Balanced on a budget

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My balanced food haul on a budget using the tips below

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about how to budget and plan a healthy, plant-based diet.  If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ll know that I work as a nutritionist for the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program, which helps low-income women and children get access to healthy food.  I really love educating and helping my clients make the best food choices, especially because many people think eating healthy is expensive.  Although it can be pricier if you shop at exclusively organic health food markets, healthy eating does not have to cost you your entire paycheck.  Today I’m sharing some tips on how to get the most bang for your buck when it comes to food.  Feel free to share any of your tips or advice by leaving a comment on this post or via facebook or instagram.

1.  Plan your meals

Before you do any food shopping, have a plan of what you’ll be preparing and eating for the next week or weeks to come.  This is super helpful because you don’t want to buy a ton of food but have zero recipe ideas or inspiration.  For inspiration, I like looking at vegan food prep ideas by searching the hashtags #veganmealprep, #veganmealplanning, or similar phrases.  Be realistic with how much time you want to put into preparing your meals and whether you want to prepare your meals for the week ahead of time or on an as-you-go basis.  Keep in mind that some food (especially fresh fruits and veggies) will only stay fresh for several days.

2. Stick to the basics

If you’re on a budget, now is not the time to buy several different varieties of truffle oil and exotic $30 tropical fruits.  Stick with produce that’s in season, and stock up on items that you use on a daily basis (for me, my staples are whole grains such as brown rice, whole wheat pasta, whole grain cereal).  If you feel like treating yourself, choose one specialty item that you’ll use sparingly.  For my “treat”, I like to buy a pint of chocolate coconutmilk vegan icecream, which is about $5-6/pint and treat myself to a serving once a week or less, which really does make it feel like a special occasion treat.

3.  Canned + Frozen are your friends

Fresh produce can be more expensive in the winter months, which is why canned and frozen produce can be more economical depending on the season.  You’ll typically find the prices of canned and frozen peas, broccoli, spinach, peppers, and berries are less expensive than the fresh varieties when it’s cold out.  If you’re buying canned goods, you can cut down on the sodium by rinsing your veggies before you use them.

4.  Befriend your local farmer (or become a regular at the Farmers Market)

During the warmer months, you’ll often find that locally grown, fresh produce is a lot cheaper than going to the supermarket (although it depends where you live).  Locally grown fruits and veggies have so many benefits to both you and your community.  Not only can it be the more economical choice, locally grown produce is typically higher in vitamins, minerals, and taste due to less time in transit from the farm to where it’s being sold.  If you have space and a green thumb, you might also want to try your hand at growing your own fruits and veggies (but be patient, all good things take time and skill!)

5.  All hail dry beans

I used to be intimidated by dry beans because I heard they were really labor intensive to prepare.  While it’s true that dried beans require soaking (usually overnight), the actual cooking process is pretty simple (just bring water to a boil, add soaked beans, lower the heat, and in 2 hours you’ll have a big batch of delicious plant protein!).  Dried beans tend to be cheaper per pound than the canned variety.  Another benefit to dried beans is that they don’t contain added salt or preservatives and you can control the amount of seasonings you add as you cook them.

6.  Shop around

Become a master at shopping on the cheap.  Compare prices at several stores.  Some stores may have inexpensive produce, but other items may be more costly, which is why it’s totally ok to do your food shopping at a few different stores (hopefully they’re close in location though).  If you don’t have a car, you may want to do your shopping in one location, so feel free to skip this tip.  In my experience, items like peanut butter, cereal, grains, and (some) produce like bagged spinach and baby carrots are less expensive at my local Trader Joe’s, but for other items, such as apples, cucumbers, dried beans, I’ve found them cheaper at my local non-specialty store.  I also like to visit local farms whenever I can and this tends to result in the least-expensive produce finds.

 

These are just come of my tips that I’ve found the most useful from my experience.  I try to practice what I preach and I know I’ll be using this advice throughout the next year as I do my (unpaid!) Dietetic Internship.  Happy shopping, eating, and occasional treat-ing to you!

