Conquering the Kitchen: Best Bean Cooking Techniques

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Nutritious Plant-Based Protein at a Fraction of the Cost

Looking for an inexpensive, healthy way to get more protein your diet? Beans are the key!

Beans (and lentils) are the star players when it comes to plant-based protein. And if you learn to cook dried beans instead of relying on canned, you can save a ton of money. For example, a can of organic, no-salt added beans at my local co-op is $2.49 and yields about 1 3/4 cups of beans. I can get at least a pound of the same beans dry in the bulk department for the same price (or less), and they’ll triple in size to yield 6 or more cups once cooked. That’s almost 3 1/2 times as many beans!

Do I even have to ask if you want to spend 3 1/2 times less on a daily staple? Check out the two most common methods for cooking, and get ready to embrace beans at every meal no matter what your budget.

Chickpeas (garbanzo beans)Cooking Beans: Stovetop

Simmering beans on the stovetop is a method that may seem old-fashioned, but it’s time-tested and results in tender, flavorful beans if you’re up for being patient. Since this method can take several hours, it’s best to try it on a quiet afternoon when you’re hanging out at home with the family or working in the kitchen preparing another long-cooking dish.

For tasty stovetop beans:

  • Soak beans overnight in a large bowl with enough water to cover
  • Rinse and drain the beans
  • Add beans to a large saucepan or stock pot with 3 cups of water for every cup of beans
  • Cover the pan, and bring the water to a boil
  • Reduce the heat to a gentle simmer
  • Cook for 1 hour before starting to test for doneness

If you like, you can add some flavor to your beans by tossing in garlic, onions and/or herbs when you turn down the heat to start the simmering process.

I’ve never tried this method, but I’ve read stovetop beans have a way of going from inedible to perfectly tender in a matter of minutes, so it’s important to keep testing them starting around the hour mark. Most beans take at least two hours to get to the right texture. You’ll know they’re done when you can squish one between your fingers and there’s no sign of toughness or hard spots in the core.

Lentils cook much more quickly and don’t require soaking. They’re perfect if you don’t have any cooked beans on hand and need something to add to salads or toss in a dinner dish in a hurry. Start by rinsing lentils and removing any small stones or sticks. Place them in a saucepan with twice as much water as lentils, and cook as for stovetop beans for 25 to 30 minutes. Red lentils take a little less time, around 15 minutes. Drain any excess liquid before serving.

beans and lentilsCooking Beans: Pressure Cooker

My preferred method for cooking beans is to use a pressure cooker, specifically an electric model like an Instant Pot, but stovetop cookers are just as speedy. If you have a hectic schedule and are still trying to get the hang of preparing whole plant foods without spending a lot of time in the kitchen, this is the method for you.

Pressure cooking beans goes faster if you soak the beans first, but it’s okay if you forget. You can still rinse dried beans, dump them in the cooker and get good results. Follow your cooker’s instructions for liquid amounts and cooking times, or check out the handy charts on Hip Pressure Cooking. Cooking instructions also vary between different pressure cookers, so familiarize yourself with the owner’s manual for the model you have.

Plant-based pressure cooking cookbooks like The New Fast Food by Jill Nussinow or Great Vegetarian Cooking Under Pressure by Lorna J. Sass are handy to have around to answer questions and help troubleshoot if you have difficulty with your pressure cooker. There’s a bit of a learning curve with some electric models, but it’s worth getting the hang of them since you can cook most beans in under 15 minutes if they’ve been soaked first!

Here are a few tips from my own bean cooking adventures:

  • Water ratios don’t seem to be universal, so I put in enough to cover the beans by at least one inch and drain the excess when they’re done
  • Toss in a 1-inch piece of kombu seaweed (dried kelp), available at Asian markets, to tenderize the beans and add trace minerals
  • If you’re cooking chickpeas, save the water to experiment with aquafaba recipes!

Storing Your Beans

Since you’re likely to cook way more beans than you’ll use in one sitting, plan to store the leftovers. Use airtight containers to separate out single servings or meal-sized portions. It’s up to you whether to store the beans in the cooking water or drain them first. I drain it off, but if you use the stovetop method and flavor the water, you may prefer to save it.

Beans will stay tasting fresh for about four days in the fridge or up to six months in the freezer. (If you pull out a container and the beans have a slimy coating or funny smell, don’t use them!)

vegan black bean sweet potato kale quesadilla closeupBenefits of Beans

Okay, so now you’re a bean cooking boss. You have a fridge or freezer full of beans. Why make them a staple of your diet? Is eating beans every day good for you?

