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Friday, 14 February 2014

Healthy meal construction kit - By Anastasia

Heaving healthy, delicious, nutrient-rich, quick meals on a daily basis to support the individual athletic activity sounds like a dream, right? Well, anything possible. The key points for achieving this are knowledge and good planning. However, as Goethe already realized: ‘Knowing is not enough, we must apply. Willing is not enough, we must do.’
In this blog post I will provide some essential tools on how to apply the knowledge in a very simple way and how to do fast preparation of great meals once a week so that you can to enjoy them every day. ‘Time demanding’ and ‘too complicated’ cannot be used as excuses anymore not to eat healthy.

Why should I cook once a week and what should I use?
Cooking once a week is a great method to ensure that you get all the nutrients you need throughout the week without thinking about it daily. Also, if you prepare your meals in advance there are fewer temptations to grab something unhealthy on the go.
Before starting cooking some planning is necessary. You should decide what are the most important nutrients for you as an individual and for fueling your goals. In my case these are complex carbohydrates, protein, antioxidants, vitamin B12, iodine and omega-3-fatty acids. Also, I consider a number of spices as important additives, because they have beneficial effects for the body helping me to recover and enhance the immune function.
After spending some thoughts on your individual needs food preparation can begin. Following nutritional considerations, you can use the general weekly meal plan to guide you through the process of meal preparation.

Daily meal plan
I have three main meals every day with several snacks in between. Each of my main meals contains a protein and a raw plant source. I adjust the carbohydrate and fat content of each meal according to my activity at that time of the day.
Around my workouts I add a complex carbohydrate sources to my main meals for more energy during my workouts and afterwards to refuel glycogen stores. For snacking I choose simple sugar sources, such as fresh or dried fruit.
When I am less active during the day, I add more fat to my main meals. Fat is the main energy source for our body when we are in the rest state. Great snack options when less active are veggies with hummus, nuts, seeds or chia pudding.
Beneficial additions to single meals
I always add some fresh fruits or veggies as a side to each meal. A combination of raw and cooked food fuels me the best. My favorite raw additives to breakfast are all kinds of berries. They possess exceptional benefits for the general health and recovery accelerating effect for athletes. For other meals I use dark leafy greens. They are very nutrient dense and have an alkalizing effect for the body, which in turn facilitated recovery after intense training sessions. Also raw celery, being a tasty source of electrolytes, is a great addition.

My general meal plan for the day:

Breakfast being the first meal of the day should provide as many essential nutrients as possible. My breakfast usually contains a moderate amount of low glycemic index carbs not to raise my blood sugar level too much and to prevent a sugar crush when I have to focus on my work. All of my breakfast recipes contain basically the same main ingredients. This makes grocery shopping very easy. However I use different preparation methods not to get bored.

My basic key ingredients

  • Pea protein powder or a cup of beans (cannellini, black beans or chickpeas).  Both are good protein sources, however, they can be replaced by oatmeal for those who do not desire a high protein content in their diet.
  • A source of omega 3 fatty acids, e.g. flax seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds or walnuts

These key ingredients combined with non-dairy milk give a nice ‘porridge like’ mixture. When beans are used processing is required.

By adding starchy veggies or fruits to the basics, you can utilize the mixture for a cake, e.g. carrot, pumpkin or apple cake. Basic ingredients combined with cacao powder and black beans gives a great chocolate brownie after baking.

On weekends, I use the mixture for pancakes. Just the addition of some flour, such as buckwheat, oat or chickpea flour, is required. 

However, the basic mixture recipes provide just a ‘raw construct’. In combination with other ingredients a wide variety of breakfast dishes can be created, along with a dramatic change in flavor.

Here are my favorite ingredients that serve this purpose:

  • Cacao powder (mixed with non-dairy milk to give chocolate cream), carob powder, vanilla powder and/or cinnamon.
  • Sweetener(s) of choice, such as stevia, erythritol, fruits or small amounts of agave nectar or maple syrup
  •  Freshly sprouted buckwheat or quinoa, berries, nuts & seeds

