Meal Planning

I’m not by nature the most organized person in the world, I admit. But I have come to realize in my adult life that a certain amount of planning and routine gives me freedom and greater room for creativity. This is something I continue to struggle with in my artistic practice, but I think I’ve mastered it when it comes to food.

The first step for me is to have a well-stocked pantry and freezer. I always make sure to have certain staples around: whole wheat flour and pasta, oatmeal, brown rice, lentils, split peas, and usually a couple other kinds of beans and grains too, plus canned tomatoes and pumpkin puree. A few other things that are somewhat more perishable include onions and garlic, potatoes, and sweet potatoes. In my freezer, I keep plenty of frozen fruits and flax meal for my morning smoothies. I also like to have frozen greens like spinach, peas, corn, and some kind of vegetable blend. Sometimes I store tortillas or an extra loaf of bread as well.

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All of these things on hand make it easy to throw together a quick meal after work or on a weekend morning. For example, I can toss brown rice, lentils, and sweet potatoes in a pot with onions, frozen spinach and spices and have a delicious stew in less than an hour. Or split peas and potatoes, plus onion, carrot, and celery (other staples in my fridge!) I can make a breakfast hash with sweet potatoes, onions, and greens. I can improv a soup with frozen vegetables, pasta or potatoes, and some canned tomatoes. Spaghetti sauce comes together quickly with garlic and canned tomatoes. A baked potato is a great foundation for some steamed greens and leftover beans or lentils, or a spoonful of hummus. Frozen vegetables can be boiled with pasta and tossed with sauteed garlic or a little thinned out hummus. The combinations are endless. If nothing else, I can always rely on a hot bowl of oats, either sweet or savory.

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Favorite meal: Baked potato with hummus and spinach

The other important plan-aheads I do ensure I have healthy meals during the day at work. Every weekend, I prepare a big pot of something (usually a hearty soup or some variation on beans and rice) to pack for lunch every day. I try to have enough to last through Wednesday at the very least, when I ought to have time to come up with something else. Whenever possible, I also plan a snack for some point during the day – an oatmeal bar and some fruit, usually. Sometimes it’s cut up veggies and hummus.

I also prepare my morning smoothie ingredients on Sunday night. I’m kind of brain dead in the morning until after I’ve had my coffee, so I have idiot-proofed my breakfasts. I put my ingredients for each day into an old take-out container: Greens or chopped beets, flax meal, 1/2 banana, and 1/2 cup of berries or other fruit. Sometimes I include a plant-based protein powder, but I don’t think it’s totally necessary. Then in the morning, I can just dump it into my smoothie cup, add almond milk to cover, and blend it up to take with me on the bus. I’m also experimenting with blending up a big batch of smoothie and freezing it in individual cups, but the timing hasn’t been right with the thaw just yet.

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Two blueberry and kale, two mango and parsley, one strawberry and lettuce.

With a little planning and careful shopping, I can be sure to have healthy meals at my fingertips all week long. The more healthy whole foods I have around, the less processed junk or expensive take-out I am likely to eat. The busier I become, the more important this is! Especially now that I’ve gone from working 6ish hours a day to a full 9 hours. Please let me reward you with my current favorite smoothie:

Tropical Beet Smoothie

Ingredients

1/2 a medium beet, cooked, peeled, and chopped

1/2 cup crushed pineapple in juice (or a little more if you use chunks)

1 small thin-skinned cucumber (about 5″ long), in chunks

1 Tbls chia seeds

Juice of one lime

1/2 cup or so of unsweetened coconut milk (the kind in a carton, not a can)

  • Combine all ingredients in a blender and puree until smooth. Depending on your blender, you may need to add ingredients one at a time, or use a little more milk. My old Cuisinart blender probably couldn’t have handled this, but I got a Ninja for my birthday and it makes quick work of the beets and cucumber all at once!

 

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The remains

Post-Gluttony Smoothie

I don’t know about you all, but I ate my weight in pie and stuffing this weekend! It was pretty great, but after this long weekend of indulgent fare, I am ready to get back into my good habits again. That means starting my Monday morning off right with a little yoga and a special seasonal green smoothie.

I have a discarded apple from my mother’s awesome centerpiece (they’re turkeys made of apples! I didn’t take a picture!), as well as a good amount of fresh cranberries in the freezer. I bought them not for the sauce potential, but because they’re a healthy treat this time of year. I’ve also got an abundance of lemons due to a special at the local store. It is with these humble ingredients that I bring you this sweet-tart, light, refreshing breakfast.