It’s more than good — it’s an essential part of a plant-based diet! Beans contain a powerful combination of nutrients and fiber, making them good for:

  • Improving digestion and minimizing constipation
  • Reducing the risk of colorectal cancer
  • Lowering cholesterol and improving heart health
  • Keeping blood sugar in check
  • Managing or losing weight

Beans are lower in calories than animal proteins and contain none of the potentially harmful fats and pro-inflammatory compounds. They’re also nutrient-dense, boasting high levels of iron along with a range of B vitamins and minerals, including magnesium and potassium.

Get inspired to add more beans to your meals with two of my favorite combinations:

There you go! You’re all set to rule the kitchen with your newfound bean cooking prowess.

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Conquering the Plant-Based Kitchen: Cooking Whole Grains

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Reaping the Benefits of Whole Grains Every Day

Whole grains are a staple of plant-based diets, but if you’ve ever wound up with a pan full of gummy rice, you know cooking them the right way is essential if you actually want to enjoy what you’re eating.

No worries, we’ve all been there! (Ask me about my adventures with buckwheat, for example…) Fortunately, cooking whole grains isn’t hard once you know the right amount of water to use, the optimal length of time to cook each grain and the how to achieve a deliciously fluffy texture. You’re probably already familiar with a few like oats and brown rice, or you might be new to the world of whole grains. Either way, let me share what I’ve learned experimenting with plant-based cooking and few tips from other talented cooks to help you master the technique of cooking perfect grains.

many whole grains (and beans)Why Whole Grains?

I covered the basics of whole grains in my previous post about “carbs,” but here’s a quick run-down of the reasons to make them part of your daily diet:

  • A whole grain has three parts: the bran, the germ and the endosperm
  • The majority of the nutrients, including protein, minerals, B vitamins and fiber, are in the bran and germ
  • Refined (“white”) grains are stripped of one or more parts and the associated nutrients
  • “Enriched” grains only have a handful of nutrients added back after refining

Most of the grains in the standard Western diet are refined, but switching to whole grains brings back all the missing nutrients and gives your body the fuel it needs to stay healthy instead of delivering a bunch of empty calories. When you eat grains their whole forms you:

  • Improve cardiovascular health
  • Lower your risk of type 2 diabetes
  • Lower your risk of digestive cancers
  • Boost your gut health
  • Reach your weight goals more easily

This is all thanks to making one simple swap in your diet. As part of a completely plant-based lifestyle, whole grains contribute to a balanced diet and complement the benefits of everything else you eat.

Cooking Whole Grains: The Basics

The most common method for cooking whole grains is to simmer them in water on the stovetop. To add extra flavor, use low-sodium vegetable broth instead of water or toast the grains over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, before cooking. Toasted grains are done when they smell nutty and are lightly browned.

For basic stovetop cooking:

  • Place the grains and water in a saucepan or stock pot
  • Cover and bring to a boil
  • Reduce the heat to a low simmer
  • When the liquid is absorbed, remove the pan from the heat
  • Let rest for 5 minutes with the lid on
  • Remove the lid, fluff and serve!

cans of whole grainsThe ratio of liquid to grains differs depending on what you’re cooking, as does the cooking time. Here are the basics for the grains you’re likely to use most often on a plant-based diet:

  • Brown rice: 2 cups liquid to 1 cup grain (2 to 1), 40 to 45 minutes
  • Quinoa: 1 1/2 to 1, simmer for 15 minutes, turn the burner off, let sit for 15 minutes
    • Note: Rinse quinoa in a fine mesh sieve first to remove the natural bitter coating
  • Millet: 2 to 1, 20 to 25 minutes
  • Barley (pearled): 2 to 1, 40 to 45 minutes
  • Oats (rolled): 2 to 1, 5 to 10 minutes
  • Oats (steel cut): 3 to 1, 20 to 30 minutes

If you want to cook large batches of grains, a pressure cooker or Instant Pot is more efficient. Liquid ratios and times are different from stovetop cooking, so consult the booklet that came with your cooker for the best cooking method. You can also refer to the charts for whole grains and rice from Hip Pressure Cooking, which I find to be the most accurate of all I’ve used.

What Whole Grains are Best to Eat?

wheat stalk and grains featureIf a client asked me this, I honestly would have to say, “ALL of them!” Every time you choose whole grains over refined, you do your body a huge favor. But there are some grains that are more nutrient-dense than others, meaning they have more nutrients per calorie. Whether you’re completely plant-based already or making the switch, you want to include as many nutrient-dense foods as possible to maximize the health benefits of your diet.

When it comes to whole grains, the best choices include:

  • Whole rye
  • Quinoa
  • Brown rice
  • Oats
  • Whole wheat
  • Buckwheat
  • Millet
  • Sorghum
  • Amaranth

What makes these the best? They’re high in fiber, trace minerals and antioxidants, and they contain ample protein. Many of these grains are also beneficial if you’re trying to keep your blood sugar in check.

