Finding big flavors without using lots of calories and fat is like the cherry on top for this 17-year-old.
Melissa Cherry has made it her passion to make healthier versions of favorite foods -- from stuffed peppers to macaroni and cheese -- that still satisfy.
"Eating healthy can be intimidating because you'll think I'll only be able to have a smoothie for breakfast, eat a salad for lunch and have a piece of broccoli for dinner. People think it's restrictive," she said. "I still want to be able to enjoy good food. A lot of my inspiration and my reasoning for making healthier versions of dishes is so I can eat really good food but also be healthy." The Elburn teen said she began to look again at her eating habits inspired by her best friend who changed her diet and lost 60 pounds.
"I understood the way I was eating wasn't the way I should be treating my body," she said. "I started to change my diet and change how active I was. I was able to incorporate that with my enjoyment of cooking and baking." Melissa said like her mom, Mary, she likes to experiment in the kitchen. It's a chance, she said, not only to tweak recipes to her taste but also de-stress and flex her creative muscles.
"I like cooking even if it's just following a recipe," she said. "Being able to create something I know is something I've come up with and it actually turned out good is exciting for me." Among the dishes she has given a makeover is her favorite, macaroni and cheese. Thanks to a friend's idea, she mashed avocado with various spices to create a creamy sauce.
"It makes a similar texture. It's not exactly the same taste but it satisfies that mac and cheese craving," she said.
One ingredient that she has not experimented with but is anxious to try is tofu.
"I know there are a lot of different ways to cook it. I've been kind of scared to try it because you can really easily mess it up," she said. "It is definitely something that is intriguing and I've wondered how I can make certain dishes with tofu."
A senior at Kaneland High School who also works at a local meat market, Melissa said she doesn't get an opportunity often enough to cook at home. When she does cook, it's often a meal just for one.
"I never am quite sure how they are going to turn out. I don't want to inflict that on my parents," she said.
While she wants to eat healthy, Melissa adds she has a sweet tooth and likes to bake. She makes such favorites as cookies or granola bars with almond or soy milk and natural sweeteners like agave and maple syrup.
To share some of the culinary creations she's made and fuel her love to write, Melissa created a blog at purelypeaches.tumblr.com.
"In some strange way, my friends came up with the nickname 'Meech' for me and would call me 'Meech the Peach,'" she said. "So I sort adopted that name for my blog title and call it 'Purely Peaches' because I want everything I post to be purely healthy and purely me." Among the recipes she shares are chocolate strawberry mug cake, shrimp stir fry and blueberry muffin tops that she says won't give the waistline a muffin top. Knowing exercise is key to a healthy lifestyle, she also wrote tips to become an early morning runner including sleeping in workout clothes and setting a goal.
"Even if you aren't training for a race, it's important to set time and distance goals to keep you feeling motivated and accomplished," she wrote. "Even trying to run two blocks more than yesterday is enough incentive." Planning to attend Augustana College in downstate Rock Island in the fall, Melissa said she may not pursue cooking as a career but will continue to enjoy the creative process.
"Cooking is so involved in every culture. It is something that will always be part of my life," she said. "When I finish college farther down the road, I'll take some culinary classes to further my skills and try new things."