I was on the train commuting to work the other day when the people sitting across from me in our 4-pack of seats was talking about fitness and diet. They were speaking so loudly that I found it impossible to concentrate on the words of my book and even my podcast couldn’t drown out their conversation so though I was completely uninterested in their babble, I couldn’t avoid hearing their conversation in full.
They were congratulating themselves on their fitness regime and after giving full details about their favourite gyms, they started talking about their diets. They agreed that sugar is evil and should be avoided at all cost. Salt bad. And then one of them started on the carbs. “If you’re limiting your sugar, you should limit all carbs. They’re so bad for you.”
He suggested she continue eating whatever it was she liked to eat, “keep that steak the same size but eat less rice.” He told her that rice is terrible for you and pasta too.
I find this blanket statement ill-informed.
I completely agree with limiting processed carbs – you’re not getting much out of a piece of white bread. But as long as you’re eating a variety of whole grains, there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s a lot more credible science to back a whole foods diet than a meat-centred diet.
As a vegan, it’s the carbs that fill me up and make me feel satisfied after a meal. Quinoa, brown rice, whole grain pasta, whole wheat bread is a wholesome and satisfying part of any meal. And as long as you’re eating a variety of whole grains and not processed white rice for each meal (although, really, it’s not that bad to eat white rice), there’s nothing to feel guilty about.
Carbs are a satisfying comfort food so it is easy to overdo it with large portions. And if you’re looking to shed a few pounds, watching your carb intake is a good place to start. But don’t eliminate it completely. If you really want to shed some weight, ditch the dairy and meat. That’s how you’ll get the best results.
This week, things are going to be different around here. I’m starting a new job and will be focused on learning everything I can about a new industry so I can write about it with authenticity. For the next few weeks, I’ll be making a longer commute to my new office – as I learn as much as I can from my new colleagues.
I’m not going to abandon this blog – but my posts may be more of a weekly or bi-weekly nature rather than a daily one. Since I won’t be the first one through the door, I won’t be making dinner.
My husband is going to be shouldering most of the family work until I can find some balance between work and home. He’s a great cook and we’re in good hands. We’re very lucky.
I’m doing my best to support him by stocking the freezer with supplies, helping with the meal planning and making fail-safe back up meals for those days when starting dinner from scratch is just too much to ask.
Some days, everything is not okay. The kids are feeling battered and bruised emotionally from something that happened at school (these are often little things to us but feel huge to my sensitive little ones – like someone saying my son’s tuque looks like an acorn or squabbles between friends). On these days, the littlest thing triggers tears or an argument.
Of course, we may have come home from challenging days as well. What’s left of our energy is spent restoring calm between siblings or soothing raw emotions. In the midst of this chaos, it’s nice to have dinner in the can (so to speak).
We’ll be meal planning throughout the week but these act as super simple back ups for when we need them. These meals are “just add water” or very simple steps.
Lentil and pasta soup – just dump the jar in boiling water and cook 12 minutes or until the lentils are done.
Lentils masala – this is one of my favourite meals but the list of ingredients is daunting. I’ve premixed the spices in a bag in the jar. Cook the lentils and at the same time, make a savoury sauce. The only actual prep is chopping an onion and opening a can of tomatoes.
TVP taco meat – one of our most relied-upon mid-week meals is tacos. The kids like them with black beans, avocado and whatever else we have on hand. But us parents want something different. Just pour boiling water over the TVP and wait 10 minutes and it’s good to go. Not gourmet but quick and sometimes that’s good enough.
It is now widely recognized that a well-balanced vegan diet is healthy for adults. But can we say the same for kids? Kids have specialized needs since they’re growing and using so much more energy on an average day than adults (if only I had a fraction of that energy!). So there are a few things to keep in mind if you’re transitioning to a vegan diet with kids.
Can it be a healthy lifestyle for kids?
Absolutely. I think it’s quite natural for kids to have vegetarian tendencies. They tend to be quite empathetic towards animals. The idea of killing and eating animals can be a hard one for kids to learn to accept. There’s a mental leap between seeing a cute cow at the petting zoo and eating a burger that vegan kids don’t have to make. And I think being compassionate towards animals and other people is a healthy and positive worldview to teach our children.
But will they be healthy?
Absolutely. Meal planning for kids (vegan or non-vegan) follow specific conventions to ensure they’re getting balanced meals. Non-vegan meals in Canada are based on the four food groups: fruit and vegetables, grains, dairy and alternative and meat and alternatives. Vegans can follow this same example using the alternatives to easily substitute familiar meals with vegan versions of family favourites.
