Here’s something I’m sure we can all agree upon: When a dish is seasoned to your liking, it tastes better and eating it is more satisfying. Pretty simple science, right? This week, we’re going to apply this ethos to our goal of incorporating more plants into our meals.
Many of us are accustomed to planning a meal around proteins, which take center stage. Over the next seven days of Well+Good's ReNew Year challenge, we’ll be focusing on expanding the variety of plants we pile our plates with at mealtimes as well as the flavors we use to season them—and the more vegetables, the merrier. Plants are now the star!
- Maya Feller, MS, RD, CDN, registered dietitian and nutritionist
When working with the chefs to develop recipes for my upcoming cookbook, Eating From Our Roots (out January 24), I learned how to intentionally and gently use sugar, fat, and salt to enhance dishes, especially those that are plant-based. Keep in mind: Vegetables are among the most under-consumed foods by Americans, yet they are the very ones that research has shown can reduce systemic inflammation and modify chronic non-communicable conditions, like cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Trust: Skillfully incorporating sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami flavors makes eating plants so much more desirable. And we all know that when we actually desire a particular food, it’s more likely to become a staple in our pattern of eating.
Now, who’s ready to veg out?
Day 8: Make a list of your favorite vegetables—then add some new ones to try
Today, we’re starting simple. Begin by jotting down the vegetables you already know you enjoy, then try branching out. A few of my favorite recommendations based on flavor profile are:
- If you like roasted broccoli, try romanesco
- If you like garlicky stir-fried green beans, try Chinese long beans
- If you like crispy asparagus, try baking brussel sprouts
- If you like sauteed cabbage, try tossing some bok choy into the pan
When you expand the types of vegetables that are on your plate, you’re not just broadening your palate—you’re also increasing the biodiversity of nutrients that your body is exposed to. (And according to gastroenterologists, the diversity of plants in your diet is the number one predictor of a healthy gut microbiome.) Find a list of the vegetables with the highest amount of fiber—a nutrient that’s a key part of digestive health—here.
Day 9: Survey—and organize—your spice rack
Now that we’ve got an array of vegetables ready for action, we’ll need to season them so they taste as delicious, vibrant, and fresh as possible. Today, we’re talking spices.
Like veggies, spices pack an abundance of nutrients and have bioactive medicinal properties. For starters, they contain varying amounts of antioxidants, which means they provide your body with anti-inflammatory as well as antimicrobial benefits. Current research has shown that spices support your cardiovascular system, digestive health, and central nervous system.
That being said, it’s almost too easy to let some of our dried spices collect dust when they seemingly last forever. (Here’s looking at you, three-year-old marjoram that you bought for a bread recipe and used once.) It varies, but most ground spices have a shelf life of about a year, though freshness is more fleeting. As time goes on, the flavor and potency of spices really diminishes.
- To make sure your spices are at their peak in terms of taste and antioxidant levels, give your collection a once-over before you start cooking with them tomorrow.
- Check the expiration date on each of your herbs and spices, and try to do this annually. Toss out (and consider replacing) any jars that are past due.
- Make sure your spices are being stored in a cool, dark place away from direct sunlight or heat. While above the stove is a convenient spot to keep your spice rack, keep in mind that it’s also one of the hottest spots in your home.
- Keep your spices well-organized, and consider arranging them alphabetically. This way, you always know what you have on hand.
Day 10: Up your seasoning game
We all know salt and pepper are a must—they’re a mandatory part of practically every recipe. But there are so many other spices and flavoring agents that can be used to elevate produce, as well as animal proteins.
Now that our seasonings are in tip-top shape, let’s cover how to use them. Here are a few of my favorite ways to add extra flavor to my homemade dishes:
- Try playing with unexpected flavor combinations, like sweet and spicy, salty and tangy, or bitter and savory. For example, if you’re cooking a bitter green like dandelion greens, pair them with a sweet green (such as kale, collards, or beet greens) and sweet onions. Then season the vegetables with something spicy, like chili flakes, cumin, or sriracha sauce. I promise: The depth and complexity of flavors in the dish will make your palate sing.
- Toast your spices in a pan first (yes, before you add your ingredients). Cooking the spices unlocks their flavor, especially in the case of curry and coriander. To do so, gently heat a skillet over medium-low and toss the spices around for a couple of minutes until they’re warm and fragrant.
- Blend spices with oil and acid to make homemade marinades and simmer sauces, or buy them pre-made at the grocery store. These flavoring agents can really bring a dish to the next level, plus they’re super easy to cook with and they can be used for produce as well as animal proteins. In fact, I often recommend marinating vegetables or cooking them in a delicious simmer sauce—why not give them just as much love as the animal protein on your plate?
Day 11: Try making one of Maya’s favorite plant-powered snacks
Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are hugely important, yes, but where would we be without a solid supply of nourishing snacks to munch on between them? For myself and many others, snacks are a lifeline. This is why it’s important to consider ways to incorporate vegetables into our between-meal bites before we jump into the main event—planning future plant-forward meals—tomorrow.
