Madison’s meals for the modifiers

Whether you’re sticking to plant-based cuisine, avoiding gluten, cutting out dairy or trying to live a healthier lifestyle in 2021, this is your go-to guide to alternative eating in the city.
two miko poke bowls
Photo by Chris Hynes/Food Fight
Poke bowls from Miko Poke

Healthy eating is subjective.

Ask what it means to be healthy and you’ll likely get a different answer from every person. As part of an ever-evolving health and fitness industry — valued at $4.5 trillion — our appetite for healthy eating has only grown.

As we embrace the start of 2021, New Year’s resolutions linger in the air, pressuring us to consider new habits. The Mayo Clinic reports clean eating is a mindset that is focused on improving health and well-being. This means eating more balanced meals and real foods with less processed or refined sugar.

For Crystal Ketterhagen of Crystal K Cultivate, a local business empowering people to feel their best from the inside out, eating healthy means eating to thrive as opposed to dieting. Through her business, Ketterhagen aims to demystify food culture to help individuals create healthy relationships — it’s not about eating perfectly. 

“Eating to thrive requires self-awareness, it requires observing your habits and your tendencies around food without judgment so that you can start making wiser, healthier decisions,” Ketterhagen says.

Ketterhagen says people can learn food skills or how to eliminate certain foods from a diet, but diets can’t teach individuals how to develop a long-term healthy relationship with food. When they go off a diet, people will often revert to what they were eating before, or they’ll overeat because they’re able to eat what they previously denied themselves, she says.

“We just feel so stuck in our habits, in our lifestyle and in our body. [It’s important to have] a vision that’s strong enough to let go and make those sacrifices in the moment so we can actually sort of evolve into our ideal future while still loving ourselves,” Ketterhagen says. “Getting healthy without dieting involves … mindful eating, self-love, self-trust and a strong vision.”

Ketterhagen has been interested in health and wellness since high school — she’s done everything from fasts and clean gut cleanses to keto, paleo and vegetarian diets. At the moment she’s focused more on eating mindfully, which is about savoring food, taking smaller bites, putting down the fork, paying attention to her surroundings and listening to what her body craves.

Crystal holding a pear in behind a table full of veggies

Crystal Ketterhagen (pictured) helps establish healthy habits through her business, Crystal K Cultivate. (Photo by Paulius Musteikis)

For Ketterhagen, eating cleaner helps her counteract depression. She notes that it can also lead to a stronger immune system, decreased bloating and increased energy, clearness and vitality.

Everyone has a different definition of healthy, and Ketterhagen says interpretations are relative to individual physical and mental states. For someone who eats fast food for breakfast, a smoothie bowl would be a healthier swap, but for those focused on paleo or keto, that same swap could be too high in sugar. Ketterhagen points out healthy foods are now filled with the complex, nuanced flavors that come from quality ingredients, discrediting the idea that health food is bland.

“There is so much depth and richness to healthy foods. I think in the past they had a bad rap, but they don’t have to be that way anymore — they can be really, really delicious,” she says.

When eating at restaurants, she suggests asking how things are prepared, reading menus in advance and modifying when needed. Feel excited about your order as opposed to what you’re giving up.

“Usually we say, ‘You are what you eat,’ and that’s absolutely true, but you also eat what you are and you’re going to crave — as you eat healthier, as you eat cleaner — you will start craving cleaner foods,” Ketterhagen says. “It does get easier because you’ll want to sustain your great feeling, you’ll want to sustain the vitality and you’ll actually start to cultivate a palate for healthy foods.”

But let’s not avoid the obvious — we’re in the Midwest, the land of cheese and deep-fried everything. Yet there are quite a few Madison restaurants creating inspiring dishes that are accessible for alternative eaters. Despite being a fairly health-conscious place — Madison was named the No. 5 fittest city by U.S. News & World Report in 2019 — there aren’t too many eateries exclusively dedicated to certain types of healthy cuisine. Instead of being either traditionally healthy or unhealthy, many local eateries offer both on their menus.

While some people might opt for more nutritious foods to improve their eating habits, others may adhere to certain diets due to food allergies or autoimmune diseases, both of which have become more prevalent. There could also be ethical or environmental concerns, including the carbon footprints of food production, that could change eating patterns. 

Whether you’re interested in adapting the way you eat, giving healthier foods a shot or finding meals that work for your adapted diet, we’ve tracked down a ton of delicious dishes in town.

Click the links or images below to visit our guides:


plate of nachos with a margarita and salsa

Nachos from The Green Owl Cafe (Photo by Nikki Hansen)

Nachos from The Green Owl Cafe


A spread of plant-based dishes from Maharani Indian Restaurant

Spread of vegetarian dishes from Maharani Indian Restaurant (Photo by Larry Chua)

Photo by Larry Chua


apple pecan waffles

Gluten-free waffle (Courtesy of Madison Chocolate Co.)

Healthy Eating

mandarin salad

Mandarin Salad from Fit Fresh Cuisine (Photo by Nikki Hansen)


vegan Italian pasta salad, vegan shrimp po’boy sandwich, Korean BBQ chix sandwich and vegan Reuben sandwich

Vegan dishes created by JustVeggiez (Photo by Larry Chua)

James Bloodsaw creates meat-free alternatives — think vegan Italian pasta salad, vegan shrimp po’boy sandwich, Korean BBQ chix sandwich and vegan Reuben sandwich (top left then clockwise) — for his business JustVeggiez.

Healthier Sips


Fresh juice from SuperCharge! Foods (Photo by Patrick Stutz)

Fresh juice from SuperCharge! Foods

Magazine footer that says "Like this article, get so much more by subscribing"