Getting Started with Grains

Use the cooking guidelines in this post to experiment with as many whole grains as you want. If you have access to a store with a bulk department, such as Whole Foods or a co-op, spend some time browsing. Pick up a few grains you’ve never had before, and try adding them to meals or experimenting with recipes like these:

The USDA Dietary Guidelines suggest 5 to 8 servings of whole grains per day, and the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) recommends at least five. A serving works out to about 1/2 cup cooked grains, 1 slice of bread, 1/2 of a bagel or 1/2 of an English muffin. Whole grain pasta serving sizes vary, but the most common is 2 ounces of dry pasta.

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Where Does Plant-Based Protein Come From?

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Myths, Truths & Where to Get It

“But…where will I get my protein?”

It’s still one of the most common questions asked about plant-based diets. If you’re already plant-based, people want to know where your protein comes from. If you’re considering a plant-based diet, you might be wondering which foods to eat for protein and whether you can get enough after making the switch.

Despite projections that the worldwide plant-based protein market will be valued at over $10 billion by 2020, protein is still largely equated with meat. Most meals contain some kind of animal protein, be it eggs in a breakfast sandwich, chicken on a salad at lunch or a burger for dinner. When you’ve spent the majority of your life eating that way, you don’t think about replacing animal foods with plant proteins — you just picture the eggs, chicken or burger disappearing.

But whole plant foods are far from lacking when it comes to protein. When you exchange meat and other animal products for foods like beans, whole grains, nuts, seeds and leafy greens, you get all the protein you need and enjoy the added benefits of the fiber, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals found abundantly in plants.

where does plant based protein come fromWhy You Need Protein

Protein sometimes gets downplayed in the plant-based community, perhaps in an effort to dethrone it from its centuries-old pedestal of being the stuff of life. However, some fuss about protein is warranted because of what it does in your body.

When you eat protein from any source, it gets broken down into its component amino acids. These are either used immediately to make the proteins your body needs or broken down further by the liver in a process called deamination. Unused compounds are either excreted or put back together through transamination to form other amino acids. When combined into proteins, amino acids contribute to:

  • Building, growing and repairing the body
    • Muscle, skin, hair, nails, etc.
  • Creating enzymes, hormones, neurotransmitters and antibodies
  • Maintaining clotting factors in the blood
  • Ligament and tendon health
  • Immune and nervous system function
  • Transporting nutrients

In an emergency, the body can also use protein for fuel. This usually happens during severe caloric restriction when adequate fuel from carbohydrates and fats in unavailable.

Dispelling Plant Protein Myths

Is plant-based protein good for you? You bet! Just like with carbohydrates and fats, protein doesn’t exist in a vacuum. In animal foods, it comes in the company of vitamins and minerals but also brings along high levels of saturated fat, pro-inflammatory compounds, hormones and, in the case of factory-farmed meats, antibiotics and pathogens. Plant protein foods, on the other hand, are generally low in fat (or contain beneficial fats), high in fiber, loaded with antioxidants and devoid of cholesterol.

rice bowl with veggiesOne major myth that persists despite evidence to the contrary is the idea that plant-based protein doesn’t provide all the essential amino acids. These are the amino acids your body can’t make and has to get from food, and there are nine of them:

  • Histidine
  • Isoleucine
  • Leucine
  • Lysine
  • Methionine
  • Phenylalanine
  • Threonine
  • Tryptophan
  • Valine

The perceived trouble comes from the fact that some plant foods lack adequate amounts of one or more essential amino acids when consumed alone. However, since the process of transamination reconstructs proteins from amino acids found in all the things you eat, your body doesn’t need to get all nine amino acids at once from a single food source or even a single meal. Many plant-based dishes also naturally combine two “complementary” proteins without the need for meticulous dietary planning. In beans and rice, for example, methionine is lacking in the beans but not the rice, and the beans have the lysine that’s low in rice. It’s a natural (and delicious) combination found in just about every cuisine worldwide.

What this all boils down to is one basic truth about plant-based diets: you will get enough protein if you consume adequate calories from a variety of whole plant foods. The RDA for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight, which you can calculate by dividing your weight by 2.2 and then multiplying the resulting number by 0.8. It’s not much at all — for a 2,000-calorie per day diet, it works out to around 10 to 12 percent of calories, which is easy to achieve with plant proteins.

That said, there are some situations in which people require more protein:

  • Older adults with inadequate HCl (stomach acid) to break down proteins
  • Individuals with digestive disorders preventing proper absorption
  • People recovering from surgery or injury
  • Cancer patients expePlant-bvasedriencing muscle wasting

In these cases, it’s important to work with a plant-strong health coach, dietitian or nutritionist who can assess individual protein needs and create an appropriate meal plan.

