Nicole Keshishian Modic loves to eat and celebrates food every day. The founder of the popular Instagram account and blog KaleJunkie is now sharing her passion for healthy food choices and her journey to food freedom in her first ever cookbook, Love to Eat.
“As Armenians, we are a culture that does in fact love to eat. Growing up, I think we all have special memories around the table of coming together with copious amounts of food and everything under the sun. We have the best cuisine,” described Keshishian Modic in a recent interview with the Armenian Weekly from her home near San Francisco, California. “But for many years, I lost that love to eat because of my eating disorder, and when I reclaimed that and healed my relationship with food, I realized that we all deserve to love to eat and find joy in cooking with delicious recipes.”
Indeed, Keshishian Modic’s relationship with food was not always vibrant. She has bravely written about her long and lonely battle with compulsive eating disorder and has now dedicated her career to helping others re-evaluate their eating habits with healthier alternatives.
Keshishian Modic grew up in Southern California, where she started attending a local K-12 Armenian school in her sophomore year. Though it was initially exciting to be surrounded by peers from her own culture, she ultimately felt ostracized from the well-established friendships and cliques on-campus. So she found comfort in food—cafeteria food—and began to gain weight. She felt pressured to start dieting and realized she could manipulate her physical appearance to gain acceptance. Overwhelmed with the stress of trying to fit in and be perfect, she turned to food to cope, engaging in chronic cycles of binge eating and purging throughout her undergraduate years at New York University, in law school at UCLA and while representing some of California’s most prestigious law firms.
“All those years, I had this eating disorder that nobody knew about. I desperately wanted to be healthy. I wanted to heal. I wanted to have a healthy relationship with food. But I didn’t know how to get there,” recalled Keshishian Modic of her 15-year struggle. “Every time I would try to make healthier food choices, I would find myself the next day binging and not having control over what I ate. I never thought healing was possible.”
These behaviors wreaked havoc on her body and her mental state until her husband Greg caught her one night mid-binge with a loaf of bread. Her secret had been exposed to the person she loved the most, and while she felt embarrassed, Keshishian Modic says the vulnerable moment with her loving and supportive partner set her on the road to recovery. “Openness and honesty carried me through,” she said.
Keshishian Modic immediately started therapy, practiced yoga religiously and eventually left law. She also discovered the concept of intuitive eating, a mindful approach that subtracts strict rules on food and instead teaches one to respond to internal hunger cues by answering the question, “What does my body need in this very moment to feel good?” The food philosophy is the foundation of her Instagram account KaleJunkie, which she launched while on maternity leave in 2016.
Since then, she has been churning out practical recipes and meal prep tips for healthy living as well as time-saving kitchen hacks, all in the form of bite-sized reels and sweet and savory photographs for her 654-thousand fellow foodies and followers. Then, at the height of the pandemic, Keshishian Modic thought of another idea. “I want to reach more people. I want to show people that healthy eating doesn’t have to be complicated. It can taste great. It doesn’t have to be expensive,” she explained of her vision behind Love to Eat, an inspiring offering of 75 original recipes, including a peppering of some familiar favorites from her Armenian upbringing.
“I grew up always very proud of my Armenian heritage,” shared Keshishian Modic, the daughter of an Armenian immigrant from Lebanon. “My dad came to this country with nothing, worked hard to succeed in his business ventures and gave me and my sister a better life than he had growing up,” she proudly stated of her father Armen. “My strong work ethic definitely comes from him. He is my hero in life.”
Keshishian Modic has enjoyed putting a bold spin on Armenian and Middle Eastern food, presenting variations of Armenian potato salad, her grandmother’s eech and her father’s tabouleh. “My dad would look at this salad and say, ‘Nee-cole, that is NOT tabouleh. We do not put cauliflower in tabouleh,’” she wrote of KaleJunkie’s grain-free riff on the popular salad, which also comes in a (you guessed it) kale version and a quinoa version in Love to Eat.
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Her favorite recipe in Love to Eat happens to be her own interpretation of her mother’s dolma with bell peppers. “You can still make Armenian food that we all grew up with using avocado oil instead of canola oil, and nobody will ever know the difference,” she assures. Of all the nutritious ingredients in her pantry, tahini has to be the star. The versatile substitute for nut butter has been used in dozens of KaleJunkie recipes like tahini date coffee smoothie, spicy tofu tahini noodles and the viral and “life-changing” tahini chocolate chip cookies. “I grew up with [tahini]. It was always in our house. I love its unique taste, especially in baked goods. It’s for more than just hummus!”
An avid Trader Joe’s customer, Keshishian Modic has made a habit out of cranking up the flavor and the nutritional value of the grocery store chain’s popular seasonal snacks. “Let’s make it better. It’s just what I do!” she exclaims before introducing her vegan and nut-free iteration of cinnamon roll drizzled granola. “No shade to TJ’s. It’s one of my favorite places to shop, but sometimes they just miss the mark,” she asserts in her bookmark-worthy video for her copycat Trader Joe’s caramel coffee cashews without any artificial and questionable ingredients.
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In addition to these nutritious reinventions, Keshishian Modic believes in practicing a zero-waste lifestyle. For example, she blends fibrous, vitamin-rich watermelon rinds and freezes them into smoothie cubes. She also reaches for the ice cube tray to salvage and freeze unused coconut milk (from the can) and resuscitate wilted spinach and herbs, like parsley, for future use in smoothies, soups and other meals. Many of her recipes contain oat flour or almond flour over white flour; avocado oil or coconut oil over their inflammatory and commonplace counterpart canola oil; and coconut sugar instead of white sugar, which is highly addictive. None of these changes will sacrifice taste or flavor, claims Keshishian Modic, underscoring that no food is off-limits, including a slice of cake, a glass of wine and a bowl of pasta. “If you allow yourself to enjoy the foods that your body truly wants (no matter what the ingredients are), you enjoy it guilt-free, which is healthier than extreme deprivation,” she wrote in November 2020. For Keshishian Modic, it’s just all about balance and understanding what makes you feel your best.
While she’s known as KaleJunkie on social media, at home, she’s simply mama. Keshishian Modic loves cooking with and for her growing boys Gavyn and Hunter, although she admits they would much rather prefer tacos or homemade pizza on an English muffin for dinner. “They are the toughest critics, but they are also good food testers,” she laughed while demonstrating her sons’ signs of approval with their thumbs. Her face lights up when she talks about her family. “That’s the reason why I do everything that I do…for my boys to see that mom is hardworking…to see a strong, working mom, who is not perfect, but just tries her best.”
Keshishian Modic hopes her respect for balanced eating and whole foods as well as her soulful approach to wellness in Love to Eat will resonate with readers and serve as a helpful guide and a source of comfort. “I’m grateful for the struggle and the journey,” said the first-time author, who will be turning 42 next month. “When we are going through hard times in life, we don’t see all of those things come back years later and shape who we are. I am who I am because of the things I’ve gone through, some of the painful times in my life. I’m really grateful.”