Meat, dairy, and eggs are staples in the Standard American Diet (S.A.D). Therefore, it doesn’t shock me that I am frequently asked, “what do I eat?” Imagining a meal without some type of animal food can seem impossible. Folks often think salad is the only option or are concerned about lacking nutrients, mainly protein. Transitioning from a diet that has meat as a cornerstone to a diet void of meat, can seem overwhelming. Hopefully, as folks become aware of the options and the abundance of nutrients found in plant-based foods, they can understand the benefits and variety offered from a plant-based diet.
When I first went plant-based, my food options were very basic. I pretty much ate all my meals at home because eating out felt like an intense situation- trying to figure out a meal from a menu of non-vegan foods seemed like quantum physics to me. I might have put a little too much pressure on myself, but, nonetheless, it forced me into the kitchen with a few basic foods.
To help basic folks like myself, I wanted to share a list of foods I relied on when I first went vegan. Nowadays, eating out isn’t as daunting but I’ve grown accustomed to preparing my own meals and these are still staples in my house.
Legumes (aka BEANS!). As someone that did not know how to cook, canned beans became my lifesaver: easy to prepare, inexpensive, fulfilling, and familiar. I used black beans and garbanzo beans as a substitute for meat in anything from salads to tacos. Aside from being fulfilling, beans are also extremely nutritious. For those worried about protein, beans are a great source and unlike meat, there’s no cholesterol and plenty of fiber. The average American on the S.A.D. diet consumes twice as much protein than the daily recommendation and half the amount of fiber. Fiber can improve your gut health, lower your cholesterol, and lower or stabilize your blood glucose.
Leafy Greens. I may not eat a salad for every meal but I do believe it’s important to have a salad with every meal. Your main dish may be a veggie burger or pasta, but there should always be a place for greens. They are essential to our overall health, from our digestive track to our immune system to our cardiovascular health. When we chew our greens, it creates nitric oxide and helps our blood flow. Without proper circulation, plaque can build up and lead to heart disease and high blood pressure. Leafy are also beneficial for diabetics because they can also slow down the release of glucose. And, for those worried about calcium without dairy, greens are a better source of calcium than cow’s milk. That’s only a few of the benefits of leafy greens.
Grains. My staple grains, in the beginning, were oats, brown rice pasta, and jasmine brown rice. Again, it was because they were familiar foods. A bowl of oatmeal for breakfast or rice with a meal was not a far-fetched idea. As I began to explore plant-based foods, I learned of other grains such as quinoa, millet, and amaranath. Like many other plant-based foods, grains contain fiber. In my opinion, fiber is the most underrated nutrient and one of the most important. Fiber can only be found in plant-based foods. Other vitamins and minerals in grains are: thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folate, iron, magnesium, and selenium. These vitamins and minerals help with blood circulation, lowering cholesterol, improving bone and muscle health, and improving your immune system.
Vegetables and Fruits. While we may all have our favorite fruits and vegetables, it’s important to consume a variety. When I first went vegan, I wasn’t familiar with too many fruits or vegetables so I adopted two rules to help break my comfort zone of apples and carrots. The first rule was to have at least 3 different vegetables in each meal aside from greens. My favorites were: mushrooms, onions, and bell peppers. They’re still some of my favorites and I probably would be happy with just those vegetables but I had to force myself to try new foods. So, my second rule was to cook with a new vegetable and taste a new fruit every month. This allowed me to expand my knowledge and provide my body with an array of nutrients. As I grew to love more types of fruits and vegetables, rule 1 became a given and my diet expanded to abundance. To create a meal that provides an assortment of nutrients, make your meal colorful. A colorful meal is not only more appealing but also nourishes our bodies with a diverse mixture of vitamins and minerals. Plus, it’s more satisfying to red, purple, and orange foods, than taking a multi-vitamin.
Spices and Sauces. Again, starting very basic, I bought a few pre-mixed seasonings to change the flavor of my meals on a day-to-day basis. I had taco seasoning, curry powders, and other mixed seasonings. To try a new dish, all I had to do was season garbanzo beans or vegetables with something different, stick in the oven, and pull out something new. Another simple way to change up a meal was to add sauces. Whether it was hot sauce, soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, or a new sauce I stumbled upon in the grocery store. Your favorite everyday vegetables, beans, and grains could easily become an exotic meal that excites about your newly adopted plant-based diet. As I became more familiar with flavors, I was able to add to my spice rack to season meals more specific to my palate.
While this list may seem simple, it can easily develop into a diet with lasting health benefits. No one’s journey is the same. Some folks may start with a more robust knowledge in the kitchen than I did but I hope this list can help folks that are considering a plant-based diet or trying to maintain one.