Whole foods eating on a budget and in a hurry

I’m a newcomer to the whole foods/unprocessed way of eating, and I’m certainly no purist. I became vegan in college because of the animals and the environment, with any health benefits being a distant third. Over time, though I’ve gradually oriented my eating more in a whole foods direction. Again, the motivation is only partly for health, though that matters more and more to me. There are other benefits, too, like not buying junk from companies I don’t like anyway, not harming the environment with the excessive packaging that often goes along with highly processed foods, and sometimes even saving money.

When I started blogging and started following many other blogs, I found myself reading a lot from vegans who avoid or minimize processed foods. Initially, I read their posts with a lot of skepticism. Some make health claims that they’re not qualified to, and which are a little too categorical to be true. Some seemed to have different preferences in food than I do, sharing recipes that frankly didn’t look very appealing. Some were clearly spending a lot of money on specialty ingredients, or time on food planning, prep and preservation that I just didn’t have.

But gradually, some things started to stick. Looking at Annie Oliverio’s beautifully photographed recipes, reading Gena Hamshaw’s measured, low-key approach to eating a mix of raw and cooked foods–while maintaining a super busy life–and steering strongly away from dogma and goals of “purity,” and a whole slew of other bits I found on Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter and the like…all of those things made a shift toward whole foods seem both appealing and achievable.

Then, a couple years ago, I stumbled across the October Unprocessed challenge, and I decided to go for it. I even got a comment on my first blog post about it, from Annie Oliverio herself:

This is such a great idea. And maybe one month turns into two, turns into three…and then it’s just a way of life.

It didn’t go quite like that, but a year and a half later, I really am eating a mostly unprocessed diet, at least at home.

I thought I’d share some of my favorite tricks that make this easier, cheaper and resistant to my amazing ability to let food languish and spoil in my refrigerator!

  • Unprocessed food doesn’t have to be complicated to be good. Sure, you can wow your friends and maybe curb some cravings with carefully crafted baked goods or adaptations of pasta dishes that taste good and not like their preconceptions of unprocessed foods. But you’re likely to invest a lot of time–and some expensive failures–in the process. Most of the time, then, I like to keep it simple. Bowls come together quickly with components from your freezer, pantry and anything fresh you have on hand.
    Quinoa breakfast bowl

    Cooked quinoa for breakfast? Turns out it’s quick and really tasty!

    One of my favorite breakfasts is quinoa with fruit (here you see frozen raspberries and fresh banana), cinnamon, vanilla-bean salt and toasted coconut, cacao nibs and sunflower seeds). Eat it cold or warm it up just a bit.

    For lunch or dinner, I also use a lot of quinoa (or rice, or millet, or wheatberries), with beans, fresh or frozen veggies, sunflower or pumpkin seeds, and some sort of sauce or dressing. Quick, healthy, and endlessly versatile. I also like using raw or cooked greens as a base when I might otherwise use something like pasta or bread. It certainly doesn’t fit every dish, but it often works great. A veggie burger crumbled on a salad is easy and often feels more like a meal to me than just putting it in a bun.

  • The freezer is my friend–if I use it right. Living alone and spending a lot of time/meals at my boyfriend’s house, making big batches of things only saves time if I’m smart about saving portion sizes in the freezer. A quart of soup will never get thawed and eaten, and will take up way too much space until I give up on it. I like pint and half-pint canning jars (especially for soups and stews), small square containers by Frigoverre (perfect for portions of cooked quinoa or rice, or beans, and very space-efficient), zip-top bags (freeze flat with a thin layer of lemon juice, tomato paste, ginger purée, pesto or similar items, and you can just snap off what you need), and little glass spice jars (particularly for citrus zest, which is so useful to have on hand!).

    Lemon zest

    Zested lemons, ready to be juiced.

    Speaking of which, my standard approach to using any kind of citrus: buy organic, wash thoroughly, and use/freeze it soon after you buy it. When you use it, zest all of it and freeze the zest. Then juice all of it and freeze whatever juice you don’t use right away. This has cut down dramatically on the sad, shriveled lemons and fuzzy-bottomed limes I used to wind up with far too often, and it’s fantastic to have fresh juice and zest at the ready all the time. Skip that awful bottled stuff!
  • Rice cakes, not bread. Don’t get me wrong–I love bread. But my record of finishing a loaf before it dries out or gets moldy is not. good. If I do buy (or make) a loaf, I slice it right away and freeze whatever I don’t eat that day. The rest of the time, I keep a supply of whole-grain rice cakes on hand. Breakfast in a hurry? PB and apple or banana slices on a rice cake. Afternoon snack? Savory spread on a rice cake, maybe with tomato or cuke slices, or topped with vegan cheese. Recovering from a migraine and not big on food yet? Plain rice cake! Keep them tightly wrapped, and you can come back weeks later to perfectly good, almost-instant bases for snacks and meals.
  • You don’t have to break the bank on nuts. Have you seen the price of nuts lately? Yikes! $16/lb for organic walnuts or pecans is just not something I can do often. They’re delicious and nutritious and useful in all kinds of dishes, but you know what else is, too? Sunflower seeds. Which I can usually get for $3/lb, organic. Raw, I’m not crazy about their flavor but I do use them in savory spreads similar to these from Viana.
    Beet spread on rye cracker

    Sunflower-based spread flavored with beets and horseradish, served on a rye cracker with cucumber.

    Freshly toasted, though, they’re fantastic on salads, with sweet OR savory bowls, made into sunflower seed butter, or just eaten out of hand. They also happen to be really good for you, and are non-allergenic if you are cooking or baking for people with nut allergies or schools with no-nut policies. So sunflower seeds are my default “nut” (with pumpkin seeds often used in similar ways, too), and I save the splurges on actual nuts for where I really want the specific flavor or texture of a hazelnut, almond, etc.

What tricks have you uncovered for eating less-processed foods without spending all day in the kitchen? Or is there something you’re stuck on and want to see what others have come up with? Please chime in below!

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4 Responses to Whole foods eating on a budget and in a hurry

  1. Mareth Curtis-Warren says:

    Great post! I intend to delve into it later and really “process” the new ideas! Thanks.


  2. Such a practical, real-life post. I especially like the idea of using sunflower seeds in place of nuts to save money. Thanks for the tips!

  3. Thank you for including me in this helpful post! I’m so glad that you’ve found An Unrefined Vegan to be helpful.

  4. Anna says:

    I love your idea of freezing citrus zest. But you will never sell me on rice cakes. 😛

    I actually freeze bread, because I wouldn’t be able to finish it before it went moldy, either. My favorite store-bought bread is Rudi’s Colorado Cracked Wheat. I take out two pieces of bread at a time, place them in Zip-loc bags, and freeze them, allowing me to easily pry apart two frozen slices of bread at a time, and either thaw them out or toast them. It’s also much easier to spread Earth Balance over a piece of frozen bread before popping it into the toaster for breakfast. Zip-loc bags stay in the freezer, reused into perpetuity.

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