Tips to Help You Eat More Plants

We have a plant problem in the US today and I’m not talking about marijuana. By and large most Americans aren’t eating enough plants in their diets in spite of volumes of studies showing that eating plant-based diets is key for lasting health and weight management because they are loaded with so many vital nutrients our bodies depend on. Part of the issue is that we are a very meat-centric society and many of us just don’t know how to work more vegetables into our cooking routine because we are so used to meals consisting of a meat, a vegetable, and a starch. However, there are many plants that are great sources of protein and can easily stand in for that meat on your plate. Here are some tips to get you started on eating more plants.

Eat something green with every meal

This one is a great rule to live by and will instantly get more plants into your diet. Just add a green vegetable to every meal. This could mean adding spinach to your eggs in the morning, throwing some greens into your sandwich at lunch, and having some kale or green beans with dinner. Having green vegetables with your meals will help fill you up and can buffer against the effects of high-fat meals to a degree.

Practice Meatless Mondays

Commit to eating vegetarian one day a week. This one will require some work on your part because it’s very easy to just resort to carbs, like pasta and bread, and you may need to search for some good recipes. But it’s worth it!

Eat more quinoa

Quinoa has become a wellness buzz food and for good reason. This little seed is a complete protein and is a good source of calcium, lysine, B vitamins, and iron. It’s also gluten free. Prepared like you would rice, quinoa can be flavored pretty much any way and is versatile for use in meals. I’ve used it like rice, made pizza crust with it, made meatless meatballs with it – lots of things!

Make friends with cauliflower

Cauliflower is another versatile plant food that can be used for a large number of things. For example, you can make pizza crust with it, puree it to make an alfredo sauce, or use it as a substitute for rice. These recipes are super easy and are a great way to eat more veggies!

Give vegetable noodles a try

Don’t have a spiralizer? That’s OK! Most grocery stores now carry a variety of vegetable noodles, from squash to zucchini to sweet potato to beets. And the internet is loaded with different recipes for every type of vegetable noodle. You could use spaghetti squash instead of regular noodles as well.

Load your pasta sauce

Marinara and pasta sauces are a great place to hide vegetables, especially if you have picky eaters. You can load your sauces with bell peppers, onions, mushrooms, broccoli, spinach, zucchini, squash – you name it. Keep it chunky or puree it for a smoother sauce. Either way, you just ate way more vegetables!

Drink more smoothies

Smoothies can be another good way to increase the amount of plants you’re consuming on a daily basis. Using fresh or frozen fruit and adding some vegetables like spinach, kale, or cucumber, you can make a powerhouse of a smoothie. Just be careful not to overload your smoothie so you end up with a high calorie treat rather than a healthy snack or meal.

Replace those chips and crackers

There are many healthy plant options you can choose for snacks on the go other than chips and crackers. Nuts, for example, are a great source of protein and fiber. Crunchy chickpeas are also a yummy plant snack on the go and can be bought or made in a variety of different flavors. Carrots, celery, and sugar snap peas are also taken on the go very easily and are great for dipping.

Treat yourself to the cut fruit plate

Many of us balk at the pre-cut fruit platters they sell at the grocery store because they really charge you for the convenience. But, in my opinion, it’s a worthwhile investment if it will make it easier for you to eat healthier.

Replace your bread with greens

Replace your wraps with collard leaves and your tortillas with lettuce cups. You could also use slices of sweet potato or cucumber instead of bread for your sandwiches.

It may seem like a lot of work at first, but it is actually quite easy to get more plants into your daily diet. Once you find some recipes you like and work them into your routine with some minimal prep, you’ll be eating plants like you’ve been doing it all along.

Veganism/Vegetarianism – Are they healthier?

March is National Nutrition Month so I am going to be focusing heavily on more nutrition-oriented topics in my blog this month.

One nutrition question I get frequently is whether it is healthier to go vegan or vegetarian over meat eating. My answer probably irritates many who ask: not necessarily.

So first let’s get the differences between the two out of the way:

Veganism

In the most basic sense, veganism is a diet in which you don’t consume any animal products whatsoever. This means no dairy, eggs, fish, meat, honey, or gelatin and no products containing these ingredients. Some vegans are stricter than others. For example, certain beers are clarified using animal parts and some vegans will not consume them based on that while other vegans don’t mind as much because the animal parts are not actually part of the beer. Likewise, honey is technically not vegan in the strictest sense, but many vegans still use it.

