Are Tacos Healthy? Yes, and These 4 Recipes Prove It
Tacos are popular, and there are many ways to eat them. Here are some taco recipes that prove they can be both healthy and delicious.
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Let’s taco bout it
When a food has a dedicated day-of-the-week hashtag, you know that food is “hot.” You definitely can’t scroll through Instagram or TikTok on a #tacotuesday without seeing oodles of tagged taco posts.
Tacos may be going through a revival today, but traditional tacos date back hundreds of years ago in Mexico. They arrived in the U.S. around the early 20th century.
The first Taco Bell opened in California in 1962. Sustainability-focused Chipotle came along in 1993. The taco—in all of its tastebud-pleasing forms—has been a rising star since.
It’s easy to understand tacos’ popularity. They’re relatively simple to fix, fun to eat (no utensils required), and they (usually) taste great. But are they good for you?
Here’s what makes a taco more or less healthy, how to create a balanced taco, and some healthy taco recipes to try, according to registered dietitians.
What goes into a taco?
A taco basically has three components—tortilla (traditionally either corn or flour), filling (plant-based or animal-based), and topping (garnish)—plus an optional sauce, salsa, or squirt of lime juice. But perhaps it’s best to think of a taco more simply.
“Anything can go in a taco,” says registered dietitian nutritionist Malena Perdomo, founder of Malena Nutricion and a certified diabetes educator.
Registered dietitian nutritionist Christy Wilson, owner of Christy Wilson Nutrition, LLC, and nutrition counselor at University of Arizona’s Campus Health Service, agrees adding, “A taco is really a blank canvas!”
Yes, they’re quite versatile, with an infinite number of savory ways to stuff its handheld tortilla or shell. Popular options include pork (carnitas or al pastor), eggs (migas), tofu (sofritas), fried fish, and jackfruit.
Sweet fruit tacos are a thing, too. Mix and match them. Give them worldly inspiration. And eat them any time. Yes, that includes breakfast or dessert tacos.
Emilija Manevska/Getty Images
How to make good-for-you tacos
So, are tacos healthy? Well, they certainly can be. Tacos are a relatively healthy food to start.
But some folks overload their tortillas with rich fixings, like cheese and sour cream. Others may chow down on one too many tacos in a drunken stupor. But there are plenty of ways to keep them healthful and enjoyable.
Choose the tortillas right for you
There are no precise rules here. Traditionally, tacos feature corn tortillas, not the fried kind. But pick tortillas based on what pairs best with your chosen fillings, eating style, or taste preferences.
While there are nutritional benefits to conventional flour and corn tortillas, corn is generally the healthier pick.
“Usually, corn tortillas have a lower carbohydrate count than flour tortillas,” says Perdomo. If choosing flour tortillas, “go with more fiber and look for whole-wheat or multi-grain flour tortillas,” she adds.
In addition to yellow or white corn, look for blue corn tortillas (or taco shells) for bonus antioxidants from anthocyanin. While soft tortillas are considered healthier, it’s fine to use crispy fried taco shells occasionally, too.
If you’re on the lookout for grain-free or other tortilla alternatives, you’ll find them made with chickpeas, cassava, cactus, cauliflower, coconut, almonds, sweet potato, and more. Egg white tortillas are a thing, too.
Or skip the tortilla altogether and use large leafy greens, like collard greens, in its place if you need to be carb conscious—or you’re just a fan of greens.
Select a nutritious taco filling
Taco filling is typically protein-rich. But it doesn’t need to be beefy. Healthful protein picks include beans, tempeh, tofu, seitan, salmon, shrimp, eggs, and chopped nuts. All of which are delicious when well-seasoned and prepared with healthful oils.
If you’re more of a carnivore, think lean-ish, such as grilled, roasted, or broiled skinless chicken (breast or thigh), fish, shellfish, or pork. Pan-blackened salmon and charred octopus are taste winners.
Plant-based taco fillings can be hearty, scrumptious, and satisfying, too. Hello, beans! If you embrace convenience, consider Lima Linda Sustainable Plant-Based Protein Taco Filling, or Adda Veggie Chipotle Adobo Protein Mix.
Vegetarian taco fillings don’t need to be protein packed. Try carnitas-style shredded jackfruit; grilled or sauteed mushrooms, poblano peppers, or corn; and roasted butternut squash, cauliflower florets, or Brussels sprouts.
For a complete meal, pair carb-rich tacos with protein-friendly sides, like bean salad or vegetarian refried beans.
Note that some nutritious fillings may have added sugars to balance spiciness, such as in sofritas, which is spicy adobo braised shredded tofu, or carnitas, which is slow-cooked pulled pork.
Consider using taco seasonings or sauces
Be sure your healthful taco filling of choice is flavorful. No one wants a bland taco.
