Meal Planning – Not Fun, but Worthwhile


Image by MStewartPhotography on Flickr

As Saturday evening approaches, I start to prepare myself for the festivities ahead. Party with friends? No. Out to the bars? Nope. A little time in the casino? Nuh uh. Movie and popcorn? Hardly. Saturday night is meal planning and groceries. Oh yeah, I know how to live it up!

Meal planning and grocery shopping are not my two favorite chores. I don’t actually know anyone who has them on that list (though I am sure some of you are out there). But, they need to be done and my life goes much more smoothly when they are.

Without meal planning, my grocery shopping strategy is to go through the sale ad, see what is a loss leader that we need to stock up on (far fewer than I used to when I was buying more prepared foods), catch a few other things on sale, and then try to remember everything we’ve run out of recently and restock. Some weeks, that works fine. Others, I get the groceries home on Sunday and realize that, while I have purchased $200 worth of groceries, I don’t seem to have anything to make for an actual dinner.  Ooops.

The better plan, for me, is to start my Saturday night fun by coming up with 5-6 dinners for the week. I consider what we haven’t had for a while, what seems fitted to the weather or to the most recent crops in my area, what I’m in the mood to make, and whether anyone has written something on the “Dinners that I Hope Happen Soon” board on the refrigerator. I only select 5-6 dinners to make because there will almost certainly be leftovers for 1 night, and there may be a pizza night or an event in there that takes up the other one. I try to vary the prep time across meals, so that I have some flexibility.

Once I have an idea of what I plan to make that week for dinner, I can then create a shopping list that includes all of the ingredients that I need. It also allows me to start making some tentative decisions about which meal to serve which night, though I leave those pretty loose, so that I can adjust based on how a day unfolds and the amount of time available. If I buy items that I worry will spoil quickly (though those are usually things for the omnis and not the vegans), then I know that the meal that involves them will probably be Sunday evening (grocery pick-up day) or Monday at the latest.

For breakfasts and lunches, because it is “serve yourself” around here, I don’t plan specific meals. Instead, I just keep a general list of things we should have available and try to replenish each week.

Once I make my list of dinners, and buy what I need for those, I can fill in the rest of the shopping list around that.

This process makes my week so much easier. Each day, I come home from work and look at the list and figure out what I am up to making that night, and what I have time to get done. If I am out of the house for a night and Mr. VeganAsana needs an idea, the list is available on my desk. Sometimes, I switch it up as I go, because I decide I want something different, I end up with a fresh ingredient that I didn’t plan for, or time becomes an issue. But, the plan is there, so I have a starting place.

Using this system also allows me to look at each meal for nutritional purposes and determine what I need to adjust. It’s easy for me to make too many carbohydrates and not enough of anything else if I just throw together meals at the last minute.

So, that’s my basic strategy for meal planning. What’s yours?


Cooking for a Multivore Household

Previously posted on Elephant Journal

Many vegans/vegetarians live in households where not everyone shares the same food ideology.  And, sometimes, those veg-heads are the primary cooks in the house.  In TheVeganAsana house, the spousal couple consists of a vegan and an omnivore with strong carnivore leaning.  The little asanas are a mix of vegan, vegetarian, omnivore, and what I like to call “carbivore.”  So, we are most certainly a multivore household.  Over many many years of being in this situation, I have developed some primary principles that I use in dealing with the day-in-day-out of cooking for 6-8 people with different dietary paths.  (n.b.  Of course, some will opt to say that they will only cook veg food, and/or only have veg food in the house.  In my case, I consider it a compromise of marital and family happiness).