Vegetarianism

Vegetarianism allows a lot more dietary options than veganism. In the most general sense, vegetarianism is simply not eating meat. Other animal products, such as honey, eggs, dairy, and gelatin, may be OK for a vegetarian. Some vegetarians, known as pescatarians, will eat fish, while others won’t. Likewise, lacto-ovo vegetarians eat eggs and dairy, but no meat. As with veganism, there is a spectrum of dietary choices that fall into the vegetarian category.

Are Vegan or Vegetarian Diets Healthier than Eating Meat?

Not necessarily. Sorry. While both of these diets have the potential to provide your body with loads of healthy nutrients and help you maintain a healthy weight, there are some mistakes that can make them less healthy.

As a certified health coach, I immediately get concerned whenever the prospect of eliminating entire food groups comes up. That to me is an immediate alert that the individual adhering to that diet needs to be really diligent in making sure they are getting all of the nutrients they need.

One thing that I know from my vegan and vegetarian friends is the most annoying thing people say to them is, “are you getting enough protein”? In our meat-centric society, we often assume that meat is the best or only source of protein. The difference between animal protein and plant protein is that animal protein is what we call a “complete protein” – it contains all 9 of the essential amino acids our bodies need. Plant proteins are known as “incomplete proteins” because they contain some but not all 9 essential amino acids. However, you can combine different plant proteins to make a complete protein and you don’t need to eat them all at once to do it. For example, you could have nuts for a an afternoon snack, tofu as part of your lunch, and pea protein in your morning smoothie. So protein is a concern for vegans and vegetarians only if they are not varying their protein sources enough (generally speaking).

Vegans have a bit more of a challenge than vegetarians when it comes to making sure they are consuming all of the nutrition their bodies need. Eliminating one food group is one thing, but when you eliminate several, it can make things more difficult and complicated. With any diet, it’s important to monitor what you are eating to make sure you’re getting enough variety and nutrition but vegans have that much more monitoring to do. One nutritive concern that I have for vegans is their Omega-3 consumption. The best source of Omega-3 fatty acids (AKA the healthiest fats) is fish – partly because it is already in the form our bodies can use so we readily absorb it. There are plant sources of Omega-3s, but they are in a form that our bodies cannot use. This means that our bodies must first convert them into the usable form, but, once that conversion is done, our absorption rate is less than 5%. So it’s more of a challenge to eat enough Omega-3s without eating fish or taking a fish oil supplement. Iron is another nutrient that we get primarily from eating meat in our society. However, there are a number of rich plant sources of iron. As with protein, it’s really important for vegans and vegetarians to make sure they are eating enough plant sources of iron (like spinach for example), especially for women of child-bearing age.  Click here to receive my list of plant-based, whole food sources of iron.

The last major concern for both of these diets that I will discuss here is the meat substitute products found in grocery stores. Most store-bought, pre-packaged vegan and vegetarian foods are highly processed and loaded with all kinds of fillers and preservatives. These are not healthy options. The healthiest options are organic tofu and organic tempeh, not breaded faux-chicken from the freezer section. If you are vegan or vegetarian or are considering either, make sure that you really read all the labels of products you want to buy to make sure they’re not full of scary ingredients. If you’re a hands-on person and have the time, making your own animal-product substitutes at home is even better. For example, it’s actually pretty easy to make your own nut milks and you can use flax seed meal and water in place of an egg in recipes.

Is Meat Bad for You?

Again, not necessarily. Sorry.

As I said above, meat, fish, and poultry (I’m just going to call them all “meat”) are all complete proteins delivering all 9 essential amino acids. Meat is also a good source of iron (particularly red meat and liver) and fish is a good source of Omega-3 fatty acids.

Where the meat question gets tricky is when it comes to quality. Americans in general have no shortage of saturated fat in our diets and these are not the healthy fats we want to focus on consuming. Overconsumption of animal fats (excluding fish) has been linked to a number of health issues, particularly heart issues. Therefore, it’s important to consume lean cuts of meat as much as possible – this means lean cuts of beef, eating more poultry and avoiding the skin and fatty parts, eating more fish, etc.

Another quality factor when it comes to consuming meats is considering what that meat ate when it was alive. Much of the meat we eat in this country has been treated with antibiotics, hormones, and other substances that we eat when we eat the meat from those animals. Many of the animals in the factory farms that supply most of our meat also don’t feed their animals quality food and that affects the meat we eat as well. There are also a number of really awful humane issues associated with factory-farmed meat. Considering all of this, it’s important to eat organic meat as much as possible. Ideally, select meat from free-range animals that consumed their natural diet rather than some cheap mystery feed. The most ideal situation, is to actually know where your meat is coming from – supporting local farmers at the farmers’ market or joining a local meat share. Obviously, this is not always possible, but following the first two guidelines I mentioned will get you into healthier meat eating.

