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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A Day in the Life: Easy Vegan Meals from Breakfast to Dinner

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Whether I’m talking to prospective clients, teaching a class or just chatting with people about food, the question I get the most about adopting a plant-based diet is “What do I eat?”

Being vegan for any length of time makes the answer to this question seem so obvious that I’ve had to take a step back to get an objective view of where the confusion lies. It seems that, despite the growing popularity of the plant-based lifestyle, many people still think of “vegan” as synonymous with “the worst salad I’ve ever had, for every meal, every day, and no more cheeseburgers ever.” Couple that with the diet gurus giving people opposing advice from day to day and it’s no wonder everyone is confused!

When I first went vegan, discovering what to eat wasn’t as simple as hitting up Finding Vegan, checkout out Pinterest or searching #whatveganseat on Twitter. The vegan world has exploded with awesome since then, and now it’s easier than ever to find delicious dishes to make for every meal.

I’ll be shedding light on some of the possibilities on January 20th with Vegan for the New Year, a full food demo that looks at a “day in the life” of plant-based eating. My goal is to dispel the persistent myth that veganism is about deprivation and giving things up and to offer tips and tools to help people enjoy delicious, healthy food every day.

If you’re in the Albany, NY area, you can register online to attend! The class runs from 6:00pm-8:30pm at Different Drummer’s Kitchen in Stuyvesant Plaza.

For those of you who are further out or are looking for a way to share the wonders of a day of vegan food with veg-curious friends, I’ve put together a quick guide with some recipes to help you (or them) get started.

Going With the (Breakfast) Grain

vegan vanilla strawberry breakfast bowl closeupThanks to hardcore advertising by the food industry, breakfast has become synonymous with a glass of juice, a bowl of cereal and perhaps a piece of toast. If you’re in a hurry, it’s a microwavable breakfast sandwich or something picked up from a fast-food drive-thru on your way to work. Cooking your own whole grains, however, is just as simple and much healthier. Plus, it tastes better!

Some of my favorite combinations are oatmeal with medjool dates and apples, millet and oats with pears and dried apricots and oats and quinoa with berries. A little ground flax or whole chia seeds mixed in and some cinnamon sprinkled on top and ta-daa! A hearty, healthy breakfast. If you like your grains creamy, cook them in a little unsweetened nondairy milk.

A great savory alternative is chickpea scramble, which can be made by sauteing the veggies of your choice with a few of your favorite spices, tossing in some chickpeas and garnishing the whole thing with nutritional yeast. If you’re really in a hurry some days, try whipping up a batch of whole grain, oil-free muffins over the weekend to “grab and go” as you head out the door.

These recipes can help you start your day off right:

Another favorite breakfast of mine is to take about half a pound of whatever greens I have on hand and saute them with garlic, mushrooms, rice vinegar and edamame, sometimes with a sheet of nori or some bean sprouts thrown in at the end. I’ll admit it’s an acquired taste, but it’s pretty amazing when you’re looking for something different from sweet Western breakfast fare.

Super Lunches for Any Day

Healthy Greens by Wong Mei Teng full

Photo by Wong Mei Teng

My biggest suggestion for lunch is to have a salad as the main event and build up from there. Start with a base of 2-3 cups of your favorite leafy greens and add as many other veggies as you like. Toss on some beans or cubes of cooked tofu or tempeh, slices of avocado, steamed sweet potatoes, leftover grains or whatever else strikes your fancy, and finish it off with a drizzle of homemade oil-free dressing. My favorite? Mix 1/2 tablespoon of almond or sunflower butter with 1/2 teaspoon each of maple syrup and miso and enough water to create a creamy consistency.

If you’d rather have your salad as a side to something else, try cooking some grains and tossing in chopped veggies and about half a cup of beans toward the end of cooking time. Red beans, sweet potatoes and barley (or rice) is a particularly nice combination. All it needs before you dig in is a sprinkle of a salt-free spice blend such as Mrs. Dash or Trader Joe’s 21-Seasoning Salute. And, of course, you can never go wrong with a sandwich on whole-grain bread!

Some other tasty ways to get your lunch groove on:

If you’re a hardcore sandwich fan, you can try your hand at homemade sandwich rolls — they’re healthier and cheaper than store-bought! English muffins are also a fun change from bread, and they make a surprisingly good PB&J when you need something quick.

Daring (But Simple) Dinners

The concept of “the bowl,” best described as a grain, a bean and a green, is the easiest formula to follow when throwing together a plant-based dinner. Bowls can be made with whatever you have on hand and tailored to any type of cuisine. That makes for endless variety, but these are a few of my favorite creations:

vegan bean and mushroom chiliThen there are the “one pot” meals, anything that can essentially be dumped in a pan and allowed to cook while you take care of other things. Chili and soup are two popular options, with curry and stew also falling into this category. My favorite thing about “one pot” meals? Most of them are straight-up comfort food. Try these the next time you want something flavorful and warming:

Last but not least, dinner can be roasted, baked or wrapped! Roasting and baking share a similar convenience with one pot dishes in that they essentially cook themselves, and just about any veggie tastes even more amazing when it’s been roasted to caramelized perfection. Burritos, quesadillas and enchiladas take a bit more work, but you can’t beat them if you’re looking for something spicy that you can smother in salsa and vegan cheese sauce.

And, of course, there’s always whole grain pasta with tomato sauce. Stir in some greens for added nutrition and flavor! Quick-cooking red lentils are another healthy, hearty add-in that can simmer right along with your sauce.

Don’t Forget Dessert!

chocolate chip cookie closeup by kasey albano

Photo (c) Kasey Albano

One thing I’m surprised to discover that many people think they have to give up when going vegan is chocolate. Or desserts of any type. Fortunately for those of us with a sweet tooth, this is a complete myth. Once you discover the wonders of dairy-free dark chocolate and learn a few tricks about vegan baking substitutions, it’s easy to transform classic recipes for cookies, brownies, cakes and more into amazing plant-based treats. After all, if you can make a chicken and waffle donut vegan, you can make anything vegan.

If you need dessert right now and don’t want to bother with swapping out ingredients, satisfy your craving with one of these simple solutions:

Between-Meal Nibbles

Everyone needs a snack now and then! Snacking helps you spread calories out over the course of the day so that you don’t overeat during meals, and it’s especially important if you work out a lot and need to take in extra energy to meet your needs.

The best snacks, in my opinion, are the simplest: fresh or dried fruit and nuts (hello, trail mix!), homemade granola bars, edamame (steamed or roasted), healthy baked goods and veggies with hummus. In fact, hummus is so easy to make that you can have it on hand all the time. The most basic is just chickpeas, some garlic and a little tahini with some lemon juice and water, but there are so many varieties that I’m betting you could make a different kind every week and not repeat yourself for a long time. These recipes can help spice up your snack time:

Although most of these options are pretty “grab-and-go” friendly, I realize there are going to be times that you really don’t have time to whip anything up. I’m not a big fan of pre-packaged snacks since many contain sugar, oil, salt or unnatural ingredients. However, there are a few I’m comfortable recommending for those super-crazy days. Larabars are mostly fruit and nuts (with a few “treat” varieties thrown in), and GoRaw has some seriously tasty sprouted bars made using nuts, seeds and dried fruits. Two Moms in the Raw isn’t a bad option, either, although I find them to be a little on the sweet side.

The bottom line? Make your own snacks when you can, and when you can’t, look for minimally processed whole-food options without any added junk.

If you like the tips in this post or you’re just looking to add a little more variety to your vegan diet, join me for Vegan for the New Year! Space is limited, so reserve your spot now.