Not every foodie begins refining their gourmet palate before high school. Take Nikki Dinki, co-host of the Cooking Channel’s new show, “Junk Food Flip.” Until college, Dinki confesses to having the palate of a 2-year-old.
Growing up, she only ate three foods: cheese, bread and tomato sauce. But this also meant she mostly cooked for herself beginning at age 9, when her mother gave up trying to force her to eat what she made the rest of their family.
“I would spend the last couple periods of school thinking about what I wanted for dinner,” Dinki recalls. “I didn’t eat much variety back then, but I was still very food-focused.”
Left to her own devices, she stopped trying new things entirely — which later made life in NYC problematic.
“It was difficult to go to restaurants with new friends or to go on a date, and it was embarrassing,” she says. “So I decided to change it.”
It can be a huge challenge to get someone, especially kids, to try a new food. What helped you branch out?
“Repetition is the key,” says Dinki. “But it can be hard to eat broccoli 30 times if you absolutely hate it. What I like to do is add vegetables to dishes people already love, like pizza and enchiladas. The vegetable isn’t as assertive in these cases, and people then have the opportunity to get used to the flavor of a new vegetable in a more subtle way.”
Another tip: “Add lots of other flavors to things you don’t like,” says Dinki. “Steamed broccoli is not very good, but when you char it and finely chop it with roasted garlic, sour cream and chickpeas and fold it into a taco — now we’re talking!”
Fast-forward a few years and Dinki’s tastes (and skills) have grown to inspire her new show, which follows her and co-host Bobby Deen (son of Paula, so he knows all about comfort food) around the country to reimagine guilty pleasures into healthier options.
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But they don’t just make up a recipe: After flipping dishes in popular restaurants, they then go head-to-head with the originals in a taste test, judged by the customers who love them.
We asked Dinki where we are going wrong with our favorite foods.
Deep-frying: Dinki says you’d be shocked to know how many calories frying adds: “On one episode of ‘Junk Food Flip,’ the dish we flipped had a sprinkle of deep-fried bacon on top. The bacon alone added 600 calories — just for the garnish! Simply pan frying over deep frying can save you serious calories.”
Portion size: “Take a small portion of pasta — you know, the size you’re ‘supposed’ to eat — and add vegetables to it,” she says. “Vegetables are so low in calories that you can add as many as you want and not even count them.” Top off your frozen pizza with veggies before baking or saute them separately and add them to frozen meals after they come out of the microwave. Not only will you be adding nutrition, but these smaller portions will suddenly be huge!
Meat as the star: Dinki’s approach to food is right in the title of her upcoming cookbook: “Meat on the Side.” “To allow veggies to take center stage on the plate, you have to manipulate them and do things that maybe most people have never thought of before,” she says. She likes to add ancho chili powder and chipotle to sweet potatoes, broccoli and spaghetti squash and “make killer tacos.” And instead of coleslaw, she uses cabbage in grilled cheese sandwiches or in place of chips for nachos.
Sneaky calories: “If an ingredient is going to have a lot of fat and calories, it should also be adding a lot of flavor,” says Dinki. Instead of packing your tacos full of cheese, put it on top so it’s the first thing to hit your tongue. “And use stronger cheeses so you don’t have to use as much,” she adds.
And even if you think you’re being good by using olive oil, remember that every tablespoon has 120 calories. If you’re just using it to cook, keep it to a teaspoon, or use a cooking spray instead. “And if you love an oily tomato sauce, start with just a little olive oil and finish with a little more — the olive oil that you finish with is really potent and makes an impact,” she says.