“Seasonings like chile powder, ground pepper, garlic powder, and Mexican oregano are excellent ways to keep the flavor high and the calories low,” Wilson says.
“Also, citrus juice-based marinades made with a combo of orange and lime juices, garlic, and cilantro are perfect for cuts of meat like skirt steak or flank.”
For elevated, just-right flavors and cooking ease, you can use pre-made sauces and seasoning mixes. Check ingredient lists to be sure they’re additive-free.
Or try my no-added-salt DIY taco seasoning recipe: 1 tablespoon chili powder, 1 teaspoon each ground cumin and black pepper, 1/4 teaspoon each paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, and dried oregano. Then add salt to your recipe to taste, if needed.
Pick toppings with good-for-you nutrients
No matter whether your taco filling is traditional to experimental, aim to pile on produce toppings. The more variety you choose, the more variety of health-protective nutrients, tastes, textures, and colors you’ll get. It’s that simple.
Pile on these veggie topping picks: tomatoes or tomato salsa, onions or pickled red onions, radishes, roasted cauliflower, shredded lettuce or cabbage, jalapeno peppers, roasted poblano peppers, grilled corn or corn salsa, and fresh cilantro.
As a fruit, avocado or guac counts too, while offering luxuriousness, plus eye-protective lutein and zeaxanthin.
If going for a soft taco, a crunchy topping can kick up delight. Sprinkle on pepitas for a satiating double whammy of fiber and plant protein.
Say “yes” to salsa
Pick any salsa you like. Or go DIY.
“Salsas, especially homemade tomato salsas, are made entirely of vegetables and are a delicious way to get in dietary fiber and important vitamins and minerals including, vitamin C, beta carotene, and potassium,” says Wilson.
You’ll get a punch of the antioxidant-packed lycopene, too, especially if using canned tomatoes.
Fruit salsa or fruit pico de gallo can provide naturally sweet contrast to spicier fillings. Think mango, peach, or pineapple–they’ll provide immune-friendly vitamin C.
While tacos can be overstuffed with meats, cheeses, and ladlefuls of sour cream, they can just as easily offer a perfect opportunity to get more veggies.
“Most tacos recipes are truly amazing as they are,” says Perdomo. But she suggests that you can punch up fiber, phytochemicals, vitamins, and minerals by “adding more vegetables to your tacos.” Go for a colorful array.
If you’re a meat-eater, think ratio. Keep the meat-to-veggie ratio in favor of vegetables “to keep the calories lower in each taco,” says Wilson. Or go partially meatless.
“On that order of three tacos, choose two with meat or fish and one with beans and all the veggie fixings,” she adds.
“If I add meat to my tacos, it’s usually a small amount, maybe about 1 to 1 1/2 ounces per taco,” shares registered dietitian nutritionist Sara Haas, a consultant culinary nutritionist and author of Taco! Taco! Taco!.
“That’s so I can leave plenty of room for the vegetables and fresh salsas.”
Tacos and a healthy weight
While tacos are not technically a “diet food,” they can absolutely be part of a nutrient-rich eating repertoire for losing or maintaining weight.
“I think the reputation of tacos is that they’re high in fat,” Wilson says. “That is a stereotype that needs to be squashed because the truth is, you can create a balanced, nutritious meal that features tacos anytime!”
Follow these simple strategies for savoring tacos while maintaining a healthy diet.
Focus mainly on quality
Many nutrition experts suggest that avoidance isn’t necessary. Though the nutritional quality of your taco filling matters.
Haas recommends balance and thinks all ingredients can fit. Perhaps a shift in focus is all that’s necessary.
“There are so many fresh and yummy toppings that go on tacos, so focus on those instead of all of the meat,” Haas says.
Wilson suggests choosing a soft versus a fried tortilla shell, and keeping portions of add-ins like sour cream, Mexican crema, and shredded cheese “low-to-moderate size.”
And about popular pan-fried birria tacos … it’s probably best to consider those a special occasion meal, not a daily snack.
Right-size your tortilla
Tacos are inherently a perfectly portioned food. But some tortillas for tacos can be 6 inches in diameter are larger.
To right-size your portion, aim for tortillas that are 5-inches or less. “Big enough (or rather, small enough) to fit in your hand,” says Wilson.
Change your mindset
Think of tacos as nourishing, not negative.
“To me, (tacos) are the perfect vessel for delivering satisfying, nourishing food in a simple way,” says Haas. “I personally love filling mine with a bunch of grilled veggies, black beans, and salsa—it’s an easy meal that doesn’t require a recipe.”
Personalizing tacos for your eating style
Since tacos can be made your own way, they fit into practically any eating style.
“There are literally thousands of ways to customize them—whether it’s to create a certain flavor profile or to manage a disease state,” says Haas.
