Ok, so we’ve defined what it means to eat a vegan diet, we’ve talked about why this is such an important step forward, and we’ve discussed the amazing things that start to happen once you begin eating and living this way. By now, I know many of you are thinking “so now what do I eat?”. Whether you’ve made your decision and want to become a full on vegan, whether you’re testing the waters and making better choices to slowly get there, or whether you simply want all the info to see if this is something doable, I want to give you some tips and ideas to get you started on creating incredible and mouthwatering vegan dishes. Nothing is a bigger myth than saying a vegan diet is restrictive. In reality, once you start, you’re diving into the incredible bounty that nature provides, trying things you’ve never had before, and having a serious “wow” moment when you realize you were probably only rotating 6 or 7 meals throughout the week (the average number for most families), having a handful of vegetables as teeny tiny side dishes, and that suddenly it looks like your fridge and your plate are exploding with options. This was certainly my experience.
Although we briefly listed some of the yummy wonderful options vegans have to choose from in ‘Defining Vegan’ (and that list doesn’t even cover it), here are some tips on how to actually set up your plate.
Make whole foods the foundation of your diet
Nowadays, in most cities you can find a vegan version for anything from vegan cheeses to a Christmas roast, not to mention some of my favorite vegan sausages and chorizos, but these are of course a little more processed than the whole food alternative. Don’t get me wrong, I always have vegan cream cheese in my fridge and my favorite vegan chorizo sausages (which don’t even last a week!). Tofu and tempeh are also always in my refrigerator drawer and yummy deli meats as well for those easy and quick sandwiches. However, I love having most of my nutrients come from the actual whole foods themselves. I’m talking about the actual vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, seeds and whole grains. So try to center your diet around these whole foods, and then have a blast indulging in the more processed meats and cheeses when you feel like it. In the beginning, it’s nice and also a great transition to have something familiar and of course it’s healthier than the food most people are having now, but as you start trying the millions of actual whole foods that are out there, your palate will be asking you for juicy tomatoes and some crispy greens. Your body will start getting healthy and if weight loss is your goal, the pounds will start coming right off. Having said that, balance is key to sticking with it! If you’re feeling like having a jumbo vegan hotdog with all the fixings, dig in, there’s a vegan version to almost anything and if you start getting savvy with ingredient labels, you’ll soon find brands with natural ingredients so you can dig in as much as you want. Today I had a bowl of the best chocolate ice cream I’ve ever had and it consisted of only four ingredients: water, cashews, cocoa powder and agave nectar.
In a nutshell, these vegan product guys are geniuses, but nature still ranks number one. You get the gist…
Brown is the new black
It is time to rid your pantry of the white stuff. White rice, white bread, white pasta, well let’s just say it went the way of bell bottom pants ok? If you haven’t made this change by now, do it! The reason these foods are white is because most of the fiber and nutrients have been processed out of these grains and grain products. They make your blood sugar levels spike and they lead to weight gain. Opt for brown rice, other whole grains like quinoa, bulgur, barley, couscous, polenta, millet and countless others. Buy some yummy whole wheat pasta or buckwheat pasta, quinoa pasta, and of course get a hearty delicious chewy whole grain bread. White is out! Get with the program! Soon we’ll teach you how to make the perfect pot of brown rice, as I believe there’s nothing as magical as this little grain, not to mention nutty and delicious.
Get some comfort
In the beginning, it’s really helpful to try to veganize some of the dishes you already cook and love. This can be done easily by substituting the meat for vegan alternatives, the milk for non dairy milk (oat, almond, rice, soy, hemp, hazelnut, there are so many options!), using non dairy butter instead of regular butter, by browsing cookbooks or Pinterest for your favorite recipe but in its vegan version. Make some bean burritos and tacos with guacamole, a veggie burger with all the fixings, a juicy hot dog with ketchup and relish, a delicious vegan chocolate cake or vegan blueberry pancakes, you get the idea. Take a look at our ‘Comfort’ post for more on this topic.
Be a copycat
One thing I did when I wasn’t sure what to cook in the beginning was visit the websites of some of the very well known vegan restaurants and diners that I couldn’t go to because they were so far away (Candle 79 in NYC: I’m coming for you some day and will surely never eat anywhere else again!). Almost all restaurants have their menu posted online, so I would browse them and pick out a couple of flavor pairings or simply get inspired by the way they combined all the vegan goodies. It was a huge help and it has also made me start planning a trip or two to try the actual masterpieces.
Once a week, make a pot of grains and a pot of beans
This tip comes to you via Alicia Silverstone’s book The Kind Diet, and it has seriously been the best suggestion for healthy eating in my household. Make a pot of beans and a pot of brown rice (or another whole grain). Once you’ve eaten them, make another. You’ll have a great foundation ready for you to add some more goodies to your plate. We’ll have tutorials for these two babies soon so stay tuned.
Two quarters and half a plate
A good eyeball measure if you ask me to get more specific, is to imagine your plate as being one quarter whole grains, one quarter beans (or a bean product such as tofu or tempeh or a vegan meat), and half of your plate full of veggies (raw or cooked, or a combination). Do I always eat like this? No! Sometimes I have a big bowl of pasta with veggies on top or a taco with beans and lots of guacamole and salsa, but it’s a great way to remember the different components we should be thinking about in order to have a balanced diet. Remember to also shop and eat by color to get a wide range of nutrients (we’ll be talking more about specific nutrients soon).
