Vegan Diet – Making the Time to Cook
Let’s assess things thus far. You’ve been to the grocery store, learned to recognize animal-derived ingredients on labels, restocked your kitchen with healthful foods, and realized that many of the things you were already eating were vegan. Now it’s time to demystify cooking. Although I expect you will have prepared some vegan meals before today—perhaps some from your old repertoire—this post is about helping you lay a strong foundation that will empower you to feel confident in the kitchen.
One of the most common excuses for not eating a healthful, plant-based diet is “I just don’t have time to cook.” We’ve become so dependent on processed, packaged, frozen, and fast food that our barometer for how much time we should spend on preparing our meals has become completely skewed. Our idea of how long we should spend on cooking (and eating!) has become completely distorted. Our threshold for chopping vegetables is about zero.
We need a new measuring stick. It’s true that cooking requires a little extra time, but compared to what? Compared to throwing a package of processed foodlike substances into the microwave? Sure, I’ll concede. Cooking requires more time than that, but is that really the measuring stick we want to use?
Even if you think you’re eating well but basing your diet on animal-based products, complaining that you have to chop vegetables is still not a viable excuse. Everyone, not just vegans, should be eating vegetables.
CHALLENGE YOUR THINKING:
Our threshold for chopping vegetables has become completely distorted.
CHANGE YOUR BEHAVIOR:
Create a new measuring stick. Decide what is a reasonable amount of time to spend on chopping vegetables each day, with 15 minutes being the minimum.
Fifteen to thirty minutes is a reasonable amount of time to spend making food for ourselves and our families, and it’s not only possible, it’s imperative. Taking fifteen to thirty minutes a day to nurture ourselves, to nourish our bodies, and to feed our families is really no time at all. In fact, whatever we’re doing that we think is so much more important than taking care of ourselves and our loved ones will mean nothing when we’re not well enough or not here to enjoy it. If we think we can’t find a few minutes a day to take care of ourselves and those who depend on us, then perhaps we need to reexamine our priorities.
The bottom line is this: if we don’t have time to be sick, then we have to make time to be healthy.
CHALLENGE YOUR THINKING:
If we don’t have time to be sick, then we have to make time to be healthy.
WE HAVE THE TIME; WE DON’T MAKE THE EFFORT
But if you want to know the truth, I think we do have the time. Although everyone complains about busy schedules, if we were really honest with ourselves, we’d admit that we do have the time to cook; we just don’t use our time to make the effort.
If we have the time to pack the family into the car, drive to a restaurant, find a parking spot, stand in line to wait for a table, decide what to order, wait for the food, eat the food, wait for the bill, pay the bill, and drive back home, then we have time to chop some vegetables.
The goal is to make healthful, delicious, plant-based meals in a reasonable amount of time—not spend countless hours in the kitchen. With that in mind, let’s look at a number of ways to make this a reality.
CHOP VEGETABLES IN ADVANCE
Most of us can identify with this scenario: You go to the grocery store and stock up on vegetables, then come home and store the vegetables in the refrigerator. When it’s time to eat, you return to the fridge, stare into its great abyss, and declare, “There’s not a thing to eat.” You lament that it would take too long to cut up the veggies in time for dinner, so instead you call the pizza guy or heat up a frozen dinner, while said vegetables begin to break down without being eaten, eventually ending up in the trash can instead of in your belly.
Now picture this: You come home from the grocery store and instead of shoving all the vegetables in the fridge, you take 15 minutes to chop them—at least some of them. You store the chopped veggies in bags and containers and then place them in the fridge. Hours later, you return. Looking at the chopped peppers, sliced onion, and minced garlic, you’re inspired to make a stir-fry. The sliced carrots serve as a snack while you put it all together, and the cooking process itself is enjoyable and stress-free.
For some reason, if the tops are still on the carrots, the broccoli is still joined at the stem, or the cauliflower is still in its head, we have a mental block. We complain that it will take us forever to chop them up, and so we leave them to compost in the refrigerator and wonder why we’re always throwing vegetables away.
“If we chop them, we will eat them,” say I. We know this works with kids, and it works with adults, too.
Once the vegetables are stored, how long will they keep in the fridge before they start to lose their freshness? The answer is about five days or so, but here’s a secret: don’t let them sit in the fridge. Eat them! The idea is to get them into your belly, not see how long they keep before they start to break down.
Store these veggies in water: If cut-up root vegetables and tubers, such as potatoes, yams, beets, sweet potatoes, and winter squash (butternut, acorn, Kabocha), are not kept in water, they’ll turn brown.
Store these veggies in sealed containers: Cut-up carrots, celery, bell peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, and onions stay fresh in a well-sealed container or bag.
Store these veggies wrapped in a towel: Green leafy vegetables, including kale, collard greens, chard, beet greens, and lettuce, can be chopped in advance, but they need to be wrapped in a dish towel or paper towels and then stored in an airtight plastic bag. Their fridge life is a little shorter, particularly the more delicate lettuce, which will start to oxidize (turn brown) after two days.
Store these veggies in jars: Garlic, ginger, and shallots are perfect for mincing up in the food processor and storing (separately) in glass jars.
