Cheese Sauce?

It’s hard to believe but it’s been about six months since a vegan friend encouraged me to try his way of eating for thirty days

This plant based journey has taught me a lot but one of the most valuable lessons is that it’s important to make the right choices for yourself in the kitchen.

Many vegan cooks manipulate ingredients in attempts to recreate familiar dishes in new, plant based and healthier ways. For example, there are scores of recipes on the internet to help you create a “cheese” sauce, ideal for nachos, mac and cheese and scores of comfort food dishes that you may remember from your past life consuming dairy.

I’ve tried a few of these imaginative recipes. Many use cashews and nutritional yeast. Some add a host of seasonings or use roasted red peppers. Nearly all create a neon orange sauce that resembles melted Velveeta. Well, resembles it in appearance at least.

In taste, perhaps not so much.

I have finally learned to cut the recipes in half so that I don’t feel as bad throwing away nearly all the completed product. After the last batch, I stood in the kitchen for a long time, contemplating whether to throw it away right then or stash the concoction in the fridge with hopes I would think of some way to salvage the two cups of mediocrity.

In other words, should I throw it away now or wait till later? This is the inner dialogue sometimes.

I’ve met plenty of people who think these recipes are great. Lots of bloggers, online reviewers and even some real life friends rave about how tasty, how authentically cheesy their favorite recipe is.

I’m happy for them but it’s not for me.

From now on, if I want mac and cheese, I’ll go to a restaurant and enjoy the real thing. It can be a treat, something to be savored and enjoyed occasionally.

For me, plant based eating should be about eating clean and eating well. There’s little more delicious than sautéed mushrooms, onions, peppers and zucchini heaped on top of a baked potato. No sauces, just some pepper and sea salt to taste. In-season blueberries are so delicious they’re hard to resist and homemade soup packed with veggies makes for a tasty dinner.

All of these things can be enjoyed in the simplest form possible. Torturing ingredients into forms they weren’t mean to take on isn’t necessary or worthwhile when you have such tasty meals and snacks at your disposal.

I’ll save my cashews for snacks and occasionally treat myself to the authentic cheesy dish.

After all, food is meant to nourish the body but I think it’s also meant to enjoy. It’s ok to take a break, especially if you’re doing it infrequently. At least, that’s the right choice for me.

Cultivating a Better Life

I like to take vacation around the holidays. This period is perfect for a forced slow down, to transition from three seasons of busy into my season of quiet.

The rest of the year is occupied by a lot of running around but our unpredictable winter weather often makes it hard to get out. I look forward to this time of year- soft blankets and books, inside chores and quiet walks through the snow take the place of road trips, weekend adventures and breakfasts on the porch.

January is typically a no spend month for me. This organized spending fast means bills are paid and necessities purchased but making do is the common theme and there are no frivolous purchases. Recreational shopping is not allowed but that’s ok because there are many free ways to stay happily occupied.

I’m more apt to do puzzles, to go to bed early and to spin records while cleaning something on a Saturday afternoon.

Relaxation is key and I turn my attention inward, write more, focus on self improvement and on building a better life.

It’s a good time of year.

This vacation is about transitioning into that period. I spent a couple of days running around but today will bake Christmas cookies for my folks. From now until the New Year the plan is to be mostly domestic.

Although, if the weather is good, there may be one last little road trip for the year, a Christmas gift to myself. After Natalie died, I realized that life is too short to not live as we wish.

This week is also about refocusing on plant based eating, exercise and rest. The last couple of months have brought spurts of stress and busyness that have messed with my sleep and left me in a position that I’m glad to just eat vegetarian while away from home rather than the plant based food that makes me feel so good.

In other words, friends, I’m making this break exactly what I need it to be. My wish for all of you is that you get a few days each year to do that for yourself. Remember, today is a great time to start.

Eating Well Doesn’t Mean Eating Boring

One of the biggest misconceptions people have about healthy eaters, especially plant based eaters, is that their food is dull or that they just eat salads and big bowls of broccoli.

Fortunately, nothing could be further from the truth.

I went plant based just a little over three months ago and think of myself as an imperfect vegan. That means that all the food I prepare is plant based but that healthy eating in the real world is hard. So when I’m out, I just do my best. Sometimes that means an Impossible Burger with a side of fries and broccoli. Sometimes it means a grilled pimento cheese sandwich and chips at a fabulous old soda fountain.