Plant-Based Protein in Food: Some Examples

Okay, so plants do have protein, and you’re not going to turn into a wilted stalk of celery if you only eat plants. But just like with any lifestyle change, you need to make sure you approach your plant-based journey the smart way. That means knowing your protein sources and making them part of all your meals!

Here’s a quick list of 12 foods you can start eating today (or add to the plant proteins you’re already eating) to meet your daily requirements:

bowl of beans for plant proteinMeasurements are for cooked grains and beans.

  • Chickpea flour — 20.6 grams per cup
  • Lentils — 17.9 grams per cup
  • Split peas — 16.35 grams per cup
  • Tempeh — 15.7 grams per 1/2 cup
  • Black beans — 15.2 grams per cup
  • Garbanzo beans (chickpeas) — 14.5 grams per cup
  • Edamame — 8.5 grams per 1/2 cup
  • Quinoa — 8 grams per cup
  • Green peas — 8 grams per cup
  • Peanut butter — 8 grams in 2 tablespoons
  • Hemp seeds — 5 grams per tablespoon
  • Spinach — 5 grams per cup

Which plant-based protein is best? There’s really no reason to choose just a few and leave the others out. Since you can get all the essential amino acids by eating a variety of plant foods, the best approach is to do just that every day. Try some split peas in your soup. Put tempeh in your sandwich. Whip up a chickpea flour omelet for Sunday brunch. Add beans to everything. And you can never go wrong with leafy greens.

The next time someone asks you where to find plant-based protein in food, you’ll know exactly what to tell them — and maybe have a tasty recipe to share, too!

black beans by Mats HeymanWant more tips on powering up with plant protein? Follow me on Facebook!

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Won’t a High-Carb Plant-Based Diet Make Me Fat?

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The Truth About Whole Carbs vs. Refined Carbs

There’s a lot of debate out there about high-carb vs. low-carb diets and the potential benefits of one over the other, and it’s led to an equally large amount of confusion over whether carbohydrates, or “carbs,” are good or bad for you. This post isn’t meant to settle that debate but rather to shed some light on one of the main points of this confusion: the difference between whole and refined carbs.

At 4 calories per gram, carbs are found in a wide variety of foods, and they all tend to be lumped together in the high- vs. low-carb debate. But there’s a big difference in how whole carbs from foods like fruits, vegetables and brown rice and refined carbs like those in white bread, sugary desserts and sweetened drinks affect your body.

Refined Carbs: A Nutrient Wasteland

donut stack refined carbs sugarWith its high concentration of processed and fast foods, the standard Western diet has plenty of refined carbs. But these carbs start out as whole grains consisting of three parts:

  • Bran — Outer layer containing fiber, antioxidants and 50 to 80 percent of the minerals
  • Germ — Inner “seed” containing healthy fats, B vitamins, phytonutrients and antioxidants, including vitamin E
  • Endosperm — Food source for the developing seed, made up mostly of starches and some protein

Refined grains are stripped of one or more of these parts and the nutrients contained in them. The most refined products, such as white flour, have both bran and germ removed completely. When this happens, the grain loses:

  • 79 percent of the fiber
  • 70 percent of the minerals
  • 66 percent of the B vitamins
  • About 25 percent of the protein
  • Most of the antioxidants and phytonutrients

And, strangely enough, the calorie content actually increases about 7 percent!

The Fallacy of Enriched Grains

“Wait a minute,” you might be thinking. “If all that goes away when carbs are refined, then why do so many products say they’re ‘good sources’ of vitamins and minerals?”

The answer lies in the process of “enriching,” in which artificially manufactured nutrients are added back into refined grain products. This is why breakfast cereals with more sugar than soda can claim to be nutritious, and it’s another process that adds to the confusion about carbs. Only a select few nutrients are replaced when refined grains are enriched, and they’re often added in excess of their natural concentrations. So you get a lot of vitamins B1, B2 and B3 along with iron and folate, but you don’t get:

  • Vitamin E
  • Vitamin B6
  • Potassium
  • Vitamin K
  • Magnesium
  • Calcium
  • Selenium
  • Fiber

fruity eclairs refined sugar

“Enriched” wheat, for example, has only about 5 percent of the vitamin E and 22 percent of the fiber of whole. The lack of these nutrients contributes to what refined carbs do to your body. Synthetic vitamins and minerals aren’t used as efficiently as nutrients found in whole foods, partly because they’re delivered in the wrong proportions and aren’t accompanied by a full spectrum of supporting nutrients.

