Tony Dejak  /  AP file
Carol Doyle transfers baked pollock fish off a tray as she prepares food at a fish fry at Our Lady of Guadalupe on Friday, Feb. 23.
updated 3/1/2007 3:02:53 PM ET 2007-03-01T20:02:53

For years, Lent meant huge chunks of fried fish on Fridays for George Ehrman, a longtime parishioner at Our Lady of Guadalupe in this northeast Ohio town.

But the dinner plate was decidedly lighter for Ehrman at a recent Friday fish fry in the bustling parish hall: grilled salmon packed with omega-3, fiber-rich rice pilaf and green beans.

“I was happy when I found out they were offering this for the first time,” said Ehrman, whose health requires him to eat a low-salt, low-fat diet. “It’s very tasty, too.”

Parishes have long used the Roman Catholic abstention from meat on Fridays during the Lenten season to hold fish fries that bring people together and raise money. Now with more people trying to eat healthier food, many churches are offering lighter fare, including grilled shrimp, baked fish, fresh tuna and crispy, raw vegetables.

There’s still plenty of battered cod, haddock and other types of seafood submerged in oil. And there still are servings of potato-stuffed pirogi, macaroni and cheese, french fries or other heavy side dishes on parish menus.

But reduced-fat Lenten menus are popping up across the nation.

Milwaukee’s St. Florian Church lists “heart-healthy baked fish” alongside its famous beer-battered fillets. St. Ferdinand’s in Florissant, Mo., near St. Louis offers baked cod and blackened Cajun-style fish. In Cincinnati, St. Paul’s offers sauteed vegetables and tomato soup.

At St. Irenaeus in Oakmont, Pa., near Pittsburgh, the parish has added baked fish, fresh tuna and a salad bar. Like many restaurants, it stopped using artery-closing trans fats for frying. Volunteers change the deep fryer’s oil after each batch and blot each piece of fried fish dry of extra grease.

“We really baby it,” said Jeanne Kaus, who has volunteered for 25 years at the fry that draws 500 people a week. “We have a fresh salad bar and we have heart-healthy baked fish.”

Does the baked stuff go over well?

“Oh gosh, yeah!” she said. “It just melts in your mouth.”

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Jananne Finck, who teaches nutrition and wellness at the University of Illinois Extension in Springfield Center, said that even with the healthier Lenten options many Catholics may feel married to tradition and opt for fried fish, particularly if they don’t eat many fried foods at home.

'It takes willpower'
That’s OK, she said, as long as fried foods are a rare treat, diners skip fatty condiments such as tartar sauce, and portions are small.

“It’s telling yourself even if you’re served that, even if we grew up with, ‘Clean your plate,’ it’s probably in our best interest to take some of that home,” Finck said.

Paula Turocy, chairwoman of the athletic training department at the Duquesne University, a Catholic school in Pittsburgh, said worshippers who choose lighter menus during Lent might unexpectedly find themselves forming healthier habits by Easter.

“If this positive behavior can be maintained for six weeks, these new healthier behaviors can assist them in making a long-term commitment to improved health,” she said.

At Our Lady of Guadalupe’s fish fry, the Rev. David Trask tempted parishioners with huge slices of chocolate cake on a large silver tray, teasing that it had been cut an hour ago so surely some of the calories had disappeared by now.

Ehrman, who was cleaning his plate of salmon, reluctantly passed.

“It takes willpower,” Ehrman said with a smile. “Especially when the pastor is pushing dessert.”

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