I’ve always been interested in healthier cooking, but a few years ago, I did a deeper dive into the topic. There were a variety of reasons but overall, I wanted to know that the meals I was making at home supported our health and wellbeing without leaving us feeling deprived. I also wished to enhance and improve what I was doing in my cooking classes and recipe development work. After much research, consultation, and education, I distilled the main principles of three highly regarded ways of eating – the Mediterranean Diet, DASH, and Food as Medicine – into one approach and created what I call a “cooking lifestyle”. The three main pillars of my cooking lifestyle include selecting better ingredients (less processed, lower sodium and added sugar), increasing the plant quotient in recipes and on our plates, and planning our dinners weekly. Today, I am sharing with you a few ideas that worked well for me to increase plants in my cooking.
WHY INCREASE PLANTS IN YOUR MEALS?
One common concept in these three ways of eating is that they capitalize on the use the most nutrient-dense ingredients available – plants. Research has long shown that the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants in plants fuel our bodies, lower inflammation, help us maintain a healthy weight, boost our productivity, mood and immune systems and fight diseases. Plants not only provide nutrient value but color, texture moisture and depth of flavor to dishes that other ingredients do not. Anecdotally, I can definitely say that my husband and I have both reaped the rewards of our updated way of eating and truly enjoy our meals.
HOW TO START
Increasing the number of plants in your diet may initially sound daunting or even boring. Adding more plant ingredients to your meals is amazingly easy, delicious, and actually pretty interesting. There are so many to choose from – just check out a list of fruits and vegetables, beans and other legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. You could choose a different one each week and be busy for a long while!
For every meal I prepare, I consider how to adjust a recipe ingredient list to accommodate at least one or two additional plant ingredients or serve extras on our plates. “Shopping my kitchen” to see what ingredients I have available and letting my creative juices flow keeps things fun and interesting. Planning one plant-based dinner per week is another strategy I have found helpful. If you are just starting to incorporate more plants into your diet, choose a frequency that works for you for adding plant-based meals into your rotation – anywhere from several times per month to one plant-based meal per day. The important thing is to make it a part of your schedule.
5 ADDITIONAL STRATEGIES
Here are 5 more ideas that have helped me increase the plant quotient in my cooking.
1. AMP UP THE LEAFY GREENS
Leafy greens are like the “little black dress”, they are an appropriate add-in to just about everything!
- saute a handful with onions and/or garlic to add to scrambled eggs or egg bakes
- place extra in sandwiches, wraps, or on top of a baked pizza
- add to pastas, soups, stews, chili, stir-fries, and smoothies
- combined with other vegetables in side dishes
- … the list goes on!
2. MAXIMIZE PLANT PROTEIN POWER
Believe it or not, plants actually contain protein, some as much as steak. Use plant sources in place of meat or to supplement a reduced amount of meat in recipes. Beans, chickpeas, lentils, tofu, seitan, tempeh, edamame, broccoli, kale, mushrooms, potatoes, quinoa, farro and other whole grains, pasta made from durum whole wheat, and nutritional yeast are all good sources of plant protein.
3. GO WITH VEGGIE “NOODLES OR RICE”
Spiralized or shredded veggies can be a fun twist to a traditional favorite. Add them to your favorite pasta dishes to ramp up the vitamins and minerals, or swap out the pasta all together. Veggie noodles or rice can be sauteed, stir-fried, roasted or baked. A couple of favorites in my house are roasted spaghetti squash with marinara sauce or pesto, and cauliflower rice with any stir-fry or stew. How about trying zucchini or carrot spirals in soup, or squash noodles in a curry bowl?
4. TRY A PLANT-BASED “MILK”
Plant-based “milks” such as almond, oat, hemp and coconut, have exploded on the market. While I continue to use dairy, particularly fermented and aged products, I enjoy mixing it up a bit with plant-based milks. Many people find them less acidic and easier on digestion. These products can be great replacements for dairy in many recipes, providing a creamy consistency. Try replacing heavy cream in a sauce with an equal amount of oat milk. Use canned or refrigerated coconut milk or almond milk in place of dairy milk in oatmeal or other cooked whole grain recipes. Look for the best quality of plant-based milks, those with no added sugar and other unwanted additives.
Photo: Love + Craft Kitchen
5. DON’T FORGET NUTS AND SEEDS
Nuts and seeds are nutrient powerhouses. We are so familiar with them as great portable snacks and flavor-boosters to baked goods. But don’t stop there – nuts and seeds are super additions to stir-fries, curries, soups, stews, all types of salads, veggie side dishes, and pastas. Spread a nut or seed butter on a whole grain cracker, slice of apple, or crisp celery stick. Make a cashew cheese spread for your next happy hour. Use tahini to make a salad dressing or sauce that compliments an entrée. Or add chia, hemp and flax seeds to smoothies, sauces and dips. Yum!
SHARE YOUR IDEAS
How do you add more plants to your meals? Share your tips in the comments section.
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