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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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.

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Cheater Lunch Recipe: Curry Spiced Rice Bowl

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I’m calling this a “cheater” recipe for a couple of reasons.  One, I’ve been pretty good about staying a day ahead of myself with Vegan MoFo posts, but after a busy weekend and week I find myself in need of one right now.  Two, there wasn’t much planning involved in the recipe and most of the ingredients are largely up to personal tastes.  I used a Rice Selects rice blend, but you can go for whatever rice you have on hand.  Brown is always good, but an aromatic rice like basmati would work, too!  And if your curry powder is already on the spicy side, you can omit the cayenne.

I literally threw this together for lunch today and ate it along with a big salad of mixed greens and kale.  In fact, it would probably taste good on a bed of kale, or with lightly steamed kale mixed right in.  Again, it’s up to you tastes!  But if you do make it and modify, let me know.  I’ll be eating this again (and again, and again, and…)

Curry Spiced Rice Bowl
serves 1

curry spiced rice bowl
Ingredients

1 serving of rice, uncooked (this varies depending on the kind of rice)
water or vegetable broth

1/4 cup cooked or canned chickpeas
1/4 lb. sweet potato
turmeric
garam masala
curry powder
cayenne
minced fresh parsley
liquid aminos, to taste

1) In a small saucepan, combine the rice with the amount of water suggested for cooking or an equal amount of vegetable broth.  Add your desired amounts of turmeric, garam masala, curry powder, and cayenne.  Cover, bring to a boil, lower the heat and simmer until the liquid is absorbed.

2) While the rice is cooking, bake the sweet potato in the microwave.  Start with 2 minutes and, if necessary, add more time at 1-minute intervals until a knife can easily pass through the thickest part of the potato.  Carefully remove from the microwave, peel, and cut into cubes.

3) When the rice is done, stir in the chickpeas, sweet potato chunks, and parsley.  Drizzle with a little liquid aminos and enjoy!

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