-Jess

Protein-packed pasta with veggies

Sometimes when I tell people I’m vegan, the first thing I’m asked is “where do you get your protein?”.  I’m not alone, most of the vegans I know have been asked this question at some point.  I actually love answering this question because there are so many sources of vegan protein!  Beans, tempeh, tofu, seitan, whole grains, veggies, brown rice, vegan protein powder, and the list goes on.  In the recipe I’m sharing today, I used a pasta made with lentil beans, and for even more protein, I added veggie “meat” crumbles (which have a similar consistency to ground meat minus the cruelty, and cholesterol).

I discovered the lentil bean pasta at Trader Joe’s, but feel free to explore other pasta brands and types if you don’t love lentils.  Banza brand has a line of chickpea-flour based pastas which are so good and rich in protein.  If bean-pastas aren’t your thing, you can use a whole grain pasta.  The veggie “meat” crumbles can be found at most grocery stores.  I typically see it being sold next to the tofu/veggie burgers at conventional supermarkets.

I love making this pasta because it goes well with any veggies and I usually make a big batch of it and eat the leftovers as my lunch at work for the next few days.  I hope you enjoy this deliciously plant-based, protein-packed pasta!

Protein-packed pasta with veggies (makes 4 servings)

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So many plants on my plate!  I ate my pasta with some steamed broccoli in this picture

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups (dry) Trader Joe’s organic red lentil sedanini (or your favorite pasta type)
  • 1/3 of a package of Lightlife smart ground original veggie crumbles (or 1 cup)
  • 1.5 cups Trader Joe’s organic spaghetti sauce or use your own homemade tomato sauce (I sometimes like taking the easy route and using jarred sauce)
  • 1 medium bell pepper- orange, yellow, and red go best with this recipe
  • 1 cup baby portobella mushrooms
  • 1/4 cup diced onion
  • other veggies of your choice
  • pinch of garlic powder
  • pinch of oregano
  • pinch of basil

Directions:

  • Place water in a medium-size pot and heat on high-medium, bringing to a rolling boil
  • While waiting for the water to boil, chop veggies
  • Place veggies in a large non-stick saucepan and heat on medium until lightly browned/softened
  • When the water in the pot has boiled, add the pasta and boil for ~8 minutes
  • Lower the heat on the saucepan to low and add veggie crumbles and continue to heat for about 2 minutes (the veggie crumbles are already cooked, so no need to overcook)
  • Add tomato sauce and spices
  • Drain the pasta and let sit for a minute or two
  • Add the cooked pasta and turn off the heat
  • Mix and allow to sit for a minute or two
  • Serve warm, share, and enjoy!

Nutrition facts: (per serving)- 316 calories, 0.5 g fat, 0 g cholesterol, 650 g sodium, 335 g potassium, 53 g carbs, 8.6 g fiber, 7.6 g sugar, 24 g protein. 12.5% DV vitamin A, 79% DV vitamin C, 5% DV calcium, 22% DV iron.

Happy eating!

-jess

 

Island Inspiration

A few weeks ago I was spending some time scrolling through Instagram and I stumbled upon a Caribbean chef’s delicious food creations.  The flavors seemed to permeate through my phone screen, as I could almost taste the delicious dishes pictured in his photos.  I was also reminded of my childhood trips to Jamaica and how much I loved trying new things and exploring with my tastebuds.  I felt inspired to recreate some plant-based versions of what I saw on my screen and remembered from my past travels.  I headed to the closest ethnic market and picked up a bunch of exotic fruit and vegetables.  It was time to get cooking!

At the ethnic market, I bought up some yuca (a starchy root vegetable), plantains (similar to bananas but higher in starch and not as sweet), some brown rice, pinto beans, canned peas, green tomatillos (similar to tomatoes), and pre-seasoned barbecued jackfruit (jackfruit is a delicious, bubblegum-tasting fruit).