Read This If You Just Want the Gist of This Post Without Reading the Whole Thing

Science has shown time and again that plant-based diets are the healthiest option for us. Both veganism and vegetarianism can be extremely healthful diets when followed properly. They both have the potential to deliver loads of wonderful nutrients to your body and sustain its health for a lifetime. However, in our rush-rush, convenience-centric society, it can be hard to eat the variety of foods our bodies need and it’s very easy to opt for those junky convenience foods most of the time, regardless of whether or not you eat meat. Eating a variety of plant-based foods is critical to our health. This does not mean that eating meat is unhealthy or that we shouldn’t ever do it, though – meat can deliver large amounts of nutrients our bodies need all in one stop and, as long as you are eating lean, good quality, organic meat, then meat-eating isn’t a health problem. The majority of what you eat, regardless of your diet, should be fresh fruits and vegetables, but meat is a food you can eat every day and it plays an important role in many diets.

 

Product Review: Dr. Praeger Burgers

When it comes to pre-packaged meat product substitutes, like veggie burgers, veggie nuggets, etc., I typically tell my clients that it’s best to avoid them altogether. The majority of those products on the market are incredibly over-processed, loaded with fillers and preservatives, high in sodium, and often contain harmful chemicals as well. Honestly, they hardly even resemble food and will not do your body any good. However, I recognize that there is definitely a need for products like this, otherwise they wouldn’t exist – life is busy so we need quick and easy options. With that said, I’ve examined a lot of these meat-replacement meals to determine which I am comfortable with recommending to my clients. The Dr. Praeger brand of veggie burgers met my criteria. (The following review is based on the California Veggie flavor)

Ingredients 4.9/5

The short ingredient list for these burgers is all real foods with names you recognize and, as soon as you pull a burger out of the box, you will notice you can actually see the pieces of veggies in it. You’re just not going to get that with most packaged veggie burgers.

Here is the list for the California Veggie Burger flavor: carrots, string beans, oat bran, soybeans, zucchini, expeller pressed canola oil, peas, broccoli, corn, soy flour, spinach, red peppers, arrowroot powder, corn starch, garlic, corn meal, sea salt, parsley, black pepper. That’s it. Real foods. Admittedly, I’m not a fan of canola oil but it has become the favored choice in a lot of “health” foods so it’s hard to avoid. The other great thing about these ingredients is they are non-GMO which is super important given the number of corn and soy foods in it.

Overall, I’m giving the ingredients for these burgers a 4.9/5 because I had to ding them for the canola oil and, really, the only way they could be improved would be if they were organic.

California_Veggie_Burger

Nutrition 5/5

Looking at the nutrition label, there’s even more to like. These clock in at just 120 calories and aren’t swimming in sodium either with 240 mg. They pack in 4 grams of fiber and 5 grams of protein so they should keep you quite satisfied as well, particularly if you serve them on some whole grain bread. Since they are made with actual vegetables, we are also looking at some great vitamins and micronutrients.

Flavor 4.5/5

You might be thinking, “OK so they’re made out of veggies and are nutritious, but there is no way they could possibly taste good.” If that’s the case, my doubting friend, you’re in for a treat. These burgers are quite tasty! Do they tastes like beef? No. And if they did, I would be concerned about what they did to them to make them taste like beef. They taste like a veggie burger – a yummy veggie burger, not like those super processed varieties that taste vaguely like plastic. They’re a refreshing but savory flavor and the seasonings really shine through.

Texture 3/5

The texture is really the only aspect of these burgers I’m not a fan of and, honestly, that’s more of a personal issue than a product issue. If you’ve ever made your own veggie burgers at home, then you probably know that firm is not a texture you can really get to with them. It’s the same with these burgers – whether you pan-fry them, put them in the oven, or microwave them, they are soft, mushy might even be the right word for them, not firm. I’ve tried really hard to at least get the outside crispy in a frying pan, but just couldn’t pull it off. As much as I’m not a fan of the soft texture, though, it doesn’t ruin these burgers for me and I still like them. They do manage to stay together through cooking, flipping, and serving, so that’s a plus. I rated them a 3 out of 5 for texture because I’m not a fan of the mushiness but I also know that, if you want a real veggie burger, you need to be OK with the mush.

