By Shireen Hakim
After a stimulating evening lecture at an organized masjid in Orange County, California, I stopped by their burgeoning snack bar where halal dinner was advertised, my mouth watering.
“We have pizza for the kids, or halal burgers for the adults,” the efficient hijab-clad volunteer informed me.
“Oh, I try not to eat red meat often, and I am gluten-free for health reasons,” I said, disappointed.
“There is chicken biryani.” She showed me the container dripping with oil. I shook my head.
Stop, I thought.
“No, thank you.”
I left the line as the 10-year old boy behind me bought a bag of M&M’s and soda for dinner. Hey, at least they have water bottles right?
Flash forward to my yearly nutrition presentation at my local Los Angeles County masjid’s family night, post-Ramadan. Audience members write down my nutrition recommendations. Afterwards, they describe the healthy dishes they prepare at home, and I am proud of the progress they have made since I became a public health dietitian eight years ago.
But as usual, the families complain to me about the unhealthy food they are served at the masjid, catered from halal restaurants; oily meat curry, white pita bread and rice, and green slime formerly known as spinach (okay the last one is my own description). Likewise, they bemoan their difficulty in losing weight because of the fattening food. I, like a few other smart program attendees, now skip the provided meal and eat before at home. However, once in a while, I succumb to eating the unhealthy food at the masjid, to celebrate with company on Eid or at an interfaith dinner. I can’t always fill up on the wilted lettuce and plain carrots they serve as “salad.”
Muslim individuals and families are practicing good nutrition at home, but our community is lacking proper nutrition. We need to improve the nutrition at the community-level by offering quality food at public venues and masjid events. Now, I am directing my nutritional advice to the audience that provides the food. To the masjids and halal restaurants, attention. The main food groups are not curry, roti, oil-soaked vegetables, and pizza!
Islam represents all aspects of life, including nutrition. The Qur’an states, “…Eat of the good things…” (23:51). Masjids are the community’s leading example of Islam. When we attend the masjid, we strive to practice the best Islam. We dress modestly, we are polite, and we volunteer. Therefore, at the masjid we should eat healthy. Masjids need to improve their nutrition in order to meet the ideals of Islam, and to set a positive example for the community to follow.
Further, our community’s health is suffering because of the food we are subjected to at public gatherings. At only 40 to 50 years of age, Muslim-Americans are overweight, have heart disease, and even die. According to the Asia and Pacific Islander American Health Forum, South Asian men in the US have “three times higher heart attack rates than the general US population.”
We can work to improve our nutrition with four steps:
- First, we need to fund masjids so they can afford quality ingredients and caterers. In turn, we should pay a fair amount for good food we receive, and not expect/demand free food. We can’t have high expectations if we invest nothing. Think lunch at Taco Bell versus Chipotle. Accordingly, masjids need to stop offering free junk food as a gimmick to entice people to come to the masjid. Masjids should charge a reasonable fee for food, and increase the budget for food costs. Masjids are not Chuck E Cheese’s. Use other tactics- like a bounce house or game room- to attract attendees. Speaking of Chuck E Cheese’s, provide healthy food for kids like macaroni and cheese, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and juice. Don’t make them choke down the curry or serve them pizza and soda every event.
- Secondly, we need to communicate our nutrition preferences to the masjid and halal restaurants. There is no room for finger pointing or blaming “the masjid.” We are the masjid. Get involved at your masjid and provide feedback at board meetings, food committee meetings, volunteer meetings, email, etc. Ask for nutrition education programs. Accordingly, talk to restaurant owners and comment on Zabihah.com and Yelp.
- Thirdly, choose the healthy dishes-vegetarian, baked, and grilled- offered at the masjid and parties, so they serve them more. Omar ibn Al-Khattaab , who the Prophet said would have been the next prophet if there was one, said, “Beware of meat, for it has addictiveness like wine.” (Muwatta Malik)
Specific foods to choose: cholay (garbanzo beans), falafel, hummus, dal (lentils), fresh/grilled vegetables, labneh/dahi (yogurt), seafood, and beans.
- Lastly, masjids should cater from healthy vendors like Mediterranean/Middle Eastern restaurants and home cooks. I recommend Mediterranean restaurants because they cook with olive oil. The Prophet, said, “Eat olives and use its oil…” (Tirmidhi). These restaraunts also usually have many vegetarian and fermented (probiotic-filled) dishes. Hispanic and Asian halal restaurants also offer healthy options. Choose vegetarian and baked/grilled dishes from South Asian restaurants. It is possible to find healthy halal restaurants. In my suburb, Jasmine Restaurant has an organic salad bar and fresh green juice!
There are steps we can take to get the healthy food we want at masjid events and halal restaurants. Get involved at your masjid and verbalize your nutrition needs. Masjids and restaurants, listen to your community.