Last night, D and I made our meals for the week with a friend. Our friend is trying to eat healthier and doesn’t have much experience with cooking and so as a trade for taking care of our puppy in December, we are training her on the N and D ways of cooking healthy. Last night reminded me of my beginning attempts to cook, especially when I became vegetarian. At first, I attempted to take family recipes made with chicken or turkey and just transform them into recipes made with tofu, seitan, tempeh, or other fake meat products. I can’t say I make most any of these meals anymore, but it was a good start to transitioning to healthier cooking as I started with what I was comfortable with.
One of the meals that I made at that time of transition was a recipe that I made for many meat eaters and was able to convince them it was meat when it was actually made with tofu. I knew that if I told them it was made with tofu, they wouldn’t even bother trying it. There are some tofu haters out there! I will admit that tofu made in the typical way with breading is not my cup of tea either. But tofu is one of the most versatile foods out there. It takes on the flavor and texture of everything around it. So give it a chance here first before you diss all tofu forever.
I’ve given this recipe out to many people, and every time, I received a raised eyebrow because the ingredients are so out there (though simple and cheap as well). However, they’ve always come back to me and said “Ya know, it was really good…and it really tasted like chicken!” Without further ado, here it is:
Crispy Total Tofu
2 heaping tbsps peanut butter
1 heaping tbsp fruit preserves or jam (any flavor)
1 box Total cereal or any corn flakes (preferably without corn syrup)
1 container extra firm tofu
Preheat oven at 375.
Mix peanut butter and preserves together in a bowl. Press tofu between your hands over a sink and then with paper towels so it is as dry as possible. Cut into medium-sized cubes. Dry your hands. Crumble Total (or corn flakes) in your fingers into a bowl- Start with a few handfuls and keep adding into the bowl as you need it. Roll the dry tofu cubes in the peanut butter/preserve mixture and then dip into the Total/corn flakes.
*Note: Don’t think you’re doing something wrong if it’s a total mess. It is! It can be made easier if you have two people, one to dip the tofu into the PB/preserves and one that then dips the tofu into the Total. You may need more PB/preserve mixture. If you do, just make sure there is a 2:1 ratio of PB: preserves in any quantity you need.
As you complete each tofu cube, place onto aluminum foil on a cookie or baking sheet. Once done with the whole tofu block, bake at 375 for 15 minutes.
Suggestion: Serve with low-sodium teriyaki sauce for dipping and steamed veggies with brown rice.
Another great tofu recipe is a marinade you can read about here.
Is there a recipe you have that you would like advice on how to make healthier? Comment with it below and I will do my best and hopefully make it into a featured recipe of the week. 🙂
My Jewish-raised grandparents used to pick me up from school every day. They would bring with them buttery croissants, chocolate chip cookies, eclairs, black-and-whites, and numerous other fresh baked goods. It was as though fattening me up was, in their mind, key to my success. Food always seemed to be on their mind. As such, every day, the minute I heaved my very large backpack into the car, my grandma would ask me the same question. “What did you have for lunch today, honey?” Every day, I would roll my eyes and mumble my answer under my breath. It annoyed me to no end. I felt like all the other events of my day (like tests or presentations or friend issues) just didn’t matter to her. One day, I decided I had had enough. She asked me the question and my response was more than audible that day. “A goat. I ate a goat for lunch.” She got very quiet…and she never asked me again. But I also noticed her disappointment and sadness within the silence from that day on, and this confused me for a long time.
Coming from an extended family not unlike that in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” I was raised to believe that food was a sign of prosperity, of love, and of health. To decline such an offer or not eat heartily from one’s plate was the equivalent of a major insult as well as an indication that you might be sick (at the very least, in the head). Instead of accepting this view as my own, however, I realized that food had power- power to control my weight, my physical and mental health, how people viewed me, how I viewed myself, and even the power to make decisions to better the world. I sought to use that power to my advantage instead of allowing food to take control of me.
