Beginner's Guide to Plant-Based Cooking & Eating
When I first transitioned over to a plant-based diet, I legitimately thought that I was going to eat some variation of a salad for the rest of my life. I had done my research on why I was changing my diet - at the time it was solely for health reasons and my unwillingness to go on a pharmaceutical drug for the rest of my life. Beyond that, I just figured I would wing it and buy vegetables and pray that I’d figure out a way to make them palatable. I can honestly say (and I’m somewhat embarrassed by this) that the only vegetables I liked were carrots, peas, green beans and celery. I tolerated salads made of iceberg lettuce and had not tried too many other vegetables beyond what I liked. Not a great way to enter the world of plant-based eating.
Whether you want to completely switch to a vegan diet or just want to incorporate some plant-based meals into your life, I’m here to help. I’ve learned the hard way and love sharing what I’ve learned with those who don’t want to struggle, but do want to eat more plant-based food. Because I’m a list person, I organized my recommendations in a few different lists to (hopefully) make this as straightforward and digestible (no pun intended) as possible.
If you want to try some of my favorite tried and true plant-based recipes, check out these:
Some Advice To Keep In Mind When Trying to Eat More Plant-Based Meals
Become friends with your spice drawer and be open to trying new spices. If you are a completely unflavored piece of meat that wasn’t prepared properly, chances are you’d find it tasted bland and maybe even over/undercooked. While I’ve discovered that veggies can be truly flavorful on their own now that my palate has changed, they are even better with spices and herbs.
Try new veggies, legumes, grains, seeds, and other plant foods, but don’t try a recipe where every ingredient is new to you. I did this early on and would end up thinking that I hated everything that comprised the meal. Once I realized that I needed to pair things I knew I loved with something new it allowed me to truly give the new ingredient a chance before I decided it wasn’t for me.
Think of your favorite meals, and then think of simple ways to swap in a plant for the meat (or dairy). For example, I love black beans and have swapped them in for meat when making burritos or tacos. Pro tip: you don’t have to pay for the guacamole at Chipotle if you get a veggie burrito/burrito bowl. I just ask for extra black beans and enjoy a cheaper burrito bowl that includes the guacamole than one with meat and no guacamole costs. (This is at least the case at the time I’m writing this.)
If all else fails, a baked potato loaded with your favorite plant-based foods is filling and uncomplicated. My personal favorite toppings:
broccoli roasted in olive oil, salt & pepper
diced bell peppers
Kitchen “Tools” to Make Your Life Easier
I’m assuming that you have some of the basic kitchen utensils, bowls, pots, pans, etc. This list of tools are ones that I use almost every day (or at least every week) when cooking my meals. These are items that I didn’t initially have that I’ve picked up to help make plant-based cooking easier.
Quality Knife (or knives) for chopping veggies - Ok, so I cheated on this one since I’m thinking more people have a good knife already in their kitchen. But if you are thinking “hmmm...I wonder what she means by a quality knife for chopping veggies”, then you probably don’t have one and should get one. Pro tip: A quality knife doesn’t have to break the bank. I think I spent $20 on mine 5 years ago, and it still is fantastic.
Cutting Board (glass or wood, preferably not plastic) - Again, I’m thinking most people already have a cutting board. But if you have a plastic one, recycle it and get a wood or glass board. You don’t want tiny slivers of plastic getting in your food?
Handheld Citrus Juicer - Until I went vegan, I never had a reason to juice a lemon or a lime. Maybe I’d squeeze one on some fish, but never did I actually juice citrus fruit for anything. Now I use it all the time for making dressings and sauces. Pro tip: My favorite, super easy dressing recipe is the juice of one lime and 1 tablespoon of tahini.
Silicone Baking Mats - I love these for two reasons: easy clean-up and environmentally friendly. I used to use parchment paper on my baking trays so I didn’t have to wash them, but that was so wasteful. When I found the silicone baking mats, I immediately switched and love how easy they are to wash in the dishwasher without the baking trays getting dirty.
Salad Spinner - My best friend told me the other day that she didn’t have one of these, and I was shocked. I thought everyone had one. If you don’t, do yourself a favor and get one now. They make washing leafy greens (lettuce, spinach, arugula, kale, etc.) easy, (a little) fun, and effective. Trust me on this!
Mesh Stainless Steel Strainer - If you are going to incorporate quinoa or lentils (and you should because they are great sources of protein) into your cooking, then you absolutely must get one of these. You need to rinse both quinoa and lentils (and rice if you want to keep it from getting gummy when you cook it). For quinoa, rinsing removes it's natural coating, called saponin, which can make it taste bitter or soapy. You can absolutely taste this coating if you don’t rinse the quinoa before cooking it. For lentils, they are bagged or boxed without being processed so you want to rinse off any dirt or dust while also looking for any small debris (think pebbles) to remove. Given the size of quinoa, lentils, and rice, the holes in the colander are often too large to keep these items from straining out with the water. The mesh strainer is the tool for this job.
Glass Food Storage Containers - While this isn’t a must, I love my glass food storage containers so much that I’ve converted my family and many of my friends to using them. They clean up so much nicer than plastic tupperware, you can microwave these containers without the plastic leaching into your food, and they just make you feel fancy for having them.
Time-Saving Tips for Plant-Based Cooking
Meal prep by chopping ALL (or most) of your veggies at once - I used to hate chopping veggies, but now I pour myself a glass of wine, turn on my favorite music (or a good movie since I can see my TV from my kitchen), and spend 30-60 minutes chopping up veggies for my meals for the week. I have a friend who has turned this into a little date night with her husband. Either way, it makes the chopping more fun and the cooking during the week quicker and easier.
Double any recipe for a soup, stew or chili so you can freeze some - Even with the best intentions and meal prep, you are going to find there are days that you just don't feel like cooking. This is when you'll thank yourself for having some soup or chili that you previously made in your freezer. Future me loves it when I do this!
Buy pre-chopped veggies, canned beans, minced garlic in a jar, pre-made guacamole or hummus, etc. - It can be interesting & fulfilling to make everything from scratch, but don’t think that you must do that. I have always bought canned beans instead of dry beans because I just don’t want to take the time to make them - no matter how easy somewhere swears that is to do. And sometimes I just don’t have the desire (or energy) to chop a bunch of veggies. I’ve also found that the guacamole at my Whole Foods is delicious. Long story short - take the shortcuts that make plant-based eating easier and more sustainable.
Don’t let plant-based cooking intimidate you. Start small by trying one recipe a week. Oh, and stay away from vegan cheeses when you first start eating plant-based. They don’t taste anything like cheese -- I’m from Wisconsin, I would know. (I’m trying to save you from disappointment and unfair judgement against vegan food.)
Looking for some delicious plant-based recipes? Try three of my favorites:
Want to learn more about plant-based nutrition?
Check out our episode with Jennifer Maynard: Episode 49: Eating for a Longer, Healthier Life