It’s amazing how profoundly diet affects each and every one. There is a reason for the saying “We are what we eat. From puberty through the childbearing years and certainly on into women’s mature years, food is the foundation for good health. No matter what your age today, the right diet will significantly influence your life in the coming months and years. You’ll see that unlike tricky diets that forbid carbohydrates, cost a lot of money, or require a lot of time, the perfect nutrition plan is really quite simple. That’s not to say that those of you of who enjoy the culinary arts will not be able to create an elaborate and exquisite dinner party menu. You can indeed! And on busy days you’ll also be able to get in and out of the kitchen in fifteen minutes, creating wonderful meals packed with antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. What’s nice about building a diet from plant foods is that it is one plan you can share with your family, and even with friends who are lifelong dieters. Once you bring new recipes like Spicy Indian Garbanzos and Pan-seared Portobello Mushrooms to the dinner table, you’ll wonder why you ever missed out on these delicious vegetables and grains.
It is very likely that you will see changes immediately. Dwindling energy will increase, your clothes may soon fit a little more comfortably, and your mind will be free to focus on something other than calories and cholesterol. If the entire family joins in, they will benefit along with you in so many ways. Happily, good eating habits, developed early, often stay with us for life. You may have been raised on over processed convenience foods or very-high-fat hamburgers, hot dogs, and chicken wings. But you are breaking the cycle now, and that’s what matters. We can all look around and see obesity, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, osteoporosis, and other diet-related illnesses touching more lives than ever before. By switching to a plant-based diet you’ll be taking one momentous leap toward avoiding these serious conditions. In working with research participants, dietitians at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine have found the greatest success with women who follow this eating plan 100 percent. An easy way to ensure that you will stick with it is to commit yourself completely for three weeks. There’s no need to follow the daily menus exactly; just choose any of the recipes that appeal to you. At the end of this time, many people are anxious to explore more new tastes and are already enjoying the benefits of a vegan diet. Three weeks will easily turn to months, and then to years. Speaking of years, the clock is ticking for all of us. Yet when you change your eating habits in as dramatic a way as this, you’ll begin to see each day as an opportunity for strengthening and invigorating your cells, your body, your life. Father Time will surely smile upon you. So get going and enjoy!
Preparing Healthy Foods
Whether you’re cooking for a family, for two, or just for yourself, the following recipes and menus will help you prepare delicious, healthful meals that will please everyone. You’ll find practical suggestions for menu planning and shopping, and sample menus based on simple recipes. The recipes included in this article are quick and easy to prepare, with ingredients that are available in most grocery stores. Many of the recipes are for healthful versions of familiar foods, and each of the recipes includes a nutrient analysis.
Planning a Menu
Planning ahead is the key to easy meal preparation. You will be amazed at the amount of time and money you save when you plan weekly menus and shop for a week at a time. You’ll spend less time looking for parking and standing in line, and by planning ahead you’ll spend less money on impulse items and instant meals. You’ll also be delighted when you begin cooking that all the ingredients you need will be on hand. Set aside a bit of time and find a quiet spot to plan a one-week menu. Your menu plan does not have to specify every item for every meal. Breakfasts, especially during the week, probably will be much the same from day to day: fruits, whole grain cereals, and breads. For lunches, leftovers make perfect instant meals. Soup (either homemade or commercially prepared) is another quick and nutritious option. Add whole grain bread and salad mix sprinkled with seasoned rice vinegar for a meal in minutes! Bean or grain salads are also excellent lunch foods that can be prepared in quantity and kept on hand for a quick meal. Thus your lunch menu plan should include a couple of soups and two or three salads. For dinners, plan four main dishes prepared in large enough quantities to provide at least two meals. Add whole grains such as brown rice or bulgur wheat, and vegetables for complete, satisfying meals.
