"Food that is a chore is food that will not make you feel better no matter how healthful or virtuous it may be otherwise."
THE QUESTION: "How do I integrate enough variety to keep my whole family happy (including two kids) on a vegan and gluten-free diet?"
Even without knowing what this doctor said about avocados, the following is a powerful question for someone [me] who trys to solve clients' problems through food.
I saw this tweet when I got home from an initial meeting with Terri, author of the Empowering Lives blog here on FredParent; we were meeting because she recently switched, on suggestion from her doctor, to a vegan diet. One of her sons also has a gluten sensitivity so she was looking for advice on moving her whole household to a gluten-free-vegan meal plan. Coming up with family specific meal plans (and then cooking them in your kitchen) is the heart of my buisness, so I jumped at the chance to help Terri. For a client, my basic dinner plan is to cook two servings per family member of four different meals, but to give Terri ideas for the whole day I varied this to two serrvings each of three meals for the whole family and two breakfast/lunch/snack items.
In general, I have no problem coming up with vegan meal plans, but I’m the kind of person who saw a tshirt with the slogan ‘Gluten is my co-pilot’ then proceeded to laugh for five minutes interspersed with shouts of “I want one!”. But I powered through the planner's/writer's block and found that the more I focused on the non-animal-product sources of protein the easier I found eliminating gluten from my planning for Terri and her family. Once I stopped thinking about how great a crusty bread is with eggplant and tomatoes this time of year, and the options for their family came flooding in. I set up several dishes to make for them that were vegan, gluten-free, and ideas that (I hope) are easy for them to experiment with and create variations.
Variety and diversity are key: both for getting all the nutrients human bodies need and to make it easy to keep to the rules of the diet. And after looking at the meal plan I designed, I came up with these three general rules for maintaining variety on a vegan diet (with gluten exceptions in parentheses) expanded/explained below:
- Mix all the grains, nuts, seeds, and greens. Always. (not barley, wheatberries or bulgur.)
- Liquids are an opportunity for increased flavor, especially umami. (not most soy and worcestershire sauces, which contain barley.)
- Have fun and treat yourself (not with freshly baked bread).
Here's the menu of dishes I made for Terri's family and a collage her niece made of the afternoon I spent cooking for them:
- oats and seeds granola brittle
- buckwheat, farro, walnut, & orange zest salad
- roasted tomato & creamy stock noodle bake
- lentil-brown rice burgers/balls with lettuce cups & miso-carrot dressing
- quinoa and summer squash stuffed red peppers (and the same filling in baked taco cups)
Grains, Nuts, Seeds and Greens.
The variety of things that will be improved by mixing these four things together, or a subset of three, is astonishing. A meal of brown rice topped with kale and garlic sauteed in olive oil with some fruit as desert (perfectly respectable if a little boring) becomes a salad of farro, brown rice, pumpkin seeds, cashews, dried cranberries, and kale with your favorite fresh herbs, drizzled with avocado oil and some flakey sea salt. This could be a meal unto itself or serve a small scoop on the side of broiled cauliflower ‘steaks’. Much more exciting. And, more importantly, much more complete in the kinds and amount of proteins, vitamins and minerals. Few believe how energized they could be with a protein packed breakfast/snack of homemade granola bars made with oats, sesame seeds, flax seeds, sunflower seeds, slivered almonds held together with honey, brown sugar and oil. But once you try it you will go crazy individualizing each batch: add curry powder, swap in pecans for the almonds, or spread with orange marmalade.
The plate photographed to the left is a dinner I made for myself with what was in the fridge (disclaimer: it's not vegan; I added mozzarella). The buckwheat groats/kasha (cooked in miso, see the liquids tip below), pea shoots, sprouts and avocado were all just there. It was late and I was only feeding myself so I combined what was around haphazardly then garnished with some oil, smoked sea salt, seasame seeds and turkish red pepper flakes; voila, a decadent dinner for one (see the having fun tip below). It may have been confused about whether it wanted to be a Turkish or Japanese dish but it was definately delish.
Grocery stores are all about strategy for both the company and the shopper. The easiest way to follow any of the advice in this post is to make sure your pantry and fridge are set up to make these kinds of meals quickly and also intuitive to put together, without also picking up impulse buys. Make sure you get a variety of whole grains and beans in addition to nuts and seeds (raw and unsalted, in case you want to candy or blend them) when you are at the grocery store. I know beans aren’t actually listed in the tip, that’s because I find they take over the flavor of the kinds of salads described above, but they are good for making up dips and spreads, slow cooking with onions down to a caramelized treat of a side dish, or as the base for an easy filling for corn tortillas The day before your work week begins, hydrate several servings of all of your grains and beans.[Pro Tip: before adding water to hydrate grains toast them in the pot/pan in some oil, this gives them a deeper flavor and they will be less likely to turn into a concrete brick in your fridge after two days.] Then you can mix and match as the mood strikes you each day. Combine two of your grains with one seed, onion, garlic, herbs and an egg replacement/ flax seed meal soaked in water/tapioca and shape into ‘meatballs’/burger patties (appologies for all of the "/" but hopefully it emphasises the versitility of this advice).
