When you read you begin with ABC. When you start eating better food you begin with…. okay, so this would be a clumsy way to continue. But I’ve been inspired to provide a little bit of a get started post by a phone conversation I had yesterday. Someone very near and dear to me was explaining that she had read about the new dietary guidelines and wanted to incorporate more plant-based meals into her dinner plans. The question to me that followed: “So, do you have any plant-based meals that you could recommend?” Ummmmm….. yeah. I do. I have around 200… on that blog… that you tell me you read… never mind. That’s okay. No, it’s really okay, because I don’t think she was actually asking the question that I heard.
What she meant to say was more like: “I know I should be doing something different, but when I start to think about it I draw a total blank because I’ve eaten this way for a long time. When I look at your blog I am totally overwhelmed because I don’t know where to start and I don’t want to do a search and I don’t even know if I like any of these foods. Help.” That’s what she was really saying, so I decided maybe in honor of the recent guidelines and my very dear relative, a primer would be a good idea. So the purpose of this here post is to use the new dietary guidelines as inspiration to start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.
Paraphrasing the recommendations, there are 3 main components:
A) include more vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.
B) Reduce your red and processed meat consumption.
C) Reduce your added sugar intake.
There was more information in the guidelines (including some good news about caffeine and cholesterol), but these are the key points – things to add and things to minimize in your diet. I’ve put them in this order on purpose. If you’ve struggled to eat more healthfully in the past, perhaps starting with what you can add – the food you get to have more of allows you to approach dietary change as a positive and exciting thing – a series of culinary experiments instead of a constant discussion about deprivation.
A) Include more plant-based meals.
So the primer for accomplishing this change will be a list of my favorite super easy go-to plant based dishes. These are not the ones I’d necessarily make for fancy company or the ones that I’d make for the joy of spending an afternoon in the kitchen. These are dishes that I believe anyone can make in a reasonable amount of time and most everyone would enjoy enough to make again. Without further ado… here’s your starter kit for plant-based meals.
1. Lentil Casserole: so simple and easy it’s almost ridiculous. So hearty, flavorful and satisfying it’s Miss Picky Pants’ all time favorite dish. That’s right, my picky daughter has a lentil dish as her absolute favorite. It’s that good.
2. Slow Cooker Bean, Corn, and Barley Burritos: Again, it doesn’t get much easier than dumping a bunch of stuff in the Crock Pot and turning it on. All you need to do is add whatever burrito fixings your tribe likes and you’ve got a delicious plant-based meal on the table.
3. Varia-Bowls: This is a little harder to explain as it’s a concept rather than a recipe, but the idea is that you add a bunch of veggies to a grain or a whole grain noodle, add some sauce and yum! We’ve made some suggestions to get you started.
4. Picadillo: This gentler and fantastically flavored Cuban chiii is super easy and a crowd pleaser. Make the lentil version for plant-based yum. Make extra and freeze it for fast dinners.
5. Nutshroom Burgers: These vegan burgers totally surprised us the first time I made them. They are simply fantastic and if you have a food processor, easy peasy.
6. Roasted Butternut Squash Soup: I have yet to meet someone over the age of however old my daughter is at the time you read this who doesn’t like this soup. It is simple and fabulous.
7. Slow Cooker Creamy Tomato Soup: Easy, delish, comforting, and feels like you’re eating something that MUST be bad for you. Perfect for dipping a sammy or some great crusty bread.
8. Roasted Veggies 2 Ways: A great way to take advantage of whatever is in season at the moment and make enough for 4 meals. Can we say freezer dinner rescue?
9. Easiest Tomato Sauce Ever with Non-Dairy Toppers: Eating a plant-based diet doesn’t have to take a lot of time, or even require you to get used to all kinds of new tastes – who doesn’t like pasta for pete’s sake? This gem of a sauce will save you scads of time and please whoever you make it for.
10. Cauliflower Steaks: I know you think I’m nuts, but these are simple and turn out so delicious and elegant that you’ll feel like you’ve done something really special for very little work, and you may just discover you like cauliflower after all.
B) Reduce your red and processed meat consumption.
