Given the vast array of fruits and vegetables available on the planet, it is impossible to cover them all in a post. Suffice it to say – the variety available far exceeds that in the meat aisle, and the number of dishes available also exceeds meats by a large margin. After having spent hours staring at the aisles in various stores, I can only come to this conclusion: meat, eggs and dairy products occupy about 1/10th of the variety of base/whole foods available, yet they take up about 4-5X the space of the produce aisle in stores. The junk food aisle is larger than the produce section, and processed freezer foods also take up more space.
I’m not sure where we went wrong, but I can guarantee that the stores only do it because we pay them to. If we all started buying eggplants and apples, and stopped buying hot dogs, the stores would stock appropriately. (incidentally, most stores carry more varieties and quantity of hot dogs than most fruits and veggies – except maybe apples – which I have always found to be a sad state of affairs)
At the end of the day, Campbell reiterates what we all already know: The produce aisle is the healthiest part of any grocery store. By learning how to prepare them properly (or unlearning how to mutilate them in my case) we have an easy and tasty way to follow a whole-foods, plant-based diet.
Organic, Canned, Frozen, Dried or Boiled?
One of the things that I have had to unlearn as an adult is how to prepare veggies. Veggies are junk food if you boil the hell out of them and lather them in butter. You’re better off drinking the water you boiled them in instead and eating some cardboard for fibre. As such, let’s revisit choosing and preparing the most important part of a whole-foods plant-based diet.
“Organic” is one of those words that means everything and nothing. It is a word that has been obsconded by everyone with an agenda, and everyone without one too. To chemists and biologists, organic means: “contains carbon”. That’s it. So I usually break out in fits of internal laughter when I see someone labelling a food as organic – because of course it’s organic… and it’s as useless as you can get when talking about nutritional labelling.
Other people think organic means “grown without pesticides”, which means nothing w.r.t. the nutrient content of it. Others think “grown without herbicides”. Others think it means “grown in nutrient rich soil” (whatever that means), and others think it means “hand picked by Tibetan virgins riding on elderly goats” (or at least that’s about the only sense I can make out of their ramblings and insistence on paying twice the price for food).
At the end of the day, organic is a nebulous, non-specific, ubiquitous and mostly meaningless word. If you can get “organic” food for the same price – sure, why not. But don’t go out of your way to pay 2X the price (which is often the case). If you feel the need to brag about how much money you can waste, go buy a porsche. 😀
Canned foods often take a bad rap for one of several reasons: preservatives, toxins leeching in from the can, or boiling/preparation techniques. Preservatives keep bacteria from eating the food, so the best I can figure is that the bacteria in your stomach… aren’t going to be able to eat the food. Not sure I’m worried about it as your enzymes still do their normal work. Some may be “toxic” (everything is toxic in the wrong doses), but if you believe the research about cancer and diet, you’re going to get buffered from any effects of “cancerous toxins” with this lifestyle anyways. It’s a calculated risk for the convenience of not having to spend a day reconstituting a can of beans or always having to have fresh veg on hand. Most preservatives are benign anyways. I buy canned chick peas because I can’t remember to get the dried ones ready a day ahead of time.
Can materials have always been a problem, and I still get worried about them as I occasionally lose a can of pineapple for a few years, and invariably when you open it the pineapple juice has eroded the inside of the can and looks like radioactive sludge. The worst was when we cleaned out my grandparents’ war-chest of cans… ugh. So use them up and don’t keep them forever I guess.
Boiling/cooking anything is always a tough call. It destroys bad bacteria, removes toxins from otherwise inedible foods, loosens up fibre, makes inedible foods edible and prepares food for preservation. It also denatures proteins (which means they change shape and aren’t as easily digestible) and destroys certain vitamins.
One key is to always keep the water that you cooked with. (except in really rare circumstances) The water you cook things in will leech out nutrients, so by tossing the water you are losing valuable goodies. I will never forget the sad-looking, limp, almost yellow broccolis sitting in bright green water as a kid – and wondering why I wasn’t eating the water instead.