Try these simple ideas to match your eating style:
- Plant-based: Try roasted chickpeas or cauliflower, jackfruit carnitas, nopalitos, or slow-cooked beans or lentils for a satisfying filling.
- Flexitarian: If you don’t want to go “cold turkey,” do “The Blend” by sautéing half finely chopped mushrooms and half lean ground beef or pork to cut down on overall meat consumption.
- Gluten-free: Corn tortillas are naturally gluten free. Look for one of the many grain-free alternatives, too.
- Carb or calorie-conscious: Go for a leafy green as your “tortilla.” Or skip the tortilla and enjoy your toppings on a leafy salad dressed with salsa verde, lime juice, and olive oil.
- High performance: Wrap each taco with two tortillas.
Tips for making healthy tacos crave-worthy
You’ve grabbed a healthy taco. That’s terrific. But if it isn’t tasty, that’s not so terrific. To boost scrumptiousness, try these tips:
- Don’t serve cold tortillas. “Warm tortillas are number one,” says Perdomo. She advises: “Use a cast-iron pan or ‘comal’ to warm tortillas.” (She also loves to grill tortillas or pan-fry them with a sauce.)
- Spice ’em up. Tacos don’t need to be “hot,” but do aim for “well-seasoned” for optimal flavor. Hint: Chipotle powder adds smokiness and cumin adds earthiness.
- Super-charge flavor by making your own tomato-based salsa. Go beyond tomatoes, too. “It’s fun to try out green salsa made with tomatillos … and fruit-based salsas that are sweeter and made with mango or pineapple—they’re great especially with chicken, shrimp, and fish tacos,” Wilson says. Try a fish taco recipe with a corn salsa or a berry salsa, too.
- “Always add guacamole,” says Haas, “because it’s perfection.”
- Finish with freshness, like cilantro or a squirt of lime, to boost aroma. Lime juice balances tastes, too.
Taco recipes you’ll love
Indulge in these scrumptious, dietitian-recommended taco recipes. (Two are plant based and two feature chicken.)
Courtesy Jackie Newgent, RDN, CDN
Plant-based baby bella, poblano, and corn tacos
Courtesy of Jackie Newgent, RDN, CDN
Veggie Taco Filling:
1 tablespoon avocado or sunflower oil
1 large (4-ounce/115-gram) poblano pepper, cut into short thin strips
1/3 cup (50 grams) fresh or thawed frozen organic corn, patted dry
1 1/2 cups (115 grams) sliced baby bella mushrooms
1/4 teaspoon chipotle powder
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon sea salt, or to taste
Juice of 1/2 lime (1 tablespoon), or to taste
3 small (about 5-inch) soft tortillas of choice, warmed or lightly grilled
2 tablespoons Vegan Chipotle Crema (see recipe here) or vegan sour cream
3 tablespoons Simple Guacamole (see recipe here) or guacamole of choice
3 or 4 tri-color grape or cherry tomatoes, sliced
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro leaves or several small sprigs
Fully heat the oil in a large cast iron or another stick-resistant skillet over medium-high. Add the poblano and corn and sauté until lightly browned and corn begins to crackle and pop, about 4 minutes. Remove 1 tablespoon of the corn to use for garnish.
Add the baby bellas to the veggie mixture in the skillet and sauté until the baby bellas are fully softened and the mixture is browned, about 5 minutes more. Add the chili powder, cumin, salt, and lime juice, to taste.
Stuff tortillas with the veggie taco filling, crema, guacamole, tomatoes, reserved corn garnish, and cilantro, and serve. (Pro-tip: Enjoy with a quick-to-fix bean salad or vegetarian refried beans on the side.)
Courtesy Sara Haas, RDN
Cumin chickpea tacos
Courtesy Sara Haas, RDN, LDN
For the salsa:
1 pound tomatillos, husks removed and washed
1 cup coarsely chopped white onion
2 garlic cloves, skins removed
2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 lime, juiced
1/4 cup fresh cilantro
kosher salt, to taste
For the chickpeas:
1 (15 1/2 ounce) can chickpeas, drained, rinsed and patted dry
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon lime juice
For the slaw:
1/4 cup plain Greek yogurt
zest and juice of 1 lime
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 small head purple cabbage, thinly sliced
1 jalapeño, thinly sliced
For the tacos:
16 corn tortillas (4- to 6-inch)
For the salsa:
Preheat the broiler.
Line a sheet pan with foil and coat with non-stick cooking spray.
Quarter the tomatillos and add them to a bowl along with the onion, garlic, and olive oil. Toss to coat. Pour mixture out onto prepared baking sheet.