When you eat refined carbs, your body has to take vitamins and minerals from internal reserves to process and assimilate the food. Since you don’t get the majority of those nutrients back and the ones you do get come from unnatural sources, your reserves deplete over time, leaving you tired, sluggish and prone to getting sick. Other negative consequences include:

  • Higher triglycerides
  • Increased blood sugar
  • Increased cholesterol, especially very-low density particles (VLDL)

These effects put you at a higher risk for chronic diseases like heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Research also suggests that low-fiber diets may be linked to a higher risk of colorectal cancer.

Refined Carbs to Avoid

If you’re going to “cut carbs,” refined carbs are the ones you want to get rid of! Take a look at your diet, and take steps to eliminate:

  • Added sugar, including high fructose corn syrup
  • Refined and enriched flour
    • White bread products
    • White rice
    • White pasta
  • Boxed breakfast cereals
  • Pastries, snack cakes, donuts, muffins, etc.

The Whole Carb Story

Leaving carbohydrates intact preserves the bran, germ and endosperm as a complete package the way God intended. Think about it: A grain is really a seed. Seeds need a wide variety of nutrients to germinate and then grow and thrive into full plants. When you eat a whole grain, you get these nutrients in the right forms and the proper proportions to support the health of your whole body.

Switching from refined carbs to whole carbs means benefiting from the vitamins and minerals removed during refining plus a whole range of antioxidants, including flavanoids and polyphenols. These powerful phytochemicals aren’t found in processed foods and can’t adequately be added through “enriching” because their combinations in foods and interactions in the body are still largely a mystery. Studies suggest attempting to use isolated antioxidants to treat disease or improve health can actually have the opposite effect. Getting antioxidants from foods like whole grains and other whole carbohydrates, however, preserves the natural balance and allows these compounds to work as they should, protecting your body at a cellular level.

How does this “whole package” benefit your body?

  • Lowers cholesterol
  • Decreases inflammation
  • Lowers the risk of heart disease, diabetes and stroke
  • Improves cardiovascular health
  • Improves digestion and gut health

(I cover some of these benefits in more detail in my post, “5 Compelling Reasons to Eat Whole Grains.”)

What Foods Are Whole Carbs?

whole grain bread whole carbsPretty much all whole plant foods contain at least some beneficial whole carbohydrates. Many are packed with a wide spectrum of nutrients but are low in calories, and all have the potential to improve your overall health when eaten regularly and in various combinations. The best way to think about the carbs in a plant-based diet is to stop picturing “carbs” as a food group and start thinking of food as food!

Whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, spelt, millet and amaranth are all good sources of whole carbs. So are leafy greens, crunchy veggies, starchy veggies, fruits and beans. Even nuts and seeds contain a small amount of carbs. Therefore, making whole plant foods the bulk of your diet means getting all the benefits of carbs without the negative side effects of refining.

Getting the Good Carbs in Your Diet

So what does all of this have to do with weight? Can you safely adopt a high-carb plant-based diet without seeing the scale go up?

Short answer: Yes! In fact, swapping out refined carbs with whole carbs can actually help you lose weight. How does that work? First, fiber contributes to the feeling of satiety, so if you eat unrefined carbs like those listed above, you feel full sooner and stay full longer. Second, whole carbs are much more complex than refined and take longer to be broken down by the body. This eliminates the spikes and drops in blood sugar you get after eating refined carbs, so you don’t feel “high” after you eat only to completely crash and get shaky and hungry an hour later. You wind up eating fewer calories without feeling deprived, making it easier to lose unwanted weight and maintain a healthy weight once you reach your goals.

Here are a few tips to get you started with a high-carb plant-based diet:fruit and veggie with asparagus

  • Clean the processed foods out of your pantry
  • Switch to whole-grain breads and pastas
  • Switch from white rice to brown
  • Snack on whole foods
    • Fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, etc.
  • Increase your intake of low-calorie whole carbs
    • Leafy greens, veggies
  • Add beans to your meals in place of meats or processed mock meats

As for the high-carb vs. low-carb debate, don’t let it confuse you. It’s not whether or not you eat carbs but the type of carbs you eat that matters! A nutritious diet should contain a balance of whole, unrefined carbs; lean plant-based proteins; and healthy whole fats. Strike that balance, and you can enjoy your carbs in all their delicious unrefined forms without worrying about “getting fat.”

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“Meaty” Plant-Based Options for Picky Kids (and Husbands!)

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Make Meatless Meals Appealing for the Whole Family

Do any of these sound familiar?

  • “I’m not giving up meat.”
  • “I hate vegetables.”
  • “I’ve always eaten this way and I’m fine.”
  • “Why are we eating this rabbit food?”

They’re all common objections when one person in a household goes plant-based and the others aren’t quite there yet. Feeding a family that’s reluctant to embrace a meatless lifestyle can be a challenge, especially if you’re just starting out on the plant-based journey yourself.

