By Nicole Berrie
Photography by Sasha Israel
GROWING UP IN MIAMI WITH A SPANISH FATHER AND ITALIAN MOTHER, Bianca Dueñas and Maria Dueñas Jacobs were certainly no strangers to indulgent international cuisine. “We grew up on cheese, yoghurt and having pasta as the first dish to every meal,” says Dueñas, former senior director of merchandising for Reed Krakoff. “We were really lucky as kids because there was never any punishment attached to food. There wasn’t ‘what you can and can’t have.'” As adults, the sisters have retained that philosophy in their everyday lives and Jacobs, accessories director at ELLE Magazine, has even passed on this sentiment to 1-year-old daughter Luna. “I cook the way that I want Luna to learn how to eat,” says Jacobs who eschews typical kid-friendly chicken nuggets for homemade salad and fish. “Everything that we cook for ourselves, we give to her.” In recent years, both sisters have refined their palettes to match a growing awareness of their bodies and environments. Take Dueñas who tailored her tastes after a recent discovery of a dairy allergy. “For me it was tragic because I love chocolate and I love dessert,” she laments. Meanwhile Jacobs, prefers to cook plant-based meals for her family while maintaining a regular yoga practice. Below, the sisters divulge their healthy secrets discussing everything from their daily meal rituals to a favorite guilt-free tea that tastes like a bit like wedding cake.
You made such a gorgeous salad for us today! What’s in it?
B: It’s a Charlie Bird rip off. There’s farro, which is a grain that just became super popular but we grew up eating farro because our mom’s Italian. It’s in between a rice and a buckwheat. You have to make sure that when you cook it it’s not soggy so it has that al dente bite to it. Then we added tomatoes, pistachios, butternut squash depending on the season, radishes and a bunch of herbs with olive oil and lemon.
M: It’s nice because it’s really filling but also has crunch because of the pistachios. I like to put some parmesan slices on it but Bianca doesn’t do cheese because of her dairy allergy.
Was it difficult giving up dairy?
B: We’re Spanish Italian and we grew up eating cheese and yoghurt so my parents were like, “Are you sure?” My dad would be like, “Manchego never killed anyone!” And I was like, ‘Dad, it might kill me!” It taught me you can eliminate anything from your diet that you really need to and that living without dairy is not that big a deal.
How has that changed the way you feel?
B: It makes everything lighter not to eat dairy. It did take me back to meats and chicken because I was more on the vegetable and cheese side but when you take dairy out, you’re basically vegan if you’re not eating meat and that was one step too far for me. So I basically eat fruits, vegetables, fish, chicken and a lot of grains and pasta. I don’t eat very much red meat at all.
How would you describe your philosophy on eating and exercise?
M: For me, there were two big things that changed the way that I eat and exercise. The first was when I started doing yoga. That was a complete paradigm shift for me because it made me understand my body and feel my movements in a different way. It wasn’t so much about getting fit as much as I just wanted to be strong and I wanted to learn how to breathe. I was always the kind of person that I never knew what to do at the gym, I never knew how to approach the machines. I thought I needed someone to kick my ass in order for me to get a workout. When I started going to yoga flow classes at Yoga Vida, I loved that I was invisible and could do it at my own pace. I just got stronger and it really changed the way that I felt. It was also the introduction to lead a more mindful life in general.
What was the second thing?
M: When I got pregnant, I definitely was particularly mindful of my eating habits. In our family, we always ate pretty well but it made me be more mindful of the things that I ate. I read somewhere that when you’re pregnant, it’s the first time you’re introducing food to your child and in a way you’re refining their palette even when they’re just four months in your belly. That made me feel a sense of responsibility so I ate fresh and for the most part healthy foods. I was like, “I don’t want my baby to like Doritos, so I’m not going to eat Doritos!” Our mom’s Italian and our dad’s Spanish and I’m obsessed with bread and pasta so I definitely still ate plenty of that but in moderation. I also have a sweet tooth but I just tried not to eat things that are too processed.
Did you have a fitness routine while pregnant?
M: Yes, I did prenatal yoga one to two times a week, walked a lot around the city and kept 2-lb weights in my bathroom so I would do a couple arm exercises in the morning and at night. I love toned arms and figured that’s a part of a woman’s body that doesn’t change much during pregnancy.
Has motherhood affected the way you feed your daughter and yourself?
M: Once Luna was born my eating habits changed as she became the focus. I personally don’t believe in “kids food.” I’m sure I’ll give her French fries and chicken fingers at some point but it’s not what I want her staples to be. I’d rather she eats a smaller portion of what I eat versus mac and cheese. My priorities shifted so now I wake up and I worry about planning her meals, her nutrition and making sure she has had everything she needs. One of the steepest learning curves is learning how to take care of your child while also taking care of yourself. That’s something I work on everyday. Personally, I’ve evolved in the way that I eat throughout the years just by learning more and more, by recent documentaries like Forks Over Knives. My husband and I stopped eating meat about a year ago because of that. I never ate red meat and only ate chicken and turkey so it wasn’t difficult for me. I like to keep it more plant-based but I still eat fish. I’m not an animal activist and if there’s amazing crispy bacon, I’m going to eat it, it’s not an allergy, I just try to stay away from it.
