Essential Ingredients for a Plant Based Diet
There is increasing evidence that eating a largely plant based diet is one of the best strategies for human health as well as for that of the planet. So, whether you are one of the growing band of people who is vegan, vegetarian or pescatarian, or even if you are a dyed in the wool meat eater, having a kitchen that is well stocked with the basics of a largely plant based diet will help you to eat healthily with ease. Once you discover how varied and exciting the edible plant kingdom is cooking will become a source of creativity and joy.
To help get you started here are some of the most important foods to have in stock.
Nuts and Seeds
Densely packed with protein, fibre, beneficial fats, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals nuts and seeds are a must for a healthy diet. Some are available as nut or seed butters making them even more versatile. Here are a few reasons to make friends with a range of nuts and seeds:
Almonds – rich in calcium and magnesium almonds are a must for healthy bones and teeth.
Hazelnuts – another source of calcium and magnesium, hazelnuts are one of the few nuts that grow in the UK. You have to be quick to harvest them before the squirrels get to them though!
Brazil nuts – just 2-3 organic Brazil nuts a day can provide the recommended daily requirements of selenium which is needed for a healthy immune system and for reproductive health.
Walnuts – in folklore walnuts were believed to be good for the brain because they look rather like small brains. It turns out there may be some truth in this as they are rich in omega 3 fats which are needed for brain structure and function. They also contain the essential omega 6 fats.
Pumpkin seeds – these green power houses are one of the top plant based sources of zinc, needed for the immune system, skin health, blood sugar control and digestion. They also contain the essential omega 3 and 6 fats.
Chia seeds – as well as providing omega 3 fats these are good source of mucilaginous fibre. The gloop they produce when soaked in water can be used as an egg replacement in vegan baking. Chia flour is a useful alternative to grain based flours.
Flax seeds – similar in properties to chia seeds, flax seeds contain good amounts of omega 3 fats and mucilaginous fibre.
Hemp seeds – contain an excellent balance of omega 3 and 6 fats, as well as GLA, which is not found in many foods. GLA may be particularly helpful for those with eczema and PMS.
Tahini – the trouble with sesame seeds is that they are so small they often pass through the digestive tract undigested. Tahini is a good option because it is a paste made from ground sesame seeds meaning the nutrients are more likely to be absorbed by the body. Tahini is an excellent vegan source of calcium making it particularly important for those avoiding dairy products.
A key source of plant based protein, pulses are one of the foods common to all the long lived communities around the world. There are a huge range of pulses to choose from as this category includes all peas, beans and lentils. They can be used in soups, salads, sauces, dips, casseroles, stews and stir fries. They can also be sprouted and eaten raw in salads or wraps. It’s useful to have some canned pulses available in the cupboard along with the dried version for when you have more time or want to do some sprouting.
Good pulses to include are:
Lentils – lentils don’t need to be soaked before cooking but soaking does help to reduce cooking times and improves digestibility. Red split lentils work well in dahl and soups. Whole green, brown or puy lentils can be cooked or sprouted.
Chickpeas – widely used in middle Eastern foods such as hummous and falafels. They hold their shape well when cooked so can provide texture in soups, stews and salads.
Aduki beans – a useful red food full of antioxidants. In Chinese medicine they are said to be good for drying “damp” conditions such as candida.
Cannellini beans and butter beans – these are both white beans that cook down to become very soft. They make excellent creamy soups and dips when blended but can be left whole providing soft texture to stews and casseroles.
Kidney beans – often the basis of vegetarian chillies. If cooking dry kidney beans they must be soaked for at least 12 hours, rinsed and then boiled rapidly in plenty of water with the lid off for at least 10 minutes before covering and cooking until soft. Canned kidney beans are a lot easier to use!
Mung beans – like lentils it is not essential to soak these before cooking but doing so will reduce their cooking time. They make an excellent addition to rice in kitcharis. They can also be soaked and sprouted for use in salads.
Grains can come in the form of whole grains, flakes or flour making them extremely versatile:
Buckwheat – high in rutin needed for healthy capillary walls. Buckwheat flour makes a good alternative to wheat flour in pancakes.
Quinoa – contains all the essential amino acids making it a useful source of plant protein.
Millet – a good alternative to cous cous for those avoiding wheat.
Rice – there are many types of rice making it a useful food group. Try red rice, brown rice, basmati rice, black rice, jasmine rice and wild rice.
Barley – a useful grain for salads and hearty soups.
Oats – mainly used in the form of flakes in muesli and porridge, oats contain soluble fibre and beta-glucans that help to lower cholesterol.
Fats and oils provide fat soluble nutrients, help to increase nutrient absorption from the foods they accompany, increase satiety, improve blood sugar control and add flavour and depth to food. Be sure to get cold pressed oils and store them in a cool, dry, dark place. Use them up fairly quickly as they can go rancid over time.
Coconut oil – an excellent oil for cooking as it remains stable even at high temperatures.
Olive oil – high in mono-unsaturated fats olive oil has been found to be beneficial for cardiovascular health. It can be used in cooking and in salad dressings.
Toasted sesame oil – a small amount of this adds a nutty flavour to salad dressings and stir fries.
Pumpkin seed oil – a delicious green oil that tastes as good as it looks. Use in salad dressings or drizzle on food after cooking.
Walnut oil – add a subtle, nutty twist to salads with walnut oil.
Herbs and Spices
Herbs and spices are medicinal and culinary marvels. They are packed with nutrients and antioxidants as well as many being anti-microbial, anti-fungal and stimulating or soothing to the digestive system. They also add flavour and interest to food.
Culinary herbs include basil, coriander, parsley, thyme, rosemary, oregano, mint and sage.
Spices include turmeric, ginger, coriander, cumin, cayenne, black pepper, fenugreek, cinnamon and allspice.
Fruit and vegetables
A wide range of fresh fruit and vegetables is a must at any time of year. Eating with the seasons is great but including some imported foods can help to jazz things up. Here are just a few ideas to help you eat the rainbow:
Red – tomatoes, watermelon, strawberries, raspberries, red currants, red apples, goji berries, pomegranates.
Orange/Yellow – carrots, pumpkin, butternut squash, apricots, oranges, satsumas, summer squash, plums, melon.
Green – kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, lettuce, green beans, courgettes, spinach, chard, peas, celery, avocados, apples, pears, kiwi fruit.
Blue/Purple – beetroot, red cabbage, plums, blueberries, blackberries, mulberries.