Fresh and Fit

Actress Julie Benz shares her food and fitness lifestyle
By Erica Tasto

Between filming her latest movie—the psychological thriller “Haven­hurst,” set to be released later this year—and basking in the second-season glow of Syfy’s futuristic television series “Defiance,” 42-year-old Julie Benz has been doing everything but slowing down. How does she keep it up? The former “Desperate Housewives” and “Dexter” cast member credits her own combination of food and fitness.

Julie took a break from her busy schedule (on her second wedding anniversary to hubby Rich Orosco, no less!) to tell Natural Solutions about a few lifestyle changes she made that continue to keep her energized and motivated, both at home and on the set.

The kitchen hasn’t always been a comfort zone for Julie. She credits her chef-quality cooking skills to diligence and curiosity. She came out of college with less-than-healthy eating habits and wanted to get a better grasp on what was going into her meals.

“I lived on boxes of cereal,” she confesses. “I just got frustrated with that.”

With the inability to always dine out, Julie began to experiment in the kitchen. She soon became familiar with reading recipes and figuring out which ones worked—and which didn’t.

“The first couple meals I made were pretty bad,” she admits. “A lot of trial and error. And I think [cooking] just turned into a creative release.”

Now, Julie has a “buy fresh, cook fresh” motto that governs her daily dietary decisions—meaning that she doesn’t freeze anything or use her microwave. When she’s on set filming, Julie eats in three-hour increments to moderate her blood sugar levels and avoid afternoon sugar crashes. She strives to eat very clean, simple foods because she knows she’ll need that raw energy to make it through the day.

Julie’s On-Set Diet Guide

To keep your energy up and avoid an afternoon slump, try eating these foods in three-hour increments.

>> Gluten-free cereal with chia seeds and coconut milk

>> Apple with organic peanut butter

>> Fresh veggie plate with hummus

>> Grilled chicken breast with grilled veggies

“I’m very strict with what I eat [on set], only because I have to look at food as fuel, and that’s it,” she explains, noting that her diet has been free of gluten and dairy since she joined her husband on an elimination diet—and she feels better because of it. “My skin looks better, I don’t get sluggish throughout the day, and it helps me keep my energy up.”

At home, Julie’s kitchen is an oasis. Keeping a healthy bent to it all, she experiments with different recipes and spices. Right now she says she is “obsessed” with blood orange olive oil and truffle salts.

“I use a lot of flavored oils and flavored salts, and that really helps liven up what could possibly be considered a boring dish,” Julie says. She also keeps fruit on hand to cut certain flavors: “If it’s too salty, or if it’s too garlicky, you can squeeze some lemon or lime into it.”

And for those of us who think we can’t cook? Julie’s got something to say about that, too.

“When people tell me that they don’t know how to cook or that they can’t cook, my first response is, ‘Well, can you read? Because if you can read, you can cook!’” She laughs. “If you can read a recipe, you can actually make it!”

Friends and family have taken note of her cooking hobby; Julie says her husband loves that he can tell her his plans late in the afternoon to have friends over for dinner that same night, and she’ll be all-too-eager to prepare a meal for them. She enjoys throwing dinner parties, cooking healthier versions of her favorite restaurant foods, and searching for meals that don’t require a ton of prep time keeping her from her guests (like her Summer Spinach Salad).

“I can easily whip up a meal with no problem and no stress,” she says. “I enjoy cooking for people. I love having friends over, and opening up a bottle of good wine…and just all sitting around the table talking and laughing. That, to me, is my idea of the perfect night.”

But you’ll need more than just the right diet and good company to keep your body lean. To tone-up between meals, Julie does a combination of spin (studio cycling, for cardio) and Pilates (for muscle toning).

“I always say—when I’m really doing Pilates, hardcore, and on a regular basis—I don’t have to wear Spanx—because Pilates is my Spanx!” she says. “It just tightens everything up, and it doesn’t create any bulk.”

Julie gets creative on set when her work schedule doesn’t allow her to log gym time. She notes that even if you don’t do a full hour in the gym, you can still get big benefits from smaller, spread-out routines. She does small workouts throughout her own day—such as a 10-minute ab routine at lunch—and keeps elastic bands on hand for on-the-go leg and butt workouts.

“I travel with my elastic bands, a mini ball, ankle weights, and a Pilates magic circle, and I can work out in any hotel room wherever I go,” Julie says. “There’s no excuse.”

And don’t even think about throwing your workouts to the wind when it comes time for vacation.

“I look at vacation as a time when I can work out every day,” Julie says. “You don’t have any responsibilities.”

Whether she’s on vacation or at home in sunny Los Angeles, Julie prefers indoor workouts to braving the great outdoors. Though some of us may get the summer running bug and itch for a nature-filled sprint, Julie says it makes more sense—at least for her—to exercise inside to avoid sun damage to her sensitive skin. Her California home gets year-round summer, which she says is great, but can pose problems when it comes to skin damage. For those of us in the market for additional sun protection beyond high-SPF sunscreens, Julie stresses the importance of finding a wide-brimmed hat instead of opting for your go-to baseball cap.

“The baseball hat only covers the front of your face; it doesn’t get the sides,” she says, then adds that it’s often simply easier to work out indoors: “I tried running in a wide-brimmed hat one time, and it looked really funny!”

Looking and feeling good are obvious benefits of Julie’s lifestyle approach, but they also benefit her career. She says she is excited to take on the “Havenhurst” script—that it’s “really scary”—and to watch her character in “Defiance,” Mayor Amanda Rosewater, “start to unravel” in the recently premiered second season.

 

Julie’s Summer Spinach Salad

This quick, easy, and refreshing recipe is a healthy option for post-work fuel, and it fits great with busy schedules because it doesn’t require you to log long hours in the kitchen. Modify ingredient amounts as needed for desired number of servings, or to taste.

Lemon

Spinach

Brussels sprouts

Olive Oil

Quinoa

Mushrooms

Pine Nuts

Rotisserie Chicken

Currants

Avocado

Truffle Salt

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Squeeze half a lemon on a bowl of spinach and set aside. Place shaved Brussels sprouts in a roasting pan with olive oil; cover and bake 10 to 15 minutes, until crispy. Cook ½ cup quinoa in 1 cup water. Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Sauté mushrooms lightly in olive oil and set aside.

Toast pine nuts in a pan over medium heat and set aside. Heat up cooked, shredded rotisserie chicken in pan and set aside.

To assemble the salad, toss together currants, quinoa, mushrooms, and pine nuts. Add the chicken and Brussels sprouts on top. Top with half of a sliced avocado, squeeze the other half of the lemon over top, and sprinkle truffle salt to taste.