Healthy Diet Makeover, Phase One: Foundations
With limited time, money, and cooking experience, can a novice ecovore successfully trade the standard American diet for a real-food, slow-food, veg-centric groove? Absolutely! The first steps are setting up a food-friendly kitchen, building up pantry supplies, and exploring healthier ‘fast food’ options.
A friend of mine, ecovore in spirit but not yet in practice, came to me recently and asked for help re-vamping her approach to food and cooking. Like many recent college graduates, she wants to eat more healthily but doesn’t know where to start.
Young cooks out on their own for the first time face a special set of challenges. But with a little knowledge, preparation, and effort, a healthier table is definitely within reach!
Beth* graduated from college about a year ago. At first she had a roommate who cooked, so she ate fairly well. But now she’s out on her own, living on fast food burgers, microwaveable instant meals, and other quick-fix processed foods.
She wants to move towards healthier eating, but is starting from square one. Beth says,
I need to know what are the must-haves for any kitchen, especially for someone who is cooking for one and doesn’t usually have a lot of time (or at least doesn’t want to make a lot of time) to spend in the kitchen…
I would like to know how to shop in such a way, that I can go into a store and come out with staples that will make me at least three [or] four different meals throughout the week. I am not adverse to leftovers; I love leftovers, but at the same time, I don’t want to eat sloppy joes 7 nights a week…
I am hoping to lean more towards my vegetarian side. I don’t want to give up meat completely, but I would like to limit its importance in my food-life. I would [also] like to incorporate more fish… I want to get away from super processed foods, like packaged lunch meat.
Basically, I want to be able to make hot meals not nuked in the microwave in a Styrofoam bowl. I want to be able to eat fresh, healthy foods and get away from pre-packaged, preservative-full pseudo-foods. I am tired and fatigued all the time; I am gaining unhealthy stomach weight; I am taking a long time to heal from minor nicks and scrapes… I am pretty sure all of this has to do 100 percent with my diet.
Like many new grads, Beth has a demanding job and not much extra time or money. And like many young folks newly in charge of their own kitchen, she’s starting from scratch in terms of supplies, equipment and cooking experience.
Luckily, none of those challenges are insurmountable! Any change of habit takes initial effort; but there’s a better way to eat, and there’s no reason you can’t do it.
The most important first step is to decide to change how you eat — not to ‘try’, but to actually do it. Change doesn’t have to happen all at once: there’s nothing wrong with implementing new strategies slowly, if that’s what feels comfortable. But if what you’re doing now isn’t working, decide to change it; then do SOMETHING every day to work towards that change.
Give it a month of persistent attention, and if you’re not eating better and feeling more satisfied with your diet, I’ll owe you a batch of vegan cupcakes!
Decide; do something about it every day; and don’t quit. The rest is all (healthy vegetarian) gravy!
I’m not a registered dietitian, just a fairly proficient veg-centric grocery shopper and enthusiastic whole-food real-food slow-food cook.
I encourage everyone to research basic nutritional requirements, within whatever diet you plan to follow. If you’re leaning veg or mostly-veg, vrg.org is a great resource. For anyone leaning vegan, theveganrd.com and jacknorrisrd.com are excellent nutrition sites.
However you plan to eat, take the time to do a quick bit of research about what your body needs and how best to get it. Don’t set yourself up for failure by ignoring this step, when undertaking any major dietary change!
Most nutritionists recommend eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and other plant-based foods, while reducing consumption of heavily processed foods (especially meats). I cook vegan, and that’s the context of all my kitchen advice. But if you’re not aiming for a vegan table, just use it as a base to build on: a plant-rich diet is healthy and yum, whatever else you may choose to add to it.
There are many reasons to follow a plant-based diet, and I encourage everyone to consider it! But there are lots of ways to eat healthier than the standard American diet, whether or not you go with me down that (healthy and delicious!) veganish path. Hopefully advice presented in this series will be helpful to young cooks interested in healthy cooking, vegan or otherwise.
Down to Business!
There are several big things going on here, each a sizable transition in its own right.
- Setting up a functional kitchen, and learning to cook from ingredients instead of package directions.
- Shifting from a fast food/ processed food/ junk food diet towards a real food/ whole food diet, working within existing time and budget constraints.
- Moving towards a more vegetarian/ pescatarian menu, and away from the standard American diet plan with beef, pork, or chicken at the center of every meal.
With such sweeping changes on the agenda, there’s no way to get from here to there in just one article. Today I’d like to talk about where to start, to build the scaffolding that will support all these (very positive!) changes.