Why am I writing about families, culture, and religion when the title of this article is about being vegetarian? Because families, culture, and religion are SO tied into how we view food and so many of us do not have a healthy relationship with it. If you don’t believe me, think about your favorite meal and think of the reason why. I will bet that when you think about your favorite meal, a number of sensory “images” come to mind. I would bet that your favorite meal is rich in calories and flavor, that it is a warm meal, that its smell reminds you of one of your favorite times as a child when you were eating this meal, or at the very least reminds you of the person who makes or made it for you as a child and who shared it with you. I would wager that no matter how much you have searched for finding the best place that makes your favorite meal, you have yet to find a time where it tastes as good as the first time you ever had this meal. My favorite meal is one I have not eaten in a long time. It is a strange concoction of Kraft macaroni and cheese with extra milk, ketchup, and tuna fish. Whenever I imagine it, I can’t help but smile. I am reminded of the unique smell and my unique grandma making it for me as a child. Though this memory provides me with a pleasant feeling, I do not allow myself to dwell on the food, as I’ve realized that the food is only a lifeless medium that provides saliency for the emotion.
I only began to understand what food really is at its simplest- a combination of nutrients for our body to thrive- when I became vegetarian. Until then, I was always in conflict with food: If I eat this, will it make me gain weight? Will it make me feel bad? Will it give others power over me? Do I know what is really in this? Do I know how this food got to my plate? Will others think poorly of me? Will I look in the mirror and like what I see? If everyone ate this, would it still be here in a thousand years for others? Until I became vegetarian, I didn’t consciously realize that these conflicts existed within me, that what I was consuming was really eating up (no pun in tended) so much of my mental and emotional energy. I believe the direction I went with my decision to be vegetarian stemmed in part to resolve these debates within me, although my husband will tell you we went vegetarian because he lost a debate.
A coworker of my husband’s was/is a vegan. Not an “only when I eat at home” vegan or an “I eat no animal products except honey” vegan. He was a VEGAN in all caps…and that is what his very large green tattoo said running down his arm as well. He was the kind of vegan that called up every company he bought anything from and would make sure every single bit of what he wanted to buy was without animal products of any kind (example: Pepsi uses crushed beetles within the dye in some of their sodas.). My husband D respected his sincerity and consistency, but would always have intellectual debates with him about why he was vegan. His coworker’s response was always the same. “Because I don’t *need* meat.” And D at some point realized it was a sound argument and one he had no response to. After showing interest in this lifestyle, he received a link to “Meet Your Meat” on goveg.com. We both watched it…or tried to. I was in tears within a few minutes. We decided in that moment that it would be wrong to continue eating meat now knowing what horrible means it took to get to our plates. And thus began our evolution of reasons for being vegetarian.
The first- Moral: Though the moral issue is the first reason that brought me to being vegetarian, it is the reason most people find issue with. I find the defensive reactions I receive interesting because a number of children, when informed of how meat gets to their plate, give up meat without a second glance back. When they realize that an animal that was once happily living its own life was killed in order for them to eat it, they determine whether it’s nutritionally necessary to eat it and then some will choose to give it up entirely (See video here.). I don’t think that response is something we get over, but one we learn to repress. I think back to my experience earlier that same year we made the switch to vegetarian when I was making my first (and last) Thanksgiving turkey. When I had to remove the organs from inside the turkey, I burst into tears. I had been confused at that reaction, as I had made chicken or sliced turkey so many times before without much thought. I believe it was a piece of me that finally connected the dots, that realized this was not just meat, it used to be a real animal with functioning organs…and now I am eating it. Though we call what we eat chicken and the animal the same, it doesn’t seem to register for a very long time until we stop repressing this reaction that really, this is from an animal that used to be breathing and thinking and living its own life. Once we stop eating meat, we stop needing to repress and thus can appropriate those emotional resources to be used for other needs.
