Getting Started Guide
It’s time to start cooking whole-food, plant-based meals. Following are tips you can use to learn more about good nutrition, turn into a smart shopper, stock up your kitchen, and transition to a healthy plant-based diet.
WHAT TO EAT
A whole-food, plant-based diet is centered on whole, unrefined, or minimally refined plants. It’s a diet based on fruits, vegetables, tubers, whole grains, and legumes, and it excludes or minimizes meat (including chicken and fish), dairy products, and eggs, as well as highly refined foods like bleached flour, refined sugar, and oil.
We know that’s a mouthful! Rest assured, though, that you’ll be eating in a way that people have thrived on for thousands of years. We believe that you will find—as we do—that the diet and foods are very tasty and satisfying. Following are the food categories from which you’ll eat, along with a few example from each. These include the ingredients you’ll be using to make familiar dishes, such as pizza, mashed potatoes, lasagna, and burritos:
Fruit: apples, apricots, bananas, berries, citrus, dates, figs, grapes, mangoes, melons, peaches, pears, pineapple, plums, pomegranates, etc.
Vegetables: asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, collards, cucumbers, onions, parsley, peppers, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, turnips, spinach, sprouts, squash, watercress, yams (yes, some of these are botanically fruit, but we think of them as vegetables), etc.
Legumes: black beans, pinto beans, cannellini beans, chickpeas, lentils, lima beans, peas, etc.
Whole Grains: amaranth, barley, corn, kasha, millet, oats, quinoa, rice, wheat berries, etc.
The center of your plate is going to be the starch-based comfort foods most of us have always loved, but that have long been relegated to side dishes or stigmatized because of a misperception that they are “unhealthy.” Yet these are the foods that people around the world have thrived on for generations.
Even on this diet, people sometimes tend to worry about eating a certain type of green vegetable for calcium, beans for protein, nuts for fat, and so on. We ask you to let go of that kind of thinking. The most important thing in this lifestyle is to choose the whole, plant-based foods you enjoy most!
That being said, there are some whole-food plant-based foods that have higher fat or sugar content and should be enjoyed more sparingly, as a garnish or special treat. Those include avocados, coconut, nuts, seeds, olives, and dried fruits.
WHAT TO BUY
DON’T PANIC IF IT’S NOT ORGANIC
While some people prefer to eat only organic, fresh food, from a health perspective this is not absolutely necessary. Most modern diseases that afflict people are not the result of the difference between organic and conventional produce, fresh and frozen broccoli, or canned and dried beans. Whether our diets lead to health or sickness is determined by the significant difference between whole, plant-based foods on the one hand and animal-based and highly processed foods on the other. We should not let our need for convenient, affordable food—including shortcuts, such as canned and frozen options, as well as less-expensive conventional produce—deter us from consuming the whole, plant-based foods that stave off disease.
We don’t like to focus too much on nutrition labels because we want you to primarily eat whole, unprocessed foods, and these foods don’t generally have labels. But we live in the same world that you do, and we know that some packaged foods are likely to become or remain staples in your pantry. Oil-free condiments, plant-based milks, whole cereals and granolas, and chips and crackers are some of the minimally processed and packaged items that are in our kitchen right now, and they’ll likely be in yours, too. So let’s review what to look for on these labels:
- Check the ingredients.
Ideally, there will be very few total ingredients. Make sure oil is not on the list. If you’re buying a grain product, make sure it contains whole (not refined) grains.
- Check the serving size.
Look closely at the serving size and total number of servings in the package. With small enough serving sizes, amounts of fat, sodium, and other unhealthy components can seem much smaller than they are.
- Check the fat.
Aim for foods with less than 15 percent of calories from fat.
- Check the sodium.
Aim to keep the sodium no higher than 1 mg per calorie, unless the product is a condiment or you’re using a small amount as part of a larger recipe.
- Check the added sugar.
Avoid any product that includes sugar as one of the first three ingredients. Sugar can come in many forms that don’t include the word sugar, so look out for brown rice syrup, cane juice, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, lactose, sucrose, honey, and molasses, among many others.
Storebought items can include oil-free pasta sauces, plant milks (like soy, rice, oat, hemp, or nut milks), salad dressings, salsa, hummus, and breads, mixes, and crackers. Even for these items, be aware of oil, sugar, and nutrition labels until you find your favorites!
For harder-to-find items, we have created this list of compliant products so that you can either look for these brands locally or buy them online.
Pasta sauces: Choose sauces with no added oils.
Plant milks: These include soy, rice, oat, hemp, and nut milks, such as almond milk.
Oil-free salad dressings: Dressings should also be low in added sweeteners.
Whole-grain breads, mixes, and crackers: These including whole-grain cereals, pancakes, pastas, pita pockets, and pizza crusts. Be careful to avoid added oils, sugars, and other unwanted ingredients. And make sure the grain is described as “100% whole.” Other healthy-sounding descriptions, such as “enriched,” “stone-ground,” and “multi-grain” are not necessarily made from 100% whole grains.
Salsa: Choose salsas with no added oils or sugars.
Hummus: Choose hummus with no added oils.
We have provided a longer list of oil free brands in this help article. Check out this handy healthy grocery shopping video from Chef AJ.
PLANT-BASED PANTRY ALTERNATIVES
Arrowroot powder is used as a thickener in sauces in much the same way that cornstarch is. It is the dehydrated root of the plant of the same name, and unlike cornstarch, it is a minimally processed food.
Nutritional yeast is a deactivated yeast that comes in flaked or powdered form. It is popular in plant-based cooking for its “cheesy” flavor. Some find that it is an acquired taste, so when it is called for in the recipes, it is generally optional. Nutritional yeast comes as flakes or powder; use ⅓ cup of powder for every cup of flakes called for in a recipe.
