Last week we covered some basics, for setting up a healthier kitchen and pantry. Now let’s build on that strong beginning, and move a little further down the path towards a real-food, whole-food, healthy diet!
If you read last week’s makeover article, you’ve probably already taken some important first steps towards a healthier approach to eating: the kitchen’s stocked with basic cooking supplies, and you’ve acquired (or started shopping for) a crock pot, rice cooker with steamer basket, Foreman-style grill, and blender or food processor.
You’ve done a little research about meeting nutritional needs, within whatever diet you want to follow (especially if you’re transitioning towards vegetarian or vegan habits). You’ve identified resources for fresh cheap healthy food, such as farmers’ markets or CSA groups near where you live, and have begun building your spice cabinet and pantry supplies.
You’ve also embraced forward-thinking food prep strategies: washing and chopping produce before putting it away, cooking more of any recipe than you need and storing the rest, and freezing staples like rice or whole wheat pasta in 2-cup servings for easy ‘fast food’ later.
You are off to a truly excellent start! The unhealthy food habits of the standard American diet will soon be but a dark and distant memory. To hasten that process, let’s take a few more steps down the real-food, whole-food, healthy-food path.
Cooking 101: Recipes to Live By
Buying real-food, whole-food ingredients does increase the need for some degree of food preparation, relative to fast food or Twinkies. But by increasing your food prep time from ‘zero’ to ‘a tiny bit,’ you can exponentially improve the quality of your diet without increasing your grocery budget.
For new cooks working with limited time and money, the value of a good cookbook or two can’t be overemphasized. There are infinite recipes available online, but generally cookbooks from experienced authors offer more consistent results. Thanks to the editorial process, they’re also likely to feature clearer instructions.
Whatever cookbooks you choose, look for those with recipes utilizing whole, unprocessed ingredients such as veggies, legumes, fruits, and whole grains. Look for mostly short-to-medium ingredient lists, simple cooking methods, and clear directions. Cookbooks are likely to be splashed on, dripped on, and scribbled in, so traditionally formatted books may work better Kindle or Nook versions.
Mark Bittman’s plant-centric but omnivore-friendly books, the Food Matters Cookbook and How to Cook Everything, offer an excellent introduction to real-food cooking and tons of simple recipes. My favorite recommendations for first cookbooks also include Quick-Fix Vegan, Vegan on the Cheap, Vegetarian 5-Ingredient Gourmet, and Fresh from the Vegetarian Slow Cooker.
Even if you’re not aiming for a vegan diet, if you’re hoping to incorporate more fruits and vegetables in your meals, simple vegan cookbooks by established authors provide a good basic beginner’s framework. You can always add other ingredients if you choose, but you’ll have a good healthy antioxidant-rich, high fiber, cholesterol-free base dish to build on.
Though not a functional replacement for cookbooks, online recipe resources can also be valuable. The most helpful recipe sites will show other cooks’ reviews of each dish, helping you sort the delicious wheat from the not-worth-the-trouble chaff. AllRecipes and Chow offer a wide variety of reviewable recipes, as well as community support for any cooking questions or problems you may encounter.
Winging It: Grocery Shopping for Delicious Unrecipe Cooking
As valuable as good cookbooks are, you don’t need one for every dish. Buy and prep some basic staples, and you’ll be able to throw together healthy entrees without so much as glancing at a recipe.
Last week we talked about starting to build up your seasoning supplies, with some basic spices. This week, add some or all of these ingredients to your pantry: soy sauce, toasted sesame oil, mirin or cooking sherry, rice vinegar, red wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar, vegetarian Worcestershire sauce, broth or bouillon, and liquid smoke flavoring. Add Sriracha or Louisiana hot sauce to the shopping list if you like spiciness, and a couple of bottled dressings or marinades if you wish — read package labels, and as much as possible avoid artificial ingredients like high fructose corn syrup and MSG.
