Dear Mr & Mrs,
For health reasons, I am switching to a vegetarian diet. Can you give me some easy cooking, grocery shopping tips? I can’t afford to keep buying prepared meals.
Simple recipes are what I need, but no kale! Long-winded answers please!
Huzzah! This young one, undaunted by the lengthy rants of yore, writes to Yours Truly with a simple request for simple advice, unmindful of the lengthiness (or rantiness?) of the possible response! Which is considerable, as you will see!
Also Huzzah to you, young lady. In this Bacon Age, I tell you it does my heart good to see people still turning to vegetarianism. I think changing your diet in any number of ways can be a really positive, healthy experience for a person, because it encourages thoughtfulness. Even just eating less meat, or eating a different kind of meat, encourages this thoughtfulness. The one thing I can not stand is when otherwise intelligent people pride themselves on refusing to consider the food they eat, like it’s some sort of mark of courage or coolness when really it’s just incredibly defensive and lazy. I think a lot of us grow up without ever thinking about the food we eat–where it comes from, who makes it, what’s even IN it–and once you start making actual decisions about it it can be very empowering. I remember when my mother in law finally realized that her constant terrible yeast infections were tied to eating too much sugar, which made her start reading labels on food for the first time in her life. She had this huge epiphany. Realizing that the 16 ounce caramel latte she gets every morning from Starbucks actually has an incredible shit-ton of sugar in it, etc. She had NO IDEA how much sugar she was eating on a daily basis. A lot of people don’t think about this stuff. But once you make a decision–eating less sugar, not eating meat, eating locally, whatever–it allows you to turn your perception onto your food intake and actually pay attention to it in a more mindful way. I am a fan of mindfulness, generally. Like even if you’re going to eat meat, there is a vast world of difference between some hippie-dippie field-raised hand-slaughtered cow and the meat you get at Safeway, and it’s not just a price difference. And a lot of people don’t even think about that difference, and I think they should, is all I’m saying. Because our planet is fucking dying. Fun!
On to the advice:
You’re right that you need to stop buying prepared meals! I don’t even know what this means–do you mean you are going to restaurants all the time? Which is one thing, but if what you mean is that you’re buying, like, frozen dinners? Or something? Then yeah, you should stop! Not only is it expensive but it is not that healthy.
The one mistake a lot of vegetarians and vegans make, especially if they switch over while young, is that they just start eating a shit-ton of fake meat. Everybody knows the vegan who eats only tofurkey and that vegan is not your role model! I hardly ever eat fake meat. I only eat it in the context of a fun junk food experience, like a barbecue or if I’m drunk.
Also, the one mistake vegetarians make is eating too much cheese. Don’t eat cheese with every meal! It’s too intense!
So, lets talk about WHOLE FOODS. Not the grocery store–the actual thing! Whole foods are foods that have not been processed, that don’t have added shit, that haven’t been turned into anything else. Think of things in their natural state. Beans, rice, the dreaded kale–you want to eat a lot of whole foods. Not 100% whole foods–you aren’t a crazy person, we all have other shit we need to do in our day aside from obsessively deal with our nutritional intake, plus, come on, things like BREAD and SOY SAUCE and tempeh and the occasional awesome coconut ice cream–but just, like, kind of a lot of whole foods, is what you need to focus on. At first it is difficult to transition from prepared foods to preparing your own whole foods, but after awhile it becomes normal and you find yourself getting mildly ill if you go to your family reunion and every single thing everyone makes involves velveeta cheese and white bread.
Helpful Motto: Buy ingredients, not meals
When you go to the store, think about ingredients rather than meals. What are ingredients? They are the vegetables themselves but also things like spices and nutritional yeast and soy sauce and vinegar and noodles and bread and beans and rice and whatever. You fill your kitchen with ingredients and then you create food out of those ingredients. In a second I will give you a list of staple ingredients to maybe think about. I’ll also give you some health tips, lifestyle tips, and then finally a couple recipes/meal ideas and cookbooks. Okay here we go!
