Laila Ali is dominating the health and lifestyle media scene (and marketplace!), and I’m thrilled to have chatted with her again recently for an interview in Amazing Wellness magazine.
In the below outtakes from our conversation, Ali—whose OWN network show Home Made Simple returns with new episodes starting April 21—tells how her perspectives on healthy and happy eating merged to help create her scrumptious new cookbook, Food for Life: Delicious & Healthy Comfort Food from My Table to Yours! (St. Martin’s Press). The visually stunning, full-color tome infuses classic feel-good cuisine with whole-food ingredients and optional superfood and supplement add-ons (maca muffins, anyone?) that take its tasty recipes to the next nutritional level.
The TV personality also hosts her own Laila Ali Lifestyle Podcast. “It’s an extension of my brand where I talk about food and fitness and wellness and health and parenting,” the business-savvy mom of two says. Also an outgrowth of Laila Inc.: her supplement line set to roll out later this year. “As an athlete, I understand the importance of supplementing. And I want to have the same high-quality product, without all of the additives and junk in it. So I’m looking forward to that.”
In the meantime, the four-time undefeated boxing world champion is happy to share the influences behind Food for Life—chief among them, her late father and legendary boxer, Muhammad Ali, who inspired her Greatest of All-Time Burger. “My dad loved to eat and he also understood the importance of a good home-cooked meal,” she says. “He was just tickled pink at how well I could cook. He was very impressed with that, so he would be happy.”
chris mann: What inspired your vision for Food for Life?
laila ali: I learned a lot about different foods and how food can enhance your life—or it can make you sick—over the years. When I first became an athlete, I learned about food as it relates to our performance. I continued to do research, and I had children. When you have babies around, you start thinking, okay, organic, non-GMO. You start thinking about food differently and, again, the quality of food. That’s where my own personal journey took me.
I cook a lot. I’ve loved to cook since I was young. So I love to cook. I love to eat. But I also know what it feels like to be healthy. It makes me feel good, and I want that for everybody. So I decided to start with a book that wasn’t overwhelming. We have so many different nutrition theories now, and I think people get a bit overwhelmed. I wanted to cut through the clutter and bring it back to the focus of eating whole foods, and focus on the quality of the foods that you eat, and things like portion control.
cm: Though vital to health and wellbeing, nutrition is an imperfect science.
la: We have a lot of different arguments about nutrition. (Scientific findings are) always changing. One year they’ll say eggs are good for you, the next year they’re saying they’re not. One year they’ll say coconut oil is good for you, the next year they’re saying it’s not. You just have to use your common sense a little bit. Nobody is going to argue that more fruits and vegetables and whole foods aren’t good for you.
One thing doesn’t work for every body. That’s what I’ve learned, and I’ve had to evolve my way of thinking. I can do a vegan or vegetarian diet and somebody else may not thrive on a vegetarian diet. And vice versa. So you really have to figure out what’s good for you for each point in your life.
So all of this is how Food for Life came into being.
Then I took into consideration that people are busy. Sometimes you want breakfast on the go. Or you want a smoothie to get all of your nutrition in there. (Editor’s note: See her chlorella-infused Green Power Shake recipe here.) That’s what I do for me. When I think about trying to get in X amount of fruit and veggies and other nutrition, it’s hard when you have to think about doing it throughout the day.
cm: As a busy mom, how do you balance nutritional know-how with wanting to treat kids at home or needing to include packaged foods in their lunch boxes?
la: I’m not someone who’s like, you can’t have anything sweet. You just use the best ingredients that you can so your body can actually process what you’re putting in it. Unfortunately, a lot of what we’re eating now is not even food. It’s processed stuff. If you look at the packaging there’s all these chemicals and the stuff is made in a factory.
But I get it: Parents are busy, and I get it, we have to pack lunch for our kids and sometimes you have to put some processed items in. Luckily, companies are using more quality ingredients now. When you see the organic, non-GMO sign on foods, you know that you’re dealing with a company that’s taking your health into consideration.
You’ve got to shop smart, though. Sometimes you’re out there buying something that you think is healthy when it’s not. All you have to do is use your common sense and slow down when you’re making your food choices. People forgot our food turns into our hair, our brain, and our organs. You’ve got to think of the quality of what you’re putting into your body.