Pick up some canned or dried chickpeas, cannellini beans, and black or kidney beans. Make sure to get some sandwich rolls, whole wheat tortillas, and/ or pita-style sandwich pockets. You probably have brown rice and whole wheat pasta pre-cooked from last week, ready to be defrosted for quick meals, and produce from the farmers’ market or CSA basket.
When you get home from the grocery store, wash produce well and make a ‘sturdy chopped veggie’ mix from any two or more of the following: red or white onions, carrots, bell peppers, broccoli, leeks, parsnips, cauliflower, kale, or Brussels sprouts — using a food processor, this is easy-breezy prep. Store veg mix in the fridge, in a large airtight container. Potatoes also belong in the ‘sturdy veg’ category, but they work best when chopped just before cooking.
Make another ‘tender chopped veggie’ mix, the same way; include any or all of the following: zucchini, yellow squash, green onions, spinach, bok choy, white or red cabbage, celery, sweet corn, or snow peas. Store the mixture in the fridge until needed. Cucumbers could be included also, if you’re only going to use the mix for cold dishes.
Salads, Sammies, and Stir-Fries, Oh My!
Toss sturdy veg mix with sliced mushrooms and chopped potatoes or sweet potatoes; marinate overnight in bottled or homemade balsamic vinaigrette, then roast. Serve over rice, pasta, or salad greens, or use in sandwiches and wraps. Whisk a little reserved marinade with mayo (vegan mayo if desired) for a tasty sauce to dress the dish.
Cook about a cup of sturdy veggie mix 5 min over medium-high heat in a large skillet, stirring very frequently. Add another cup of tender veggie mix, and cook another 2 minutes. Add bottled or homemade stir-fry sauce, and simmer one more minute. Toss in a handful of cashews or peanuts, if desired, and serve over rice or pasta; good with linguini noodles.
Marinate portabello mushroom caps or 1/2″ thick eggplant slices, using bottled or homemade marinade sauce, for an hour up to a couple of days; grill on a Foreman grill or roast at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes. Serve on buns with whatever you’d put on a burger.
Toss spinach, arugula, or other salad greens with:
- a handful of tender veggie mix + peanuts + sesame ginger dressing
- walnuts or almonds + fresh berries + balsamic or raspberry vinaigrette
- a handful of tender veggie mix + walnuts or sunflower seeds + chopped avocado + ranch dressing (nondairy or dairy)
Eat as a salad, wrap it in a tortilla, or use it to stuff a pita.
Rinse and drain any kind of cooked beans; puree in blender with sprinkles of salt, cumin, garlic powder, liquid smoke, and hot sauce (if desired). Taste and sprinkle, sprinkle and taste. Add dashes of water (or juice from jarred jalapenos) as needed, to make it smooth enough to blend. When it tastes good to you, refrigerate in an airtight container. Use as a healthy dip for pretzels, chips or crackers; or spread bean mixture on tortillas, roll up with sauteed onions and peppers, top with salsa, and microwave to make simple enchiladas or burritos.
Rinse and drain 2 cans of chickpeas. Sprinkle generously with soy sauce, rice vinegar, and mirin, and drizzle with sesame oil. Add a dash of hot chili sauce or crushed red pepper, if desired. Refrigerate overnight, and use along with tender veggie mix to top green salads, or to fill wraps or pitas.
Grain salads are versatile, tasty, easy, and filling: combine about 2 cups cooked barley (or couscous or quinoa or other grain) with a handful of tender veggie mix, a chopped tomato, one can of any beans you like (rinsed and drained), a handful of chopped parsley (or cilantro or basil), and the fresh juice from one lemon. Drizzle with olive oil, salt to taste, and toss well.
Crock Pot Yum for Beginners
Slow cooking is one of the easiest ways to enjoy hearty, filling, real-food meals without a lot of time or effort. Put everything together in the crock pot the night before; transfer to slow cooker base in the morning before leaving for work, and come home to fresh hot healthy instant dinner!