Mix up the textures and flavors
I don’t know about you, but I love combining textures and sweet, salty and spicy flavors. One of my vegan plates might be some warm chewy brown rice with tangy ginger sauce on top, some crunchy veggies, some creamy roasted sweet potatoes and some chewy and spicy black beans. Mix it up!
Get to know your local farmer’s market
Farmer’s markets are like candy stores were for me when I was a kid. I want to get everything until I realize I didn’t bring enough money, a fact that is now meaningless because my veggie vendor Manuel keeps telling me I can pay him next time. Oh boy! Farmer’s markets are fun, heart warming places to do your shopping, chat with strangers, sample some free stuff and get the freshest, cheapest produce around. It will help you shop in season too which will guarantee you’ll be getting the most nutritious and flavorful fruits and veggies and the best bang for your buck.
‘F*+^ THE CENTER OF THE PLATE!’
No ladies and gentleman, that was not a typo. I want you to repeat this with me loud and proud: “F*&) the center of the plate!” Did you do it? I’m not sure I heard it from here…Do it again, out loud! “F*@# the center of the plate!”. We all know what I’m talking about, that slab of meat or leg of a chicken sitting in the center of our plate surrounded by a tiny adornment of veggies and some other side dish. If there’s one thing that has locked our minds into the “well what can I eat if there’s no meat” mentality it is what I like to call the ‘center of the plate syndrome’. It’s time to challenge this way of thinking once and for all.
One of my favorite meals nowadays is creating a bunch of small vegan dishes, setting them up beautifully on the table grabbing a plate and piling on the goodies to my heart’s content. What you end up with is a wonderful veggie medley of flavors and textures and it’s honestly more fun! Sometimes we take our plates out to the terrace and put on some tunes, or we just chat around the serving dishes because we know one serving will probably not suffice. That being said, of course you can have a plate with a wonderful centerpiece if you so desire, like a delicious lasagna or stuffed butternut squash, or one of my guilty pleasures, a German plate of vegan sausages, potato salad and sauerkraut. A plate of spaghetti, some stuffed peppers or stuffed zucchini, a vegan lentil ‘meatloaf’ or a scrumptious veggie burger, a vegan pot pie or a yummy shepherd’s pie. The options are endless if you still want to have a beautiful centrepiece, but what I want you to try to do is challenge the way you think a meal should look like, because honestly, who says it has to be this way or that way? You! That’s who!
Some ideas for a veggie medley:
– Brown rice.
– Roasted sweet potatoes with rosemary.
– Chickpea and avocado, cilantro salad.
– Grilled portobello mushrooms marinated in a little tamari soy sauce.
– Stir fried veggies.
– Asian noodles with veggies like our soba noodles with peanut sauce.
– A tossed green salad.
– A bean stew or a simple dish of canned beans rinsed and drained and then sauteed with some tomatoes, onions, peppers and herbs.
– Roasted brussel sprouts.
– Grilled bell peppers.
– Steamed or grilled asparagus with a little lemon juice and salt.
– Steamed artichokes with vegan mayo for dipping.
– Seared vegan sausages or any vegan meats you like (some yummy recipes for tofu, tempeh and seitan are coming soon).
– Falafel rounds browned on a skillet and served with some hummus.
– A delicious quinoa or rice pilaf.
– Tabbouleh salad.
– Baked potatoes with vegan sour cream and green onions.
– A simple salad with some corn, tomatoes, peppers and avocado or any veggies you might have on hand and a little olive oil and lemon juice.
– I love to have some kind of gravy or sauce to serve with my veggie medley, especially to pour it over my rice. In our house this is usually my ‘holy moly guacamole’, a yummy mushroom gravy or my favorite ginger carrot dressing which I always have in the fridge.
– Sauteed string beans tossed with nuts and dried cranberries.
– Corn on the cob.
– Grilled polenta, or creamy polenta.
– Roasted cherry tomatoes with garlic and herbs.
– Veggie and marinated tofu skewers.
– Mushroom stir fry.
– Stuffed mushrooms.
– Mushroom risotto.
– Caramelized onion and pumpkin topping.
– Kale and bean stew.
– ‘No work’ oven roasted leeks, just leeks placed in a baking dish (quartered if they’re very thick) and drizzled with olive oil and placed in the oven until they’ve caramelized and become wonderfully gooey.
– Arugula stir fry with pine nuts.
– Sauteed garlic spinach with lemon.
– Zucchini spaghetti or spaghetti squash with garlic tomato sauce.
– Garlic bread.
– Raw veggies tossed together in a salad.
– Veggies roasted in the oven.
– Tomato and mushroom bruschetta with a little pesto on top.
– I could spend hours and hours here so keep checking our recipe section for delicious ideas. Did you notice something? The veggie medley is a great way to use up all your leftovers, and spruce them up with just a couple of additions you feel like having on that day. The options are quite literally endless.
Have a vegan barbecue
Have a vegan barbecue outside (here are some ideas), with your loved ones, some music, some ice cold lemonade and your faith in humanity will be restored. I’m serious!
Being vegan is not about being restrictive, it’s about the joy of eating amazing food that is good for you, our planet and the animals. It’s not about being a five star chef, spending hours in the kitchen or going to expensive vegan restaurants. It’s about getting back to basics. As back to basics as we can get. It’s about cooking in a very simple way with food that is so amazing you’ll have to do very little to it to make it flavorful. It’s about demystifying that thing we call the kitchen. It’s about enjoying the heart warming feelings that come when you put on some music, head to the stove and get creative with very simple ingredients. Pile on those vegan goodies and enjoy!