A Sample Menu Plan
This flexible menu plan does not specify exact meals for each day of the week. The indicated meals can be prepared according to your time and taste. At the same time, it provides you with the assurance that the ingredients for any of the meals will be available when you need them. Use this menu plan to make a shopping list.
Making a Shopping List
Use your menu plan to prepare a shopping list. Look up the recipes you have chosen and note the ingredients you’ll need to purchase. Add a variety of fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains, and breads to round out your meals. Check the refrigerator, freezer, and pantry to see what staples need to be restocked (see “Stocking Your Pantry” on page 158). These might include condiments, spices, baking supplies, canned foods, frozen foods, or beverages. To streamline your shopping trip, arrange the foods on your list in categories that reflect the departments in your grocery store, such as fresh produce, grains, dried beans, canned fruits and vegetables, and frozen foods.
Seasonal eating refers to choosing fruits and vegetables when they are fresh and in season. By doing so, you will enjoy better-tasting, more nutritious produce and cut your food costs at the same time. Seasonal produce tastes better because it is usually picked at its prime. It hasn’t spent weeks in transit from the other side of the equator, or months in cold storage where it loses moisture, flavor, and nutrients. Ironically, transportation and cold storage, which detract from the flavor and nutritional value of produce, add significantly to its cost. There are a number of ways to know what foods are in season. Seasonal foods are usually featured in advertisements and in the produce department at your market. Check your store’s advertising flyer and look for large end-aisle displays in the produce department. In general you will find that seasonal foods are more reasonably priced than out-of-season produce because of lower storage, shipping, and handling costs. You will also find that when foods are in season, there are often several varieties to choose from. For example, when apples get ripe in autumn, most stores feature several varieties. By spring and summer, however, only the few varieties that can be held in cold storage are available. Farmers’ markets offer an enjoyable way to find out what is in season. The produce at farmers’markets is not only seasonal, but is often organically grown as well. An easy way to obtain seasonal produce is to join a CSA (community-supported agriculture), in which you pay a fee to a local grower who then supplies you with a variety of fresh produce throughout the season. At www.umass.edu/ umext/csa/us/StateList.html you can get more information about CSAs, including local listings. The most basic way of knowing what is in season is to consider what part of the plant a food comes from. During the colder months, foods that are in season generally come from the roots, stems, and leaves of plants. As the weather warms, pods, flowers, and eventually fruits come into season. Fruit, by the way, refers to the seed-bearing portion of a plant and includes such foods as tomatoes, peppers, avocados, squash, and eggplant.
With your shopping list in hand, you will be ready to stock up quickly and conveniently for the whole week. Make sure you have eaten before you head for the store. Shopping on an empty stomach can override the best of intentions and lead to impulsive purchases of less-than-nutritious foods. Most processed foods have nutrition labels and ingredient lists that provide you with useful information for making healthy food choices. The nutrition label indicates the size of a single serving and the number of calories as well as the amount of fat, protein, sugar, fiber, and salt in that serving. You can also gather a lot of useful information by reading through the ingredients list. The ingredients are listed in order of prominence in the food: the ingredient present in the greatest amount is first on the list, and so forth. Thus, if fat or sugar appears near the top of the list, you know that these are major ingredients. The ingredients list also indicates the presence of artificial flavors, artificial colors, preservatives, and other additives you may wish to avoid. As you read through the ingredients list, be aware of the many different forms of sugar that may be in food. Sucrose, fructose, dextrose, corn syrup, honey, and malt are just a few, and in general, any ingredients that end with “-ose” are sugars. If a product contains several different types of sugar it is likely that sugar is a major ingredient, even if it isn’t the first item on the list. You should also avoid foods that contain hydrogenated oils. These oils have been processed to make them solid, or saturated, and like other saturated fats, they can raise blood cholesterol levels and increase the risk of heart disease. In addition to nutrition labels and ingredients lists, foods may contain other nutrition claims, such as “fat-free,” “low cholesterol,” or “lite.”