To cook the yuca, I first peeled it, cut it in half, and then boiled it for about 15 minutes-20 minutes.  Then I let it sauté with some onions and tomatillos in a skillet.  In a separate skillet, I sautéed the plantain with a tiny bit of vegetable oil.  The rice and beans were super easy to make (I cooked the rice according to the package but used vegetable broth instead of water for extra flavor, and then added canned pinto beans and canned peas).  The jackfruit came already seasoned so I just heated it up for a minute or two.

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Although this meal is very high in carbohydrates, it’s also high in fiber.  This meal was so tasty and it was so fun to work with new flavors.  I’m looking forward to my next cooking inspiration, so if you have a delicious, unique meal or cuisine you’d like to share, leave a comment of connect with me via Facebook or Instagram @vitaminvalentine 🙂

-Jess

A perfect plant based pizza

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Is there any food more perfect than pizza?  Pizza is without a doubt my favorite food.  Growing up, I think I ate pizza for at least 60% of my meals.  Nowadays, I still love pizza, but my diet has changed for the better.  I follow a vegan diet for many personal reasons, so when I do eat pizza, it’s without cheese, but I make sure it’s just as delicious as the slices I grew up on.

Although I’ve tried vegan pizzas at restaurants, I prefer to make my own at home.  I like making my own pizza because I can determine the size of the pie and it’s so much healthier than restaurant and frozen versions.  Pizza is surprisingly easy to make.  You can buy the dough at most supermarkets (I usually buy mine at Trader Joe’s).  I like using Trader Joe’s pizza dough because it comes in a whole wheat variety which is tasty and full of fiber.  If fresh pizza dough is not available at your closest supermarket, you can try buying dough at your local pizzeria.  If you’re feeling extra adventurous and want your pizza to be authentically Italian, you can try making your own dough (but this can take some time and skill to master).

For sauce, I once again take the easy route and use jarred tomato sauce.  My favorite tomato sauce to use for pizza is also from Trader Joe’s (see the picture below).  The sauce really matters to me because that’s where the bulk of the flavor comes from.  You can use sauces labeled “pasta sauce” or “pizza sauce”, but I’ve found pasta sauces to be a bit more flavorful and complex.  Try different sauces based on what you like, and don’t be afraid to make your own sauce (I use jarred sauce because it’s just easier for me).  If you’re following a low-sodium diet and want to cut down on sodium, you may want to make your own sauce because canned/jarred/prepackaged food tends to have more sodium than homemade.

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My favorite quick and easy tomato sauce

The second most important part of my vegan pizza are the veggies.  I’ve found that bell peppers, onions, and artichokes taste amazing on pizza, but use whatever veggies you like.  Some other veggies that taste great as toppings are spinach, arugala, olives, mushrooms, and eggplant.  Adding veggies to your pizza increases the nutrient content without adding a ton of calories.

The recipe I’m sharing serves two, so feel free to share with a fellow pizza-enthusiast or save the leftovers for a quick and easy meal.

A perfect plant-based pizza

Ingredients:

  • 1/3 of a package of Trader Joe’s whole wheat pizza dough (this is about 5-6 oz. worth of dough)
  • 1/4-1/2 cup tomato sauce of your choice
  • 1 tsp. olive oil
  • a tiny bit of flour (for rolling out the dough)
  • oregano
  • basil (fresh or dried)
  • black and/or red pepper
  • garlic and/or garlic powder
  • veggies of your choice

Directions:

  • Remove the pizza dough from the fridge and leave out for 20-30 minutes (or up to an hour).  This will help the dough stretch
  • Preheat the oven to 370°F
  • Once the time has passed, stretch out the dough with your hands and use a rolling pin (or a sturdy, smooth cup) and a little flour to flatten the dough
  • Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled pizza stone or nonstick surface
  • Brush the pizza with a small layer of olive oil
  • Add the sauce and some herbs and seasonings (oregano, garlic powder, etc.)- you can also repeat this step after adding the veggies
  • Add the veggies
  • Bake for 25-27 minutes at 370°F
  • Remove from the oven and allow to cool for a few minutes
  • Cut into small slices using a pizza knife or a regular knife
  • Enjoy!