People will tell you, “oh god, but you have to eat meat, IT’S NATURAL, etc. etc. protein iron.” One thing you might want to do is read Carol Adams’ truly bonkers book The Sexual Politics of Meat. It’s obviously about gender issues and is very theoretical, but in her early chapters she also digs into the history of meat eating. And actually–and this is obvious, if you think about it–most people in the world, for all of history, do/did not actually eat much meat. Eating meat every day was a rich man’s game. It’s largely the product of marketing, coupled with the cheapness of factory farming, that led Americans to believe you have to eat big slabs of meat with every meal. That’s how kings eat, historically, not the rest of us. And what else did kings experience that the rest of us didn’t? Gout! Obesity! Weird digestive problems! “Eating like a king” is not actually that good for your body. Obviously you also don’t want to eat like a medieval serf (gruel and/or nothing), but I do think there is a balance to be found, and that the cultural perception that if you don’t eat tons of meat you’ll be unhealthy is largely bullshit. Lately there’s this whole thing of, like, oh, if you don’t eat meat, you stop ovulating and you can’t have babies! To this I would simply submit: The country of India.
Cultural vegetarianism has been around a lot longer than you or I, and those people do just fine. So don’t let your weird uncle hassle you about how you have to go to Applebees and eat a steak or you’ll turn white and die. We have the privilege and the luxury of thinking about our diet and picking and choosing our diet, rather than scrabbling desperately for survival like everybody else does/has done, and that’s great, and lucky, and an amazing gift. So lets think about it and make some calls!
So! No biggie! When you give up meat, I believe the two things you need to focus on getting enough of in your diet are iron and protein. I am not a doctor (not that kind)! But after nigh on 25 years of vegetarianism (!!! I am a million years old), and reading about it and thinking about it and experimenting with my lifestyle, this is basically how I roll, and I feel healthy and good in my body and am not anemic or anything. My last physical exam came back “all systems go.” KNOCK ON WOOD. Also, re: ovulation, I chart my cycles and am definitely still ovulating, for whatever that information is worth to you. I know people who are WAY MORE UPTIGHT than I am about getting x number of servings of x number of things every day, and to those people I say chill out! Or don’t, whatever works for you.
(Also: everyone is different. Some people’s bodies really don’t like wheat. Some people (ahem) just can’t fucking stand squash. etc. etc. A lot of people claim they don’t feel good unless they are eating meat regularly, which could totally be true, although it hasn’t been my experience. So I just want to stress that these are the things that work for ME and for MY GUTS, but you should feel free to experiment with other ideas, other amounts, etc., and also give yourself the leeway to not like certain stuff. And don’t beat yourself up if you fall off the wagon and eat a hamburger sometimes–this isn’t a zero sum game! Just be thoughtful and try to listen to your body, and introduce changes slowly and thoughtfully, and think about the long game rather than completely changing your entire life overnight, and you’ll be good)
I focus on:
– eating at least one big serving of dark leafy greens a day (if you don’t like kale, experiment with other greens–or with your cooking methods? See below–but I’m sorry, you definitely need to eat your leafy greens. Spinach salad? Collards with sweet potatoes? Secretly putting them in a smoothie? Get it done! Major source of iron and calcium, super important)
– eating some amount of protein every day–beans, nuts, eggs, even cheese, the occasional tempeh or tofu, etc.
– eating at least one piece of fruit a day (everyone should do this, not just vegetarians)
That’s it! It’s easy, you can do it. Using these 3 guidelines, you can plan your meals and be delighted at the sweet bounty of the earth or whatever. Okay moving on:
Staples I Always Have In My Kitchen:
Some of these might not work for you–you need to find your own flavor palette!–but just for something to start building from, here’s a list of stuff I basically always have on hand. It doesn’t mean I use only them, every day, but they are a pretty foundational part of my diet. It took me a long, long time to figure this out, during my years-long transition out of eating mainly boca burgers. Some of this stuff may not be super healthy, even, I don’t know, but since you asked, this is what I do:
– couple pounds of dry beans of various types (pinto, black and lentil are the current faves (see below re: cooking/using them))
– brown rice (see below re: cooking it in such a way that it does not totally suck)
– various pastas (a lot of people don’t love pasta–it’s a big wheat gluten blast–but for me it is foundational and I love it and I don’t give a shit)
– soy sauce
– rooster sauce (sriracha (sp?) you can make your own if you get the Hot Knives cookbook, see below)
– olive oil
– various vinegars (balsamic, brown rice, white, and maybe a red wine)
– toasted sesame oil
– nice honey
– spices: chili powder, basil, oregano, cinnamon, turmeric, dill, crushed red pepper flakes, cayenne, these are my main go-tos, plus salt and pepper obviously
– nutritional yeast
– vegetable stock or boullion cubes
– dark leafy greens (kale, chard, collards, mustard, beet, spinach–can be raw or cooked, also see below)
– plain yogurt (or soy yogurt, however you want to roll. You need the cultures, and the calcium is good too, plus I assume some protein. I use it instead of sour cream and I also just eat it plain but I am a weirdo (it’s super sour))
– peanut butter or some other nut butter
– assorted raw nuts (walnuts and almonds, though recently my parents have been spoiling me with 1/2 pound sacks of crazy expensive hazelnuts)
Most of this you can get in the bulk bins/tanks at your local hippie store. Bring your own bags and bottles, save some money and waste less plastic! Spices especially are INSANELY CHEAPER if you buy them bulk, but also beans and rice and really everything. And even if it’s only a few cents cheaper you still get the satisfaction of not throwing millions of jars in the garbage or whatever. I’ve had the same olive oil bottle for almost five years, I love it. You just get them to weigh it before you do your shopping (this is called a “tare” weight) and then they subtract that weight from your purchase. I get olive oil, vinegar, honey, peanut butter, laundry soap, dish soap, soy sauce, braggs, plus all my dry goods (beans, rice) and spices, in bulk. The hippier your co-op the more normal this will be–the Alberta St. co-op here in town has a scale where you can do your own tares, and they even have bulk vegenaise and tofutti cream cheese and margarine and salsa and kombucha. Next level!