Sustainability: Though I became vegetarian for moral reasons,my reasons for staying vegetarian evolved beyond this into personal and environmental health as well. The side effect of eating meat is that we need the resources for livestock to survive for long enough to eat them. In order to raise livestock, we need lots of water, land, and fossil fuels which then causes de-forestation and pollution and this increases greenhouse emissions. The amount of methane cows “fart” is dramatically contributing to the demolishing of the ozone layer as well on the order of 100-500 liters a day per cow (Read more here). The US livestock population outweighs the human population by five times and therefore “the amount of grains fed to US livestock is sufficient to feed about 840 million people who follow a plant-based diet.” (Read more here.) Thus, if everyone were to ditch the meat and eat a plant-based diet, we could reduce our greenhouse emissions by 70% (Read more here.). That is a lot! So by being vegetarian, it makes me feel better that I am also doing well by the earth.
Health: Many people have asked me if I feel different being vegetarian compared to when I ate meat. The answer is yes, much. Let’s just say my intestines and my stomach are MUCH happier. When you become vegetarian (as long as you are open to actually eating vegetables), your dietary fiber intake skyrockets. Dietary fiber is like a brillo pad for your intestines and hence those half hour sessions on the toilet where your legs are falling asleep…well, they just don’t happen anymore. Additionally, after I eat, instead of feeling like some time on the couch is in order, I am energetic and ready to take a walk or run or climb. Food is my fuel, not a rock in my stomach weighing me down. Moreover, weight is no longer a pendulum. As long as I am eating something vegetarian (but not just scarfing down vegetarian cookies), I’ve found I maintain more or less the same healthy weight. Of course, I’m an “n” of 1 and I exercise a lot, so I may not be the most accurate representation. Many studies do show that vegetarians and especially vegans tend to have lower levels of cholesterol, triglycerides and lower rates of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, cancer, osteoporosis, renal disease, dementia, diverticular disease, gallstones, obesity, and rheumatoid arthritis (Read more here). I have also heard other vegetarians and vegans discuss the same phenomenon. If you’d like to read one of the most thorough research studies about why vegetarianism (and also veganism specifically) is healthier than the average American diet, I recommend the wonderful book The China Study by T. Colin Campbell (Read more here or buy his book here.)
Beyond feeling better, one of the most important changes that came from restricting my diet to vegetarian was that counterintuitively, my diet actually became more varied and healthier. Similar to a haiku where the limitations of expressing an idea make the result all the more beautiful, becoming vegetarian forced me to expand my taste buds and try new foods and learn how to cook in a different way than I had been. When I used to eat meat, I was apt to make every meal centered around meat with a side of vegetables or a starch. Becoming vegetarian made me change my perspective on what a meal is and found ways of incorporating proper nutrition into every meal without using meat as a backup plan for nutrients. It opened my eyes to fruits, vegetables, and grains I’d never even heard of before like these foods. It made me (and my Midwestern husband) discover an appreciation (if not love) for foods from different ethnicities like Indian, Persian, Ethiopian, and more. This also led us to make friends of different ethnicities and become more well-rounded culturally. It made me become more informed about what proper nutrition is and how to balance a complete diet. It made me learn how to transform recipes into ones that not only tasted better to me, but also were truly healthier (Read more here). I suppose the term for what I’ve become is an “honorary food scientist” (coined by a good friend). On that note, stay tuned for weekly easy, health-ified vegetarian recipes I’ve found to be a good balance of well-rounded, nutritious and tasty (first example here).
I am not trying to convince anyone to be vegetarian or vegan. Though it does effect the life of our planet and our people and ourselves, it is still a very personal decision. Besides, I know that force and persuasion don’t go well together. 🙂 I am just clarifying my stance, as it is a question that comes up a lot and is one of the major ways I balance my health, my lifestyle, and my mental attitude about food.