For a healthier spin on one of her kids’ favorites, spaghetti (for breakfast!), Laila tells Amazing Wellness, “Instead of using regular white pasta, we use brown rice noodles or quinoa noodles or zucchini noodles. And not only do we use a good-quality meat—beef, lamb, or turkey—I have a secret red sauce that has tons of veggies that I mix in the blender. The flavor masks the veggies so the kids don’t even know that they’re in there.”
cm: Quality can, of course, be delicious. How did your Cinnamon, Carrot, and Maca Muffins recipe come to fruition?
la: I love a good muffin, and these are so good in the morning. Anytime I have something I love I try to recreate a way to make it healthier—but it’s still tasty at the same time.
I did the book with my writer and partner Leda Scheintaub. Leda not only has some amazing books of her own, she has her own blog, Leda’s Kitchen. I had to partner with someone who would help develop the recipes with me. All of the recipes came from me. We tried to make things as healthy as we can but also as tasty as we can.
I wanted to incorporate maca for immunity. And that’s something I have in my day-to-day life. If it’s not in a muffin, it’s in a shake. I’ll put it in mac and cheese and give it to my kids. You can’t really taste it very much unless you use too much, so you can put it in anything. Every time you eat, try to find a way to put something nutritious in the meal. It takes it a step further.
cm: Was this the thinking behind your Next Level, Please! recipe enhancers?
la: I really wanted to capture Middle America (with these recipes) along with those who are already on a healthy lifestyle path. I wanted to have something for everyone so people have room to grow and not be so overwhelmed. Some people might be like, “What? Bone broth? I’ve got to add this? Are you kidding me? I just wanted to get in the kitchen and try one meal.” It’s not like I have a cookbook where it’s, like, just five ingredients. There are easier cookbooks than mine, of course.
But I think it’s really important to have those things in there. Like with fermented foods I understand how important gut health is. People don’t realize how important it is to have flora in your body. Just having something fermented as part of your regular rotation really makes a difference. And if you don’t know about it, I want people to do their own research. You have to learn the importance of it and why it’s used in the first place.
Fermenting is Leda’s thing. I never actually fermented foods at home until I started working with her. And I’m still not doing it at high levels. But it’s really easy to do. We have some simple recipes in there, but she has a whole cookbook on it (Cultured Foods for Your Kitchen).
cm: But you also offer simple healthy swaps throughout the book.
la: Yes. (Making healthier eating choices) shouldn’t be a lot of work. It should just be part of your everyday life. For instance, I love my coffee. I don’t even want to give it up. I eat well, I exercise, I don’t do drugs, I don’t smoke. I want my coffee! But what I’ll do is have organic coffee with organic creamer, and I’ll have my sweet alternatives. And if I have to stop at Starbucks every once and a while, I don’t kill myself. We need to lighten up a little bit, I think, and just make sure that 80 percent of the time we’re on the right track.
cm: What’s one of your favorite starter recipes for dinner?
la: One of the favorites in my household is the Loaded Ground Turkey Tacos. We use turkey a lot. You can use chicken, fish, whatever you want. But tacos are easy because you can make the meat ahead of time and save some in Tupperware. We have Taco Tuesdays. My husband’s already told me, “We’re having tacos tonight!”
It’s a great for me because I stick a lot of veggies in there for my kids. I’m taking rice cauliflower and sautéing it with the meat. You don’t even taste the cauliflower once you put the seasonings in. You can use zucchini rice, too. If you peel the (zucchini) skin off, you really can’t taste it. And then we have vegetables for toppings. That’s one of my quick 30-minute meals.
And you can build on it. You can save some of the meat and a couple of days later put it over some brown rice. Or make a lettuce cup. Or make scrambled eggs in the morning with the meat. You’ve gotta be creative.
cm: Or re-creative, as it were. Tell us about your Greatest of All-Time Burger, in honor of your father.
la: I was like, I’ve got to include a recipe for my dad. My earliest memory of my dad was of him picking us up from school sometimes and taking us to this local burger stand. He loved always ordering his burger a certain way. That’s where my inspiration came from. He’d get mustard and pickles and get a cold soda pop with it.
So I recreated this burger. Of course, mine’s not gonna be as greasy. And it has a whole wheat bun. It will have quality meat. It was just the corner burger stand, but that burger was good. It was seasoned really well.
The hardest thing for me is holding back on some of the seasonings. Leda reminds me, “Laila, sometimes you just have to put salt and pepper to taste. You don’t want overdo it.” Everyone has a different palate. I’d probably have everything too seasoned up, because that’s how I like food.
cm: Somewhere up above, your dad is smiling down at you.
la: I was always so proud of my dad, and I know he was proud of me, too. I know what I want and I just go for it.