seitan and tempeh.
2. Marinate the meat, especially when grilling.
A marinade adds so much flavor to the meat through liquids, herbs, garlic, chiles and spices. They also have a slight tenderizing effect through an acid. Examples of acid are wine, vinegar, lemon, lime, seville orange (sour orange). The acid also adds flavor too, especially when you use red wine. Many recipes include oil in the marinade and you may wonder what the point of that is. The fat actually helps to keep the meat moist during cooking and distributes the flavors throughout the marinade.
Marinating the meat prior to grilling can also decrease your risk of cancer. According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, marinating meats before grilling decreases the formation of carcinogenic compounds called HCAs by up to 96%!
*A note about the marinade: Please discard the used stuff, don’t risk contaminating yourself or your family with E. coli or Salmonella! If you want to use the marinade as part of a sauce or to baste the meat, reserve a portion of the fresh, unused marinade for later.
3. Choose small tortillas.
When it comes to tortillas, the smaller the better. Most stores sell a small, “street taco” size, which is the smallest option. Comparison shop at the store and look at the nutrition facts label on a variety of tortillas. If you’re watching calorie intake, flour tortillas can have quite a bit more calories than corn tortillas.
If you have a gas stove, warm the tortillas directly over the burner for a few seconds on each side. The very slight char will give your final product an amazing flavor! You can also do this on the grill. If crunchy tacos are more of your thing, check out this oven-baked taco shell method from EatingWell.
4. Choose condiments wisely.
Choose condiments that are nutrient dense, flavor packed and give an added textural sensation to the taco. Chopped raw onion, fresh cilantro leaves, red or green salsa, hot sauce, roasted chiles or bell peppers, grilled onions, avocado, or even a crunchy slaw.
If you love sour cream, try making a crema with greek yogurt mixed with herbs or chipotle chiles. If you need cheese, go light on the portion. Just a small sprinkle will do. I love crumbly Mexican cheese such as cotija, or as an alternative, use a dash of crumbled feta.
5. Practice portion control.
This may be the only difficult piece of the taco puzzle since it’s so easy to eat taco after taco after taco! So that you’re not tempted to eat copious amounts of tacos, add a healthier side dish component to the plate such as vegetables or a side of whole beans. Serve a garden salad or make extra slaw to serve on the side of the plate. Saute some zucchini with garlic and mexican oregano, or roast some cauliflower with cumin and coriander for delicious veggie sides.
For my recipe on red wine marinated steak tacos, visit the full article!
Lindsey Pine, MS, RDN, CSSD, CLT is a Los Angeles-based dietitian, specializing in food sensitivities and culinary creations. Whether she’s working with students at University of Southern California or in her private practice, Lindsey helps others find the healthy foods that they love so help sustain their long-term success. To find your tastiest balance in life, connect with Lindsey at Tasty Balance Nutrition.