Ingredients:

1 small apple, or half of a large one (your choice of variety), chopped

1 lemon, juiced

1/3 cup of fresh cranberries, or to taste (they are quite sour)

handful of greens (I had celery and chard)

1 cup cold green tea

1-2 Tbls chia seeds or ground flax seeds

Optional, for sweetness: half a frozen banana or one or two dates

a bit of fresh ginger if you’ve got it, 1/2 tsp powdered if not

1/2 tsp turmeric

1/4 tsp cardamom

And if you are brave, a dash of cayenne!

  1. Place all ingredients in the blender and blend until smooth.

I hope all of you had as delightful a holiday as I did! My manfriend and I spent Thanksgiving day in the country with my family for dinner, then spent the rest of the weekend eating leftovers and snuggling under blankets watching Jessica Jones.

People often ask me what on earth I could possibly eat at a meal centered on a slaughtered bird, but in the 15+ years I have eschewed eating animals, I’ve never gone hungry on this holiday. Most sides can be easily made meatless (stuffing made with vegetable broth, for example), and the rest are mostly vegetables anyway. Since I figured out my sensitivity to dairy, it’s been a little trickier, but we just make the mashed potatoes with almond milk and butter the vegetables with Earth Balance. For a main dish, we used to buy a Tofurkey, but a few years ago my mom started to experiment with making her own seitan-centerpiece for my brother and me. Some of them have been frankly pretty bad, but this year she got it just right! I’ve also brought to the meal a good number of hearty vegan dishes, like last year’s Corn Chowder Quinoa Casserole (from Let Them Eat Vegan!) and this year’s foray into vegan potpie…That recipe is to come! Stay tuned!

 

Simplicity

Just thought I’d share my favorite quick meal with you all: A baked potato (microwaved) topped with steamed spinach (from frozen, also microwaved), and a big scoop of hummus (this one is curry hummus). Topped with a drizzle of sriracha, this is an easy, tasty, healthy meal that anyone can enjoy. Cheap too!

  

A Day in the Life

It seems to me that everyone in my life is trying to lose a little weight right now. I’m not sure if this is actually a new phenomenon or something I just happen to be noticing. But either way, between many friends turning 30 and feeling old, others getting ready to be married or recovering from having babies, and a weight loss contest at my office, I hear a lot about pounds and calories and steps and blood pressure.

I like to consider myself immune from this sort of hysteria – I’m already a pretty healthy weight for my height, and my other numbers are good too. Nonetheless, it certainly makes me extra aware of what I’m putting into my body. I’ve been a little down lately, which makes me more susceptible to the siren song of my favorite junk foods (Hello potato chips and coconut ice cream!). Add to that how hot it’s been, and I not only don’t feel like cooking, I’m more inclined to take the bus to work. So we’ve been eating a lot of take-out and convenience foods.

So here I’d like to chronicle a day where I make what are mostly good choices (I hope!) At least, if I am telling you about it, maybe I will eat better 😉  Here’s what my Sunday looked like:

Breakfast:

I started my day late, around 10:30am with a big glass of water and a 15 minute yoga routine, then followed it up with a peach and a cup of green tea while I cooked some cereal. It was a cool morning, so I figured I better embrace it and have a hot breakfast! I made a half-cup (dry) of Bob’s Red Mill 7 Grain cereal, intending to share it with my man-friend. He didn’t want any so I just ate it all! I flavored it with shiro miso and wakame, and a couple of halved grape tomatoes. Yes, I know that’s weird. It’s also delicious. I polished it off with a glass of homemade kombucha that I flavored with orange juice and red currants. Refreshing!

After puttering around on the internet for a while, I decided to take a walk around the neighborhood. I was cold, and since I have issues with my circulation, a brisk walk really helps. I just made a loop down to Highland Park and back around the block, but according to Google Maps, it was almost two miles! I had another cup of green tea when I came back.

Afternoon Snack:

Got a little peckish while doing some computer work, so I made a snack: Ants on a Log! Paired it with a cup of soymilk and got back to work.

Ants on a log!

Ants on a log!