If you’re worried a plant-based family meal plan is going to be met with groans, rolled eyes or outright rebellion, don’t be! Use these “secret weapons” to conquer objections and serve up amazing meatless meals to please the picky eaters in your household.

specialty mushrooms for umamiUmami: The Secret to “Meaty” Flavors

When your family complains about missing meat, they’re probably missing a flavor rather than a food. It’s called “umami,” and it’s sometimes considered the fifth taste along with sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Derived from Japanese for “deliciousness,” umami describes the taste of foods with a lot of the amino acid glutamine. Meat and aged cheeses are often equated with umami, but there are plant sources of glutamine that can infuse dishes with the same flavor and satisfy the taste buds of the staunchest “meat and potatoes” members of your family.

Here are some simple ways to introduce more umami to your plant-based meals:

  • Use dried mushrooms to make soup stock
  • Add fresh mushrooms to stews and stir fries
  • Stir miso into soups
  • Top salads and sandwiches with sauerkraut
  • Wrap up some veggie sushi in toasted nori
  • Top pasta with a robust tomato sauce

Making It Meaty

Sometimes the best way to introduce meatless meals to meat eaters is to simply swap the meat in recipes you already enjoy for a plant-based option. Lentils, tempeh, portobello mushrooms and seitan all have the “meaty” texture the picky eaters in your family crave. They’re also hearty enough to appeal to even the most skeptical meat lover.

Start with these plant-based meal ideas to ease your family into your new lifestyle:

  • Lentil walnut tacos
  • Burrito bowls with beans, brown rice, greens, salsa and avocado
  • Homemade veggie burgers
  • Homemade seitan sausage
  • Chili with beans or seitan
  • BLTs with tempeh bacon or eggplant bacon
  • Veggie lasagna with lentil bolognese

As your family becomes more accustomed to eating meatless, you can start serving dishes with more unique flavors, like curry, stuffed squash or lentil loaf.

Comfort Food for Kids (and Kids at Heart)

Getting picky eaters to try new food takes patience whether or not you’re plant-based! Kids like what’s familiar, and if they’re not used to eating a lot of vegetables, it’s going to take some time for them to warm up to the idea of meatless meals. You may have to serve a new food 10 to 15 times before your kids will agree to eat it.vegan pizza for vegan pizza day

That sounds like a lot, but if you start by recreating their favorite dishes using whole plant ingredients, you should have an easier time. Try these makeovers of kid-friendly foods:

  • Mac and “cheese” with a sauce made from nuts, seeds and/or veggies
  • Tomato soup with grilled “cheese”
  • Tempeh helper
  • Carrot dogs with all the fixings
  • Popcorn cauliflower
  • Homemade trail mix with nuts, seeds, raisins and dairy-free chocolate chips

And don’t forget the perennial family favorite, pizza! This option is especially fun because kids can get in on the action by helping you make dough and add toppings. If there are some veggies they already like, encourage them to try one new topping each time you make a pizza together.

Tips For a Smoother Transition

When you start a healthy lifestyle, it’s natural to want to share it with everyone, especially your family. After all, you care about them and want them to get all the benefits you’re getting. But be prepared to accept the fact that they may not be ready to jump in all at once. More than likely, you’ll have to take things one meal at a time, using simple swaps to bring new foods to their plates.

veggies and herbsIt’s okay to be “sneaky” at first, especially with kids. Feel free to blend veggies into pasta sauce, use beans in brownies or call broccoli “little trees” as you stir it into their mac and cheese. Avoid labeling foods as “bad” or “good;” instead, set a positive example by treating yourself well and practicing healthy habits. The improvements your family sees in your well-being provide an incentive for them to make their own beneficial health choices. And if your kids watch you enjoying plant-based foods, they might be more inclined to ask for a taste.

Involve everyone in shopping and cooking when you make meatless dishes. This puts plant-based eating in the positive context of family togetherness and gives kids a chance to choose which new ingredients they want to try. It also helps make whole plant foods more fun and banishes the idea that they’re somehow going to be “deprived” if meat disappears from the menu.

In the end, it isn’t about whether your family dives into a plant-based lifestyle headfirst or not. Meals should be a time for spending quality time together, and serving healthy meatless meals with flavors everyone enjoys is just one way to show you care. Remember to be patient — it can take a while for everyone to get used to plant-based eating, and some of your family members may never get there. Keep your health goals in mind, and respect where everyone is in their own journey toward eating and living better.