And funnily enough, it doesn’t take as long to cook vegetarian dishes – vegetables don’t take as long as meats to cook, they absorb flavour faster, and don’t have all of the attendant worries about bacteria that needs to be destroyed during cooking. In fact, I have had to relearn cooking times – I find that I just have to throw most of the veggies in right at the very end – they don’t need very much time and taste much better if not cooked for extended periods. (as well as being more nutrient-rich)
One of the best ways to ensure that you aren’t losing nutrients and yet still getting to cook your broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, corn or any other veg is: use the microwave.
How A Microwave Oven Works
Let’s take a quick second to talk about these marvels of modern food preparation and clear up any misconceptions. Firstly, a microwave oven only does one thing: it heats up water. (unless you’re a crazy physicist) It emits microwave radiation tuned to the frequency of vibration of the water molecule.
What this means is that when you “nuke” something in the microwave, it had better have water in it. Vegetables contain tons of water which is usually evenly distributed inside and out of the vegetable, so you’ll usually get a nice, even cooking. You don’t need to add water – vegetables contain enough on their own. Just slap it in a corningware dish with a lid (to keep the moisture in), maybe put a tbsp or two of water (at most!) in the bottom to keep it from sticking, and nuke it for ~3 minutes. It’s that quick and easy.
When you cook something in an oven or in a pot, you are relying on convection to heat things up. This means that hot air or water has to bounce into the outside of whatever you are cooking, and hope that it transfers the heat all the way into the middle. Furthermore, the outside cooks faster and makes it difficult to get a consistent cooking. It also means that nutrients leech out of the vegetable into any water it’s submersed in.
With a microwave, you are heating the water all throughout the vegetable (mostly) evenly, and all those water molecules bump into their neighbours and cook the vegetable. This means microwave cooking is faster, cleaner, loses less nutrients and gives consistent results. It is also much more energy efficient and saves cash.
But I’m going to die from radiation! Relax, the screen on front (and inside) blocks most of the radiation. It’s a physics thing. (Faraday cages block radiation from escaping, and the holes on the front are much smaller than the wavelength of the radiation – meaning it’s “tough” for radiation to escape)
Back to foods (which are almost as much fun as physics), freezing foods is another thing to be careful of. In the process of freezing a food, you are going to cause the water inside the cells to expand and possibly rupture the cell walls. This is one of the reasons foods like celery don’t freeze well – the fibre inside them (which is about all celery has going for it) gets destroyed during the freezing process, and it then turns to mush when you defrost it. You can also denature proteins (although they sometimes denature back when defrosted), and destroy some vitamins which aren’t as robust.
While practical measures demand that we freeze or can things occasionally, it is still better to eat fresh. But it’s also better to eat frozen peas than bacon, and frozen blueberries than a chocolate bar. So I will utilise frozen foods for convenience, but they should not be a staple.
Drying foods is probably better than freezing, but still runs the risk of destroying cells during their contraction, and some foods really don’t rehydrate well. But beans, lentils, rice and many others rehydrate very well. Dried fruits are better than chocolate bars, so we encourage the kids to eat as many dried fruits as they want. They are also lightweight, travel well and give good energy in a pinch. Mix with nuts for a winning combo. Just remember to drink more water. 😉
I think smoothies are the best thing since sliced bread. Smoothies are versatile, can use up fruits and vegetables that are near end-of-life, can mask nasty veggies like Kale (personal opinion) while still giving their super-food properties, and give you a nice variety in your diet. You are also using fresh, whole, uncooked foods so you get maximal nutritional punch. A typical smoothie for us looks something like this:
– 1 apple, banana, peach, or any other fruit that is near end of life
– 1 cup frozen fruit (blueberries, etc.)