1.       There is a huge difference between meh and retch.

If you have spent any time in the presence of a child, you’ve probably witnessed the “I HATE ____” phenomenon of meal time.   The hated item one day could be peas, the next day mushrooms, then beans, and maybe even a harmless macaroni noodle.   The sentence is almost always uttered with either vehemence or total disinterest.  But, my philosophy on this is that there is a significant difference between “I don’t really enjoy this item,” and “I’m going to gag if I eat this.”  There are many things that I disprefer, including making dinner every night.  But, it won’t kill me and I won’t break a tooth, so I tough it out and do it.  The same is true for food I don’t love.  If I can tolerate it, I eat it, and I expect others to do the same, because ultimately food is fuel.  I never signed on to make everyone swoon with delight at each meal.  There are many ways to deal with the difference between these two states of dislike.  For a while, in my house, we had a 3 item limit on the “this will gag me” foods.  This worked until we had a child with some pretty serious texture sensitivity who would literally hurl at the table if he put foods with a certain set of textures into his mouth.  So, the limit had to go, but we still follow the general idea.  If I know someone will actually gag (said child still cannot consume tofu even chopped into tiny slivers), then I don’t serve that item to him/her.  This policy, obviously, applies to the vegans/vegetarians in the house, who actually would retch if served meat.  So, they aren’t.

2.       You are not a short order cook.

Your house is not Mel’s Diner, and Flo does not work there.  This means that making multiple meals to suit everyone’s desires is just not going to happen.  Again here, there are  multiple options for how this unfolds.  In some households, it might mean that anyone who doesn’t like the meal can help her/herself to a PB&J.  In my house, due to point #1, everyone eats what is served, or they don’t, but it’s what is available for that meal.  In 22 years, we haven’t had anyone starve.   If someone doesn’t get quite as much as he/she might like at dinner, there is always a piece of fruit to have later, or a bigger breakfast in the morning.

3.       Something for everyone.

While #2 means not making a bunch of separate meals, it is utterly possible to manage to have something that each person (typically) can eat at each seating.  Tonight, for example, we had spaghetti squash with cilantro, jalapeno, tomatoes.  I know full well that 2 of the kids are just not going to eat that, because they find cooked tomato gross and also don’t do well with squash (see previously referenced gagging).  So, I served a spinach romaine salad and baked chicken breast on the side.  Everyone at the table had at least 1 thing that they could reasonably be expected to eat.

4.       Protein on the side.

While I’m not sure we really need as much protein in the diet as is often suggested, I do understand that people (myself included) sometimes feel like a meal isn’t quite “done” without a protein item.  So, I often put the protein on the side and let people add at will.  In tonight’s meal, baked chicken was the side dish that was optional.  If I make spaghetti with marinara sauce, I might brown some faux sausage and also some meatballs and let people add it to their pasta as they like.  Edamame, nuts, and garbanzos make good protein side items for salads or rice dishes, or even pasta.  Most dishes that traditionally have ground beef in them can be made without it, and have it added by the individual, and so on.

5.       Develop animal product prep. strategies that you can live with.

This is crucial in a household where the cook is a vegan or vegetarian and others aren’t.  If there is a belief that some meals will involve animal products, decisions have to be made about how that can happen in a way that the cook can tolerate.  This might mean that someone else cooks all the meat items.  It might mean that the herbivore does make meat items, but places some restrictions on what those items will be.  In my house, this has gradually evolved into a basic principle that I will not cook anything that involves complex meat preparation.  I’ll put a chicken breast on a plate and sprinkle some seasoning on it, or I’ll bake some sausage links.  I’ll even throw a roast into a crockpot now and then.  But, I’m not going to do a Cornish game hen or fry chicken.

6.       Mealtime is not the time for recrimination.

In a household where there are multiple perspectives on diet, it’s perfectly reasonable that there will be strong feelings about food choices.  I would prefer that no one in my house ate meat.  But, this is not a discussion we are going to have at mealtime.  We also are not going to discuss factory farming, livestock hormones, or potential dietary deficits in a vegan diet during dinner.  Meals together are a time for bonding and enjoying the food, and – while we will engage a lively political debate now and then – arguing over who is right about food choices is not going to enhance either of those things.

Lest this all sound really complex, here are a few specific suggestions for multivore friendly meals that I find quite appealing around TheVeganAsana household:
–  Nachos – create your own with beans, cheese/faux cheese, veggies, salsa, sour cream (dairy or soy), meat or faux meat crumbles, guacamole, corn, jalapenos, olives, etc.
– Spaghetti with marinara sauce, meatballs on the side, and a big salad
Pancakes (vegan), sausages (faux and meat), and fruit
Chili (vegan) with cornbread or other fresh bread
Make your own wraps with hummus, baba ganoush, bean dip, and a variety of vegetables
Black beans and rice with cheeses and sour cream (dairy and soy), olives, hot sauce, etc.
Potato soup and fresh bread

Cooking for a household is stressful, no matter how you slice it, and adding different dietary beliefs makes that even more complex, but with a little forethought, you can avoid turning your time in the kitchen into a total horror, and prevent your house from becoming Mel’s Diner 2.0.  And maybe you’ll never even have to tell anyone to kiss your grits.