But you can do better than that. If you really want to ensure your kids are getting healthy meals, don’t rely on convenience or processed food even if they are vegan. Serve them whole grain, plant-based meals with ingredients they’ll recognize. And don’t be sneaky. Kids are smart and their tastebuds rat you out (no offence meant to rats, who are apparently very smart and sweet creatures once you get to know them).
Sneaking spinach into a milkshake may seem like an ingenious way to eat more greens but kids won’t fall for it – they just won’t drink your milkshake and miss out on the banana and nutrient-dense berries you’ve included. At least, that’s my experience.
Are they getting enough calories?
This is important. As a pregnant vegan who was nauseous at the thought of most food but starving all the time, all I could stomach was carrots. Among the words that would trigger my gag reflex were bacon, beef, any meat, soy sauce or meat alternatives. I remember thinking that it didn’t matter how many carrots I ate, the baby inside wasn’t getting the calories she needed.
Luckily, I could stomach peanut butter, which has plenty of fat and calories. Nuts can provide a great source of energy and so can seeds. Sunflower seed butter is really tasty and I can send it to school with my kids.
When I make meals with beans and lentils, I’ll fry up onion, garlic and spices in oil and add the mix to the meals I make for the grown ups – which increases the calorie count for my meal but the kids like things plain. So I make sure I pour some high quality olive oil over the kids’ food too. I have a canister full of mixed nuts that the kids know to go to whenever they’re hungry between meals. Avocado is a favourite source of healthy fat too.
But the best way to ensure the kids are getting the nutrients, calories and fat they need, is to ensure the ingredients I use are nutrient-dense and I’m including good fats in our meals. This means swapping all-purpose flour for whole wheat (at least partially) and adding seeds and other grains like quinoa to my homemade bread. It means choosing the whole wheat bread and tortillas at the grocery store and getting the kids used to eating them.
I remember when my son was quite young, he decided he didn’t like brown rice but would only eat jasmine or basmati rice. I didn’t fight him over it – I switched to other grains for a little while and reintroduced brown rice again later. He ate it.
The same thing happened with quinoa and barley. We went a few weeks without eating those grains – not that I was feeding him white rice and couscous at every meal but we had other whole grains. Whole wheat bread (both store bought and homemade) whole wheat pasta and oatmeal are all safe bets.
What’s the easiest way to enrich kids’ meals?
If baking everything from scratch is asking too much or your kids refuse to touch whole grains, give your meals a nutritional boost with the right meal topper. Asian meals get a sprinkling of sesame seeds on top. Pasta dishes get a dash of nutritional yeast or a pre made vegan parmesan made from nuts.
What about milk?
Here’s another important decision to consider. From birth, milk plays a very important role in kids’ development. Even at age six, when my son is feeling overwhelmed, tired or sad, a glass of milk provides emotional comfort. A snuggle and a glass of milk will give him the fortitude he needs to finish the day in a good mood. That’s powerful stuff.
I believe breast milk is best for babies. A vegan mom who eats a well-balanced diet is best suited to provide the nutritional needs of her baby – if she is able to produce enough milk. Sometimes moms can’t breastfeed and that’s okay. There are vegan formulas that are an excellent replacement. They’re formulated to be calorie-rich unlike other milks.
Look at the labels (of everything you buy). Almond milk is great for adults who are watching their weight. Not great for kids. When you’re choosing the milk you’ll feed your young kids once they’re finished with formula, choose something that is fortified (check for B12), with plenty of protein and a source of healthy fat.
Comparing the labels of the milks I currently have in the fridge, one glass of soy milk provides 7 grams of protein while almond provides only one and coconut has none. They’re all low fat but soy has 3.5 to almond’s and coconut’s 2.5 grams. The soy and almond have been fortified but my Holiday Nog Coconut Seasonal Beverage (yum) is not. My seasonal beverage is primarily sugar (it’s a treat). It has 15 grams of sugar while my vanilla soy milk has 8 grams and the almond milk has none at all (the kids won’t touch it).
It would be preferable to give my kids unsweetened or original soy milk that has less sugar than the vanilla version but my son very stubbornly put his foot down at a young age and refused to drink anything but the Silk soy milk in a blue carton. We call it blue milk to this day because from the day he learned to express his opinion (and it was early), he refused to drink anything that didn’t come from a blue carton.
And yes, we tried putting less sweet milk in the blue carton to trick him. He’s too smart to trick like that! But it’s okay because generally, we don’t eat a lot of sweets and this milk checks off the other, more important boxes (providing protein, fat and enriched with the vitamins he needs).
Take it easy – and give yourself a break, give your child a break and take a deep breath. Sometimes kids turn their noses up at anything unfamiliar. So you can ease them into a vegan diet by feeding them convenience food versions of their favourites. Most grocery stores have vegan chicken fingers, fake-beef strips for stir fries and veggie burgers. Be prepared to try lots of different kinds before you find something your kids will eat.