Dinner:

Dinner had to involve eggplant and bell peppers, since that’s what I had in the fridge! I also had some tempeh, and after perusing How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, I came up with a yummy dish that I paired with brown rice. It was simple enough to make that I’m not going to patronize you with a recipe. I just sauteed two peppers and an onion, then added cubed tempeh and blackened eggplant. My sauce consisted of 2 tablespoons of tamari and 2 tablespoons of Heinz ketchup, with a tiny bit of sesame oil.

The little black flecks are black sesame seeds.

The little black flecks are black sesame seeds.

There are two ways to blacken an eggplant, which is the easiest and least fussy way to cook it. You can do it under the broiler until it collapses, which is great on a cool day or if you have either a big eggplant or a ton of smaller ones. Or, you can do what I did with my two little ones and blacken them in a dry skillet over medium-high flame until they collapse. You have to turn them occasionally, but it’s stupidly easy.

Getting black!

Getting black!

Collapsed.

Collapsed.

That was my day in food! I am not a big believer in counting calories, but I do occasionally log a few days into My Fitness Pal to make sure I’m on the right track. Usually it serves as a big reminder that oil adds A LOT of calories to a meal, so I get back to using less of the stuff. According to the app today, I can still eat another 400 calories. That’s unusual for me, and is probably just because I slept so late that I never really had lunch. It also tells me that I’ve had quite enough sodium, thank you, and could stand to go easier on the cooking oil in my stir-fry. I thought about that when I made it, but I couldn’t talk myself into washing a second pan if I got out the non-stick skillet after blackening the eggplant in cast iron. Anyways, I’m a big believer in food diaries if you want to lose weight. Even without a fancy app, keeping track holds you accountable.

Let me know if you thought this was interesting, or I should just stick with recipes. People are always asking me what I eat since I don’t eat animals, so I figured I’d be nice and answer with something other than “Plants.” Not only that, lately I’ve been getting the question, “How do you stay so thin when I see you eating all the time?” Anyway, I could also show a work day of eating later on, if people are interested.

The Nine to Five

For a long time I really didn’t understand why so many people had such a hard time eating healthy food.  I got up every morning, ate a bowl of oatmeal or leftover soup for breakfast, and later cooked a big batch of something for lunch and packed a portion up for dinner at work.  Once or twice a week on my night off, I’d make a nice dinner for my manfriend, complete with dessert (usually something decadent from Chocolate Covered Katie).  I mean, yeah, I snacked on popcorn or crackers after work most nights, and would have a beer or some chocolate if my shift was stressful, but all it took was a little time and planning to make mostly healthy choices.  I secretly thought that the rest of America was just lazy.  Sorry guys.

This was my routine for years, from the time I was a Brooklyn nanny working after school, to when I moved to Pittsburgh and took an evening shift call center job. I usually worked part-time and although I didn’t have many evenings free to be social, I did have a lot of time to cook and experiment in the kitchen. Fast forward to this February, when I accepted a new position at my job that requires me to work mostly during the day.  I have some flexibility, but it’s a basic Monday through Friday, 9am-5pm job.

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This is Annabelle. I wish she liked cooking from this book as much as she likes eating the cover.

My routine is entirely different now and I don’t have it all figured out yet.  I get up every morning and make coffee and a big green smoothie.  I was beefing it up with a great protein powder from Arbonne for a while, but that’s not currently an option for various reasons, so now I’m adding oatmeal and a handful of almonds to give it staying power.  Lunch at work is usually leftovers or some basic grain/bean/veg combo, the usual stuff I make, although I do occasionally succumb to ordering in.  And dinner is where I struggle.  No matter what I eat for lunch or if I take an afternoon snack, I seem to always come home half-starved and ravenous.  So I snack.  Popcorn, cereal, leftovers, junk food…and by the time dinner time rolls around, I’m too full to cook (a reverse from when I got home and was too hungry to cook).  So I skip dinner and around 8 or so I realize I don’t have anything to take for tomorrow’s lunch and hastily throw a meal together.  It’s usually curried lentils or split pea soup, both of which I’m horrifically bored with, by the way.

I get it now!  This is why people don’t cook all the time.  You’re too tired and you forget to soak the beans before leaving for work and you end up making ramen and scrambled eggs for dinner or ordering sushi delivery, and then don’t pack a lunch and order Chipotle at work then next day.  I get it, I was totally spoiled.  So that brings me to this question:  What do we do about it?

Seriously, what are your strategies for cooking healthy meals on a busy schedule?  Share your wisdom with me, internet friends!