*Side Note: I know there are some of you out there who are asking why I am not vegan. I’m assuming those of you asking are probably vegan yourselves. I did go vegan for a little while and I just didn’t feel good or healthy. In reality, I do eat mostly vegan foods: I cook almost entirely vegan at home except for occasional cheese, but don’t limit myself to only vegan when I am out of the house. I had a hard time getting enough calories, protein, iron, etc when entirely vegan with all the exercise I do. I also felt like I could not enjoy being with other people eating out at a restaurant or their house because of my (voluntary) dietary restrictions. I’m not saying that others can’t or that it is not a positive direction to take. There are plenty of vegan athletes very successful in their endeavors, for example, and I respect them very much for making it work for them. I am also very much a proponent of people taking every step they can/are motivated to in being healthier and being consistent with their own moral, emotional, and physical compass. For me- right now- I am not taking that step.
Since the number one advice people ask me for is food-related, I’m going to start posting with a taste-approved health-ified recipe every week with reasons for why I made the revisions I did. The temps are finally starting to drop here at home and the leaves are finally changing color and for me, this always brings with it a desire to eat creamy comfort foods. Thus, I thought I’d start with a simple fall favorite.
Most of the recipes I come across that inspire me are on either Pinterest (see my Pinterest food pins here) or this awesome blog. I almost never cook from recipes directly though. I change bits and pieces of it to make it healthier to my satisfaction (or my/D’s taste buds). A good friend told me that I “go by the recipe”…with an asterisk. 🙂
4 roma tomatoes – I replaced the condensed tomato soup with roma tomatoes. Though the condensed soup provides more thickness, I figured the coconut milk would make up for the creaminess. Romas compared to condensed tomato soup also have less calories per serving (27 versus 90), less sodium (7mg versus 480mg), less sugar (4g versus 12g) and more vitamin C (32% versus 10%). Romas are also obviously not processed like condensed soup is.
2 handfuls of spinach, torn
1/4 cup sundried tomatoes, chopped
1 large can full-fat coconut milk (Thai Kitchen is the brand I use)- I replaced the half-and-half with coconut milk because coconut milk has no cholesterol (compared to 90mg cholesterol in 1 cup of half-and-half, more iron and magnesium, and about the same amount of protein. Coconut milk does, surprisingly, have more saturated fat though (51g per cup versus 17g in half-and-half). Reduced fat coconut milk would also work as a substitution, but would not be nearly as creamy. Coconut milk also does not have casein, while half-and-half does.
2 cups vegetable broth- I replaced chicken broth with vegetable “broth.” Instead of broth in general, though, out of laziness, I often just mix the amount of water I need with a block of Organic Vegetable Bouillon with Sea Salt and Herbs by Rapunzel.
1 tsp onion powder
1 tbsp italian seasoning
1/2 tsp salt- I omitted the salt. Use it if you want to.
1/2 tsp pepper
1 whole 9 oz package of whole wheat cheese tortellini- I always try to find a whole wheat pasta alternative rather than white pasta whenever I can because it doesn’t spike glucose as much and the whole wheat option is less processed and has more protein in it. If you want to make this recipe vegan, you can make the recipe with a non-cheese tortellini or other pasta and omit the parmesan.
1/4 cup of parmesan cheese- You can add this or not. The original recipe calls for it as a topping, but I mixed it into the sauce for some added thickness. It’s quite tasteful without any extra cheese though.
Directions: Saute garlic with olive oil in medium pot. When garlic is done, add tomatoes, coconut milk, vegetable broth, parmesan and spices. Bring to a simmer. Once simmering, drop tortellini into soup. Cook according to package directions. After the tortellini are cooked, ladle soup into bowls and top with parmesan if desired.
My picky husband declared this a “definite make-again” and said it was “the best soup you’ve ever made.” And when he gives something accolades like that, I know it is safe to share with you all!