 

All in all, if you are looking for healthy and tasty store-bought veggie burger option, Dr. Praeger’s burgers are my recommendation to you. You can find them at a number of grocery stores, including Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. I haven’t found them at Market Basket yet, but if enough people ask for them…. #justsaying

 

 

Found a healthy product that you’re curious about? Leave it in the comments as a suggestion for my next review!

Butternut Noodles and Mushrooms

I don’t know how it happened, but fall is already right around the corner. I am actually sitting here with a blanket on my legs since the mornings are already getting cool here in MA, so I decided to post one of my favorite warming and satisfying fall recipes.

The mushrooms used in this recipe have a very meaty texture to them so it’s very satisfying without the meat. Depending on your model of spiralizer, making veggie noodles can be pretty labor intensive, so I recommend buying the packages of pre-cut squash to spare yourself the extra effort of cutting, spooning, and peeling a whole squash before spiralizing it.

Ingredients

  • 1 butternut squash, spiralized
  • 1 cup oyster mushrooms, chopped (not too small – you want pieces big enough that allow you to still get the texture)
  • 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil (you may need a little more or less depending on how much noodles you end up with)
  • 2 tbsp fresh, finely chopped sage
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Instructions

  1. In a large frying pan over medium-low heat, warm the olive oil until it begins to glisten (not smoke). Once it’s reached that temperature, add the oyster mushrooms and sage and sauté until the mushrooms are tender. As you are cooking it, the sage is infusing the olive oil with its flavor.
  2. Once the mushrooms are tender, add the butternut noodles to the pan and toss so that they are all coated with the oil and the mushrooms are distributed throughout. Cook 1-2 minutes to soften the noodles.
  3. Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve.

If you want some even bigger fall flavor or are really into the taste of sage, like I am, you can also finish this dish by sprinkling it with a little Bell’s Turkey seasoning before serving it.

Cauliflower Alfredo Sauce

If you are one of the many parents who struggle to get their kids to eat their vegetables, you are going to love this recipe. If you are an adult who hates eating vegetables, you are going to love this recipe. If you love alfredo. you’re going to love this recipe. The sauce has the velvety texture and creamy flavor of alfredo, but contains just a tiny amount of cheese and is made of cauliflower. Instead of milk or heavy cream, you use the water you cooked the cauliflower in for a liquid so you’re still able to get some of those water-soluble nutrients from the cauliflower. You won’t even know you’re eating a vegetable! What’s even better is this is super quick and easy to make.

A quick note on the pasta. I always recommend whole wheat pastas over white pastas – it is far more nutritious than white and it’s also more filling. However, this sauce is made with water and whole wheat pasta tends to soak that up very quickly so you end up with a grainier textured sauce. I still don’t recommend white pasta. I would say go with a brown rice pasta or a whole wheat blend, like whole wheat and quinoa pasta. It will act less like a sponge while still not being an empty carb. I recommend using penne or ziti because it catches some of the sauce inside of it so you get even more flavor with each bite.

Ingredients

  • 1 head cauliflower
  • 5-6 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 1 tsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 3/4 tsp sea salt
  • 1 cup water (from the cauliflower)
  • 1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
  • 1 box whole grain pasta, cooked

Equipment

  • Blender

Directions

  1. Break up the cauliflower into florets. Place them in a large pot of water and boil until soft.
  2. While the cauliflower is cooking, saute the chopped garlic cloves in the extra virgin olive oil for about a minute – just long enough to bloom the flavor. Scrape the garlic and oil into the blender.
  3. Once the cauliflower is soft, add it to the blender with the salt, water from the pot, and parmesan. Blend until the sauce is smooth.
  4. Add the sauce to the cooked pasta. Optional: top with a little more grated parmesan and cracked black pepper and enjoy!

Using a small head of cauliflower, I had some extra sauce leftover using one box of pasta. So. if you buy a larger head, you may be able to make enough sauce for two boxes of pasta.

If you want to take this one step further, add some grilled chicken and broccoli to it!

Cauliflower Sauce
This sauce is so incredibly velvety and creamy!

Roasted Beet, Avocado & Quinoa Salad

With the warm summer months fast approaching, this refreshing and nutritious side dish is bound to be a crowd pleaser at any cookout. What’s more is it looks as good as it tastes! Bright colors like this are a great way to get picky kids to eat something healthy! They can even help mix it all up!