With your menu and ingredients on hand, you will be able to prepare satisfying meals quickly and conveniently. You may wish to prepare several different menu items in a single cooking session as a further time-saver. You will notice that most of the recipes in this article provide six to eight servings. As a result, you will probably have food left over that can be used to provide one or more extra meals. In this way the menu you create may actually provide meals for more than a week, with no additional shopping, planning, or cooking! Another time-saver is to make slight modifications to the food you’ve already prepared so it has a different appearance the second or third time you serve it. In this way you can have maximum variety with a minimum of preparation. The Polenta recipe is a good example. Start out by preparing a triple batch and have it as a creamy porridge for breakfast topped with fresh fruit and soy milk as indicated in the recipe. For a second meal, allow to cool in a flat pan overnight, and slice to make Grilled Polenta the next day. Then for a quick and delicious lunch use the remaining polenta to make Polenta Pizza . Foods that take a bit of time to cook can be prepared in large enough quantities to provide for several meals. Brown rice is a good example. Once cooked, it can easily be reheated in a microwave or on the stovetop and served as a side dish with a variety of recipes. It also can be added to soups and stews, or used as a filling in a burrito or a wrap.
The secret to preparing vegetables is to cook them only as much as is needed to tenderize them and bring out their best flavor. The following methods are quick and easy and enhance the flavor and texture of vegetables. Steaming. A collapsible steamer rack can turn any pot into a vegetable steamer. Heat about 1 inch of water in a pot. Arrange the prepared vegetables in a single layer on a steamer rack and place them in the pot over the boiling water. Cover the pot with a lid and cook until just tender. Braising. This technique is identical to sautéing, except that a fat-free liquid is used in place of oil. It is particularly useful for mellowing the flavor of vegetables such as onions and garlic. Heat approximately 1⁄2 cup of water, vegetable broth, or wine (the liquid you use will depend on the recipe) in a large pan or skillet. Add the vegetables and cook over high heat, stirring occasionally, adding small amounts of additional liquid if needed, until the vegetables are tender. This will take about five minutes for onions. Grilling. High heat seals in the flavors of vegetables and adds its own distinctive flavor as well. Vegetables can be grilled on a barbecue or electric grill, or on the stove using a nonstick grill pan. Cut all the foods that will be grilled together into a uniform size. Preheat the grill, then add the vegetables. Cook over medium-high heat, turning occasionally with a spatula until uniformly browned and tender. Roasting. A simple and delicious way to prepare vegetables is to roast them in a very hot oven (450°F). Toss the vegetables with seasonings and a small amount of olive oil if desired. Spread them in a single layer on a baking sheet and place them in the preheated oven until tender. Microwave. A microwave oven provides an easy method for cooking vegetables, particularly those that take a long time to cook with other methods. Another benefit of microwave cooking for vegetables is that they cook quickly with little or no water, minimizing loss of nutrients. Try the recipes for yams, potatoes, and winter squash on page 224.
Whole grains are a mainstay of a healthful diet. The term “whole grain” refers to grains that have been minimally processed, leaving the bran and germ intact. As a result, whole grains provide significantly more nutrients, including protein, vitamins, and minerals, than refined grains. In addition, whole grains are an excellent source of fiber. Some fairly common whole grains include whole wheat berries, cracked wheat and bulgur, whole wheat flour, brown rice, rolled oats, whole barley, and barley flour. Some of the less common grains that are slowly making their way into the mainstream are quinoa (“keen-wah”), amaranth, kamut (“kam-oo”), and teff. Grains should be stored in a cool, dry location. If the outer bran layer has been disturbed by crushing or grinding, as in making flour or rolled oats, the grain should be used within two to three months. Grains with the outer bran layer intact remain viable and nutritious for several years if properly stored.