I also enjoy keeping all this stuff in jars rather than bags. It is easier to keep track of and looks better in the cupboard. So I have all these pickle jars and peanut butter jars and big mason jars, all filled with beans and rice and couscous and yeast. My soy sauce is in a kombucha bottle. My sugar is in a tomato paste jar. I also like looking in thrift stores for cool vintage tiny jars for my spices. Thrift stores are great for mason jars, too. Etc etc have fun in the kitchen
Also decent pots and pans can not be overestimated in terms of enjoying your cooking life. I got a set of Calphalon pots/pans on ebay for like $150 (retail $500) and will have them until I am old. Scour thrift stores for Le Cruset and Calphalon and other top durable legit chef-approved cookware, although you probably won’t find much because people hold onto it. Estate sales! If you get married, definitely make a set of pots and pans and a set of knives a priority in terms of telling your mom to tell your rich relatives to buy for you.
Okay, here’s some specifics!
excellent source of vitamin B12, which mostly just vegans have to worry about, but still it is very good for you and tastes awesome and probably has other health benefits I’m forgetting. Here is the main way I use it: salad dressing! I stole this recipe from my friend Geneviève who is an amazing cook: make a nice olive oil/balsamic vinegar dressing, add the juice of maybe 1/3 of a lime, a little salt, mix it up, then add nutritional yeast until it turns into a pourable paste. HOLY SHIT! I get more compliments on this salad dressing than on probably anything else I have ever made. We eat this basically every day.
Well, so you put a pound of dry beans in a big soup pot, cover them with 2 inches of water, let them soak overnight. Then in the morning you drain them, fill the pot back up with water (or veggie stock, which is much better), add a chopped onion, a couple chopped jalapeños, a chopped bell pepper, several minced cloves of garlic, a couple tablespoons of chili powder, a dollop of olive oil, some salt, maybe some oregano. Bring to a boil, cover, turn down to a very low simmer, simmer for like 30 minutes or until very very tender. I sometimes add half a chopped apple like 10 minutes before they’re done. Now you’ve got a huge pot of rad beans! Make burritos, enchiladas, chili, or just eat in a bowl with rice and tortillas. Lasts for days, also you can freeze them in mason jars for lazy nights when you don’t want to deal with cooking.