Foods that lend themselves especially well to crock pot cooking include:
- potatoes and sweet potatoes
- winter squash
- dried beans, lentils, black-eyed peas, and chickpeas
If you’re cooking a crockpot dish using lemon juice, summer squash, or fresh herbs, be sure to add these ingredients during the last hour of cooking to preserve best flavor.
Cooking with dried beans saves money, and avoids the BPA issue. Presoaking dry beans according to package directions, then rinsing and cooking in fresh water, will result in a less (ahem) windy dish. But if you’re pressed for time, you can skip it — in a slow cooker, they can soak while they cook. For black-eyed peas or chickpeas, cook on high 4-6 hours; lentils need 6-8 hours on low; and black, kidney, or pinto beans about 8-9 hours on high. Use unsalted or low-salt broth, or add salt to beans after cooking, and avoid adding acidic ingredients (tomatoes, vinegar, etc.) early in the process: these additions can keep some legumes from becoming tender.
A good veg-based crock pot cookbook will pay for itself many times over! But while you’re working on building up your bookshelf, try these simple recipes:
- Refried Beans Without the Refry
- Crockpot Vegetable Minestrone (sub nooch for parmesan, if you want it vegan)
- Slow Cooker Red Lentil Dahl (sub brown lentils for red, if that’s what your grocery store offers)
- Make-It-and-Leave-It Lasagna
- Slow Cooker Summer Pasta Sauce with Fresh Basil
If you’re hoping to get in touch with your inner vegetarian, or to simply incorporate more veggie dishes into your menu, two easy tricks can make transitioning to a plant-only (or plant-mostly) diet much easier than you might expect.
First, seek out healthy fats: going from a standard American diet to a veg-centric plate can cut a huge percentage of the fat from your menu. That’s a good thing! However, cutting fat suddenly and drastically can leave you feeling hungry and unsatisfied. To avoid craving unhealthy fatty foods, be sure to incorporate some healthier fats like avocados, olive oil, sesame oil, walnuts, almonds, cashews, and sunflower seeds into your meals.
If you’re aiming for a more plant-rich food life, make it your mission to try new things! The key to satisfying veggie fare is crowding the animal products off your plate with other delicious foods — not simply removing the meat from your current diet. There’s a world of plant-based ingredients that many omnivores have never explored: quinoa, jicama, kale, tempeh, seitan, cashew cheez, nooch, edamame, miso… the list is long and delicious!
Even if you don’t plan to eliminate animal based foods from your diet entirely, veg staples often create tasty and satisfying meals that are cheaper and healthier than their animal-derived counterparts. The very best way to get those old, unhealthy foods out of your diet is to get some better new ones into it: constantly seek out new veggie foods to try!
I’ll talk next week about sourcing any animal foods that you do decide to keep in your diet. For now, just work on incorporating more fruits, veggies, legumes, and whole grains. Meanwhile, keep reading about the health, environmental, and ethics issues related to food choices: you can’t make informed decisions about what to eat in the absence of information!
Goals for This Week
- Continue building your spice cabinet and pantry staples, emphasizing whole grains, dried or canned beans, spices, vinegars, marinades/ dressings (if you don’t want to make these from scratch), nuts, seeds, and produce. If you haven’t found a good farmers’ market or other source for fresh cheap produce, many frozen fruits and veggies taste fresher than canned versions.
- Buy a good cookbook, emphasizing simple recipes from unprocessed whole-food ingredients. Use online recipe resources to find and try out at least two simple recipes. Cook something in your crock pot.
- Make sure your fridge has plenty of quick-fix salad/sandwich and stir-fry ingredients, like spinach, cabbage, arrugula, onions, mushrooms, zucchini, carrots, canned beans, nuts, sunflower seeds, and avocados. Make pre-chopped veg mixes, for easy wing-it unrecipe menu options.
- Include healthy fats in your cooking, and try as many new foods and seasonings as you possibly can!
Perhaps most importantly, keep seeking information about why food choices matter — stay motivated, and the battle against the unhealthy habits of the past is more than half-won!
Next series installment: Healthy Diet Makeover Part 3: Out with the Old!