If you’re like me, you grew up in a typical American household in which the answer to the question, “What’s for dinner?” was always some kind of meat — meatloaf, Parmesan chicken, roast beef. That’s because we are used to meals in which the meat is the star of the show and the sides are mere decoration. Just look at a restaurant menu if you don’t believe me.
But let’s say you’ve watched “Forks Over Knives” and read How Not to Die and are ready to switch to a whole foods, plant-based diet. Where do you begin? How do you feed yourself and your family without leaving everyone dissatisfied or hungry an hour later? How do you make sure everyone is getting the nutrients they need?
When you stray from the meat, dairy, and processed foods, you realize there’s a whole world of plant-based options you’d never before considered — dozens of grains, hundreds of fruits and vegetables you had never even noticed, herbs and spices from all over the world, and recipes containing words like “tahini,” “nutritional yeast,” “aquafaba,” and “tempeh.” Like traveling to a foreign country, switching to a plant-based diet is an exciting, yet daunting, adventure.
So consider this post a basic guide for building plant-based meals that are wholesome, filling, and definitely not boring.
How to Build a Whole Food, Plant-based Meal:
Make sure your meal contains these components: dark, leafy greens, whole grains and/or starchy vegetables, a small amount of unprocessed fat, a wide variety of colors and textures, and protein in the form of legumes, tofu, or tempeh. Fruit does not need to be eaten at every meal, but make sure to eat berries every day, as well as a variety of other fruits.
Dark, leafy greens: kale, watercress, collards, mustard greens, romaine, arugula, beet greens, Swiss chard, spinach, broccoli, sea vegetables, etc.
– Portion: unlimited
– Why they’re important: Leafy greens are the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet, which means they are high in nutrients and very low in calories.
– How to incorporate them: Start your meal with a large salad; sauté kale, chard, or collards in a little water with minced garlic; add chopped spinach or kale to soup; top Mexican dishes with chopped romaine.
Whole grains: oats, rice, buckwheat, corn, whole wheat, amaranth, sorghum, freekeh, quinoa, barley, kamut, spelt, farro, bulgur, etc.
– Portion: 1/2 cup per serving for weight management, more if exercising strenuously 60+ minutes per day (Exception: 1 cup oatmeal = 1 serving)
– Why they’re important: Whole grains are excellent sources of fiber, B vitamins, protein, antioxidants, and trace minerals. They’ve been shown to decrease risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain forms of cancer. They are also excellent prebiotics, which are food sources for healthy gut bacteria.
– How to incorporate them: Eat a bowl of oatmeal with quinoa or buckwheat mixed in for breakfast; snack on popcorn (no butter, low salt); eat veggie sushi, vegetable curry with rice, or beans & rice; add 1/2 cup farro, quinoa, sorghum, etc. to a salad.
Starchy vegetables: potatoes, pumpkin, acorn squash, butternut squash, green peas, corn (technically a grain), parsnips, plantains, legumes, carrots
– Portion: 1 small potato, 1/2 cup corn, legumes, peas; 1 cup cubed squash (size of fist)
– Why they’re important: Starchy vegetables are high in carbohydrates, which are necessary for energy. So if you exercise a lot, starchy vegetables should be a staple in your diet! Thanks to the Atkins diet, many people share the common misconception that carbs will make you fat, yet many people have been able to lose weight on a fruit and rice or potatoes only diet. As long as you’re getting carbs from whole foods and not processed junk that has the fiber removed, you do not need to worry about weight gain from starchy vegetables.
– How to incorporate them: Add cubed sweet potatoes or winter squash to a soup or stir-fry; stuff a sweet potato or acorn squash with a veggie mixture; roast cubed winter squash, potatoes, parsnips, and carrots in the oven for a simple side dish; add roasted butternut squash to a salad; purée roasted squash to make a light soup.
Non-starchy vegetables: broccoli, asparagus, greens, cauliflower, cucumber, tomato, green beans, mushrooms, onions, peppers, beets, cabbage, artichoke, Brussels sprouts, celery, eggplant, fennel, radishes, turnips, zucchini, summer squash, spaghetti squash
– Portion: unlimited; aim for many different colors
– Why they’re important: Non-starchy vegetables offer a wide variety of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants and are a good low-calorie source of fiber. Eating a combination of colors ensures that you get a good assortment of phytonutrients, which reduce your risk of certain cancers and other diseases.
– How to incorporate them: Add them to a stir-fry, salad, soups . . . the possibilities are limitless!
Fats: avocado, nuts (almond, cashew, pistachio, pecan, walnut, pine nut, macadamia, peanut), seeds (flax, Chia, sunflower, pumpkin, sesame), coconut (NOT coconut oil)
– Portion: 1/3 small avocado, 1 T. nut butter, 1 shot glass full of nuts/seeds per day
– Why they’re important: Unprocessed fats should be included in your diet to help you absorb vitamins A, D, E, and K. Nuts and seeds should be eaten every day because they are nutrient powerhouses that contain minerals, vitamins, protein, and a heavy dose of protective phytonutrients. Chia, flax, and walnuts are great sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for brain development and heart health.
– How to incorporate them: Sprinkle nuts/seeds on a salad; put nut butter on apple or celery; soak nuts and purée them to make vegan cheese, sour cream, etc. or add cashew cream to soup to thicken it; stir flax, Chia, or walnuts into oatmeal; eat a small handful of nuts as a snack.
Protein: legumes (lentils, chickpeas, black beans, pinto beans, kidney beans, white beans, heirloom beans, etc.), tofu, tempeh
– Portion: 1/2 cup cooked beans, 3/4 cup cubed tofu, or 3 oz. tempeh
– Why they’re important: Protein is necessary for tissue repair and making enzymes, hormones, and other biological chemicals. It is also a building block of bones, muscle, skin, blood, and cartilage. Although Americans are obsessed with protein, once you stop growing (and unless you’re a bodybuilder), you don’t need as much as you think. All veggies and grains contain small amounts of protein, so as long as you’re eating a variety of plants, eating large enough portions, and are including beans in your diet, you do not need to supplement with protein powder or eggs.
– How to incorporate them: Top a salad with 1/2 cup of cooked legumes; add legumes/tofu/tempeh to soups, stir-fries, and Mexican dishes; marinate tofu/tempeh and bake it until crispy, then use it as a side item; dip romaine or raw veggies in hummus as a snack; make veggie burgers out of lentils or black beans.
Examples of Complete WFPB Meals:
Click photos for recipes!
Notice that the sushi stacks become a complete meal with the addition of tofu on the side. Each recipe doesn’t have to be complete by itself, because the addition of a side salad, beans/tofu, or a sprinkle of seeds can help give your meal the necessary macronutrients it’s lacking.
By building a nutritionally complete whole food, plant-based meal, you and your family will feel full and satisfied longer while improving your health with immune-boosting nutrients.
Don’t forget to eat a variety of fruit each day too!
Feel free to ask any questions in the comment section. 🙂
Also check out How To Pack a Lunch For Work