Enjoy this soup- ideally next to a fire while leaves are falling outside. 🙂
Most people will agree that eating awesome food feels great in the moment, but may feel plain awful after finishing. My stomach has never agreed with my food choices, and so after years of treating it poorly and paying for it dearly, I gave in and started cooking better to avoid nights in the bathroom. Before I go into logistics of how I substitute in recipes to cook healthier, I want to explain something for clarification’s sake:
A vegetarian (also called lacto-ovo or ovo-lacto vegetarian) is one who does not eat meat: no fish, no chicken, no beef, no pork, etc. They do eat dairy and eggs.
A pescatarian eats fish but no other types of meat.
A vegan is one who does not eat meat AND also does not eat any animal products: no eggs, no milk, no honey, no nothing with any piece or product of any animal.
I am a vegetarian/ovo-lacto vegetarian. But to muddy the waters, I avoid egg since I have a mild allergy to it and I generally cook vegan except for the occasional cheese. My substitutions in food are generally to alter a recipe towards being more vegan and more heart-healthy. By more heart healthy, I am referring to reducing cholesterol and saturated and trans fats. I’ll explain why I make each substitution in regards to health below.
1) Butter– If a recipe calls for butter, I use olive oil instead in the same proportions. To convert, use this measurement: a stick of butter is equivalent to half a cup of butter and thus I would use half a cup of olive oil instead. I also don’t hesitate to decrease the amount of oil from the conversion if I think the item I’m making honestly does not need that much fat to keep its consistency and general taste.
A note about oil: Many people think that oil is inherently unhealthy. But it really all just depends on what you call “healthy” and what oil you are using. Oil is fat inherently. However, the fat from olive oil (specifically extra-virgin) and many other oils is mainly monounsaturated fats, meaning there is one double bond and there are less hydrogen molecules attached and this actually decreases LDL (“bad cholesterol”) and increases HDL (“good cholesterol”). Monounsaturated fats also normalize blood clotting factors and benefit blood glucose and insulin levels, which reduces one’s chances of acquiring type 2 diabetes. In these ways, unsaturated fatty acids are good for your health. One point to note, however, is that all oils have a temperature at which they smoke, and when this happens, it becomes trans fat. Trans fat does the opposite for your health- it increases your LDL and decreases your HDL. Therefore, it is important that when you are cooking meals at high temperatures that you take into account an oil’s smoke point. For instance, olive oil’s smoke point is about 375 degrees Fahrenheit, while grapeseed oil’s is 420 degrees Fahrenheit. Therefore, it would be healthier to use grapeseed oil over olive oil to saute food if you are planning on frying, baking, or sauteing over 375 degrees.
Why extra-virgin olive oil is better than butter: Olive oil contains 33% saturated fat, while butter contains 66% saturated fat. Saturated fat increases LDL and total cholesterol. Also, olive oil has no cholesterol in it, whereas butter has 33mg of cholesterol for each serving. Higher levels of total cholesterol and LDL and lower levels of HDL all increase the risk of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), the leading cause of heart attacks, stroke, and vascular disease. Therefore, replacing butter with olive oil drastically reduces one’s risk of heart disease.
2) Eggs- Eggs are a little trickier to find a replacement for, as they provide meals with fluffy textures. I vary my substitutions of eggs based on what kind of food I am preparing.
– Sweet Baked Good: If I’m making sweet baked goods like muffins or cake that don’t depend on egg for textures (unlike quiche or pies for example), simply replace each egg asked for with either 1/2 of a banana mashed or 1/4 cup applesauce.
– Savory Meal: If I’m making a savory meal asking for one or two eggs, I mix 1 tbsp of ground flaxseed with 3 tbsps of water and let it gelatinize before adding it to the meal.
– Recipe requiring more than 2 eggs: Food that demands eggs for the majority of its texture like quiche or pies need something like silken tofu or Ener-G Egg Replacer. The egg replacer will have explanations on its packaging of conversions for each egg. If using tofu to replace egg, it is better to have a recipe that is already using tofu within its recipe as a replacement.
