We humans are wired to follow the path of least resistance, which is especially apparent when it comes to feeding ourselves: We want it now and we want it easy.
While eating the standard American diet has been a breeze for most of us (because that’s all we’ve known, and because we have been advertised to relentlessly), many who have taken the leap into plant-based eating have reported feeling like they’ve leapt into a bouncy house of confusion and struggle.
Even when people have read the books and articles, and seen the videos and lectures advocating a plant-based diet, it’s not uncommon to hear, “Okay, I get it, but how do I do it?” “How” is the question that many of us working in the plant-based community strive to answer on a daily basis and in countless ways.
Toward helping provide answers to the “how” questions and creating a more enjoyable existence in plant-land, here are 8 tips for making your meal preparations easier.
1. Eat fewer foods at a meal: There is no rule that says you need to eat a certain number of different foods or dishes at a meal. While variety is just fine within a meal, you can also just eat one, two or three foods. For example, a breakfast of 10 tangerines or 3 bananas (a “mono meal”); a lunch of salad greens, beans and carrots; or for dinner, a plate of baked yams and Yukon potatoes with a little mustard or hummus (or even a big bowl of oatmeal or brown rice with cinnamon and almond milk). Try not to get too locked into what your plate used to look like or what it’s supposed to look like. As long as you’re eating an overall varied diet of wholesome plant foods, your plate can be arranged any way you like.
2. Repeat what you eat: There is also no rule that says you can’t eat the same types of dishes repeatedly. I have a short list of meals that I make over and over, and I vary their ingredients a little each time to keep things interesting. Whether I’m eating salads, soups, pasta, or baked potatoes, I might use black beans instead of pinto; grated zucchini instead of grated carrots; thinly sliced cabbage instead of lettuce; or Brussels sprouts instead of broccoli. Find 5-10 dishes that you love, and mix up the ingredients a little each time. For many of us, this happens somewhat naturally, as the seasons present their various fruits and vegetables to the farmers markets, and we adjust our shopping so that we are eating the very best that is available at the time.
3. Prepare ahead: This is one of those tips that many of us have heard but don’t seem to get around to doing. But if you can find some time on the weekend to do a little preparation for the week ahead, when presumably things will be busier, this will make your meals a lot easier. It’s such a dream to open the refrigerator to find that your next meal is nearly ready. You can do lots of things ahead of time, like cut up veggies, make pasta sauce, cook double batches of rice or beans, make a dozen whole-grain muffins to eat at breakfasts, or blend up some hummus or salsa to use as dressing, dip or sandwich spread throughout the week. One idea I saw lately is to make up a few complete salads, each in a mason jar with vegetables layered and the dressing at the bottom. When it’s time to eat, you just shake it up and pour it into a salad bowl. Clever!
4. Create and follow a plan: Plan? Hmpf. If the thought of creating an eating plan or menu doesn’t excite you, know that transitioning to a plant-based diet can be made much easier by doing so. One of my favorite nutrition books, The Pleasure Trap, states the importance of planning very well: “Hunger causes urgency, and urgency demands short-term solutions that compromise long-term values. Plan for success and you will succeed more often.” Basically, you don’t want to be caught not knowing what you’ll be eating at your next meal. Try keeping a notebook in your kitchen with ideas for your favorite meals and recipes, or create a couple weeks’ worth of menus that you can rotate. You can even eat the same thing on the same day each week to make it really easy. Look through your favorite veg cookbooks and blogs for new meal ideas.
5. Stock your favorite staples: I always keep things like canned beans and tomatoes, non-dairy milk, whole grains, pasta, and frozen foods on hand to reach for when time is tight. For example, when it’s late and I don’t want to do a lot of preparation, I might just heat up a can of cooked lentils or beans with some onion and garlic and any veggies I have on hand. When my favorite staples are on sale, I stock up, and always try to find the no-salt, no-sugar, no-oil options.
6. Make one-pot or one-dish meals: Preparing everything in just one bowl, pot or skillet makes life so much easier, whether it’s a soup, salad, stew or stir-fry. Jeff Novick, RD, has created some very quick, easy and inexpensive plant-based one-pot meals; check out his recipes here . I have a favorite one-skillet meal using just mushrooms, kale, yams and a sprig of rosemary here. I put everything in the pan and 15 minutes later it’s ready. Using slow-cookers to cook beans, grains and stews is also a great one-pot route. For more ideas, Google “vegan one-pot meals” and you will have a plethora of ideas in front of you.
7. Invest in a few good kitchen tools: Using the right tools, in any effort, can make all the difference in the final product as well as your enjoyment in creating it. My three most-used kitchen tools are: my 8-inch chef’s knife, my stainless steel soup pot, and my little high-speed blender. These items don’t need to be costly, but they should be of good quality. My chef’s knife was under $30, my large 8-qt. soup pot was $50, and my blender $75. I use these three things on a daily basis. Three smaller tools that I’ve found to be very useful are: a good can opener—an old can opener that is difficult to turn is the worst! $10 will get you a dreamy, easy-to-use opener. I also love my small rubber garlic peeler that takes the garlic’s papery outside off with a simple roll, and it’s only $4. And last, my “Y” vegetable peeler, which works wonders on potatoes as well as butternut squash. (All of my most commonly used kitchen tools are listed on my website here.
8. Have your favorite dried herbs and spices handy: A simple soup of potatoes and cabbage becomes a lot more interesting with the addition of a little curry powder. Salt-free herb blends (such as an Italian blend of oregano, basil, thyme, etc.) are great to add to soups, salads and veggie burgers. And I always have plenty of my basics on hand, like garlic powder, toasted onion powder, and cumin. If you’ve never visited a spice shop before, treat yourself; you can smell everything before you buy it—big fun! Or at the least, pick up a new blend at your grocery store and give it a test drive. If you love it, keep it in permanent rotation; if you don’t, try something new next time.
I hope a couple of these ideas have resonated with you, and will help make your time in the kitchen even more enjoyable. Please share one of your own favorite “easy” meal preparation tips below.