So many folks today are bending their family's eating habits towards plants, out of concern for health, for the environment, and for animal welfare. But in so doing, we don't have to dump the baby out with the bathwater! Why not adapt our beloved old family favorites into versions that fully deliver on taste but provide all the benefits we look for in plants?
So what makes a recipe unhealthy? The past 50 years of nutritional research has shown us that in postwar America, the rising consumption of meat, dairy, highly processed convenience foods, fast food and soda have led to a precipitous rise in the rates of obesity and chronic diseases. Many of us are taking steps now to wean ourselves off junk and improve the quality of the foods we choose for our families. Many vegan food manufacturers, restaurants, and bloggers have responded to this growing consumer demand for healthier choices by ditching the meat/chicken/fish/dairy. But as you may know, vegan does not necessarily equal healthy, if these foods are still loaded with fat, salt, sugar, and refined grains. We can – and must - do better!
Let's face it: The very healthiest foods are those that Mother Nature provides: veggies, fruits, whole grains, legumes, mushrooms, herbs, spices, seeds and nuts. These are the most nutrient dense, loaded with fiber, antioxidants, minerals, vitamins and phytonutrients. They're also low in calories. They work together to lower systemic inflammation and oxidative stress in the body -- the root causes of chronic diseases. They foster the beneficial microbes in our gut that nourish the all-important gut barrier, protecting us from gut disorders, autoimmune conditions, diabetes, and more.
Increasingly, we outsource just about everything for the sake of convenience, and cooking is no exception. But let's not relinquish our reins on food too quickly: The healthiest eating of all is still, by far, found right in home kitchens, where we typically use much less fat, salt, and sugar than commercial providers. With a little imagination and a few new techniques and tools, we can use plants as our palette to make just about any dish!
When I approach a traditional recipe that I want to modify to be vegan and health-promoting, I eliminate cooking fats and oils right off the bat. We don't need empty calories from inflammatory fats to damage our arteries, pad our girth, or risk diabetes. Using no-oil frying and baking techniques, a high quality non-stick pan, and a convection oven or better yet, an air-fryer, sautés, stir-fries, baked goods, crispy fries and roasted veggies are more than achievable!
There are a plethora of new vegan cheeses in markets today to take the place of dairy cheese. Be mindful of the fat content! Most are still horrendously high in fat and salt. Better yet, make your own creamy white sauces and cheese very simply with a food processor. Homemade soy yogurt is irresistibly delicious and a terrific probiotic food. We can use it easily to make cream cheese and delicious creamy spreads. And tofu, both firm and silken, are versatile ingredients to morph into dairy surrogates.
There are many processed meat analogs in the supermarket to help wean you off meat, chicken, fish and eggs. These are still fairly processed without the full health benefits of whole plant foods, but they can serve as stepping stones along the way, when you first turn away from animal foods. Mushrooms and tomatoes, like meat, are loaded with umami flavor notes and can be fashioned to create satisfying meat alternatives. Seitan, or mock duck, is a traditional Chinese alternative, made from wheat proteins. Peas, beans, lentils are loaded with healthy plant fiber, iron and protein, and are terrific in purées, soups, stews, burritos, “meat-less” sauces, as is tempeh, another probiotic food. Finally, the plant kingdom's ultimate food chameleon, tofu, can be pressed, frozen, and dried to achieve an infinite number of textures.
Veggies also make great stand-ins for meat! Almost any veggie stew, chili, or curry can become delicious burgers by adding a starchy binder like potatoes and ground flaxseed or chia. And if you're like my family, Friday pizza night remains a family tradition but so much better now with a whole grain crust, no-oil sautéed veggies, and a simple plant-based cheesy sauce.
So live a little! Dust off your inner chef and discover that today, plant-based options means unlimited culinary possibilities! In turns out, when you go plant-based, you CAN have your (healthy) cake and eat it too!
For Cathy's recipes, videos, upcoming events and a gallery of her dishes: https://www.cathyskitchenprescription.com
Cathy Katin-Grazzini, plant-based chef, cooking instructor, nutritional coach, and food blogger, is the Food Editor of VegWorld Magazine, Plant-Based Culinary Medicine Educator and Chef at Matrix Personalized Medicine (New Canaan, Connecticut), and owner of Cathy's Kitchen Prescription, LLC (Ridgefield, Connecticut).
When she's not cooking up a storm, inventing, fermenting, dehydrating, and creating managed chaos in her test kitchen, she's teaching students, medical practitioners, and fellow chefs about the joys and health benefits of cooking with plants.