– handful of spinach, kale or other leafy green
– 1 carrot
– 2 tbsp ground flax seeds
– 1-2 tbsp ground chia seeds
~1 cup OJ, Veggie Plus or other fruit juice
~1 cup almond/hazelnut milk (see previous post for “recipe”)
Directions: put in blender and blend. Add to flavour as desired. Will keep in fridge for a day or so.
Cast Iron Cookware
Cast Iron Cookware has the benefits of giving a nice even heat distribution (good diffusive properties), and good heat retention (more efficient heating). It is also hard to burn stuff into a cast iron pan that has been properly treated, and they’re fairly low-maintenance. They are heavier, so I usually get relegated to cleaning the big one, but Melanie can handle the small one just fine. A scrub brush and water is all you need – never use soap.
Cast Iron Cookware also adds Iron (Fe) to meals, and in non-trivial amounts. There are ceramic-coated ones, but you lose the benefit of Iron injection into your meal, and I always feel nervous when I see the ceramic part scratching up – what is coming off into my food? It is the same story with Teflon – I get really nervous when I see Teflon flaking into my food and a flaky, pock-marked pan. Cast iron has been used since… well… the discovery of iron – and we have done well by it.
Fresh and/or Raw
We should never underestimate the taste, nutritional value and ease of preparing fresh foods. While our modern lifestyle almost dictates that we make use of various prepared and processed foods, we will do ourselves the most good by eating fresh, whole foods. This especially includes fresh fruits and veggies, as they lose much of their nutritive value during long, arduous preparation methods and processing. So you simplify your life and get more nutritive value by eating fresh.
Pretty much all fruits and veggies can be eaten fresh, with little to no preparation. There are the obvious rinds that need removing (canteloupe, watermelon, etc.), but skins are often the largest source of nutrients (like peaches, nectarines, plums, potatoes, etc.) and skinning them is like pulling grains apart to make white flour. Some need cooking to remove carcinogens (i.e. cassava) or make them edible (corn), but most do not.
I have come to appreciate the zing in raw cauliflower, and never having been really keen on lettuce I found that spiznach has a new place in my life. I literally throw raw spinach into many dishes after they are cooked and are sitting in my bowl – and spiznach adds a ton of nutrients, as well as some crunch and a mild flavour. I have also found that my tolerance for old, dried-out or slimy vegetables has dropped significantly – I now know what vegetables *can* be like.
I have learned that beets don’t have to be pickled, flavoured, canned, purple monstrosoties – and spaghetti squash doesn’t have to be baked like hell and lathered in butter. I have learned that wasabi peas are not a vegetable, and plain old fruit juice is way healthier than anything else in the pop fridge at work.
Moira hasn’t complained once about the change in our eating habits, and has taken to it quite well. She already likes dipping things (homemade hummous and baba work well), and eating with her hands (fresh fruits and veg are great for eating with your hands). We still make treats occasionally, and she likes vegan cookies as much as the old ones. She thinks oranges and fresh figs are ” ‘zert” (dessert) and gets excited about them. She loves the smoothies, thinks blueberries are a real treat, and has never had anything but whole wheat bread – and asks for it every morning. To her whole wheat bread is “bread”.
Best of all, with this sort of eating regime we never have to think twice about giving her more of anything she asks for. More fruit salad? Sure. More whole wheat, random grain bread? Here you go. More pickles, avocado or tomatoes? Sure. More smoothie? Definitely. More Tuber Tacos? On the way.
It’s nice to be able to take a little girl and remove her from the calorie counting, fat obsessed norm for a while, as well as providing her a reduced risk profile for Type I and II diabetes, allergies, obesity, teenage pregnancy, cancer and a host of other childhood destroying effects. This is also a cost-effective way to eat that the girls can follow when they get older and move out – you don’t need to be rich to eat a whole foods, plant-based diet – it’s actually cheaper.
Even if we didn’t feel 10X better now with this change in lifestyle, we owe it to the girls to do something so simple, yet so important.