You can read more about egg substitutions here and here.
Why replace eggs? Honestly, there is a lot of controversy about whether the cholesterol in egg yolks increases one’s blood cholesterol and thus one’s risk of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). Some studies say eating eggs is worse than smoking for your health (examples include this and this) and others recommend eating three eggs a day for the sake of your health (click here)! Whether or not you are sold on the cholesterol debate about eggs, you might be convinced that eating eggs is indirectly associated with animal cruelty (from this) or at the very least that they are one major avenue of salmonella transmission and are also not great for the environment.
3) Milk and Milk Products- Milk is one of the easiest substitutions to make. Just replace the required milk from the recipe with the same amount of almond, rice, soy, or hemp milk. Enjoy! The only exception is whole milk, which is more fatty and thus needs a milk with more substance. It can easily be replaced with low or high fat coconut milk.
Cream is also often a very important ingredient in thickening up food. Though some people may argue that alternative milks (almond, rice, soy, or hemp) will work just as well taste-wise, I find that most of the time I am disappointed in the texture. The best replacement for the texture of cream in my opinion is either high fat coconut milk (Thai Kitchen has some good high fat ones; the “lite” version will not be thick enough to give you the right consistency) or coconut oil or yogurt (or a combination of them).
Cheese is honestly the most difficult to emulate in my opinion. Cheeses mixed into food are easily replaced with recipes involving tofu such as these for a replacement ricotta: here, here, or here. These recipes will work well for recipes needing ricotta such as stuffed shells. What I’ve found is that the key to fake cheese is blended cashews and nutritional yeast. The “nacho cheaze” from this recipe is also pretty good. In general, fake cheeses don’t tend to be a dead ringer, so keep this in mind before you take your first bite. There are also commercially produced “cheeses;” my favorite brand is Daiya.
Why ditch the cow’s milk? Did you know that humans needed to evolve mutations (genetic changes) in order to become lactose tolerant? It’s true! Being able to drink another species’ milk is actually NOT normal. Even now, only 35% of people with European ancestry can digest lactose. Other populations have much much lower rates of tolerance. That means the vast majority of people get sick drinking milk or consuming other food with lactose in it. If that is not a good enough reason to ditch the cow milk, then the amount of saturated fat and cholesterol per serving might. Cow’s milk may also increase one’s risk of prostate and ovarian cancers (see this article). Alternative milks are lower in calories, more nutritionally dense, and do not contain lactose, gluten, or casein (Note: If you want to know more about the negatives of casein, reference The China Study by T. Colin Campbell.). If you are still touting your doctor’s advice to drink milk for healthy bones, think again. You can acquire plenty of calcium through almonds, beans, tofu, dark leafy greens, and calcium-fortified alternative milks, none of which have the negatives of cow’s milk (reference here). Calcium is also not the only factor in developing strong bones. Vitamin D is an essential vitamin for absorption of calcium and weight-bearing exercise is also a key to strong healthy bones.
4) Meat- When I first became vegetarian, I used fake meat products like GimmeLean and Field Roast to replace meat in recipes a lot of the time. However, as I ventured into cooking healthier and trying new vegetables and new ways of preparing them, I found not only did I feel like I needed “meat” flavoring less, but I also liked the taste of it less. Although you can obviously find numerous fake meat products to replace meat in recipes, I usually just replace meat with sautéed mushrooms (especially Portobello), black/kidney beans, or marinated and baked or sautéed tofu. As far as meat “stock” for soups, I just use vegetarian stock or vegetarian/vegan bouillon. I’m not the biggest fan of seitan, tempeh, or TVP but those are great options for getting similar taste and texture to meat in meals as well.
Why stop eating meat? This calls for a whole new post. Read more on this here.
For more information about other healthy substitutions, click here or here.