Developed by Mary M. Flynn, PhD, RD, L.D.N., a research dietitian at The Miriam Hospital in Providence, RI and Associate Professor of Medicine, Clinical at Brown University, the Healing Foods Project is a program that utilizes recipes based on a plant-based, extra virgin olive oil diet that research has proven to have numerous health benefits.

Dr. Flynn designed her nationally-recognized plant-based, extra virgin olive oil diet in 1999 and began to focus her research on its results shortly after. Her initial research tested how this diet compared to conventional lower fat diets for improvement in body weight and risk factors for chronic diseases.

Early in her research, Dr. Flynn’s study participants touted that the diet’s meals were not only easy to prepare and tasted good, but were also less expensive than what they had been eating. This led Dr. Flynn in 2007 to develop a 6-week cooking program using recipes that follow her plant-based, extra virgin olive oil diet for clients of food pantries.

Following this, she published a study from the program that showed when food pantry clients used the recipes for 2 to 3 main meals per week, they had a decrease in food insecurity, as well as a decrease in body weight and an improvement in overall health. Additionally, participants spent significantly less on groceries, with fewer purchases of meat, desserts, snack foods and carbonated beverages.

When Rev. Mary Margaret Earl, the former Associate Director of McAuley House read about the program and its study results, she invited Dr. Flynn to work with McAuley House to develop recipes that could be implemented in large scale for low-income, congregate meal sites. This led to the Healing Foods Project.


Dr. Mary Flynn is a nutritionist who works for The Miriam Hospital, a teaching hospital of The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. She works in human nutrition research and teaches courses in nutrition at Brown University in the undergraduate programs and lectures on nutrition in the medical school.

Flynn began teaching at Brown University in 1998, and the courses she teaches are Principles of Nutrition and Diet, and Chronic Diseases. Her main research interest is how food is related to the development and treatment of chronic diseases. She has developed a plant-based olive oil (PBOO) diet that is moderate in fat content and uses foods that scientific literature suggests will improve health. Dr. Flynn has used the diet for weight loss and for improving risk factors for chronic disease, and for decreasing food insecurity.



When Dr. Mary Flynn’s recipes were first presented to me for use at the McAuley House meal site, I was struck by the beautiful simplicity of them. The vegetables and beans, along with the extra virgin olive oil, are the stars of her dishes. Because the Healing Foods Project recipes are so uncluttered, whoever is doing the cooking can adapt them with ethnic and regional flavors to suit the tastes of their guests.

As Kitchen Manager, I am impressed by how quick and easy these recipes are to prepare. In addition, if you find that you suddenly have more people to feed than expected, additional beans and legumes are a snap to sauté to stretch the meal.

My greatest concern when we began the Healing Foods Project’s plant-based meals several times a week was how our guests would respond to meals that were not based on meat. In a very short time, our guests, numbering up to 300 a day, began to accept and then enjoy these new meals. Now we actually have guests requesting extra virgin olive oil on their tables for dipping.

Looking back at the nearly two years we’ve been serving Healing Foods, I take great pleasure in the fact that we are contributing to the overall health of our guests, not merely filling bellies. We are helping people to look at food differently and perhaps to make some better choices in their diet.


The main foods that are used in Healing Foods Project recipes are:

  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Canned vegetables (carrots, corn, green beans, peas and tomato)
  • Frozen vegetables (broccoli, corn, peas, spinach)
  • Whole wheat pasta and brown rice
  • Canned beans/legumes (black, garbanzo, kidney, white cannellini)

Per serving, the recipes for the Healing Foods Project program follow a basic formula:

  • Approximately one-and-a-half tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 cup (2 servings) of vegetables
  • 3 to 4 ounces (dry weight) of starch

You can use this combination to create your own recipes depending on what you have on-hand. You can also easily increase a recipe that is already cooked if more guests arrive than expected.


Preparing food in a non-profit meal site or soup kitchen has its own challenges, one of which is that you don’t always know what you’ll have on hand to cook. An unexpected donation can change your day. Below are some helpful ingredient substitutions that have worked well at McAuley House, and that we wanted to share.

  • While preparing the Spinach, Beans and Pasta meal, a local farmer dropped off two cases of fresh kale. The spinach went back into the freezer and we substituted sautéed kale into the recipe. It came out great!
  • At McAuley House, we’ve found that the Corn, Black Beans and Tomato Fried Rice recipe is a great example of a substitution-friendly meal. A little chili powder, crushed tomato and cumin quickly turn it into veggie chili. And, we’ve been known to throw in “whatever there’s a lot of” on occasion, which is particularly true in the summer when fresh vegetable donations are bountiful.
  • With the Vegetable Lo Mein dish, we had recently received a donation of Vietnamese pho soup base (which has flavors of lemon grass and lime) and water chestnuts. The result was a wonderful Asian stir-fry with noodles.

Please know that this is just a guide to some ingredient substitutions we’ve had success with. Use your instincts and imagination; you know what tastes good together. Just be sure to use good extra virgin olive oil, the recipes in the cookbook, and lots of love!