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4 Simple Ways to Have a Plant-Based Dinner Tonight

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Your Guide to Preparing Delicious Vegan Meals in Less Time

Dinner is often the biggest challenge for people considering going plant-based. Think about a typical evening meal in your house. Most likely, you’re picturing a plate with a starch, some meat and a vegetable, and maybe a small salad on the side. The mistake most prospective plant-based eaters make is imagining the meat disappearing (and possibly the starch, if it was cooked with butter or topped with sour cream) and leaving them with very little to go on.

amazing salad bowl with ripple carrotsI think this is why it’s so easy to over-complicate plant-based dinner ideas. You get into the mindset of having to re-create your entire meal plan, and it’s overwhelming. But I’ll let you in on a secret — adopting a plant-based diet doesn’t require you to turn dinner prep into a cooking show. You probably have some meals you eat on a regular basis right now, and you don’t have to change a thing about that plan besides swapping out the animal products and processed foods in favor of whole plant ingredients.

If you follow these four tips, you’ll never run out of simple plant-based meals for dinner. As a bonus, you’ll speed up prep time and be able to enjoy more leisurely evenings.

1) Use a Template

Remember the plate you pictured? That’s the template of your current dinners. Getting started with plant-based dinners is easier if you think of your new meals in the same way. Templates are better than recipes because they give you a basic formula you can follow with any ingredients you have on hand. There’s no pressure to hunt down specialty ingredients or run to the store if you’re missing just one tiny piece of the puzzle.

Here are some of the easiest templates for a plant-based evening meal:

  • Beans & Rice: Brown rice, beans, sauteed veggies, your choice of spices
  • Soup: Broth, veggies, beans or lentils, greens, salt-free seasoning
  • Chili: Red or black beans, no-salt canned tomatoes, chili powder, onions, peppers, other veggies as desired
  • Pasta: Whole wheat or brown rice noodles, marinara sauce, beans and/or greens
  • Stir Fry: Ginger and garlic, tofu or tempeh, every single veggie in the fridge

Experiment with these formulas to find the combinations you like best. The more you practice, the easier it will become. (For more tasty template ideas, check out Mark Reinfeld’s amazing book, Healing the Vegan Way or the masterful Plant Power by Nava Atlas. Both are great for inspiration!)

2) Make a Plan

You’ve probably heard over and over the importance of planning weekly meals in advance, and that’s because it’s good advice. Chances are you already approach cooking with this mindset. The family comes home and expects tacos on Tuesday or pizza on Friday or whatever your tradition happens to be. If you use templates to come up with plant-based family dinner ideas, you can have a pasta night, a bean and rice night and a soup night every week without ever getting bored.

veggies and fruits for plant-based dinner recipes

Sit down at the beginning of the week, and write out a list of the template “recipes” you want to make. Choose your ingredients based on sales at local stores or what’s in season at the farmers market, and take note of the items you can stock up on, such as pasta, beans, canned tomatoes or frozen veggies. Get the family involved in the process so that everyone is on board with the plan and you don’t get caught off-guard by your teenage son suddenly demanding a burger five minutes before dinner on soup night.

3) Become a Batch-Cooking Queen (or King)

Nothing makes for a quick, easy plant-based dinner like batch cooking. I touched on this a bit when I talked about breakfast and lunch, and it works just as well for the evening meal. The concept is simple: Instead of cooking a new dish every night, prepare meals and batches of ingredients once or twice a week.

The easiest way to do this is with an electric multi-cooker like an Instant Pot. These “set it and forget it” appliances can be used as pressure cookers, slow cookers, rice cookers and more, so you can prep your meals when you have time and let them cook while you go about your daily routine. Invest in a cooker large enough to prepare multiple servings of food for the number of people in your family so that you can maximize your batch cooking time.

You can either cook double or triple batches of foods from your “templates” (chili and soup work particularly well) or components like beans, rice and pasta sauce. While the food is cooking, you can even prep ingredients for side salads and store them in airtight containers in the fridge to throw together while reheating leftovers during the rest of the week (they’ll stay fresh for about four days). Store your batch-cooked ingredients or meals according to the directions for lunch leftovers, and there will never be a night where you’re at a loss for what to eat.

4) Schedule a Splurgevegan pizza splurge for plant-based dinners

Once you become familiar with preparing your template recipes and adapting them for batch cooking, it’s time to get creative. Borrow some plant-based cookbooks from the library, browse Finding Vegan or search through the numerous blogs penned by aspiring chefs across the web to find something mouth-watering that strikes your fancy. Set aside time to shop for any special ingredients, and pick a day when the whole family will be home to prepare the dish together.

Turning a complex recipe into a family “party” takes the fear out of tackling a lengthy ingredient list and makes the finished product more satisfying for everyone. Don’t wait for a holiday or special occasion to try your first “crazy” plant-based dinner recipe. Make them any time of year, and don’t forget to make extras so that you have leftovers to serve during the rest of the week!