The term “legume” refers to dried beans and peas such as soybeans, black beans, pinto beans, garbanzos or chickpeas, lentils, and split peas. Legumes may be purchased dried, canned, and in some cases, frozen or dehydrated. Dried beans are inexpensive and easy to cook. If you don’t have the time to cook dried beans, canned beans are a good alternative. Kidney beans, garbanzo beans, pinto beans, black beans, and many others are available, including some in lowsodium varieties. For an even quicker meal, vegetarian baked beans, chili beans, and refried beans are available in the canned foods section of most supermarkets. Recently a few companies have introduced precooked, dehydrated beans. These cook in about five minutes. Pinto beans, black beans, split peas, and lentils are some of the varieties available. Check your local natural food store for these.
Foods that are high in fat are also high in calories. In addition to causing unwanted weight gain, a high-fat diet increases your risk for heart disease, adult-onset diabetes, and several forms of cancer. By switching to a plant-based diet you will reduce your intake of fat considerably. The following tips will help you reduce your fat intake even further. Choose cooking techniques that do not employ added fat. Baking, grilling, and oven roasting are great alternatives to frying. Another fat-cutting cooking trick is to sauté in a liquid such as water or vegetable broth whenever possible. Heat about 1⁄2 cup of water in a skillet (preferably nonstick) and add the vegetables to be sautéed. Cook over high heat, stirring frequently, until the vegetables are tender. This will take about five minutes. Add a bit more water if necessary to prevent sticking. Add onions and garlic to soups and stews at the beginning of the cooking time so their flavors will mellow without sautéing. When oil is absolutely necessary to prevent sticking, lightly apply a vegetable oil spray. Another alternative is to start with a very small amount of oil (1 to 2 teaspoons), then add water or vegetable broth as needed to keep the food from sticking. Nonstick pots and pans allow foods to be prepared with little or no fat. Choose fat-free dressings for salads. In addition to commercially prepared dressings, seasoned rice vinegar makes a tasty fat-free dressing straight out of the bottle. Avoid deep-fried foods and fat-laden pastries. Check your market for low-fat and no-fat alternatives. Replace the oil in salad dressing recipes with seasoned rice vinegar, vegetable broth, bean cooking liquid, or water. For a thicker dressing, whisk in a small amount of potato flour. Sesame Seasoning (see page 200) is low in fat and delicious on grains, potatoes, and steamed vegetables. Fat-free salad dressing also may be used as a topping for cooked vegetables. Applesauce, mashed banana, prune purée, or canned pumpkin may be substituted for all or part of the fat in many baked goods.
Quick Meal and Snack Ideas
Fresh soybeans (edamame) make a delicious snack or meal addition. Find them in the frozen vegetables section of your supermarket and prepare according to package directions. For an instant green salad use prewashed salad mix and commercially prepared fat-free dressing. Add some canned kidney beans or garbanzo beans for a more substantial meal. Baby carrots make a convenient, healthful snack. Try them plain or with Red Pepper Hummus. Ramen soup is quick and satisfying. Add some chopped, fresh vegetables for a heartier soup. Keep a selection of vegetarian soup cups on hand. These are great for quick meals, especially when you’re traveling. Burritos are quick to make and very portable. They can be eaten hot or cold. For a simple burrito, spread fat-free refried beans on a flour tortilla, add prewashed salad mix and salsa, and roll it up. Mix fat-free refried beans with an equal amount of salsa for a delicious bean dip. Serve with baked tortilla chips or fresh vegetables. A wide variety of fat-free vegetarian cold cuts are available in many supermarkets and natural food stores. These make quick and easy sandwiches. Arrange chunks of fresh fruit on skewers for quick fruit kabobs. Frozen grapes make a refreshing summer snack. To prepare, remove them from the stems and freeze, loosely packed, in an airtight container. Frozen bananas make cool snacks or creamy desserts. Peel the bananas, break into chunks, and freeze in airtight containers.
Having a healthy body is more important than anything. If you keep yourself healthy, you will be able to work better and be more productive for your family and your country. Healthy body results in healthy mind and soul. Keep your food healthy, live prosperous life.