What Boxing Champ Laila Ali Eats to Power Her Intense, Hour-Long Workouts

Photo: Instagram/@thereallailaali

Laila Ali Food For Life cookbook
Photo: Macmillan Publishers

Cooking has always been a big part of Laila Ali’s life. The LA-based retired middleweight boxing champ, host of Home Made Simple, and mom of two started whipping up meals at the ripe old age of nine, starting with her grandmother's recipes.

Her parents—you probably already knew Ali's dad is boxing legend Muhammad Ali—divorced when she was young and because Ali’s mother wasn’t much of a whiz in the kitchen (the family had previously employed a cook), it was up to Ali to cook if she wanted a homemade meal. “I’m the kind of person that when something needs to get done, I just roll up my sleeves and do it,” she says.

Years of appearing on cooking shows and making meals for friends and family spawned the undefeated boxer's new cookbook, Food For Life: Delicious and Healthy Comfort Food from My Table to Yours.  Ali says it's a true-to-life reflection of how she eats to fuel her intense workouts and jam-packed days. “As an athlete, I worked with a nutritionist and learned how the quality of food was important and what a difference it made. Once you got that feeling you want to keep it,” she says.

“I like to focus on what you can add as opposed to what you can take away.”

Her approach to cooking, in a nutshell, is all about boosting the nutritional content of a meal (her pancakes are made with fiber-rich oat flour and her cake uses omega-3-packed chia seeds, for example) versus putting any particular food on the do-not-eat list. “I like to focus on what you can add as opposed to what you can take away,” she explains.

“The crazy thing is that I didn’t want it to be a health cookbook," she says. "I struggled with putting the word healthy [in the title]. That's why I made sure the oven-fried chicken was on the cover," she says. "I didn't want people to get the wrong idea. This is a balanced cookbook."

Keep reading for recipes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner from Laila Ali’s Food for Life.

Coffee Green Smoothie
Photo: Matt Armendariz

Coffee lover's smoothie

Ali's morning routine looks a little like this: Wake up, drink a lemon water and coffee, work out for 60 to 75 minutes in her home gym and then have a green smoothie. When she can't squeeze her workout into her morning schedule she has this delicious protein-powered concoction. "I love coffee and I have a smoothie for breakfast, so the question was how can I marry the two together?" she says.

Makes 1 serving

3/4 cup water
1/4 to 1/2 cup cold-brewed coffee concentrate
1 scoop whey or other natural protein powder
1 Tbsp no-sugar-added almond butter or other nut butter
1 Tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder (optional)
1 Tbsp honey or maple syrup, or to taste (optional)
1 Tbsp flax or chia seeds 
1/2 tsp maca powder (optional)
Large handful of fresh or frozen kale, spinach, romaine lettuce leaves, or other greens, torn into pieces if using fresh
Handful of ice cubes

1. In a blender, combine all the ingredients except the ice. Blend, starting on low speed and finishing on high speed, until smooth.

2. Add the ice and blend again, starting on low speed and finishing on high speed, until smooth, adding more water if your smoothie is too thick.

Tomato Roasted Garlic Soup
Photography by Matt Armendariz

Tomato and roasted garlic cream soup

Despite the word "cream" in this recipe's title, it's actually vegan. Ali uses coconut milk instead of dairy and plenty of garlic to give the soup that indulgent body and lots of flavor. Use good-quality canned tomatoes packaged in BPA-free cans, advises Ali.

Makes 4 to 6 servings

1 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 1/2 tsp dried oregano 
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
1 Tbsp sherry vinegar, plus more to taste
2 14-oz cans diced tomatoes with juices
1 1/2 cups vegetable broth
1 1/2 Tsps sea salt, plus more to taste
1 head garlic, oven roasted
1 14-oz can unsweetened coconut milk
1 Tbsp pure maple syrup, or to taste
1 Tbsp minced fresh flat-leaf parsley

1. In a medium saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and thyme and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is softened and lightly colored, about ten minutes.

2. Add the oregano and red pepper flakes and cook for about two minutes, until aromatic.

3. Add the vinegar and cook for one minute, stirring to release any browned bits from the bottom of the pan.

4. Add the tomatoes and their juices to the pan, then add the broth and salt, increase the heat to high, and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer for 30 minutes to blend the flavors. Turn off the heat.

5. Remove and discard the thyme sprigs. Transfer the soup to a blender, add the roasted garlic, and blend until smooth.

6. Return the soup to the pan and add the coconut milk and maple syrup. Bring to a simmer over medium heat and cook for five minutes. Taste and add more salt or vinegar if needed. Spoon into bowls, top with the parsley, and serve.

black rice bowl
Photo: Thinkstock/Nata Vkusid

Coconut black rice and roasted root vegetables

Ali says she became a fan of black rice when she was following an alkalizing diet. The rice is also high in fiber, iron, and antioxidants called anthocyanins (also found in purple veggies). Oven-roasted veggies, meanwhile, are a mainstay in her home because of how fuss-free they are. "I love roasted veggies, especially when I don't want a lot of clean up," she says.

Makes 4 Servings

For the coconut black rice
1 cup Chinese black rice (also known as Forbidden rice)
1/2 tsp sea salt
1/2 cup unsweetened coconut milk

For the roasted root vegetables
1 1/2 lb red or Yukon Gold potatoes, scrubbed but not peeled, cut into bite-size wedges
1 medium beet, peeled and cut into bite-size wedges
1 large carrot, cut into 1/2-inch half-moons
3 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
3/4 tsp sea salt
2 tsp minced fresh rosemary, thyme, or oregano, or a mix
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper 4 to 6 garlic cloves, unpeeled (optional)

For the coconut black rice
1. Place the rice in a strainer and rinse it well under cold running water.

2. Bring four cups of water to a boil in a medium saucepan over high heat. Add the salt. Then add the rice and return the water to a boil.

3. Reduce the heat to medium-high and boil, pasta-style, for about 30 minutes, until the rice is al dente. Drain in a sieve and shake the sieve a few times to remove the excess water.

4. Return the rice to the pan, add the coconut milk, and place over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring continuously, until most of the liquid has been absorbed, about three minutes.

5. Turn off the heat, cover, and leave for ten minutes, then uncover, fluff the rice with a fork and serve.

For the roasted root vegetables
1. Preheat the oven to 425°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.

2. Place the potatoes, beet, and carrot in a large bowl and toss with the oil, salt, and pepper to evenly coat.

3. Spread the vegetables out on the prepared baking sheet and toss in the garlic (if using).

4. Roast for about 45 minutes, stirring a few times, until the vegetables are well browned, crisp, and tender when pierced with a knife.

5. In the last three minutes of the roasting time, sprinkle the herbs over the vegetables. Remove from the oven and place in a serving bowl. If you added the garlic, carefully squeeze the soft flesh from the skin (it will be very hot), mix it into the vegetables, and serve.

Recipes excerpted from Food for Life by Laila Ali. Copyright © 2018 by the author and reprinted by permission of St Martin’s Press.

Find out how Laila Ali keeps self-doubt at bay and for more ideas on how to add a little java to your morning protein shake, check out the recipe for this genius coffee avocado smoothie.

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