Curing the “What’s for Dinner?” Blues

Welcome to the New Year! Maybe you’ve made some New Year’s Resolutions to go vegan, or to lose weight, or to save money. Maybe you want to eat more whole foods, or to expand your palate, or to spend more quality time with your family, or to save energy by eating more locally produced food. For any of those reasons, and lots of others, cooking at home for yourself (and your friends and family)is a good idea, and it can be a lot of fun. The toughest part is in the planning and in developing the habits that make cooking at home easy (and often faster than waiting on the pizza delivery guy).

The first thing you need to do is decide just exactly what your goals are. If you want to save money, then you’ll have a different menu plan than someone whose main goal is to try more new foods. There are lots of great vegan cookbooks on the market these days to fit just about every need (just type in “vegan” on Amazon and you’ll be amazed). If one of your goals is to save money, start by checking out all the great books available at your local library, and the wealth of recipes available online.

Making a weekly menu will help you be more efficient at the grocery store and in the kitchen. As you improve your kitchen skills, you’ll learn to do things like double-batching casseroles (one for the oven, one for the freezer), making extra beans and whole grains (both keep for several days in the fridge and freeze well), and chopping sturdy vegetables ahead. Depending on your schedule, you might choose to do more cooking on the weekend, planning ahead for the week, or you might cook most nights of the week, but make extras to carry you through the weekend. At our house, I usually follow the second plan, and make enough dinner each night to pack the leftovers for lunch the following day.

When making your menu plans, remember to include a large helping of green veggies and some whole grains or starchy veggies in every meal. Most meals should also include a major protein source (beans, tofu, tempeh, nut butter, etc.) but if you’re eating a wide variety of foods and enough calories, you’re almost certain to get plenty of protein anyway. Don’t skimp on whole fruits, either. (Juice, which is high in sugar and low in fiber, doesn’t count.)

You can use all kinds of great gadgets to get dinner on the table quicker (more about those later) but first you need a basic, well-stocked pantry. Here are some ideas of things you should keep on hand to keep make it easy to whip together a healthy, vegan meal anytime. Some folks have very simple palates and can live just fine on whole grains, beans, and plain fruits and vegetables. Others of us need a lot more verve in our food. Stock your pantry accordingly. (If you don’t bake, forget about the baking pantry staples for now.)

Pantry Staples:
Whole grain pasta (noodles, cous cous)
Brown rice and other whole grains like grits, barley, oats, quinoa
Dried peas and beans
Canned peas and beans
Canned tomatoes
Pasta sauce, Salsa
Snacks like popcorn, corn chips, nuts, whole grain crackers

Cooking Essentials
Good quality oils – extra-virgin olive oil, canola oil
Vinegars – red wine, balsamic, apple cider
Soy sauce (tamari)
Peanut butter or other nut butters
Nutritional Yeast (not brewer’s yeast) – store away from light
Vegetable broth (canned or cubes)
Soy milk or other non-dairy milk in aeseptic packages
Silken tofu (Mori Nu)
Corn starch, arrowroot, or kuzu for thickening sauces

Vegetables for the pantry include onions, potatoes, sweet potatoes, winter squash (stored in a well ventilated cabinet out of the light and preferably away from each other).

Fruits for the pantry and countertop include tomatoes, bananas, and any fruits that need more time to ripen.

Herbs and Spices – This is a basic list. Add them slowly as you need them. Buy spices in small quantities from the bulk jars until you know what you like and will use frequently. Ground herbs and spices should be replaced yearly since they lose flavor over time. Whole spices last longer, and all spices taste much better when ground fresh. Dedicate a small coffee grinder for grinding your spices as you need them and your dishes will improve remarkably. Store your herbs and spices out of the light and away from the hot stove.

• Basil
• Black Pepper
• Cayenne
• Chili powder
• Cinnamon
• Cumin (ground or seeds)
• Curry
• Garlic powder
• Ginger powder
• Onion powder
• Oregano
• Parsley
• Red pepper flakes
• Sea Salt

In the Fridge
Fresh fruits and vegetables, stored separately and properly.
(Some fresh vegetables that last a long time include carrots, broccoli, and cabbage. Some of the sturdier fruits include apples, grapefruit, and oranges.)
Fresh (Chinese-style) tofu, tempeh, and/or seitan
Condiments (ketchup, mustard(s), sauces)
Peeled whole cloves of garlic
Lemon juice (bottled, organic) or fresh lemons
Jams and preserves

In the Freezer
Frozen fruits and veggies. These are picked and processed at their peak of freshness, so if you store them properly, they’re often higher in vitamins and antioxidants than the “fresh” vegetables available during their off-peak seasons.
Whole grain bread, including tortillas
Frozen soy burgers (if you like them)
Frozen desserts like Soy Delicious and Rice Dream
“planned ahead” meals

Baking Supplies
Whole grain flours (keep in freezer for longer storage)
Baking powder and baking soda
Baking yeast (keep in freezer for longer storage)
Ener-G egg replacer powder
Your favorite dry sweeteners (unbleached or “raw”sugar, Sucanat, date sugar, maple sugar)
Your choice of liquid sweeteners (maple syrup, agave nectar, brown rice syrup, malt syrup, molasses)
Non-dairy chocolate chips