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Low-Calorie Korean Meals: Traditional Family Foods for a Healthy Diet

korean tteokgalbi over lettuce

When you think of Korean food, you might picture Mukbang or street foods like sugary corn dogs, fried chicken, and instant noodles like Buldak ramen. These popular dishes often dominate social media feeds, and while they are delicious, they are modern indulgences that do not necessarily represent the healthful side of Korean cuisine. In contrast, traditional Korean meals, particularly the multi-course meal known as Hanjeongsik (한정식), offer a balanced and nutritious way of eating that can help you stay fit and healthy.

korean family eating a big meal

[Image source:]

What is Hanjeongsik?

Hanjeongsik is a traditional Korean meal that consists of multiple small dishes, served all at once. This type of meal is rooted in royal and aristocratic cuisine but has become a common way for families to dine. The beauty of Hanjeongsik lies in its variety and balance, offering a mix of vegetables, proteins, and grains providing a balanced and complete meal.

Key Components of Hanjeongsik

  1. Rice (Bap): The staple of any Korean meal, rice provides a good source of carbohydrates and energy.

  2. Soup (Guk or Jjigae): Often made with vegetables, tofu, or seafood, soups are a comforting and hydrating part of the meal.

  3. Kimchi: This famous fermented vegetable dish is packed with probiotics and vitamins, promoting gut health.

  4. Banchan (Side Dishes): These can include a variety of seasoned vegetables, pickles, and small portions of protein such as fish, tofu, or meat.

  5. Protein: Grilled fish, steamed meat, or tofu provide the necessary protein for muscle maintenance and growth.

  6. Vegetables: Steamed, stir-fried, or fresh vegetables are always present, offering fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

an array of korean food

[Image source: 한식진흥원]

The Nutritional Benefits of Hanjeongsik

Balance and Variety

Hanjeongsik's emphasis on balance and variety ensures that you receive a wide range of nutrients in one meal. The inclusion of multiple dishes means that you are less likely to overconsume any single type of food, helping to maintain a balanced diet.

Low-Calorie Options

Many components of Hanjeongsik are naturally low in calories yet high in nutritional value. For instance, vegetable-based dishes and soups provide essential vitamins and minerals without adding excessive calories. The focus on fermentation and pickling, as seen in kimchi, not only adds flavor but also supports digestive health.

Healthy Fats and Lean Proteins

Korean cuisine often features lean proteins such as fish, tofu, and chicken, which are grilled or steamed rather than fried. These cooking methods help to keep the calorie count low while preserving the nutritional integrity of the food. Additionally, healthy fats from ingredients like sesame oil and nuts are used in moderation, contributing to heart health.

Enjoying Hanjeongsik While Traveling

One of the best ways to experience Hanjeongsik is by visiting traditional Korean restaurants, which often serve these meals in a beautifully presented manner. Look for places that offer a set menu, as this will give you a true taste of the variety and balance inherent in Hanjeongsik.

Getting Hanjeongsik Delivered

Getting Hanjeongsik delivered to your home is not typically an option due to its elaborate presentation and variety of dishes. However, the closest alternative is the Dosirak, or lunchbox, which offers a compact version of Hanjeongsik. Dosirak includes a balanced selection of rice, proteins, and side dishes (banchan), mirroring the diverse and nutritious elements of a full Hanjeongsik meal. While it may not capture the full dining experience, Dosirak provides a convenient and delicious way to enjoy a variety of traditional Korean flavors in a single, portable package.

Beef Bulgogi Dosirak from Itaewon Old School Jipbap Dosirak

an abalone dosirak

Abalone Dosirak

Tips for Eating Healthy While Traveling

  • Choose Vegetable-Rich Dishes: Opt for banchan that includes a variety of vegetables.

  • Limit Fried Foods: While tempting, try to avoid fried items and focus on grilled, steamed, or raw options.

  • Stay Hydrated: Korean soups are a great way to stay hydrated while enjoying a flavorful dish.

  • Control Portions: The small servings in Hanjeongsik help in managing portion sizes and prevent overeating.

Incorporating the principles of traditional Korean family meals, or Hanjeongsik, into your diet is an excellent way to stay healthy. The emphasis on balance, variety, and low-calorie options makes it a perfect choice for those looking to maintain their health while enjoying the rich culinary heritage of South Korea. Whether you're a traveler exploring the country or a resident looking to adopt healthier eating habits, Hanjeongsik offers a delicious and nutritious path to clean eating.

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