My mom grew up in the 1950s with a stay-at-home mom who cooked every meal for her four kids from scratch. As a native Californian, my grandmother cared about fresh fruits and veggies in a culinary period when America was getting really into processed foods. She always had a garden and even when she moved back East — where long winters meant a dearth of fresh produce — she worked hard to make sure her family was eating healthy meals.
“The biggest thrill in our lives was when we got a babysitter and could have TV dinners,” my mom, Joan Watson, says. “It was the coolest thing. But my mom always cooked from scratch for her four kids.”
I grew up in the 1990s in Vermont, with a mom who took those lessons from her own mother and added on the ethos of the 1960s: whole grains, local produce, and always organic. My mom has been a pescatarian for over 40 years and, when we were little, she fed us mostly vegetarian food. She didn’t eat meat herself — and therefore wasn’t going to cook it — and on the salaries of two artists, good meat was too expensive to eat regularly, anyway.
Now as an adult myself, I recognize and admire the way my mother has consistently managed to eat healthy foods every day, relatively cheaply. So I asked her: How do you do it? What are your top tips for daily easy, healthy, vegetarian meals? Here’s what she told me.
Keep your bulk items well-stocked
My parent’s kitchen is nice but funky, as fits a ceramic artist and videomaker-turned-real-estate mogul. But one distinct section that hasn’t changed much since my childhood is the pantry, where my mom keeps her bulk goods. She shops at the local food co-op, bringing her own glass containers that she weighs beforehand so the clerk can subtract the weight for the final price. She also stocks up on certain canned items that she knows will keep and that help make up her go-to ingredients list.
“I hate to go shopping, so I try to have a full supply of bulk supplies in my pantry,” Joan says. “I always have rice and pasta — things that you can cook pretty quickly — and nuts, canned beans, canned tomatoes, good quality canned soups, lentils. Well, I don’t like lentils very much, but if you do like them, you can cook them really fast.”
Having a range of healthy grains and canned foods available at all times means Joan is able to put together a variety of dishes, based on how she’s feeling that night — without venturing out to the crowded co-op.
And while you might not have a local food co-op in your town, many chain grocery stores — including Whole Foods and Trader Joes — now have bulk sections. Check and see if they’re okay with you bringing your own containers but if not, you can always wash and reuse plastic bags after you transfer your goods to storage containers at home.
Buy foods that will last a while in the fridge
Most foods that need to be refrigerated go off sooner than bulk and canned foods, but there are foods you can buy that will last longer. For example, if you’re shopping for vegetables, get cruciferous ones like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, or brussel sprouts rather than leafy greens. Those veggies will last longer, leading to less waste and still making it possible for you to have green vegetables at every meal.
My mom also makes sure she always has fresh herbs in the fridge, in order to bring a bright and fresh taste to whatever she’s cooking. She says “parsley lasts longest” and recommends making your own herb garden (even apartment dwellers can do this!) to have herbs to pluck from at any time. Similarly, she’s always well-stocked with garlic and onions, essentials for flavoring most meals.
Joan also always has cheese (parmesan “lasts forever” and hard cheddar will carry you for a long time — just cut off any green parts), eggs, and cherry tomatoes, which last longer than regular tomatoes.
Finally, Joan likes to make a big batch of brown rice — about two cups, cooked — to keep in the fridge to “do something Asian-inspired with” throughout the week. She keeps brown rice vinegar, toasted sesame oil, miso, and tamari (which is like lower sodium soy sauce) on hand to stir into the rice, along with some roasted sunflower seeds. When you get home from work, add some red or green onions and whatever protein to that rice base for a super-fast, delicious, healthy meal.
Cook based on what’s about to go
My mom sees that moment just before a vegetable turns as an opportunity. She’ll use the other ingredients in her fridge and pantry to build a meal around whatever’s on its way out.
For example, she says if the parsley is about to go then she’ll make spaghetti with garlic, olive oil, parmesan, and parsley for dinner. When we were little she would make a dish she calls “Mommy Spaghetti,” which is basically spaghetti with whatever veggies she had in the fridge, some no-fat cottage cheese, “and whatever cheese I have around.” And Mommy Spaghetti plays double duty of not only using up the vegetables that are on their way out, but also getting more veggies into kids.
“If you cut them up smaller, then they’ll eat more,” Joan says.
As for vegetables going a little brown or wrinkly, “just grate them up!” She recommends grating together potatoes with carrots or any other veggies on their way out to make simple potato pancakes.
“You don’t need a lot of oil or to deep fry,” Joan says. “Just put a bunch of tasty things together, pan fry them, and you’re good!”
Always plan for leftovers
On the occasion that my mom does have to go to the grocery stores, she’s always thinking about leftovers. Or, at the very least, other meals she can cook with those ingredients.
“When I go to the store, I’m planning for a specific meal but I’m also thinking about what else I can make with whatever I’m buying,” Joan says. “If I’m going to make Mommy Spaghetti, then maybe I’ll get enough that I can make veggie pancakes with the stuff I’m putting into the Mommy Spaghetti.”
Cooking more of a side dish than you need — like, say, roasted squash — also makes it easier to whip together a quick meal the next night. Change up the protein, maybe steam a new vegetable, and you have a whole new meal.
In the age of Seamless and work schedules that follow us home on our smartphones, cooking and eating healthy food at home can seem like a pipe dream. But a few small changes — and the tiniest bit of planning ahead — can make all the difference. If you’re not sure, remember this: My mom’s been doing it for 50 years, so there’s got to be something there.
by Emma McGowan