(High Altitude Cooking: stuff boils at a lower temperature. So like growing up, my parents would take an entire day to cook beans–they’d just simmer on the stove all day. Then I moved to Oregon and made my first batch of non-high-altitude beans, and cooked them for 8 hours like usual, and they were unbelievably ruined. Turns out you only need like 45 minutes. I told my dad and he was stunned. Does anyone reading this live at high altitude? It’s crazy, right? There are also arcane baking substitutions you have to make but I don’t know about that because I never bake)
Brown Rice Not Being So Boring You Want To Die
brown rice is terrible. So you have to cook it in veggie stock, instead of water! Then when it’s done, add a tablespoon of butter or margarine. Suddenly, this rice tastes good!! Amaze your friends
yes, you can buy this in big jugs, or you can use boullion cubes. But it is more fun to make your own. I keep a giant tupperware in the freezer and I throw all my odds-and-ends into it. The ends of carrots, the weird tough ends of kale that you don’t want to eat, onion skins, garlic tips, the ends of green onions, potato peels, and any veggies that are about to go bad that you don’t want to deal with. When the tupperware fills up (usually takes me like a week or maybe 2), it’s time to make stock! Dump all the frozen bits in your big soup pot, fill the pot up with water, add some salt, soy sauce, olive oil, a whole thing of parsley, an onion cut in quarters, a head of garlic, maybe some tomatoes and mushrooms. Bring to a boil, turn down to low and cover, and simmer for like 45 minutes. Drain, and you’ve got stock! I keep my stock in an enormous jug in the fridge and use it for everything–cooking beans and rice mainly, but it is also the foundation for any soup, and can also be used to thin things, like if you’re like “crap this spaghetti sauce is too thick,” don’t add water, add stock! etc. (note: too many carrots, and your stock will be grossly sweet, as I recently discovered to my horror)
cooking dark leafy greens
Why do you hate kale?? My life would be but a thin charade without kale to delight me each day! But this is fair, to each his own. Still, there is a possibility you just aren’t cooking it right? Maybe??? Here is how I do it:
chop up the kale, rough chop (I usually do a whole thing of kale at once. If there’s leftovers then great)
put in big pan with like a tablespoon of soy sauce, juice of half a lemon (the lemon helps you digest the kale, somehow, but mainly it tastes good), splash of balsamic, squirt of rooster sauce, dollop of olive oil
then cook until JUST BARELY tender, like it’s still bright green.
Tastes so good! Do you really not like it? Okay if not, maybe try collards? I cook them a bit differently, I go southern style–chop them up, put in pan with some veggie stock, salt, pepper, and a lot of rice vinegar. Delicious!
Simple Meal Ideas
– burritos with your homemade beans, non-shitty brown rice, and a big salad
– tempeh chili with the rest of the beans once you’re sick of them
– spaghetti and kale and garlic bread
– spicy lentils (look up recipe; they are different from other beans) with braised cauliflower (cauliflower cooked in big pan with cilantro, curry powder, and tons of lime juice, until just tender), rice, and yogurt
– blackened tempeh (from Veganomicon (see below), you will die it’s so good), potatoes, green beans, maybe some sort of squash with onions and tomatoes? I hate squash
– soup, salad, bread (with your veggie stock, experiment with soup-making! Soups are awesome)
– peanut noodle bowl (peanut sauce (peanut butter, soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame oil, green onion, garlic, cilantro, lime juice, rooster sauce, brown sugar), noodles, marinated veggies just barely cooked in a big pot or wok)
– in spring and summer, I like to make big pastas with veggies–I marinate asparagus, mushrooms, tomatoes, bell pepper, whatever else you can get ahold of, in: olive oil, balsamic, minced garlic, dash of soy sauce, then very lightly stir-fry or roast them until just barely tender. Put into big bowl with noodles, tons of chopped parsley, and nutritional yeast or grated parmesan. So good!!
– in general I eat a lot of roasted veggies. Beets, carrots, potatoes, fennel, mushrooms, green beans, yams, in various combinations, put them in a little oil and salt and balsamic, and roast. Delightful
– sandwiches! avocado, sprouts, cucumber, bell pepper, pickles, vegenaise/mustard/cheese if you want. With chips and salsa, why not?
– crazy pasta: chop up a ton of almonds, a ton of kalamata olives, a whole bag or jar of sundried tomatoes, a whole thing of basil, a can of artichoke hearts, and sautee it all for a minute in some oil and garlic, then put over spiral pasta. What? It’s so good! Eat with chard on the side or a salad!
– if we have been having unhealthy times (family reunion with velveeta, e.g.) we sometimes come home and make what we call Plate Of Veggies, to recuperate. It’s kind of boring but can taste amazing if you’ve been eating like shit for awhile: mashed sweet potatoes or yams, green beans, kale, and yellow squash sauteed with onion and canned tomatoes. I don’t like squash but somehow it seems inextricable from the rest of this meal. (green beans: pick off the tips, then put in a big pan with a tiny bit of water and a bit of olive oil; put a lid on it; steam until BARELY tender, then add some butter and salt, WHOAAA)
– straight-up lasagna
Eat a handful of nuts every day, just do it
One Other Thing To Think About
I do not do this every day, but I really would like to. Sometimes I get in the zone of doing it every day and I feel awesome. And that thing is: SMOOTHIES, or what my dad calls POWER DRINKS. This is a really good way to get a health blast and eat some of the things you maybe don’t feel like actually eating (for me: flax). I make a huge thing of power drink and then keep it in a big jar in the fridge, and drink a glass of it a day (diluted with water or juice because it usually thickens as it sets, which is great because it lasts longer that way) until it’s gone. Here’s what I put in a power drink. Remember, this is meant to be a health blast, not a milkshake. But still, it usually actually tastes pretty good:
– other fruit on hand (half an apple; blueberries; gross cantaloupe; whatever you’ve got)
– couple spoons of plain yogurt
– big dump of ground flaxseed meal
– juice of entire lime
– couple spoons of peanut butter
– couple leaves of raw kale (here is how to get your kale without tasting it!)