My kids love veggie dogs. And that’s okay. When we go camping, they eat a lot of veggie dogs and we eat a lot of spicy vegan sausages. Because packing a cooler for a week with enough food to feed a vegan family of four isn’t easy. And I know we don’t always eat like that, which gives us a pass.
So start off gradually – introducing new foods slowly. But don’t give up. Sometimes it takes a few tries before a kid will like a new food. My rule is that my son has to taste everything but if he thinks the dressing on my slaw is too sour, he doesn’t have to eat it. I know one day he’ll learn to appreciate lime juice. But we’ll never know when that day has arrived if we don’t push him to taste it at every opportunity.
Set a good example
Don’t limit yourself to the fruits and vegetables that you know and love. Bring home a kohlrabi and let everyone taste it. My kids love kohlrabi (I even grow it in my garden) – it’s mild and easy to like.
Try a new way of cooking. Have you ever roasted cauliflower? Broccoli? Beets? It changes their flavour completely. Trust me – roast your brussels sprouts.
Give them choice
Cook a bunch of different veggies and lay them out on a platter to let them make up their own plates. This is my low-stress way of allowing my son to avoid the swiss chard completely. And he can choose the unbroken cherry tomatoes and (as long as he saves some for the rest of us) fill his bowl with green beans.
Without a well-stocked bookshelf in my kitchen, dinner wouldn’t happen most days. Unlike people who have developed family-favourite recipes that they rely on weekly to nourish the family, without some spark of inspiration or craving to fill, I couldn’t be bothered to cook. What’s for dinner? I don’t know!
When I don’t know what to make for dinner, or breakfast or whatever, I’ll browse my cookbooks for a spark of inspiration. And because of the visual nature of social media, there are so many high quality vegan cookbooks out there. And I do find them irresistible.
But there are a few that I return to repeatedly because they fill a need. These are the six most well-used books on my shelf. If you’re vegan cooking is missing a little je-ne-sais-quoi, you may find it in one of these books. If you’re new to vegan cooking or just want to use less animal products in your kitchen, these books are great.
I’ll list them according to how long I’ve had them.
The Joy of Vegan Baking
This was one of my first vegan cookbooks and I still rely on it for traditional baking. It’s my go-to book for cornbread, applesauce, pudding, pretzels and hot chocolate to name a few. It has such a range of recipes that all turn out great. Caramel popcorn – check. Cinnamon rolls – check. Fruit crumbles – check. There’s a great variety of sweets in this book and it’s very well written.
I’ve had this book forever. I used to make all the fancy cupcakes when my husband and I were DINKs (double-income-no-kids). Those were the good old days when we ate well! Then we went through the birthday cupcake stage when I only made the vanilla cupcakes with vanilla icing with sprinkles. But now my kids are older and my daughter is interested in the more complicated cupcakes – she had the Chocolate Cherry Creme Cupcakes at her sleepover this year with saucy little cherries dripping all over. Divine!
If you have a sweet tooth or live with kids, this is a great book to have. I can whip those vanilla cupcakes up in no time at all!
I’ve mentioned this one before in this blog. It’s my go-to for a quick pizza dough. But it’s so much more. This book’s focus is on classic Italian recipes that happen to be vegan so there’s no tofu or fake cheese. It’s authentic Italian food. I use it most in late summer when the garden is bursting with tomatoes and zucchini, the basil has to be eaten and all the freshest ingredients are cheap at the farm.
I bought this book when I started commuting daily and I knew dinners would be rushed. It reliably provides dinner ideas that take less than 30 minutes to cook. That’s a life-saver for me. When I’m working from home, I love throwing ingredients into the oven and letting them roast or bake while I go back to work. But when I’m at the office, I want a good meal fast.
The 30-minute Vegan has a few different books and I have a few but I love this one because I love Asian food. It includes easy and quick meals with the flavours of India, Thailand, China, Japan and fusion recipes that are great too. And as I’ve said before, these books are also great because they offer suggestions for variations too (like: if your kids don’t like tempeh, use tofu – and here’s how). It was this book that taught me that you can just marinate tofu for 5 minutes if that’s all the time you have and then throw it in the over for 20 while you make the rest of your meal. It offers great solutions for when I’m overtired and in a hurry.
When I bought this book, I didn’t think I’d use it much. I already had Myoko Schinner’s artisan cheese cookbook. But I couldn’t get the thought of making my own mustard, mayo and yoghurt out of my mind. It seemed so indulgent and I knew the only way to move on from this nagging need was to just buy the book.
