ACF Chef Jim Perko’s tips for using whole foods to add flavor naturally

By Lauren Kramer

When it comes to food, there’s one thing on which most of us can agree: Sugar, sodium and fat are highly addictive. We love our pizzas oozing with cheese, the deep richness of our creamy ice creams and the satisfying crunch of a fried salted snack. In short, we love food that tastes good.

Food can and should taste good — even “healthier” food, says Chef Jim Perko, CEC, executive chef of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Lifestyle and Integrative Medicine. With Drs. Michael Roizen and Michael Crupain, Chef Perko co-authored “The What to Eat When Cookbook,” a guide to whole-food cooking without the need for added sugar, salt or fat. “If it doesn’t taste good, it becomes impossible to sustain behavioral change over the long-term,” Chef Perko says. “Ours is a technique-driven curriculum that combines evidence-based science of food and medicine with the joy and art of cooking.”

Take salad dressing, for example. Chefs are trained that a classic vinaigrette dressing should be a ratio of oil to acid, but Chef Perko says there is another way. His recipe involves boiling and reducing figs and prunes before blending them with blueberries, vinegar, garlic, mustard and herbs. “This is a thick, sweet salad dressing sweetened by the prunes, figs and blueberries,” he says. “Since prunes have [natural] sugar, calcium and fiber, this way you’re getting sweetness but with the fiber attached to it.”

How do you moisten without fat, you ask? Rather than adding oil, butter or cream sauces to grains, Chef Perko suggests using plants, some of which have more water content than others. “There’s so much moisture in a mushroom, for example,” he says. “So, load your grain with green beans, onions, peppers and mushrooms. You could add a small quantity of olive oil, but less is more, and even with a healthy fat, you’re still talking 120 calories per tablespoon.” 

Instead of adding more and more salt, consider adding rich, roasted tomatoes for some acid and an umami boost — not to mention a dose of healthy lycopene. Even something as simple as an extra squeeze of lemon or citrus, fresh herbs or spices can balance out natural flavors in a dish better than just salt.

Instead of reaching for full-fat, dairy-based, sugar-laden ice cream, Chef Perko offers this suggestion: “Take a ripe banana, peel it, wrap it and freeze it. Then, blend it with almond milk, almond butter, vanilla and flax seed, and you’ll see it comes out just like a vanilla milkshake: totally delicious. You will love it, and it will love you back.”

Can’t resist chocolate? Chef Perko has an answer for that, too. “Slice that banana and freeze the slices on a skewer, Then dip it into melted dark chocolate, freeze it again, and you’ll have a healthy candy bar. That’s what culinary medicine does: It delivers flavor without sodium, density without a lot of meat and sweets without [added] sugar.”

This way of eating, Chef Perko says, is “not just for people with health problems or who need to heal and sustain their behavioral changes – it’s also for prevention. We want to teach this to children so they can make the right choices while they’re still young.” 

For recipes and more tips and tricks on how to boost the flavor and nutritional component of your dishes, visit