– juice enough to make it thin enough to drink
– optional: garlic clove; parsley; protein powder
– Hot Tip: I have a big tupperware in the freezer where I put fruit odds and ends–fruit that’s about to go bad, or like if I buy a cantaloupe I chop it up and put it in there, etc. This way you’ve got frozen fruit, which makes the smoothie more like a cold slushy treat. Also having a place to put stuff that’s about to go bad, so you don’t waste it, is awesome. All hail freezer technology!
Okay, and finally, get a couple of good cookbooks and just set yourself the task of making something out of them at least twice a week until you develop a stable of 5-10 recipes you know you enjoy and can make.
Cookbooks I Have Loved
I don’t use cookbooks that often, but here are a couple life-changers:
The Hot Knives: Salad Daze UrHo friends and all-around great guys, I know these dudes personally and can vouch for every food item I have ever tasted from their hands. They have also won some sort of California-wide grilled cheese competition. This cookbook has so many really weird amazing recipes and is all vegetarian. Written in their charming personal voices; absolutely stunning food photography! A bit on the elaborate/fancy side but that can be so fun!
Veganomicon! Can’t say enough good things about this cookbook. Here is the everyday, non-elaborate companion to the Hot Knives one. It has recipes ranging from really involved to incredibly simple; it has an informational section in the beginning that tells you what stuff is (like, tempeh vs. tofu), what’s the point, where to get stuff, etc.; and it’s written in a really comforting colloquial tone that I appreciate–NON FANCY. I got this book at a time when I was so sick of everything I was cooking and it really changed my whole vibe, and introduced several new staples. The blackened tempeh in here is not to be believed. Baja Surf Tacos! Also they have this crazy corn casserole that is so good I gave it to my friend who eats nothing but KFC and he loved it so much he ate it with his hands.
I’d start here, and work outwards. Find what you like, what works for your lifestyle. Don’t try to bite off more than you can chew (LOL)–don’t, like, suddenly decide you’re going to make enormous meals at home 3 times a day if that’s not how you have traditionally rolled. Start small. Make one thing, see how it feels/tastes. Make another thing. Experiment with ingredients and leafy greens and whatever else. Read these books I have recommended. Think about what you like and how to accomplish it.
A lot of it is really about changing your ‘tude. A lot of people don’t cook very much, anymore, and it is a learned lifestyle you can get into if you want to. But it takes thought and effort. If you’re not accustomed to cooking regularly it can seem like a drag–so you have to be mindful and change your outlook. I find it incredibly comforting and grounding, cooking in my kitchen most nights. It gives me a lot of comfort and joy to see all my jars of nuts and grains lined up in the cupboard; to know I can whip up a weird soup out of stuff in my house; to have the confidence to experiment with recipes. My freezer is full of food I made, just waiting for me to thaw it out and eat it! These things feel good, to me. Even the increased labor of the kind of shopping that involves filling up your own jars, etc., I really enjoy. It’s like, actually spending time during every day, caring for your body and thinking about the things you spend your money on/the things you eat. I have come to appreciate this very much. I really like having a busy day and then just putting on a podcast and spending 45 minutes in the kitchen, having quiet time, chopping and mincing and stirring and sniffing things and making decisions about the meal I’m preparing. For me it can be very meditative and peaceful and then so satisfying when you’ve finally turned all these weird raw materials into a beautiful plate of food. And having the routine of eating dinner at home can be really wonderful. I hang out in my sunny kitchen, cooking, and then my old man and I sit down at the table with napkins and wine and everything, and we eat and talk and hang out, and then I go play online scrabble while he does the dishes. It’s fucking awesome.
Good luck! We should recipe-share in the comments, I know everyone out there has their own cool food items they make. Every time I go to Freddy’s house she makes something I literally can’t believe I’m eating, maybe she can weigh in. I know so many good cooks! Also follow-up questions are always welcome.
HUZZAH TO US ALL