Liquid aminos and tamari are gluten-free, non-genetically-modified soy-based products used in the same way you would use soy sauce. To avoid soy entirely, choose coconut aminos.
Dry sweetener is a general term for non-liquid sweeteners. There are many kinds available, some more natural than others. Some sugars, like white table sugar (not recommended), are bleached, sometimes chemically and sometimes using charred cow bones. Examples include evaporated cane juice, cane sugar (including Sucanat brand), maple sugar, coconut sugar, and date sugar, all with slight variations in flavor. Date sugar is the healthiest option, as it is made from whole dried dates, pulverized into powder.
Dates are the many varieties of fruits from date palm trees. Medjool dates are larger and sweeter than many of their cousins.
Maple syrup is boiled down sap from the maple tree. Make sure to purchase “pure maple syrup” (not “pancake syrup,” “table syrup,” or “maple-flavored syrup,” or even just “maple syrup,” as they contain artificial maple flavor and cane sugar or corn syrup).
Extra-firm silken tofu is a particular type of tofu that, despite its “extra firm” name, is soft and creamy. Like other forms of tofu, it takes on the flavor of whatever food it is cooked with. In this book, it is used for sauces, salad dressings, and puddings.
Sorghum flour is milled from sorghum, one of the oldest cultivated grains. It is high in fiber and gluten free, with a mild taste and dense texture.
Whole-wheat pastry flour is finely milled from white wheat. It gives baked goods a light, fluffy texture. Whole-wheat pastry flour is available in grocery stores, sometimes in the bulk section. If you cannot find it, you can substitute spelt flour or white wheat flour.
Here are some tools that will help you to prepare easy, delicious, healthy, plant-based meals.
Blender or food processor: Handy for making smoothies, dips, dressings, spreads, sauces, and other thicker-consistency condiments, or combining mostly liquid ingredients. Food processors can make mincing, chopping, grating, slicing, and other prep steps quicker and easier.
Knives: You really only need one good long chef’s knife—find one that you really like, and keep it sharp. You’ll also want a small knife and short, serrated knife—these are key for cutting avocados, mangos, and other whole foods that require some dexterity.
Pots and pans: You will want to have various sizes on hand, for making everything from bread to brown rice, soups to stir fries. The most convenient sizes are 1- and 2-quart saucepans with lids, 4-, and 8-quart stock pots, a 12-inch skillet with lid, a 9-inch square cake pan, a 9 × 13-inch baking pan, and a 9 × 5-inch loaf pan.
It’s extremely easy to cook without oil using nonstick pots and pans. If you want to avoid Teflon, then use a good-quality, heavy-bottomed stainless steel pan. Enamel-coated cast iron and ceramic titanium pans are also good options.
Use nonstick or silicone ovenware for easy release when roasting vegetables or baking preparing oil-free desserts. Or you can line your standard bakeware with parchment paper, as nothing sticks to it.
We put together a handy guide on food processors vs blenders here.
HOW TO COOK
Sautéing and stir-frying: use small amounts of water or broth, adding just a small amount (1 to 2 tablespoons) at a time. Do this as often as needed to cook and brown the food, without steaming it. Also, remember to toss and stir the food periodically with a wooden spoon so that it doesn’t burn. Nonstick skillets are more conducive to dry or water sauteing than other skillets, but they are not required.
Baking: use a fruit purée as a healthy (and delicious!) substitute for fats like oil, butter, or shortening. Options include applesauce, mashed bananas, and puréed dates. In some instances, nut flour or nut butters can serve as substitutions or additions. You will never have to adapt or substitute things to make one of the meal planner recipes–we’ve done that already! Optional additions and substitutions will be clearly noted.
Roasting: there’s no need to coat your vegetables or other foods with oil before roasting them in the oven. They might take a little longer, but they will eventually brown and roast nicely. Before placing them in the oven, season your vegetables with spices, herbs, and either a little vegetable stock or a light water-soy sauce mixture for more flavor.
Deep frying alternative: it may take a little getting used to, but we are confident that you will come to enjoy the not-greasy but still delicious (and far healthier) choice to bake your potatoes and veggies instead of deep frying them. You can even bake up delicious (eggless) breaded patties or veggies by lightly dipping them in a slurry of arrowroot powder or cornstarch mixed with either water or unsweetened, unflavored plant milk, and then coating them with whole-grain bread crumbs or cornmeal. Use nonstick, silicone, or parchment-lined baking sheets to achieve a crispy outer crust.
The dishes are selected based on what is available seasonally, together with items that are readily available in the market. Many recipes call for frozen vegetables to make it easy with the prep work, but feel free to use fresh vegetables.
We include at least 1 soup or stew, at least 1 salad, and a variety of remaining entrees. Other entrees include dishes like pasta or noodles, casseroles, tacos, baked potatoes, grain bowls, and more. We include a sweet treat or two to make the menu as varied as possible.
The menu is designed so that we minimize the times you have more than 2 varieties of grains or 2 types of fresh herbs, for the week. This is to simplify the prep time and to keep the shopping list shorter.
Things to have ready before starting the weekend prep:
- Have the measuring cups and spoons ready.
- Mixing bowls, chopping board, knives, peeler.
- Colander or sieve for straining and rinsing.
- Have a big pitcher of water, preferably filtered, handy for cooking purposes.
- Storage containers of various sizes ready to store the prepared food. Small (4 to 5 ounce) containers for storing ginger and garlic. Mason jars for sauces and dressings.
- Keep a marker pen and masking tape ready for labelling the prepped vegetables and dishes.