Well, if you start including meals from the above list you just might have already taken care of this, eh? But let’s be a little more thoughtful about it for just a minute. What you need to sort out is when you are eating red and processed meats. Just to be clear, when we’re talking about red meat, we’re talking about beef. When we talk processed meat we’re talking about A LOT of things: bacon, hot dogs, deli meat, sausages, ham, salami, pepperoni, variations on ham (prosciuto, etc). This list could go on for a very long time, and it’s hard for me to make it for you because I don’t know what you eat. A trick to thinking about processed meat is considering how long something stays good. Most of these things can stay in the fridge for a very long time because of the way that they’ve been processed, because of the ingredients that they contain which are precisely the ones that our leading nutrition experts would like you to keep out of your mouth, at least most of the time. What to do?
The first thing to do is go back and look at that list in the A section – replace a dinner that usually would be red meat or processed meats with one of our plant based winners. Then you’ve killed two birds with one stone (this has always seemed unnecessarily brutal to me, but you get the point). The next thing to do is identify the role that red and processed meat plays in your diet and attempt to cut back and replace it. Family eats a lot of deli meat for sandwiches? There are deli meats that are uncured and contain fewer objectionable ingredients. They are, predictably, more expensive and they WILL spoil, so while they may be a good substitution from a taste standpoint, they’re probably not going to be a complete answer. It might be time to experiment some plant-strong sandwiches (search our recipes for hummus, dips, spreads, and you’ll find a ton of sandwich ideas). Perhaps it’s time for a thermos to bring leftovers from those lovely plant-strong dinners. Reduce the red and processed meat, up the veggies, fruit, whole grains. They go hand in hand.
C) Reduce your added sugar intake.
One of the things that has startled me the most in my own transition to healthier eating is how much sugar I was consuming that I didn’t even know about. Sugar is EVERYWHERE in our packaged food. I’m not kidding. It’s in potato chips. It’s in salad dressing. It’s in prepackaged macaroni and cheese. Deciding to cut out added sugar from your diet is not a small undertaking and could easily become totally overwhelming, particularly if you have neither the time nor the inclination to increase your home cooking efforts. We recommend that sugar cutting be a gradual and targeted endeavor. The first step is to begin to notice how much you are having. Start looking at the labels. Compare the quantities to things that you consider sweet – for example a candy bar. A standard sized Snickers bar has 27 grams of sugar in it. So do many of those convenient cups of fruit flavored yogurt. I’m guessing you weren’t eating yogurt to get the nutritional impact of a Snickers bar… The new nutrition guidelines suggest that individuals consume no more than 10 grams of added sugar per day (that’s twice the amount suggested by the World Health Organization, by the way). That yogurt, and that more obvious Snickers bar, are almost 3 days worth of added sugar.
I can almost feel you shaking your head and losing interest. A life without Snickers bars may not seem worth it. I hear you. What we’re looking at is your overall nutritional profile. In general, how do you eat? These new guidelines, and an increasing number of health practitioners are saying that in general, added sugar is to be avoided and consistent use of it is dangerous to your health. Best way to change that? Baby step your way out of it. Notice when you’re eating it and consciously decide to have less of that item and to eventually replace it with something that is less sweet, and perhaps eventually with something that isn’t sweet at all. Step down that sugar. Let your taste buds have the time that it takes to get used to lower levels of sugar, to appreciate more complex flavors. You’ll be stunned over time as you realize how great fruit is, how you can taste sweetness in nuts and other foods that you never thought of as being sweet before. You’ll be stunned when you do indulge in a super sugary treat to find that you don’t really want quite as much of it as you used to. The world of abundant and fresh food is entirely masked by added sugar. Peel that mask away and delightful surprises await. And yes, you can still have a birthday cake. :-)
So there you go. A primer on Baby Stepping your way to better health designed to help you understand and implement the new nutrition guidelines, complete with a list of 10 plant-strong recipes that you don’t have to do a search to find. You’re welcome. For more information on changing your eating habits, check out our e-book: Baby Steps to Better Health: Winning the Battle with Junk Food for Families and Individuals. For more information specifically on cutting sugar, check out our Sugar Busting series on the blog. Eat well, be well friends.