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For 1/2 of the pizza pictured above, there are 238 calories, 4.6 grams of fat, 49 grams of carbs, 10 grams of fiber, and 9.1 grams of protein.  It has 890 mg of sodium, which is high, but comparable to most slices of pizza (also see my tips above to cut down on sodium).  It contains 75% of the recommended daily intake of vitamin A, and 248% of the RDI for vitamin C.  Skip the takeout and enjoy a lower calorie pizza with this recipe.

-Jess

Busy yet balanced

February has been a busy month for me, but one of my goals is to write more on Vitamin Valentine.  This month has been filled with school assignments (I’m working on my master’s thesis) and some very exciting (yet nerve-racking) professional developments.  I submitted my dietetic internship applications this month and I’m hoping to get accepted into an internship.  If you’re new to my blog, I’ve been working on a B.S./M.S. in Nutrition for the past four years in order to become a Registered Dietitian (RD).  It’s extremely competitive to get into a dietetic internship (DI) and completing the DI is a requirement of the education and training to become an RD, so I’m hoping I match.  Nutrition is my passion and I hope to get into an internship in order to gain the knowledge necessary to help people.  Registered Dietitians are truly the experts in the nutrition field because of the training and education they receive.  I’ve dreamt of becoming an RD for so long, so wish me luck!

Because I’ve been so busy lately, I’ve been finding ways to save time when it comes to preparing healthy food.  Sometimes I make a big batch of food and eat the same thing for lunch for a few days during the week, and other times I try to mix it up.  Either way, I try to stick with the same formula for making my meals as balanced and colorful as possible.  I try to include at least two veggies, a source of protein, and a healthy fat.  Sometimes I’ll also add some whole grains, but today I skipped that component.  For a “side dish” or snack, I usually stick to fruit or a protein bar.  Lunch today was so colorful and delicious.  It consisted of a purple potato on top of collard greens, 1/2 a medium avocado, some cherry tomatoes, and a serving of hummus.  For my snacks, I had a fruit salad (sliced papaya, kiwi, and pineapple) and a gomacro bar (a vegan protein bar).  I also took an apple with me but I decided to save it for another time.

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Delicious, colorful, and easy!

It took me about 10 minutes in total to prepare this.  Instead of baking the potato, I put it in the microwave, which saves a lot of time.  I love preparing my meals ahead of time like this, especially because when I’m hungry at work it’s so tempting to go out and buy something.  Do you have any ways to save time or money while staying healthy?  Feel free to share below, or connect with me via facebook or instagram @vitaminvalentine

-Jess

Creamy Tofu and Veggie Soup

A few weeks ago, I made a delicious creamy soup using whatever vegetables I had in my kitchen.  What I love about this soup is that although it tastes creamy, it has less fat than a cream-based soup and contains plant-based protein, fiber, vitamin C, and vitamin A.  I’ve been perfecting the recipe, and I think I’ve finally found the perfect combination of ingredients.  Feel free to try this out on a cold day, and feel free to add or omit any veggies depending on what’s available to you.

Creamy Tofu and Veggie Soup

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Ingredients (serves 3-4):

  • 2 cups vegetable broth (I use store-bought broth. Check ingredients if you’re following a vegan diet because some can contain animal products).
  • 1.5 cups unsweetened, plain soymilk, or unsweetened plain ricemilk
  • 1 clove of garlic, minced
  • 1 tbsp. safflower or almond oil
  • 1/2 a standard block of firm tofu, cut into small cube shapes
  • 1.5 cups of fresh or frozen broccoli
  • 1 cup fresh, canned, or frozen corn
  • 1 cup fresh, canned, or frozen carrots
  • 1 medium potato, cut into smaller pieces (purple-skinned potatoes and yukon potatoes work great in this recipe)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • a pinch of garlic powder
  • a pinch of dried rosemary (omit if you don’t care for this herb)

Directions:

  • Measure all ingredients
  • On low-medium heat, use oil to grease a non-stick large pan or pot and lightly brown garlic and tofu cubes
  • When tofu has browned slightly, add vegetable broth, soy milk, and potatoes to the pan or pot, simmer for about 5-10 minutes
  • Add other veggies (broccoli, corn, carrots) along with garlic powder and dried rosemary. Add a bit of salt and pepper if you’d like
  • Simmer on low heat until potatoes are soft. Stir frequently. Remove from heat and serve. Refrigerate the extra or share with a friend!