So what favorite dinner dish will you start with? There are so many options, don’t be surprised if you find yourself wanting to try them all. Enjoy a new quick plant-based dinner every night — without driving yourself crazy or spending your life in the kitchen.

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Load Up on Plants for Lunch!

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Conquering the Midday Meal

Lunch! It’s the much-anticipated break in the day for kids and adults alike (unless you’re stuck in a working lunch, in which case, I feel for you). But when everyone at school is lining up to buy greasy pizza and limp vegetables or the gang at the office is chowing down on fast food, how do you make sure you and your kids have something healthy and delicious?

Tackling plant-based eating is easier when you approach one meal at a time, so now that you have breakfast all sorted out, you have some techniques you can use to make lunch prep quick and easy. Read on for your guide to packing better lunches for the whole family!

mason jar salad healthy lunch idea

Make Salad Simple (and Exciting)

The mason jar salad trend has been going strong for years and shows no sign of slowing down. Why? Because it’s simple and completely customizable. By taking a meal that usually requires a bowl, a separate container for dressing and daily prep time and turning it into a grab-and-go option you can make up to a week in advance, this approach to lunch makes having a nutritious salad with all your favorite ingredients even simpler than hitting the drive-thru.

One Green Planet has a fantastic guide with all you need to pack salad ingredients in glass jars and have them ready in the fridge to toss in your bag as you head out to work. You can easily make a balanced meal by layering up:

  • Homemade dressing
  • Cooked grains
  • Beans, tofu or tempeh
  • A rainbow of raw veggies
  • Dried fruit and/or nuts
  • Greens

When lunchtime rolls around, just shake up the jar and grab a fork! You can also dump the whole thing into a bowl, but why bother dirtying up another dish if you don’t have to?

Conquering Kids’ Lunches

Packing a plant-based lunchbox is possibly the most fun you’ll ever have as a vegan parent. Seriously. When you make plant-based lunches for your kids, you have the chance to channel your inner child and get creative with tons of fun foods.

Wraps and sandwiches are quick, simple and versatile. Make the tried and true PB&J on sprouted bread, or roll a banana and some nut butter up in a whole-grain tortilla for an entertaining twist on this classic. In cold weather, send veggie and bean soups with whole-wheat pita bread or homemade corn muffins.

Even the pickiest kids will eat anything that comes with a dip. Veggies and hummus, fruit and unsweetened nondairy yogurt, whole-grain tortillas and salsa…if they can dip it, it’s a viable choice for lunch. For dessert, you can never go wrong with a piece of fruit or a colorful fruit salad. (And yes, the occasional cookie is also acceptable!)

Pack everything up in a container with separate compartments, such as a bento box, to keep everything neat and give kids the freedom to combine foods any way they like. If you’re feeling artistic, try cutting fruit or sandwiches into shapes like flowers, animals or stars for a fun surprise come lunchtime.

Leftovers: The Easiest Lunch Ever

Leftovers are unfairly made the brunt of jokes and met with groans from those assuming anything remaining from a previous meal is destined to be boring, bland, dry or disgusting. It’s time to free yourself from this stereotype and embrace leftovers as, yes, the easiest lunch ever.

When you’re making dinner, get into the habit of cooking extra food to stash in the fridge and freezer. Some good options are:vegan refrigerator wonder soup served

These all freeze well and are easy to make in large batches. When leftovers have fully cooled, divide them into individual portions in airtight containers and label them, and you’re good to go! In the morning, all you have to do is grab a container and the appropriate utensils. It’s a lunch with literally no morning prep time unless you decide to throw a green salad together to eat on the side (which I highly recommend if you have a couple minutes to spare).

Know Your Takeout Options

There are times when eating out is your only choice. Whether life happened and you didn’t have time to make food in advance or the morning was so crazy that you rushed out the door without the lunch you already packed, you may find yourself approaching the lunch hour with a growling stomach and the dread of choking down a limp salad with no dressing.

Fortunately, restaurants are getting wise to the trend toward healthier eating and are starting to offer plant-based lunch options or even full plant-based lunch menus. To find the best choices near you:

You’ll be pleasantly surprised to discover how many eateries, especially ethnic restaurants, have dishes appropriate for plant-based diets or are willing to adjust existing dishes to meet your requests. While eating out shouldn’t become a habit, it’s nice to have a “go-to” spot you can rely on in a pinch. Keep in mind some restaurants may use animal-based ingredients in vegetable dishes, so be sure to ask about sauces, dressings and soup stocks before ordering.

Quick plant-based lunch ideas like these make planning and prepping your midday meal simple and hassle-free. It may take a few weeks to get into the habit of making meals in advance and to find foods your kids will happy gobble down, but don’t get discouraged. Every day is a chance to try something new and take a step forward to a healthier lifestyle.

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