Order up!

Feeding the New Vegan

The transition from a vegetarian diet or an omnivore diet to a vegan diet can be a challenge, not only for the person making the change, but for anyone who might be cooking for him/her. Because the choice to become a vegetarian or vegan can sometimes occur during the teen years, parents can find themselves in a position of needing to cook for a diet that they don’t fully embrace and worrying about nutrition in that diet. As I have previously posted, it’s not as complicated as it might sound to find food for a vegan.   For the person in the kitchen, a good way to start thinking about meal planning for a vegan diet is to break it down into manageable bits.

For each individual “cooked” meal (so, I’m assuming this is mostly dinner, but it might sometimes be breakfast or lunch), try to fit in the following:

1. A grain – Grains tend to be a primary source of vegan food.  This can include basics like pasta, bread, and rice.  For diets that are high in bread, pasta, and rice, it is recommended to work toward including more whole grain pasta/bread and more brown rice, rather than always selecting white items.  Grains can also include things like couscous, wheatberries, cornmeal, bulgar wheat, quinoa (not really a grain, but works like one),

2. A protein – Vegan protein does not mean that you have to cook with tofu every day, though it can.  Tofu is very versatile and can be added to many food items with very little impact on flavor.  New tofu eaters may find it more palatable if it is more “dry.”  This can be accomplished by using a tofu press or by freezing a block of extra firm tofu and then thawing in a colander before use.  Tempeh is another easy way to fit protein in.  Tempeh comes in prepared blocks.  They can be chopped and added to other items, sliced and fried (we love it with bbq sauce), or eaten right out of the package.  Soy burgers (Boca is a popular brand) are quite popular with new vegans and have a taste quite similar to a burger.  But, you don’t even have to head into soy to get protein in.  Nuts and beans are also high in protein.  Kidney beans (mmm, nachos), pinto beans (yum, burritos), black beans (oooh, black beans and rice), garbanzo beans (mmm, hummus), navy beans (yum… soup) are easy to fit into diet and most cooks have a good variety of recipes that are bean based.  Nuts can be added to recipes or used as a base item.  A peanut butter sandwich on whole wheat bread gets in protein and a good grain!

3. 2 vegetables/fruits – If a new vegan doesn’t like fruits and vegetables, it is going to present a challenge, because they are pretty important in any sound diet.  But, veganism doesn’t mean fruits and veggies have to be eaten plain and raw.  Vegan “butter” is easy enough to find.   Olive oil makes a nice addition to many cooked veggies.  Fruits can be eaten plain, cooked into recipes, or blended into smoothies.

Over the course of a day, try to add in some calcium and iron (which can often be folded into the three above).  Calcium can be found in many soy products (including soy milk), vitamin fortified juices, and dark leafy greens.  It’s not a bad idea to add a calcium/magnesium supplement to the vegan diet.  Similarly, iron can be found in unexpected places.  Soybeans, quinoa, spinach, molasses, white beans, and lentils are among some of the non-meat sources of iron.  There are also vegan iron supplements available in most places that sell vitamins, and a little supplementation may ease concerns about iron sufficiency for the vegan and the cook. For smaller meals, you don’t have to hit grains, protein, and fruits/veggies, but across the course of the day, try to work on getting a total of 6 or more servings of veggies/fruit, 6 or more of grains, and 2 of the protein category, along with any supplements.

While cooking for a new vegan may require a little more planning, so that you avoid a constant diet of salad and peanut butter sandwiches, it’s really not as hard as it can sound at first.  Attention to the dietary needs of a vegan isn’t that different than attention to the dietary needs of omnivores, and, in a household where cooking has been relatively auto-pilot, having a vegan in the house may actually result in everyone having a better diet.

Happy cooking!