What do I need to do to get a program like this working at my meal site?
It’s easier than you might think. Just plan and shop for one meal. If your guest numbers fluctuate over the course of the month, try it on a slower day at first. If you have the freezer space, we recommend that you use as many frozen vegetables as you can; both the look and the taste are fresher. If not, you can still make delicious meals with canned products. The Spinach, Beans and Pasta recipe is a good one to start with. It looks great and tastes familiar to a lot of people. We suspect that a lot of the ingredients you keep on-hand to make soup will work very well in these recipes.
Are there any additional costs to implement this program?
No. Extra Virgin olive oil is the key ingredient and basis for these recipes, and in fact, by replacing animal protein with starch foods as mentioned above, you may see a slight decrease in your meal costs.
Does it have to be extra virgin olive oil?
Yes, extra virgin olive oil is the only type of olive oil with health benefits, and it is also the one that tastes best. We recommend people buy only extra virgin olive oil from California, as California has very strict standards for extra virgin olive oil. Two reputable brands that are sold in bulk are “California Olive Ranch” and “Corto.” As of this writing (May 2015), there are concerns in the U.S. regarding the purchase of extra virgin olive oil. The U.S. Government does not require imported olive oil that is labeled “extra virgin” to actually contain extra virgin olive oil. Much of the imported extra virgin olive oil sold in the U.S. is either old oil, or contains blends of other oils. These oils do not have the health benefits of extra virgin olive oil.
Why do the recipes call for so much olive oil? I can sauté with much less.
The larger quantity of extra virgin olive oil serves two purposes. When prepared with lower, slower cooking temperatures, the oil becomes infused with much more of the flavor of the vegetables and seasonings you’re cooking. All that delicious oil then serves as the sauce for many of these recipes and makes the meals more sustaining.
Should we introduce the program with guests?
Yes. As mentioned above, educating guests helps introduce them to the program. In addition, some guests may want to prepare these recipes at home. To this end, we have provided some single serving versions of the recipes on our Recipes page.
Does anything need to be done differently on the days we serve Healing Food Project meals?
Educating guests about the recipes helps with introducing them. Some things you could explain: the meals contain extra virgin olive oil, which although it is a fat, it is a very healthy food; they will likely be full longer after these meals as fat helps to keep you from getting hungry between meals; you do not need animal or fish protein for a healthy meal; if you are using whole wheat pasta or brown rice, it helps to tell people that it does not taste like the refined version but should taste “nutty.” Guests enjoy bread on tables with extra virgin olive oil for dipping on days when extra virgin olive oil is being used in meal preparation. The table oil is donated by a local olive oil store, and breads are donated by local bakeries.
What role does the meal site Leadership Team play in this program?
All leadership at the meal site should understand the program and its benefits, as well as the implementation process. This will be helpful for initiating discussion among the food service staff, and other members of your organization. Leadership needs to work closely with the Kitchen Manager and Chef since these recipes may require sourcing some new ingredients and some changes to meal preparation.
How can I get the cookbook or recipes?
To download the complete digital Healing Foods Project Cookbook, click here. Hard copy cookbooks are available upon request by emailing healingfoodsproject@mcauleyri.org.
Where is the protein in the meals?
There is protein in all starch foods (pasta, rice and other grains; potatoes, beans), and vegetables. A vegan diet (which does not contain any animal product) has sufficient protein, so a diet with any animal protein contains more protein than one would need. Adding animal protein to meals means that you are exceeding your protein requirements. Extra dietary protein is stored as fat (we do not store protein as protein or muscle), so eating extra protein can lead to more body fat. Animal protein is also the most expensive component of a food bill. If you start to look at what you are spending on animal protein, you would likely be surprised that it represents such a large share of your grocery bill. Extra virgin olive oil, while more expensive than vegetable seed oils (soybean, safflower, corn, canola), is actually quite reasonable in price when you consider what it costs per tablespoon and certainly less expensive compared to including animal products.
Do I need to defrost frozen vegetables before adding them to the recipes?
Larger vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower or whole baby carrots should be defrosted so they don’t add as much liquid to your dish, but smaller items like corn, peas, cut green beans, etc. can go into the pan frozen if necessary.
Does it have to be whole wheat pasta and brown rice?
While whole grain products are healthier than refined starch products due to their content of micronutrients not found in refined starch, you can use refined starch in any of the recipes. Whole grains are also related to a lower body weight and less weight gain over time. It is not known why they are related to a lower weight but we think it is because people eat less of them as they have a nutty flavor, while refined starch has a bland flavor. We will eat less of a food or a meal if there is a distinct flavor.
I’ve heard that brown rice is tricky to cook. Has that been a problem?
Brown rice takes longer to cook than white rice, and can be harder to judge its doneness. We decided to use parboiled brown rice. It’s easy and consistent.
Does it matter what type of beans I use in the meals?
The beauty of these recipes is that they’re very adaptable to whatever you have on-hand. That said, certain beans lend themselves better to different styles of cooking. Black and pinto beans work well with Mexican food, cannellini beans and chick peas with Italian, lentils and green beans in Indian.
How do I get more information on starting this program, or to schedule a presentation?
For additional information on starting the program or to schedule a presentation, please email healingfoodsproject@mcauleyri.org.


The Healing Foods Project and its materials are available fro our nonprofit to yours. It is part of the mission of McAuley Ministries to better the lives of the poor and hungry. Through Healing Foods, we are ready to engage in discussions with those who want to implement the program at their meal site. McAuley Ministries is an independent nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization.


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