Remember: Vegetables are among the most under-consumed foods in the United States and globally. Incorporating vegetables, both cooked and raw, into your snack routine increases the amount of fiber and phytonutrients (aka compounds found in plants that have been shown to benefit human health and help prevent chronic disease) you are consuming. Try some of the easy-to-make ideas below:
- Wrap a hardboiled egg with a sheet of seaweed, then roll it in Japanese-style five spice
- Cut up cucumbers, bell peppers, and jicama; sprinkle with tajin and a squeeze of lime juice
- Toss broccoli with miso and sesame seeds
- Dip fresh, raw green beans in hummus (reap impressive edamame benefits by blending them into your hummus)
Day 12: Brainstorm veggie-centric dishes for the coming week—and add the ingredients to your shopping list
Now that you’ve amped up the number of vegetables that show up at snack time, it's time to think about centering plants throughout your pattern of eating. Veggies are not only delicious, but there are so many long-term benefits to eating a plant-forward diet.
Keep in mind: If you are a meat eater, it is by no means required that you become a vegan or vegetarian if you’re hoping to boost the nutritional value of your meals by eating more plants. Simply reframing how you build your meals and working towards centering vegetables on your plate will still boost your digestive health, reduce your risk of developing metabolic dysfunction, and support healthy blood pressure and blood sugar levels.
To do so, I recommend starting with plant-based foods that are culturally relevant to you, and batch cooking dinners so you can eat them for lunch the following day to save time.
Now, starting with breakfast: While sweet flavors tend to reign supreme in the breakfast aisle, don’t forget that this meal can absolutely be savory and plant-based. I recommend trying steamed rice or sauteed potatoes with pan-fried veggies and an egg as an easy and deeply delicious way to start the day off with some vegetables. Try brainstorming three to five more veggie-forward breakfast options that are simple to make and sound satisfying to you, and add the ingredients to your grocery list.
When it comes to prepping lunch and dinner, think through ways you can double up on vegetables and ultimately make them the majority of your plate. A dish that comes to mind for me is chopped spinach with onion and thyme served alongside curried pumpkin, chickpeas, and a protein like tofu, fish, or chicken. Remember that lunch and dinners can be interchangeable when you batch prepare, so make a list that includes four plant-forward meals and when you visit the supermarket, buy enough for eight dishes.
Tomorrow, I’ll show you how to make a big batch of veggie-rich stew. Below is the list of all the ingredients, so you can add them to your shopping list as well:
- 1 yellow onion, diced
- 2 scallions (white and green parts), thinly chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
- 2 tsp avocado oil
- 3 sprigs fresh thyme
- 4 bay leaves
- 1 (15-ounce) can full-fat coconut milk
- 5 cups low-sodium vegetable broth
- 2 cups pumpkin, cut into 2-inch cubes
- 1/2 cup split peas
- 1 ear of corn, cut lengthwise into 2-inch pieces
- 2 green plantains, cut into 2-inch pieces
- 2 roma tomatoes, coarsely chopped
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- Juice and zest of 2 lemons
- 1 cup okra, cut into 2-inch pieces
- 1 habanero pepper
- Lime wedges, for garnish
- 1 bunch fresh cilantro, torn, for garnish
Now, off to the grocery store you go!
Day 13: Make my recipe for Ital Stew for dinner
Today, you’re in for a real treat: We’ll be making a big-batch recipe for Ital stew from my upcoming cookbook, Eating From Our Roots. Ital is the core of the whole foods–based vegetarian eating patterns that Rastafarians follow, and this Ital stew is literally loaded with a variety of nutrient-rich plants. The best part? The recipe makes four to six servings, so you’ll have plenty leftover for lunch tomorrow (and maybe even dinner), too.
Day 14: Plan ahead for the following week, being mindful of your own bandwidth
You’ve worked hard this week: You organized and embraced the joy-sparking jars on your spice rack, expanded your list of favorite vegetables, noshed on plants from morning until night, and you even got one majorly nutritious homemade meal under your belt (pun intended). Give yourself a pat on the back.
Now, as you are setting your intention for the week ahead, don’t forget to be mindful of your bandwidth. (The last thing you need is to already feel burnt out by the third week of the new year!) So as you start to plan your meals for next week, be sure to give yourself the space and time you need to source as well as prepare nourishing food. This makes it less likely that your meals will be an afterthought—or worse, get skipped. When working with patients in my practice, we always take the following into consideration:
- What work obligations do you have in the upcoming week, especially ones that may require you to work late or travel?
- Do you have personal lunch or dinner plans where you will eat your meals away from home?
- Have you set aside time to make a grocery list and shop?
- Is there time to batch prepare or prep all or part of your meals in advance?
Giving yourself the space to both revisit your intentions from last week and gauge your availability to plan, shop for, and cook meals next week sets you up for success. It also helps kick stress out of the kitchen, which is a *major* perk.
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