The Hierarchy of Healthy Vegan Home Cooking
Give your plant-based cooking a solid foundation so you don’t have to rely on recipes for everyday meals.
When I started cooking every day for my family, as opposed to just throwing together a quick meal for myself, I spent a lot of time wondering what would be for dinner, searching for recipes, running to the store to get ingredients that were missing, and then closely following the recipe printout (or putting stains in my cookbooks). That took a lot of time, and it just wasn’t a sustainable way to go about cooking every day for years. When I started cooking mostly plant-based meals, then decided to go 100% vegan, it became even harder because it felt like starting from scratch with ingredients I wasn’t familiar with.
I have since spent a lot of time thinking about what makes a balanced plant-based meal and what should go in a weekly meal plan. I have come to the conclusion that it is absolutely possible to cook without recipes on a day-to-day basis… but that requires having built up a base of knowledge and skills. Those are accessible to everyone, and you start learning as soon as you start paying attention. I bet you already know a lot more than you think about healthy vegan cooking.
A framework to understand healthy vegan home cooking
I wanted to represent the kind of knowledge and skills one can acquire in a simple visual way, and this is what I have come up with so far:
Instead of cooking with your nose on the recipe, it helps to take a step back and work from the ground up. Of course, you can’t wait until you have a perfect knowledge and skill base before cooking tonight’s dinner, so as a beginner you may need to take some shortcuts and sometimes end up making less-than-brilliant choices. That’s okay, you’re learning. But, trust me, you will not regret investing time and effort in the lower levels: soon, you’ll be able to prepare your weeknight dinners without being tethered to a printed recipe or mobile device, make more efficient use of the food in your pantry and fridge, reduce your food waste, and enjoy your meals a lot more.
At the base: whole plant ingredients
Vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and spices are combined to form your day-to-day meals. Becoming familiar with the broad range of possible ingredients will create your foundation for the next level. It helps to touch, smell, and taste those foods separately, at different levels of doneness (from raw to fully cooked). Getting a good feel for the characteristics of the parts will help you make decisions when creating a whole dish from them.
Cooked and prepared staples
I am talking here about very basic preparations, like cooked grains and pseudo-grains (brown rice, quinoa, oats…), steamed or roasted vegetables, the most basic of soups and sauces, spreads like hummus and basic nut cheeses, etc. Basic breads and pizza dough also belong here.
I would also include tofu here. Although most people will choose to buy theirs ready-made, it is useful to know how it’s made, and how different coagulating agents impart a different taste to this versatile soy products.
Seitan and meat analogs also belong to this category. If they choose to use those products, beginners and perhaps most intermediate cooks will prefer to buy them ready-made. However it’s interesting and useful to practice making them at home, too, once other basic staple preparations have been mastered.
I have very little experience with fermentation processes, but I would include them in basic staples as well. (That’s an area for me to grow into to broaden my base!)
Everyday standard dishes
We are now in the middle of the pyramid and this is where we start combining ingredients to form everyday standard dishes. Those are, roughly, the only five recipes you need: soups and stews, stir-fries, simmered grain dishes (like risotto, paella, and porridge), loaves (which can be shaped as burgers or neatballs), and roasted things (like sheet-pan dinners). Bowls and salads, which are basically combinations of cooked and prepared staples (from the level below), also belong here.
This is where the whole becomes more than the sum of the parts. This little miracle is often accomplished by the addition of spices and other seasonings that unify the dish, and/or thanks to some cooking that allows flavors to meld.
Seasonal and other variations
You might have needed some recipe guidance when learning the everyday standard dishes, but now you “get” it and you can make those dishes without relying on precise instructions, measuring cups, or calling your mother. At this fourth level of the hierarchy of healthy vegan home cooking, you are now creating your own variations on the standards, changing the vegetables and fruit you use based on what’s seasonable, available, and/or affordable, or what you have in the pantry or produce drawer.
With a bit of practice, variations will become second nature.
Fun and fancy dishes for special occasions
Now is when you will probably want to use a recipe from a cookbook or blog, or tap extensively into traditional knowledge passed down from older generations — and research how to make those traditional dishes vegan if they aren’t already. This is a time to challenge yourself a little, step outside your comfort, learn new skills, and enjoy the discovery process.
Note that, if you have children underfoot or big time constraints, I do not suggest cooking at this level when you have friends over or if preparing a potluck dish for your office party. The stakes are high and it might end up more stressful than satisfying. In those circumstances, choose one or a few dish(es) that you are familiar and comfortable with, so you can spend less time cooking and more time hanging out with your company. If you are hosting a holiday gathering at home, make sure to create enough space and time to enjoy the cooking, the learning that goes along with it, and the communion with your roots and community — or simplify the spread by taking it down a level on the pyramid.
Where are you at?
When I started vegan cooking myself, I spent a lot of time at the top of the hierarchy, but my foundations were shaky. Taking the time to learn more about the basics allowed me to experience cooking with more ease and less stress. So what I suggest to my clients is that they start from the bottom of the pyramid: keep things simple and grow into your knowledge and skills, so that you don’t have to follow recipes step-by-step anymore. You’ll learn to trust your own experience and instinct instead.
What do you think?
Brigitte Gemme is a vegan food educator, meal planner, and coach. After a PhD in sociology of higher education and a 15-year career in research management, she got impatient with the slow pace of planet-friendly change and decided to help individuals live a gentler life. If you need help deciding what’s for dinner, check out her meal plans at VeganFamilyKitchen.com. If you need personal guidance and accountability to embrace a gentler lifestyle and better habits, consider signing up for a free week with her on coach.me using coupon code BRIGITTEWEEK. Brigitte loves nothing more than helping more people make a habit of eating more plants.