Here’s another picture of my bunny to reward you for your tips:

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Potatoes and Microwaves and Wal-Mart

Here is an article I’d like to share with you, about judgement in the vegan and plant-based community.  I am guilty of these sins myself at times.

The author discuss all the judgements people make, all the striving for “perfection.”  The reality is, there is no perfection.  We all do the best we can.  I don’t like WalMart, personally.  But I also understand that for some people, that’s all there is.  I am fortunate that I live near stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s and a big Asian market, and fortunate that I can sometimes afford to shop there.  Not everyone is.  There should be no barriers to eating healthy, whether you’re a millionaire or you live on food stamps and minimum wage.

“In order to change the health of this country it is going to take ALL sides. It’s going to take people knowing how to shop at Walmart. It’s going to take people knowing how to make a perfectly healthy meal in a microwave. Over the next several decades we can start dealing with some of the other issues. But those issues, seem to be more of distractions at the moment, rather than things that will actually solve our health crisis.

We need to focus on the bigger picture for a little bit. We need to practice kindness in the way we interact with others. If someone shops at Walmart, doesn’t use all organic food, can’t shop at their farmers market, is unable to chop vegetables, doesn’t have an oven, they should not be made to feel like they cannot be healthy.”

I strive in this blog to present you with recipes and ideas that are do-able for most people.  Some are a little more complex, but over all I want to present you with food that you can make on a daily basis.  I know my posts are few and far between these days (a side effect of working three jobs), but I always appreciate your feedback.  If there’s an ingredient you can’t find, let me know!  I’m sure we can come up with a substitution.  Or even better:  If you come up with an easier way to make something than what I did, leave me a comment!  Everyone benefits from sharing.

Wishing you Peas and Love.

Penny Parsnip in Pittsburgh

Hello Readers! I’ve been on hiatus for a while now, moving to and getting settled in to my new home: Pittsburgh, PA. This hasn’t left much time for fun creative cooking. I’ve been eating old favorites like black bean stew and endless combos of beans, rice, and fresh veggies. All the while, I’ve been wearing the soles of my shoes thin by walking all over this beautiful city. Pittsburgh is a pleasant mix of yesterday and today. Old factories and warehouses and falling down houses dot the landscape, while folded in are new buildings, brightly painted townhouses, hip small businesses and cheery murals.

Gorgeous store in The Strip District

Gorgeous store in The Strip District

Nearly two months later, I’m finally feeling at home:  I’ve got a room in a big old house with some other women and a fluffy cat, complete with a giant kitchen.  My dear friend Dorothy the food processor is out of storage, and as the days cool into crisp autumn weather, I’ll be back to whirring vegetables into little bits and boiling big pots of beans.  I have a job I like, doing fundraising for non-profits, and my neighborhood is very much like Brooklyn.

I spent last weekend with my family in the country, baking pies for our church festival.  Not too many, just four dozen ;).   And since I still had some energy left after baking the pies, I whipped up a birthday cake for my older brother and sister using my grandmother’s recipe.  It has eggs in it, so I won’t share it here, but I used soymilk in place of cow and no one knew the difference.

Silver-white layer cake, topped with fruit because I am terrible at at making icing look good.

Silver-white layer cake, topped with fruit because I am terrible at at making icing look good.

But now that that sugar-rush weekend is done, it’s back to healthy eating again.  I’m making my daily green smoothies again, and cooking stir-fry for lunch.  I’ve got kombucha brewing in hopes of finding some new customers.  Right now I’ve got a big batch of chickpeas bubbling on the stove to make hummus for our house party on Friday (and some for my little brother who is bringing the tahini.)  Plus I’m revamping some chili into a pot of quinoa and spinach laced glop for tonight’s dinner at work.  I’ve also developed a mild obsession with peanut sauce dumped on all of my veggies, so I’ll share with you a loose approximation of how to make it.

Peanut Sauce

Ingredients:

big blob of peanut butter (I like all-natural stuff, but Jif and Skippy are fine too)

Soy sauce

Rice vinegar (or whatever you have, apple cider is fine too)

a bit of sugar (maple syrup, honey, agave, etc)

Something hot like red pepper flakes, cayenne, or Sriracha

finely minced ginger and/or garlic 

a little water to thin, if needed

1.  Whisk it all together until combined and season to taste.  Sorry for the lack of measuring here, I just eyeball it and keep adding and tasting until it’s good.

More great recipes to come!  I’ve been challenged to make a healthy hot-pocket, so stay tuned!