Quinoa Salad

Ingredients

For the Salad:

2 cups cooked quinoa

4-5 medium-sized beets, diced and roasted until soft (I suggest par-boiling them first to cut down on cook time)

1 orange bell pepper, diced

2 avocados, cubed

For the Dressing:

3/4 cup fresh cilantro

2-3 limes, juiced

1 orange, juiced

1 tbsp agave nectar

1/8 cup extra virgin olive oil (may need to add more, depending on flavor and consistency)

Salt and Pepper to taste

Instructions:

  1. First, prepare the dressing so the flavors can bloom while you prepare the rest of the salad. Combine the cilantro and fruit juices in a blender and blend about 30 seconds until beginning to get smooth and combined. Add the olive oil gradually and the agave nectar and continue to blend until liquified. Add a dash of salt and pepper and place the dressing in the refrigerator while you prepare the rest of the salad.
  2. Prepare the quinoa according to the package and roast the beets until soft (you can also just boil them but I find that roasting makes the flavor sweeter).
  3. Allow the quinoa and beets to cool before adding the other salad ingredients. You can place them in the fridge if you’re on a time crunch.
  4. Once the quinoa and the beets have cooled, combine them with the diced pepper and avocado in a large mixing bowl. Remove the dressing from the fridge and give it a good shake to mix it all up again. This is where you want to taste it to make sure that it’s the balance you’re looking for. If not, you can add more oil, salt and pepper, or juice. I leave this up to the chef because some people like things zestier than others.
  5. Pour the dressing over the salad, mix together, serve and enjoy!

 

 

Cauliflower Caraway Soup

Cauliflower caraway soup is a healthy, crowd-pleasing appetizer…or main course! It is so creamy and has a really rich, decadent flavor from the caraway so it leaves you feeling really satisfied, the way a creamy chowder would. But, this recipe  is completely dairy-free and vegan… oh, and it’s delicious, too.

It starts out with a basic mirepoix sautéing while you boil the cauliflower until it’s soft. I season the mirepoix with salt and pepper, garlic powder, coriander, and Bell’s turkey seasoning (the official spice of the Commonwealth of MA). Towards the end, I add a ton of caraway seeds to get them toasty and bring out the flavor.

Mirepoix

When boiling the cauliflower, you want to use just enough water to cover it because that is what’s going to become your broth. It’s loaded with nutrients and cauliflower flavor so it’s really going to enhance your soup in more ways than one. Once the cauliflower is soft, remove the pot from the heat. Then, using a potato masher, carefully (so you don’t splash scalding water onto yourself – been there, not fun) mash the cauliflower right in the liquid.

Cauliflower Pot

Once you’ve gotten the cauliflower well-mashed by hand, add the mirepoix and blend with an immersion blender (you can  do this in a regular blender or food processor as well). Blend until it takes on a creamy consistency.

I am a major proponent for tasting as you cook. So at this point, I say taste and if it doesn’t have enough caraway or salt, add more. And don’t be shy about the seasoning – it can take a lot to balance the cauliflower. You want the final product to taste almost like pumpernickel bread. I highly recommend putting it back on the heat for a while not only to keep it hot until it’s served but also to render the flavors even more.

This soup makes a great appetizer or can be a whole meal as well. Want to get fancy? Serve it with some pumpernickel croutons on top or garnish with some extra caraway seeds.

Cauliflower Soup

Ingredients:

  • 2 heads cauliflower, cut into chunks
  • 3-4 medium carrots, diced
  • 3-4 celery stalks, diced
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • Olive Oil
  • 2 Tbsp Bell’s turkey seasoning
  • Caraway seeds (as many as it takes)
  • Salt & Pepper (to taste)
  • 2 Tsp Coriander
  • 1 tbsp Garlic powder
  • 2 Bay leaves

Instructions

  1. Place the chunks of cauliflower into a large pot and fill with water until just covered. Place on high heat, add bay leaves, and bring to a boil. Salt the water and boil the cauliflower until it is soft. Remove from heat.
  2. While the cauliflower is boiling, sauté the carrots, onions, and celery in about 1 tbsp olive oil until soft. This is your mirepoix. Season this with the coriander, garlic powder, and salt and pepper. Add about 2 tbsp of caraway seeds and cook another minute so that the seeds get toasty.
  3. Using a potato masher, carefully mash the cauliflower in the water. Add the mirepoix and blend using an immersion blender until smooth and creamy in texture.
  4. Add the Bell’s seasoning and another tsbp of caraway seeds and blend some more. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  5. Your soup should taste very similar to pumpernickel bread. Taste frequently and add seasoning as you need to.