I aim to eat plant based 90 percent of the time. However, I want to eat good food all the time.

Yesterday I made some delicious pancakes to freeze for a rainy day. These wheat pancakes with plump blueberries are as delicious as any restaurant pancakes I’ve ever tasted, especially when paired with pure maple syrup.

I also made some hot chocolate with cocoa, a little stevia, almond milk and vanilla. There was a companion recipe for homemade marshmallow that I was too lazy to make despite how easy it sounded. Nonetheless, it was a tasty cup of hot chocolate to finish off a day of Christmas wrapping.

While it was good, it was missing something- maybe the homemade marshmallow? Maybe just a little more sweetener? I’m not sure but will work to improve it until I’m happy.

Then there was the pot of homemade bean soup – three kinds of beans, vegetable broth, onions and carrots simmered to create a mouth watering soup for work lunches this week.

The point is that I’m not deprived and am as happy as a clam with most of the food I make.

It’s actually a lot of fun to play in the kitchen, trying new things and learning from the occasional mistake. The mistakes are ok because I typically learn a valuable lesson and rarely make the same mistake twice. Also, it’s a sign that I’m trying new things and that my diet is no longer limited to the same five things I used to make all the time.

This is a good thing!

Thinking about reducing your meat and dairy or maybe just trying to eat a little healthier? Try choosing one dish that you enjoy and seek out a healthier recipe for that dish. Pancakes or soups are a great place to start. Try healthifying just one dish a week and you might be surprised how much you enjoy the changes.

Eating Healthy On The Road

Saturday around Winchester (2)

I transitioned into a mostly plant based diet this fall. In layman’s terms – I’m vegan. This has been for health reasons although I have long avoided meat for moral reasons as well.

My diet now consists of mostly fruits and vegetables, whole grains, plant based proteins and some healthy fats. No meat, dairy, eggs or oils. And I do my best to not make a lot of unhealthy foods using healthy ingredients.

This works great when I’m at home or can pack my lunch. In restaurants, life is hard. A lot of restaurants, including fast food giant Burger King, are offering plant based burgers now but you can’t live off burgers alone and these products aren’t what you might consider health food.

So, when eating out, my goal is to eat as healthy as I can within the rules I live by at home. As much as possible. 

This road trip was my first as a vegan and was helpful in shaping my goals and standards for future travel.

The first goal was to find a hotel that offered a fridge. I opted for a newly remodeled Motel 6 where the tile floors and removal of all unnecessary wood and fabric made me rest easier about protecting myself from bed bugs and other nasties. Motel 6 is a very basic, affordable chain with no bells and whistles. While they don’t provide breakfast, they do provide a fridge and microwave.

So I packed a small blender, a plate, reusable straw, kitchen towels and utensils. When I got to town, a stop at the local Aldi for supply acquisition – frozen fruit and almond milk for smoothies, peanut butter, bread, bananas and bottled water – cost about $15. With no toaster at hand, I just heated my bread to simulate the peanut butter with toast that I have with a smoothie most mornings.

I also packed some apples, homemade granola and a few protein bars in case I was in a pinch while traveling.

I had mexican one day and found a small pizza shop that made me a veggie pizza with gluten free crust and no cheese. They offered vegan cheese but that just sounds like heavily processed crap and maybe something that doesn’t fit with my healthy eating goals. So I passed.

There was a veggie burger at a cool old diner in West Virginia too.

The day of the Flying Circus Air Show, I stopped at Subway for picnic food at the airport – a veggie sub on bread that isn’t vegan but I needed something more substantial than a salad to get through this day.  I also went to Chipotle for a bowl that night.

And I cheated for a few meals. After leaving Winchester on Monday, the road took me south to Luray Caverns and west to a town in Maryland before landing in Clarksburg, West Virginia for the night. I arrived after dark and ended up at a mall looking for a few things. By then, I was hungry, tired and in no mood to go hunting healthy food. Traffic was bad in Clarksburg so I wasn’t going exploring at that point either. I ended up with food court pizza and salad. The next morning, I had a cheat meal that was planned – pumpkin pancakes and scrambled eggs.

In all, it was more fast food than I would normally like but I was on the go a lot and didn’t want to waste time waiting in restaurants.

I tell you that to tell you this.

None of these meals made me feel good. I woke up each morning grateful for my healthy breakfast and looking forward to cooking fresh food when I got home. The sodium in most of those meals was ridiculous and made my fingers swell – always a bad sign.