I’m glad I did. I made a lot of mustard. And that’s great. But I also came to rely on this book to make great meat alternatives. The veggie burger recipe stocks my freezer with burgers that don’t fall apart in the cooler when we go camping. The vegan wings are divine and the fake pork is perfectly paired with Chinese-inspired meals. The recipes require an investment of time but provide an abundance of servings so they can be frozen. With this book, my vegan pantry is stocked with high quality vegan foods.
This book is a great resource for learning techniques that really improve the quality of food and ingredients I use.
I love Indian food but I was never good at making it at home. This book changed all that. I can now make delicious pakoras, dals and curries. And I can control the spiciness so the kids will eat dinner.
Many of Richa’s recipes involve a spice mix or sauce that is cooked separately and added to the dal or curry at the end. So I’ll take out the kids’ portion and then add the flavour. It’s like making two dinners at the same time (which I’ll do sometimes because I like a spicy curry to serve alongside the kid-friendly version).
You’re having guests over and you learn that one of them is vegan. So what can you do to ensure everyone feels welcome and there’s something vegan at the table?
As a vegan who has been on the receiving end of this situation, I understand this can be a real challenge. You may not feel confident that you understand what your vegan guest can eat and you don’t want to accidentally serve something that doesn’t comply with the vegan diet. Here are a few tips for non-vegans who are hosting vegans at a food-related event.
First off, thanks!
As vegans, we know what it takes to cook a great vegan meal. We remember the challenge of learning how to eliminate dairy, eggs and all animal products from our meals so we really appreciate any steps that our non-vegan friends and family take to make sure we feel included in events. Thank you for caring!
Ask for help
We’re a caring and compassionate group – that’s one of the major reasons we’ve given up animal products! So if you’re cooking a meal and want to ensure we’re included, let us know how we can help. We can bring a vegan side dish, appetizer or dessert. In fact, we’re probably already planning on bringing something as a thank you to the host. It’s no bother. We insist!
Consider adjusting recipes
Vegans don’t eat dairy products, eggs or other animal products like gelatin, chicken stock or honey. If your recipe calls for these products, consider making adjustments. Can you swap butter for olive or another vegetable oil in your vegetable dishes? Swap cow’s milk for unsweetened soy milk? Use vegetable broth instead of chicken broth. Maybe put some potatoes aside for your vegan guest before you mash the full pot with butter and milk – maybe use a vegan butter and non-dairy milk (I recommend an unsweetened soy milk). You get the idea. If you can make these kinds of tweaks to the side dishes, it will make a big difference at the table.
Read the labels
You’d be surprised at the number of foods you regularly eat that are already vegan. Hummus, guacamole, salsa, breads, grain and vegetable dishes … check the ingredients on the food you plan to serve. You may have more options than you realized. When in doubt, get a nice hummus and fresh bread to include in the spread. It won’t go uneaten!
Growing up, Thanksgiving and Christmas both centred around turkey dinners. Your guest won’t feel left out without a big piece of meat centred on his/her plate. As long as you’ve avoided adding butter or bacon bits to the side dishes (or reserved some for your guest to season to his/her preference), there can be plenty of options. Make the stuffing with vegetable broth and set some aside rather than putting it all in the turkey.
If you want a vegan centrepiece for your table, try your local grocery store to see what they keep in the health food freezer aisle. There are many options of prepackaged vegan roasts that only require reheating. Just remember that your vegan guest will probably be sharing their meal with others. In my experience, everyone wants to have a taste of the vegan meal so ensure you’ve made enough for everyone to get a piece!
Vegan kids and birthday parties
At most birthday parties, the menu centres around known kid favourites like hot dogs, pizza or chicken fingers. The good news is that these are all available in vegan versions in most well-stocked grocery stores.
Many pizza chains offer vegan cheese (Pizza Pizza, Pizza Nova are two chains in my region that have vegan or “non-dairy cheese”). You can order an extra non-dairy cheese pizza and the kids will be none the wiser.
For birthday cakes, many bakeries offer vegan cupcakes if you order them in advance. Ask and you’ll be surprised at the number of options you have. If you make your own cakes or cupcakes, it’s easy to find recipes online for vegan cakes.
My go to recipe book for cupcakes is a vegan classic (it’s another book on my shelf that needs to be handled with care since it has been so well-used) Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World: 75 Dairy-Free Recipes for Cupcakes that Rule. If you have a vegan in your family, it is well worth purchasing this book for your shelf since it is filled with great cupcake recipes that everyone loves. I’ve made most of these cupcakes over the years and they’ve all turned out beautifully.
So don’t be intimidated. Any effort you put into making your vegan guest feel welcome will be appreciated!