Liquids are your key to adding variety through flavor.
This tip developed out from something Terri told me she already did to help her sons adjust to the new diet; she created a sweet and creamy sauce for gluten-free pasta with coconut milk and corn starch. This is one of the two classic thickening techniques in sauce making (my favorite subject!). To make a thin liquid into a sauce put the liquid in a saucepan and warm it, create a slurry of cornstarch and a little more liquid of your choice [pro tip: dry white wine adds a brightness to the finished dish] and add it to the base liquid, bring to a boil, let boil for one minute, then remove from the heat and serve. The base could be coconut milk like Terri used, vegetable stock (watch out for sodium levels if you get a store bought stock), tomato paste dissolved in water, vegetable or fruit juice (preferably from a juicer or blender, again because of sodium and sugar levels in store bought options), or my favorite fast mushroom stock. Steep a variety of dried mushrooms in boiling water for a half hour or so, strain the mushroom pieces out or blend them into the water they were steeped in for a stronger flavor, thicken as described above with cornstarch and any wine you have around the house, and voila! you have vegan gravy.
For those ‘meatballs’ from tip #1, get/make some carrot juice thin with water and whisk in tomato paste, add some vinegar, curry/chili powder, cumin and a dash of tamari sauce (a kind of soy sauce made without barley and therefore gluten-free), thicken and you have a sweet, sour, spicy sauce to spoon over your little grain balls.
Vinaigrettes are the other liquid you should absolutely be in love with if you are trying to keep to a vegan diet. They can be varied even more than the thicker warm sauce above because you can change out all three components: oil, acid, and seasoning. Each vegetable, fruit and nut oil has its own character and can be fun to play with, but for me the main event is the acid. Champagne vinegar, apple cider vinegar, lemon juice, grapefruit juice, rice vinegar, take your pick; chances are I love it. Acidity plays an important role in the digestion of sugars, in that it makes digestion faster and easier, so having acidity in your meals will help you know when you are full faster. For a Mediterranean flavor use olive oil, champagne and white balsamic vinegars with dijon mustard and garlic. For a Japanese flair use sesame oil, unseasoned rice vinegar, white miso paste (darker ones likely have gluten) ginger and sesame seeds. If you buy some ball jars then you won't even have to worry about perfecting any emulsification techniques, just vigorously shake right before you want to top your grains or veggies or fruit or beans and enjoy.
And the simplest flavor boost liquid can give? Use stock or other flavorful liquid instead of, or in additition to, water when hydrating grains and noodles.
Food that is a chore is food that will not make you feel better no matter how healthful or virtuous it may be otherwise. Stress from not knowing what or how to cook and dissatisfaction from a lack of flavor are the feelings that lead people on restrictive diets to give up or take ‘cheat days’. Food, culture and fun are so ingrained and intertwined today that if you think of your food as ‘unfun’ you will begin to think of yourself as ‘unfun’. Remember, fat, salt, and sugar are all, in and of themselves, vegan and an item of vegan food can conceivably be every bit as unhealthy as a hot-dog-stuffed-crust pizza. Okay maybe not EVERY bit, but still my point being that vegan comfort food exists.
My brother’s girlfriend recently told me about her county fair gold ribbon-winning vegan chocolate cake; she didn’t label it as vegan but she knew it had won because it had more chocolate, more fat and more sugar than her competitors. Similarly, when Terri's sons saw me shaping the corn tortillas into taco cups on the reverse side of muffin tins they got very excited. The novelty that it was possible to make their own taco bowls totally overshadowed the fact that I was their to help with a weird diet regimen (it probably didn't hurt that when they got home from school there was a sweet nutty scent in the air from the granola baking).
You don’t need to go overboard thinking of ridiculous things to eat of course. Everything in moderation. Eat seasonally; eating a perfectly ripe piece of fruit can be the most decadent feeling. But also there are some truly good pre-made vegan products, like mayonnaises, in grocery stores now. Stir a good spoonful of that in with chickpeas, lentils, mashed avocado and chopped cilantro, basil and mint topped with candied nuts and I promise you won’t feel like your lunch is anything less than luxurious.