Many grocery stores sell cut-up vegetables, which is also an option. I’m always amused when people, especially those who aren’t eating a lot of vegetables, become suddenly concerned that vegetables lose their nutrients once they’re cut up and stored. It’s an unfounded concern. You may be sacrificing a little flavor and freshness, but you’re not sacrificing nutrition. Let’s keep things in perspective: vegetables cut in advance are better than no vegetables at all.
CHALLENGE YOUR THINKING:
If we chop them, we will eat them! For all intents and purposes, vegetables chopped in advance are more nutritious than no vegetables at all.
DON’T WAIT UNTIL DINNERTIME TO DECIDE WHAT TO HAVE FOR DINNER
Because I argue that our blocks to eating healthfully and compassionately are all in our mind, I’m absolutely convinced that the secret to eating well and consuming more vegetables has more to do with planning in advance than anything else.
Giving our meals just a little forethought can make all the difference, and that doesn’t require anything more than thinking. You don’t have to do anything. Most people decide what they’re going to eat once they’re already hungry, and at that stage we don’t make decisions based on nutrition; we make decisions based on speed or cravings. It might be another story if we follow my first piece of advice and have chopped-up vegetables in the refrigerator, but that only strengthens my point: plan in advance.
Though we can be a little more flexible with breakfast (since it tends to be the simplest meal of the day), when it comes to dinner in particular, we should know the night before what we’re going to have for dinner the following night. Stretch it to the next morning at the very latest, but we should absolutely know what we’re eating for dinner long before that time arrives.
CHALLENGE YOUR THINKING:
Our blocks to eating healthfully are in our mind—not in our schedules. The secret to eating healthfully is to plan meals in advance, and that doesn’t take much more effort than thinking.
Here’s how it plays out:
• As you lie in bed tonight, think about what you have in the refrigerator. Decide to wake up 10 minutes earlier than usual, and take that time to chop a few veggies: a bunch of carrots, two potatoes, and an onion for a soup; bell peppers for chili; or lettuce, cauliflower, and celery for a salad.
• If you decide you want a grain dish tomorrow night, throw some rice or quinoa or barley into a saucepan tonight, along with water and a vegetable bouillon cube. Turn on the heat and before you know it, half of tomorrow night’s dinner is already prepared.
• When you’re preparing dinner tonight and your recipe calls for one chopped onion, chop two onions. Use one for your recipe, and store one in a container. You already have the cutting board and knife out, so take advantage of that.
• Before you leave for work in the morning, toss your favorite vegetables or tofu into a marinade and leave them all day. When you come home, roast or grill them.
• While you’re getting ready in the morning, throw lentils, spices, chopped onion, and garlic into a slow cooker and turn the heat to low. Come home to a dinner ready to eat.
COOK MORE THAN YOU NEED
Though I stand by my recommendation for taking fifteen to thirty minutes a day to cook, if you’re always planning ahead, you may not even need that much time each day. One night you might eat out, one night you may have leftovers, and another night you may have food you prepared in advance and froze, in which case all you need to do is thaw and reheat.
I’ve often heard single people lament that most recipes tend to be created for two or four people and that they’re forever searching for recipes for one. Au contraire! I encourage people to cook for two if they’re just one person or for four if they’re just a couple. The idea is to always make more than you need so you have leftovers to eat the next day or to freeze for the coming week.
With that in mind, you can see how you won’t necessarily have to prepare meals every day. Sure, you may have to reheat them or throw together a quick side salad, but the bulk of the meal is already made.
CREATE A MEAL SCHEDULE
We humans are fierce creatures of habit, which can work in our favor or against us. Habit connects us with what is familiar, making us feel comfortable and safe. We appreciate the predictable. We crave routine. Our food rituals and traditions bear this out, as do our meal rotations.
A memory I cherish from my childhood is pizza night. Every Friday night was pizza night—and not pizza we ordered from a pizzeria. I mean pizza we made ourselves, using our favorite base: English muffins. I could count on these nights like clockwork, and each member of the family made his or her own variations: sauce on top of the cheese, sauce under the cheese, shredded cheese, sliced cheese, chunky sauce, pureed sauce. It was serious work, and it always preceded our weekly jaunt to the movie theater.
A meal schedule doesn’t have to be rigid, and it may not work for everyone, but having a general guide might be helpful. You might decide that:
• Monday nights are for soups or stews
• Tuesday nights are dedicated to stir-fries
• Wednesday nights are for Mexican cuisine
• Thursday nights are sandwich nights
• Friday nights are for pasta or pizza
The options are endless, and once you know how you want to break things down, you can create a list of favorite recipes or dishes you already have that fit into these categories. Hang these lists on the refrigerator door.
Knowing exactly what you plan to eat for the week enables you to go to the store with a game plan instead of wandering aimlessly around, spending more money than you want to or planned on. Shopping with a list means you’re more likely to stick to it and not buy unnecessary ingredients for dishes you’re not even planning on cooking.
With a game plan, you’ve already tackled the hardest part of cooking: deciding what to make!