Do you have a healthy non-negotiable that you follow every day?
B: First and foremost, water is super important. I hydrate all day. Also, I went to Israel about a year ago and I had these juices that are half orange, half pomegranate. They squeeze it together so it has this really magical color of orange and red. I also take iron and liquid B-12.
M: We’re also really good about portion control.
How often do you eat a home cooked meal?
M: At least three times a week.
B: We go to Maria’s house a lot because of Luna. She’s the celebrity in the family. We also go out to eat a lot. It’s part of the New York culture but we both have dining rooms so everybody signs up to the family meal when it’s happening.
What’s the last meal you cooked for your family?
M: Gnocchi with a good tomato sauce with some zucchini. Fish is also really easy and I’ll do that with usually a rice, farro or a vegetable so it’s balanced. I like to make fish in foil, which is the easiest thing in the world. When I cook it’s usually very fast. It’s things that are quick because everything is on a schedule with the baby. You don’t want to take two hours to cook cause then it’ll be 10 P.M. so it’s something that takes 30 to 45 minutes and that’s it or I’ll just make a big salad.
Take us through a day in the life of meals.
M: My alarm clock is now the baby so I wake up, go to the kitchen to warm up almond milk and get her a banana or strawberries. My breakfast has now become a Kind bar and a tea from Starbucks that I get on my way to work. I don’t drink coffee. If I want caffeine, I do English Breakfast or Chai. Lunch is at work, I either have a lunch event to attend or I go to the Hearst Cafeteria. I really like a hodgepodge, I like picking a little bit from everywhere. So I’ll have some kind of grain, steamed vegetable dish and eat at my desk. I’ll usually eat a snack when I come home like hummus and chips while I’m feeding Luna. At night I’ll either cook for Jordan and myself or we’ll order. In our neighborhood, it’s a lot of sushi or we’ll order from Fiorello’s, which has a really good pizza. We discovered Postmates so now we’ll get Café Gitane. We eat dessert every night but it’s usually dark chocolate with sea salt and almonds. We eat that every night with a little bit of vanilla almond milk.
B: I have either Pilates or French every morning. I do each one three times a week. I have a Pilates instructor that comes to my house. Her name is Olgu, she’s Turkish and is trained in yoga and gyrotonics. She uses blocks and props in the house like a chair to train. She also teaches a couple days a week at Goldman Sachs in their gym for women. From there I’ll make my juice, then I’ll have my gen maicha brown rice green tea. I also love Mariage Freres’ Wedding Imperial black tea, it’s like dessert. It’s supposed to taste like wedding cake and I make it with almond milk. I typically don’t eat breakfast. Sometimes when there are dates in the house, I’ll eat dates with peanut butter. There’s this English peanut butter called Sainsbury that’s actually natural. My boyfriend is Israeli but he grew up in England so he brings all these English products and he’s obsessed with the peanut butter he grew up with. It looks like Jiffy and that’s always on the breakfast table. Or if there are figs, I’ll eat figs in the morning. From then I drink green tea all day and for lunch if I’m not going out, I’ll have a salad from Sweetgreen. I get kale, sweet potato, raw corn, garbanzo beans and spicy sunflower seeds with balsamic vinegar and olive oil. Sometimes I get pesto chicken, which is really good. At home, I like to put raw chia seeds in my salad for crunch. What never fails is dinner. I always have a big dinner. I tried once to do the whole thing of don’t eat too much after 7 P.M. but it’s just not in me. It’s not our lifestyle. We grew up eating a big dinner. So I typically go out to dinner more often than not.
Has growing up with international parents affected the way you cook now?
B: In Italy, you couldn’t get things out of season. You can’t get pomegranates year round, you can’t get butternut squash year round, you have to eat what’s in season. That said, one of our favorite things that we eat year round that is really bizarre for other people is gazpacho. Gazpacho is the one thing that every Spaniard makes but has their own recipe. Sometimes you add more pepper, garlic or onion based on your audience. I like it pureed and cold. You make it and it lasts two days for four people because you make a lot. It’s almost like a drink at dinner.
M: That’s the thing, sometimes you order gazpacho here and it’s basically salsa. There’s no cream in it but if you get the right consistency, it looks as if it was creamy. It’s because of the bread and it’s got to be the right bread to make it thicker.
Did your mother set an example in your approach to food?
M: Our mom has evolved the way that we have. She has been a vegetarian for the last 15 years. She still cooked chicken for us even when she was a vegetarian but then she started introducing us to how vegetarians eat and now she tries to follow a macrobiotic diet. She’s very spiritual and she’s an excellent cook.
What is one of your favorite things that your mom made for you as a child?
B: My mom used to make us this amazing breakfast called pane e olio. It’s a baguette cut through the middle, opened and toasted with oil and salt. It was only bread and oil, but it was amazing.
M: Everything she makes from her salad to pasta is pretty much four ingredients, it’s never too complicated. She’ll make us a sandwich and it will be the best sandwich I ever had with just an egg, tomato and some pesto she made. She somehow layers things that is just perfect. Or maybe it’s just because she’s our mom.