Leaning In to a Plant-Based Lifestyle

I’ve had two conversations just this week with women who want to eat healthier, one a stay-at-home mom and the other a college student. While they couldn’t be more different, both have recognized that their eating habits have not been optimal and they admit they don’t know where to start in changing their habits.

Guy became a vegetarian while we were in college, convinced by a professor that humans were created to be good stewards of the planet, and animals raised for slaughter were not receiving ethical treatment. Since then, of course, there’s been a movement toward better animal care, grass-fed beef and free-range chickens, and that’s great. However, we’re also slowly recognizing that raising animals for food takes a big toll on our planet.

ppl v cow

And that’s not to mention methane emissions (animal farts!), or the vehicle emissions involved with shipping animals to slaughter and then meat to stores and restaurants.

I became a vegetarian by accident when, two years after we married, I ate a Cornish game hen at an event and felt sick to my stomach for days. I remember we’d been married two years because I couldn’t eat out on our second anniversary. I slowly lived into my new reality and eventually started reading and learning to cook, and now I “lean vegan,” cooking exclusively vegan and eating vegan out as much as possible.

However in those early years I was much like my confused friends, maybe worse because I didn’t realize how unhealthy our diet truly was. We thought eating veggie meant pasta and Caesar salad. Maybe veggie soup. Wash dishes and repeat. We had no idea…

Now we do, though, and I put effort into cooking and serving healthy, tasty meals to my family (both boys are great advertisements for a veggie lifestyle).

So where to start?

Focus on what you can have and not what you can’t.
It’s a mindset. You get to eat delicious plants, what a treat! Okay, at first this can be really hard (most change is hard, right?). You may not even like veggies, or at least you might not think you do. I didn’t. I laughed when people assumed I loved veggies.

You’ve probably been served, or cooked, bad veggies. Overcooked, bland, mushy, bleh. Who wants that? And you may very well be addicted to sugar and dairy (no kidding, both have addictive qualities. Doesn’t that bear out in your experience?).

The good news? You can kick your addictions and change your taste buds! One of the best pieces of advice I got from a pediatrician: it takes seventeen tastes over time to like a food that initially doesn’t taste good to you. Our younger son hated beans. We served him one bite regularly, until one day he griped at me that I hadn’t put enough beans on his serving of taco salad. He responded to my expression of surprise in equal measure: “What? I love beans!” And promptly helped himself to more.

None of my guys liked whole wheat pasta the first time we tried it so I started cutting in a small ratio of whole wheat to regular pasta each time I made it, gradually adding more whole wheat over time. We don’t even eat pasta all that often anymore (our veggie repertoire has vastly increased) but when we do, it’s all whole wheat and no one balks.

Same goes for me. I didn’t like sweet potatoes and now I do; they’re still a little sweet for me so I emphasize savory when I cook them, roasting them and serving them with Dijon mustard, for example. I wanted to cut dairy out of my coffee; at first I switched to almond milk and then, over time, I added less and less non-dairy milk to the cup and now I drink it black, no problem.

Make a plan.
Weekly menu planning may be the smartest way to go but I’m not that organized or disciplined. However, it might be exactly what you need to get started.

Because dairy and sugar are addictive, experts recommend going cold-turkey. Yes, you may experience unpleasant detox symptoms for a while – a week to a month – but you’ll be better off. But maybe no meat seems too daunting. So try Meatless Mondays. Or meatless before dinner. Or choose two to three easy meals you can repeat over a week. For example:

Oatmeal (even unsweetened quick oats will do) + chopped fruit and nuts with a little cinnamon; I’ve been known to throw in a little healthy trail mix. Depending on the add-ins, this meal can be different every time.

Smoothie two ways: coconut water and water + a handful of spinach + a couple of peels from fresh ginger + frozen mixed berries OR mango and pineapple. You can use just water if coconut water seems too hippy-dippy for you, and you can add more or less spinach as you acclimate your palate. If you really want to go nuts, add a squeeze of citrus and maybe even a dash of ground cayenne pepper to spice it up.

And there you go, three easy breakfasts or lunches that require only a few minutes in the kitchen and are oh-so-healthy.

Start lunch and dinner with a salad.
How to build a salad: greens (Romaine, spinach, kale, arugula, mixed greens), other veggies (tomatoes, shredded carrots, celery, cucumber, bell peppers, artichoke hearts, olives), fruits (maybe not on the same salad topped with extra veggies, but apples, peaches, nectarines, plums, watermelon are all great), legumes (beans and nuts), and grains (brown rice, quinoa, couscous, farro).

