Heaping Helpings: Indiana Nash – Pandemic offered me a chance at healthier eating habits

A colorful fajita bowl made with cauliflower rice, peppers, onions, black beans and plenty of spices
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A colorful fajita bowl made with cauliflower rice, peppers, onions, black beans and plenty of spices

Everything about daily life was turned on its head this past year. So I figured, why not change nearly everything about my diet, too?

I began taking a deeper look at my health last spring. After watching too many documentaries, and reading too many nutrition books and articles, I decided to make the switch to a whole-foods, plant-based diet.

Those words have been used in some pretty successful marketing campaigns in recent years, but their definition has gotten murky. I prefer to keep it simple and go by the definition Dr. T. Colin Campbell, a longtime advocate of the diet, has used: “Consume a variety of whole plant-based foods [and] avoid consumption of animal-based foods.”

I’m hardly the first person to have tried such a change during the pandemic. A recent study from the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation found that interest in plant-based protein consumption was on the rise last year.

But even before the pandemic, consumers were becoming more interested in the diet/lifestyle. A 2019 study from Ipsos Retail Performance found that since 2004, the number of Americans turning to a plant-based diet has reached 9.7 million, growing from around 290,000 over 15 years.

There are plenty of reasons for the movement. People are more concerned about their health and their finances. There are also more products out there purporting to be healthier, plant-based alternatives.

I decided on this diet for a variety of reasons, perhaps mostly because I simply feel better when I eat this way. However, it did take a while for me to adjust. Avoiding animal products meant reevaluating everything about the way I cook and bake, from the recipes to the techniques.

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At first it was a little overwhelming, and there were plenty of moments shopping in the grocery store when I would reach for a former staple, such as cheese or canned chicken noodle soup, and realize, “Wait, I don’t need this anymore.” When ordering takeout, I’ve been more mindful of the ingredients used, though there are many great options in the Capital Region when it comes to plant-based meals.

In the kitchen, I’ve discovered so many recipes that taste better than ones I used to make, recipes that have made my husband eat predominantly plant-based, too. That’s saying something, considering that for years he’s joked about opening a shop called “Meat and Bread,” where all he would sell is — you guessed it — meat and bread.

The simplest recipe (and most rewarding) to make is cauliflower tacos. There are tons of versions of this recipe, but I’ve simply been taking a head of cauliflower, chopping it into florets and seasoning with chili powder, garlic powder, smoked paprika, cumin and a bit of salt. Then I bake the whole thing for about 30-35 minutes. I usually top it off with pickled red onions, salsa, cilantro and occasionally hummus.

Another staple is stir fry with tofu. We used to make stir fry with chicken and had some pretty inconsistent results. The chicken would end up a bit overcooked or not flavorful enough.

That’s never happened with this tofu version. In the past, I’d always steered clear of tofu, mostly because I had no idea how to cook with it. For this recipe alone, I’m glad I learned. After pressing it for around 30 minutes, I cut it into cubes, glaze and then bake it for 30 minutes. Then I add it to a large skillet packed with peppers, onions, broccoli and green beans. I serve it with brown rice, and the whole thing is filling without being heavy or too rich.

Many of the dishes my husband and I have gravitated toward involve some combination of peppers, onions, black beans and rice. They’re delicious — and pretty simple to make — yet we wanted to expand a bit. Earlier this year, we set a goal of learning a new dish at least a few times a month. We also subscribed to Misfits Market, a service that works with farms to sell produce that won’t be accepted by retailers and might otherwise go to waste. We try to center our recipes on the produce that’s delivered, whether it be a butternut squash or a head of cauliflower.

The one thing I haven’t reconfigured is my baking technique. I used to bake cookies, brownies and cakes several times a month, simply because I enjoyed it.

But baking without animal products has been tougher than I anticipated. Around the holidays I tried out a sugar cookie recipe that was a flop, and I haven’t found success with other recipes yet either. It could be because I’ve gotten a little lazy since discovering how easy it is to make “nice cream,” or dairy-free ice cream. There are several ways to make it, but my favorite is blending a frozen banana, cinnamon, a spoonful of peanut butter and a splash of oat milk. The texture is similar to soft-serve and it’s nearly as sweet.

Learning how to cook differently was a wonderful distraction in a year where nothing and everything was happening all at once. As most plans with friends were either canceled or moved online, we had more time to experiment in the kitchen. Those new recipes became something we could connect with our family about over video chats and virtual dinners.

While there are plenty of things about daily life I hope revert to pre-pandemic times, my former diet isn’t one of them.

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