Broil 4 minutes, stir, then broil 2 more minutes. Stir again and broil an additional 2 minutes or until tomatillos and onion are blistered and browned. Remove and cool slightly before transferring to a blender or the bowl of a food processor. Add the jalapeño, lime juice, and cilantro and puree until smooth. Season with salt to taste, if desired.
For the chickpeas:
Set a large, non-stick pan over medium-high heat. Add the chickpeas and cook, stirring often, until toasted, about 2 to 3 minutes. Add the cumin, and cook 1 more minute.
Remove from heat and stir in the salt and lime juice.
(Note: Chickpeas can also be roasted – Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F and line a baking sheet with foil. Spray with non-stick cooking spray. Toss the chickpeas with the oil, cumin, and salt and bake for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring once halfway through cooking time.)
For the cabbage slaw:
Combine the yogurt, lime juice and zest and salt in the bottom of a mixing bowl.
Add the cabbage and jalapeño and toss to combine.
To make the tacos:
Portion chickpeas onto tortillas, then top with salsa and cabbage slaw.
Courtesy Malena Perdomo
Instant pot easy chicken tacos
Courtesy Malena Perdomo, MS, RDN, CDE
2 pounds skinless chicken breasts
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 teaspoon ground annatto
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 fresh lime juice
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 bunch fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
1 tablespoon canola oil
Combine all spices, lime juice, minced garlic, and cilantro in a bowl.
Rub chicken with the spice mixtures, mix well and marinate for 30 minutes in the refrigerator.
Turn the pressure cooker on and select sauté on high. Warm oil and sauté chicken on both sides for 5 minutes on each side. Close and lock the lid. Select to pressure cook on high for 18 minutes.
When pressure cooker beeps, let it set to warm to release the pressure naturally.
Prepare your tacos ingredients. Release the pressure and when the valve drops open the lid carefully. Combine chicken with the juice and serve. Enjoy with delicious tortillas and all the fixings.
Courtesy Christy Wilson, RDN
Slow-cooked shredded chicken tacos
Courtesy Christy Wilson, RD
Makes: 16 to 18 tacos
For slow cooked chicken:
1/2 cup yellow onion, chopped
1 large garlic clove, diced
1 medium carrot, shredded
1 rib celery, sliced
5 medium mushrooms, chopped
2 1/2 pounds organic chicken thighs
1/4 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon whole dried Mexican oregano, smashed between your palms
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon onion powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 can (14.5 ounce) diced tomatoes, drained
1/2 cup chicken broth
1/4 cup torn cilantro leaves
Topping for tacos:
shredded cheddar cheese
diced avocado or guacamole
freshly squeezed lime juice
Cut all vegetables and add to slow cooker. Season chicken with all dry seasonings listed (from paprika to ground black pepper).
Lay chicken on top of the vegetables and pour tomatoes, chicken broth and cilantro over the meat and vegetables.
Cover and cook on low heat setting for eight hours.
Once chicken is cooked, transfer a few pieces of meat and 1/4 to 1/2 cup broth out of the slow cooker into a large bowl. With two forks, shred the meat. Continue adding chicken and some broth to the bowl until all meat is shredded. Either transfer meat back into the cooker to keep it warm, or keep it in a separate bowl for easy taco assembly.
To assemble tacos:
To warm corn tortillas do one of the following:
- Over a cast iron griddle (a comal or placa), warm corn tortillas individually
- Stack four to six corn tortillas wrapped in foil in a 250 degree Fahrenheit oven for 10-15 minutes
- Stack four to six corn tortillas wrapped inside a damp cloth towel and heat in the microwave for 30 seconds
Down a tortilla and fill with about 1/4 cup shredded slow cooked chicken, two teaspoons of slow cooked vegetables, one teaspoon of cilantro, a tablespoon of diced tomato, one tablespoon of shredded cheese, diced avocado and juice from 1/2 a key lime.
Repeat the process and enjoy!
Still craving more tacos? Check out these tasty recipes:
- Smithsonian Magazine: "Where Did the Taco Come From?"
- Real Menu Prices: "Taco Bell Menu Prices"
- Taco Bell: "Taco Bell History"
- Malena Perdomo, MS, RDN, CDE, founder of Malena Nutricion and certified diabetes educator, Denver, Colorado
- Christy Wilson, RDN, owner of Christy Wilson Nutrition, LLC, and nutrition counselor at University of Arizona's Campus Health Service, Tucson, Arizona.
- Sara Haas, RDN, LDN, consultant culinary nutritionist and author of Taco! Taco! Taco!, Chicago, Illinois
- JackieNewgent.com: "Plant-Based Baby Bella, Poblano, and Corn Tacos"
- SarahHaasRDN.com: "Cumin Chickpea Tacos"
- MalenaNutricion.com: "Instant Pot Easy Chicken Tacos"
- ChristyWilsonNutrition.com: "Slow Cooked Shredded Chicken Tacos"