Garden salad: Greens + tomatoes, carrots, cuke, bell peppers, green beans + citrus vinaigrette

Taco salad: Greens + bell peppers, jicama, avocado + pinto, black and kidney beans + salsa as dressing

Mediterranean salad: Greens + bell pepper, red onion, olives, artichoke hearts, tomatoes + garbanzo or cannellini beans + red wine vinaigrette

The combinations are thankfully endless. It’s even better if you make your own salad dressing, but I understand if that feels like too much to start. For heaven’s sake, these days you can even buy a ready-to-go salad mix in a bag, complete with dressing and toppings. No excuses.

Make friends with beans.
My kitchen/pantry overflow with beans: cans of garbanzo, black, pinto, kidney, refried black or pinto, and cannellini beans; frozen edamame and green beans; dried lentils and bean blends. Beans taste good, satisfy, and are oh-so-versatile. You change the salad simply by changing the bean, or better yet, adding a combination.

Or chop some onion, carrots, and celery and sautee in a large soup pan; add veggie broth and beans; season to taste, and you’ve got a scrumptious veggie soup. Add some cooked whole wheat pasta and a dash of red wine and you’ve got minestrone.

Keep healthy snacks ready to go.
One of the biggest complaints I hear about eating plant-based is that it requires so much cooking. True confession: I have felt that way from time to time. On the other hand, I snack way less than I used to because the veggie meals I eat satisfy more than the processed foods I used to eat.

A couple of easy snack solutions. First, eat fruit. Seriously, in-season fruit makes for the easiest snacks. Secondly, cook in larger quantities so you have leftovers. I almost always make twice as much salad for dinner so we can quickly grab leftover salad for lunch at work. Finally, don’t forget to plan for snacks when you shop. Buy some hummus and veggies, pre-cut if that makes it more likely you’ll eat them. Whole wheat flat bread with hummus and sliced cucumber is delish, as is whole wheat toast with natural nut butter and sliced banana. Trail mix (without candy), a handful of nuts, you might even find a granola bar that works for you (although even the healthiest pre-packaged bars taste too sweet for me these days).

Find support.
A friend or family member to support you in your desire to form healthy habits can make a big difference. I also follow healthy eating blogs and Facebook pages which give me new recipe ideas and encouragement to keep going. Some of my favorites: Oh She Glows (great recipes); and Forks Over Knives (if you can, watch the documentary) and UCDavis Integrative Medicine, both of which provide solid nutritional research from the medical community.

Be patient.
Healthy eating isn’t a diet, it’s a change of lifestyle. It will take time and you will be tempted to give up. I say I “lean vegan” because I don’t do it perfectly. I am a total sucker for good pizza (however, you can find vegan pizza if you look, and it can be pretty amazing). Take a baby step, and then another. Live into it at your own pace and watch your health improve.

Tuesday Treat – Vegan Chocolate Pudding

Fried brown rice

Fried brown rice

Nope, this isn’t a bait and switch. I promise to point you to a recipe for a delicious vegan chocolate pudding, but first I’m sharing a Tuesday Treat of a different kind: Fried Brown Rice.

This meal came to me like a miracle this evening. Goofy kid schedules, friends coming and going, phone ringing, Guy at a late meeting, I needed to whip up a quick and easy dinner. Chop some veggies, toss in some precooked brown rice, add some seasoning – voila! And in less than 15 minutes start to finish, happy kids chowed down.

I can’t give you a precise recipe, but this meal is great for cleaning out the fridge. I had a container of brown rice leftover from a couple days ago that needed to be used. I had some veggies – I always have veggies! – in this case, I sauteed some carrots, celery, shallot, garlic, and yellow bell pepper in a wok on the stove top with a few drops of sesame oil for flavor; when veggies began to soften, I added some frozen edamame and peas until they warmed.

I transferred the veggies to a bowl and put the rice in the wok with a few drizzles of natural rice vinegar. Stirring occasionally, when the rice began to get crispy and pop, I returned the veggies to the wok. I quickly stirred in some low-sodium soy sauce and hefty spoonful of Earth Balance (vegan butter). When the EB had melted, I moved the fried rice into a bowl. I would’ve topped it with sesame seeds, but I’m out, so I used toasted sesame seeds instead.