Could I have tracked down healthier options? Probably. Although, I had researched Winchester options prior to the trip and the best alternative would’ve been going to the grocery store for wrap ingredients or getting veggies to have with peanut butter sandwiches. But I wasn’t interested in making that kind of effort on this particular trip. I just needed to eat something so that I could keep going. There were adventures to be had!

As I become more entrenched in this way of eating, priorities may shift on future vacations. For now, I’m happy with doing the best I can with what I have to work with while road tripping. And also – I will blatantly break the rules and be plain old vegetarian in any and all cool old diners. I don’t care. Sometimes you have to make small sacrifices to do something you love! And I do like my cool, old diners! 

 Have tips? I would love to hear them!

From Whole 30 To Plant Based Eating

We have discussed the Whole 30 way of eating a few times on this blog. It’s a great means to ditch bad eating habits like a sugar addiction and to learn what foods might be causing your health issues.

Unfortunately, Whole 30 doesn’t have a vegetarian plan and instead pushes pescatarian eating. I followed this plan for more than a year, mainly straying off course in restaurants and for special occasions like cake in the lunchroom at work.

But I don’t care that much for seafood and had grown tired of the meal plan. It was time for a change but I wasn’t sure what that change would be.

Ditching the seafood in favor of vegetarian eating sounded favorable but so many vegetarian recipes prominently feature a grain – bread, pasta, rice – along with some kind of cheese and beans.

I hadn’t eaten grains, beans or dairy on any consistent basis since starting the Whole 30. Sure, I would order pizza, a sandwich or pancakes in a restaurant but never brought these things home.

Not even the healthy whole grain stuff.

As I wrestled with food questions, it became increasing clear that my desire to eat vegetarian was at odds with many of the unhealthy recipes the internet provides.

And then I met Dewey, a friend whose health scare caused him to completely overhaul his traditional American diet of basically everything he wanted. Now he eats a plant based diet which also eliminates oils and sugar.

He has cut his cholesterol in half and lost about forty pounds in a season. He now enjoys each day as a new man – energetic and happy.

When I expressed interest in his food habits, he shared the details of his diet – called the Engine 2 plan – and how it has improved his life.

Then he suggested I try it for thirty days.

I said yes because you can do anything for thirty days, right?

As the thirty day marker approaches, I am quite happy with this way of eating. I feel energetic, my skin looks better and I feel better most days.

Honestly, I’m still figuring out what works and what I like, experimenting with new recipes and trying to determine what is right for me.

I don’t expect to have such stunning results as Dewey has enjoyed. For one thing, going from eating mostly seafood and produce to including grains and beans seems like it will make weight loss a little harder.

But I love that I feel clear of mind and have lots of energy. Plus, I’m hopeful that my cholesterol will be a little lower at my next doctor visit.

The biggest challenge to date has been restaurant eating. There’s a road trip on the horizon this fall and restaurants in the towns where I’ll be have limited plant based options. If they have a meatless option, it’s typically grilled cheese or maybe some kind of heavy pasta or a sad little salad.

Restaurant green beans are often cooked with pork in them, giving even the sides section of a menu the feel of a mine field. And I refuse to live off the sad little iceberg lettuce salads that so many places try to pass off as a meal.

There are some fast food options. For example, the Burger King Impossible Whopper is tasty but it’s still heavily processed fast food that should be a treat rather than a dietary staple. Qdoba caters to vegans but I assume they use oils in their cooking. Yet cooking oil on vegetables sounds like a lesser evil than greasy grilled cheese someplace else. Subway preserves their vegetables to the point they taste like plastic so that’s not a viable option either.

The good news is that I’m clearly committed because I’m already considering how to make it work and how much I’m willing to bend on vacation.

Since I’ll be in one hotel for a few days, taking a blender would allow for breakfast smoothies in the room.

I’m thinking there will be pancakes for dinner one night – a comfort food and a luxury at dinner time if there ever was one. That’s a single meal with pancakes made from white flour, eggs and milk with highly processed syrup instead of the pure stuff from home.

What other concessions am I willing to make on vacation? These are not game time decisions because I promise you, I will make the wrong choice when I’m hungry and the pressure is on.

Every. Single. Time.

I don’t want to be so strict that eating becomes a hassle but I do want to find hacks and means for nourishing my body without sacrificing my goals.

That’s not asking too much, right?