-Jess

Authenticity, Compassion, and Omega 3’s

Have you ever felt morally conflicted?  I have, and today I’m sharing why.  If you’ve been following my blog or instagram page for a while, you may have noticed that I try to follow a plant-based/vegan lifestyle.  I say “try” because I’m human and I’m not perfect.  As you’ll read below, I’ve had moments when I’m not 100% vegan.  I still wear my old leather shoes and belts, but I no longer buy these items.  I do this because I personally do not want to contribute to violence and pain in this world, but I understand people may have other beliefs when it comes to what they do.

A few months ago, I started having intense cravings for meat, poultry, and fish.  This is not a new occurrence for me.  I became a vegan at age 15, and honestly, I’ve taken a few short breaks in the 12 years since then due to health issues and intense cravings that were related to anemia and B-vitamin deficiencies (pro-tip: take your vitamins).  The most recent series of cravings motivated me to pay closer attention to my diet.  Even as someone who (almost) has their Master’s in Nutrition, I still have to remind myself what balanced eating looks like.

I tried adding more protein to each meal, but the cravings persisted.  I tried going outside more too, because I tend to get low in vitamin D during the winter, but I still craved salmon constantly.  Every time I really wanted a piece of chicken or fish, I reminded myself of the torture animals face, so instead I would buy beans, tofu, veggies, and some form of carb…followed by another carb because I wasn’t really satisfied and I found myself overeating on desserts (vegan muffins, vegan cookies, etc.).

Finally, sometime in the past two weeks, I decided to just eat a piece of chicken.  It tasted delicious, I felt satisfied, but I did not sit right with my morals.  I brushed it off, and tried to convince myself to listen to my body.  This worked, and a few days later, I ate a wrap containing meat and cheese at Whole Foods Market.  However, this time something felt so different.  In all my years of being a vegan, it was really mostly for my own health.  I felt it was easier to not overeat on a vegan diet, especially because all my “trigger foods” used to be dairy-based (ice cream, froyo, cheese, and baked goods, the latter of which you can find all sorts of vegan versions).  Over the past year or so, I’ve become more aware of how eating affects the environment and the animals I love.

This most recent fall-off-the-wagon made me realize some important things.  First of all, it’s important to eat a balanced diet.  If something feels off, it probably is.  If you’re constantly craving something, it may be a sign that you’re deficient in a nutrient.  I realized I’m really lacking in omega 3’s (an essential fatty acid found in fish, but also found in plant sources such as flax oil and chia seeds).  I’m also sensitive to some of the proteins I was eating, especially large amounts of legumes eaten in one sitting.  I realized that it’s important not to judge yourself, and to not judge others.  I felt an immense sense of guilt when I was eating chicken, and I felt equally guilty after I overate on vegan junk-food when I couldn’t seem to satisfy my hunger and cravings.  No one is perfect.  We do enough self-criticizing that I would hope I don’t face criticism from vegans and animal-rights activists.  I learned from this recent experience what is important to me and that is my health, the planet, and living in accordance with my values. Because of this, I’m making it my mission to plan out my meals more carefully, supplement my diet with a vitamin/mineral supplement, take an omega-3 supplement, and try to eliminate foods that don’t agree with me.  I don’t plan on ending my veganism, in contrast, I’m really interested and excited to develop a more nutrient-dense, plant-based way of eating using the knowledge I’ve gained from my nutrition classes.

I hope to help people who have struggled with similar issues.  I also hope to spread a message that even adding more plant-based foods and eating less meat is great and something to be proud of.  Have you gone through a similar experience when it comes to veganism or any issue related to how you eat and how you feel?  Feel free to comment, email me, or connect on facebook or instagram @vitaminvalentine.

-Jess