Some people are naturally talented hosts, entertaining with ease and grace. My next guest has many gifts, one of which is her ability to make people of all ages feel welcome and celebrated in her home. I have been fortunate to be Iliana Romero’s guest in many places she has called home over the years – New York, Los Angeles and most recently, Buenos Aires. She has also lived in Dubai, in addition to her beloved hometown of Chicago. An avid runner and busy mother and wife, Iliana prioritizes fresh, healthy food for herself and her family. Check out her protein-packed quinoa salad recipe for a sampling of a typical go-to meal at her house. Having lived abroad for the better part of her children’s lives, I asked Iliana to tell us about how her kitchen style has evolved and how her children’s tastes and experiences have fared as a result.

Iliana Romero recently returned to the U.S. after six years abroad. With an MBA in finance and a love of writing, she has worked in banking and run an online children’s clothing boutique with her sister. Of the many places she’s traveled, Iliana’s favorite place is Peru for its culture, people, gorgeous landscapes and amazing food. Iliana lives in Houston with her husband and their daughter and son, ages 9 and 7.

What three items are in your refrigerator at all times?

Chopped onions and peeled garlic – having it chopped and ready to throw in a pot makes preparing dinner that much easier. Cooked quinoa – my favorite go-to food of the moment that can be tossed with just about anything and eaten warm or cold. Spinach – I use it in my green lemonade every morning and often prepare an egg white, spinach, mushroom and feta omelets for my husband [Alicia’s note: My own recent juicing madness was sparked by Iliana, who makes a green juice cocktail daily!].

Where do you get your inspiration in the kitchen?

I come from a long line of women who love to cook and both my parents enjoyed receiving friends and family in our home. As a result, large family dinners were a big part of my life growing up.

My love of cooking comes not only from eating healthy food, but also from how it can bring people together—a way to share good food and good times. Between work obligations and moving away from extended family, large gatherings or dinner with family or good friends are quickly disappearing from the American culture. We try to make sure our kids have a similar upbringing and therefore they have been fortunate to grow up regularly breaking bread with many friends and family.

While some may think preparing dinner for a large group is too taxing, I enjoy it. After I serve a meal, I love kicking back with a nice glass of Malbec to appreciate the bountiful table full of people I love and celebrate togetherness.

How has your cooking style evolved as a result of living places that may not always have the items you are accustomed to cooking?

My family’s cooking and eating habits have become healthier! It is clear to us that most countries outside of the U.S. still maintain a healthier, more natural diet and consume reasonable portions. In not having our favorite bag of chips, crackers and other processed foods at our fingertips, we ate more fruits, nuts, vegetables and leaner proteins. I am a big baker and while in the States, I relied on boxed mixes. I had to learn to make everything from scratch – pancakes, cakes, icings, etc.

In addition to eating fresher foods, we have also reduced food portions to a much smaller amount than has become the norm in the U.S. We are hoping to continue to maintain the good eating habits we learned while living overseas now that we’re back home in the U.S.

What did you miss most in the kitchen when living abroad?

Like most Americans, we are very brand conscious and brand loyal. I think I adjusted pretty well. But there are things that an American household cannot live without! We are a big pancake, French toast and waffle family and therefore, there was never a time when we would not come back from a visit to the U.S. without bringing at least 20 pounds of maple syrup. Peanut butter also took up a big part of the suitcases and if we would run out between visits, friends were always willing to mule some over for us. There were also those seasonal items that were very difficult to find such as pumpkin puree or cranberries. I once paid overage on my suitcases just to bring back enough to cover all the pumpkin desserts for Thanksgiving!

Do you cook from recipes or do you prefer to wing it?

I have received several excellent cookbooks over the years. I am definitely a recipe kind of girl and so many are falling apart from overuse. The ones I have valued most are those that were personally put together by friends. As a departing gift from Buenos Aires, a dear friend compiled all of her favorite salad and dressing recipes into a spiral book. She knew how much I love her salads. My very first collection of dessert recipes came from Alicia, who handprinted several of my favorites her mother used to make for us. The book also included some healthy alternatives [Alicia’s note: Foreshadowing?]. Over the years, I have continued to add more of my favorite recipes and each time I make something from it, it reminds me of dear friends and family.

Now that you are back in the U.S., what are you most excited about?

I get a rush when I walk up to the fish section at Whole Foods and have more than three different kinds of fish from which to choose. I sometimes lose myself in the broad and abundant vegetable and fruit sections of U.S. supermarkets.

What do you hope your children learn from your kitchen style?

I love that they see me always trying to cook with fresh ingredients. They might not always like what I make, but if they are exposed to different foods and flavors, I know their palates will develop an appreciation for all things fresh and clean as they continue to grow.

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