I kept it on the mild side since my kids don’t do spicy, but if you like it hot, add some chili garlic paste while cooking or sriracha to taste in your bowl.

So now the pudding. Last Monday was Groundhog Day. February 2nd roles around every year and every year it surprises me. Of course I don’t have to acknowledge a large rodent spotting his shadow (or not) but if I can scrounge up even a few minutes to plan and execute said plan, I do love a celebration.

I went to one of my favorite cooking blogs, Oh She Glows, and what do you know? Vegan Chocolate Pudding was her post of the day AND I had all the ingredients on hand. Tee hee!

It took minutes to make, and I snuck that avocado into the food processor without anyone walking through the kitchen (sneaky, sneaky!). The guys have their limits; breakfast can be eaten for dinner, but not dinner for breakfast. Similarly, avocados belong in Mexican food or salads, but not dessert. You get the picture.

Angela warns against using overripe bananas – a warning I didn’t heed sufficiently. I thought my bananas qualified as “yellow with a few spots” but the pudding did have an initial strong banana taste; I’ll go for yellower with no spots next time. As Guy doesn’t love banana flavoring (although, funny, he does enjoy a good banana bread), he wouldn’t eat the pudding. From time to time Teen avoids anything “unhealthy” (this doesn’t fall into that category, but some secrets are worth keeping), so he wouldn’t try it.

Which left more for Tween and me!

We both added cinnamon; next time I might add it straight to the food processor as it added such a nice flavor. We also both stirred in coconut, and Tween added a dash of almond milk (not sure why, but he liked it).

Best part? I won Superhero Mom points when I let Tween have it for breakfast the next morning. Before you scowl your disapproval my direction, answer me: truly, why not? Bananas, avocado, almond butter, and a little cocoa powder – if I made it in a blender with almond milk and ice, it could be a smoothie.

Hmm, I might just have to try that!

Meatless Monday

The Trader Joe’s “Fearless Flyer” came in last week’s mail. Evidence that fall’s flavors have arrived, you may now purchase pumpkin bread mix, coffee, chai, cereal, pancakes/waffles (ready-made or mix), rolls, muffins, scones, ice cream, seeds, yogurt, granola, croissants, bagels, cream cheese, soup, beer, ravioli, caramels, brittle, cookies (of several pumpkin varieties), crackers, cheesecake, pie, biscotti, oil, croutons, cornbread, snack bars, butter, toaster pastries, and of course, pumpkin itself, canned, cubed, and whole, again in several varieties and colors. Pumpkin lovers, unite!

Although I like pumpkin as much as the next girl, do you think we might be overdoing it…?

And yet, while I will skip most of the above, one of my fall favorites is the Pumpkin Gingerbread Smoothie from Oh She Glows. I always have quick oats and almond milk on hand; I usually have bananas in the freezer (my kids insist on bananas but can’t devour the bunch before spots develop, hence we have lots of banana bread + frozen bananas for smoothies); add some pumpkin, a drizzle of molasses, spices, and ice, and YUM-O!

This morning I enjoyed my first pumpkin smoothie of the season. I usually stick to fruit+greens smoothies, so this one is a delicious treat. It requires remembering to soak the oats the night before (I find the overnight-soak preferable to the 1-hour soak), but it’s worth the effort. One can of TJ’s pumpkin (sole ingredient: organic pureed pumpkin) = 2 smoothies + a little leftover to mix in to a bowl of oatmeal sprinkled with pumpkin pie spice and drizzled with maple syrup. As Guy doesn’t love a pumpkin smoothie (a true mystery, as Thanksgiving has not happened if pumpkin pie hasn’t yet been consumed), it’s all mine, yippee-hooray!

If you like this one, here’s another variety of oat-soaked smoothie:

Chocolate-PB Smoothie
1/4 c quick oats
4 dates, seeded and diced
1 c non-dairy milk
1 frozen banana
1 Tbsp cocoa powder
1 Tbsp peanut butter (optional)
a dash of cinnamon
5 ice cubes

Soak oats and dates in milk in the fridge overnight. Combine in blender with remaining ingredients. Add additional milk as necessary to blend smooth. Makes 1 serving.

BTW, (shame on me?) I haven’t caught on to the chia craze but I add flax oil to every smoothie I make. It doesn’t affect the flavor, and it adds those healthy omega-3’s. I have chia seeds. Maybe I’ll try them tonight…