Some breakfast ideas

Black bean brownie topped with berries and chocolate cream. Brownie (5 servings): 1 can black beans, 1/4 cup flax seeds, 5 scoops pea protein powder, 30 g cacao powder, cinnamon, sweetener of choice (optional). Process and bake for 30-45 min. Chocolate cream: Cacao powder, almond milk, stevia and vanilla powder.
Carrot cake topped with nuts & seeds and chia pudding. Cake (5 servings): 1 can chickpeas, 1/4 cup flax seeds, 5 scoops pea protein powder, 700 g carrots (processed in a food processor with a s-blade), cinnamon. Process and bake for 30-45 min. Chia pudding: Soak 10g of chia seeds in non-dairy milk (50-100ml) overnight to obtain a pudding like consistency. Optional: Addition of 2 tsp. nut butter or nuts and seeds depending on the individual taste. 
Pancakes see previous blog post
Breakfast mix topped with dark berries, pumpkin seeds and quinoa. Mix: 1 scoop pea protein powder or a cup of cannellini beans or chickpeas (processed), 1 tbsp. of flax or chia seeds or flax oil, non-dairy milk (to desired consistency), stevia, vanilla and cinnamon. Topping: Cooked or sprouted quinoa, fresh or frozen berries, nuts or seeds.

Main meals

How to choose the right ingredient?
What to use as a main ingredient for a dish depends on the individual taste and personal goals. Tofu, tempeh and veggies can be used for great stir-fry dishes or stews. Legumes and veggies are optimal for curry, dahl or chilli recipes. For more variety, legume based dishes can be transformed into amazing tasting loafs after baking. Legumes are one of my favorite types of food, as they are associated with a longer lifespan, regulate blood sugar level and are a great source of protein. My favorite bean type is Cannellini, a type of white beans. They are fast to cook and contain more iron than most other beans. Also, their protein to carbohydrate ratio is relatively high. White beans can be modified to various dishes as they are not dominant in taste and can adopt various flavors when combined with different spices.

How to enhance flavor?
When batch cooking once a week it is very important to create a great tasting dish you are looking forward to enjoy every day. Spices are perfect implements to provide a fantastic flavor and support our health with their beneficial properties. For example, garlic acts as a natural antibiotic, cooked turmeric prevents DNA damage and raw turmeric inflammation. Combination with black pepper boosts the bioavailability of turmeric. The table below provides an overview of my favorite ingredients to create a healthy and flavor-rich dish.

Preparation procedure
First, heat small amount of oil in a pan. Add the at least one ingredient form each of the first three categories following rainbow colors (yellow, orange, red). For cooking, coconut oil (1 tbsp.) is my oil of choice because of its high transition temperature to trans fats and its nice flavor. The addition of fresh garlic, onion and/or ginger is optional. They significantly enhance the taste, however, peeling and dicing can take some time. Good quality garlic powder is a great alternative to fresh garlic.

After sautéing spices and basics raw ingredients, add the main ingredient(s), such as pre-cooked or canned legumes, tempeh, tofu and/or veggies, followed by the desired liquid ingredient(s). For a curry, dahl, chilli or stew vegetable broth is ideal. For tofu or tempeh based dishes, I prefer soy sauce or liquid aminos and a small amount of toasted sesame oil to give a specific Asian flavor. After cooking for 10-25 min ingredients from the remaining categories can be added up to individual taste.

Another way to obtain more diversity is pre-cooking a big batch of legumes once a week and add different sauces to it every day. Sauces and dressing can be prepared by combining the same ingredients used for the previously described dishes. For sauces a combination of various liquid ingredients (except veggie broth) works very well. Freshly squeezed juices in particular provide a unique flavor. To obtain an ideal consistency for a salad dressings more liquid and less creamy ingredients have to be used compared with the ratios used in sauce preparation. As not all listed ingredients are combined at the same time, extraordinary sauce variety can be created every single day. The table below provides an overview over the described preparation methods.

Preparation methods overview:

Not only can you produce wonderfully diverse sauces for pre-cooked legumes but you can also combine with raw or cooked vegetables to create completely new recipes. In addition, modifications like processing change the texture and can lead to further changes in flavor. The recipes below show just a few examples how the same type of pre-cooked beans can give completely different dishes that taste amazing. The preparation of each of these dishes does not take longer than 10 min using pre-cooked or canned beans.

Same main ingredient – completely different dishes

Colorful Artichoke Pine Nut Salad: A colorful, nutrient-rich, Mediterranean salad crates a sunny mood on gray and cold winter days.
Plant Power Burrito: A low carb, nutrient-rich variant of traditional Mexican food. Tastes fresh, crunch and spicy.
Crunchy Sushi with Creamy Sesame Dip: A crunchy version of sprouts sushi full of nutrition, freshness and lightness. Traditional Asian ingredients used for the dip give a great, spicy, Asian flavor.  
‘Rawesome’ Hemp Mushroom Lasagna: Quick and tasty lasagna version. Using zucchini instead of lasagna noodles not only avoids empty calories and allergenic ingredients but also creates a nutrient rich dish full of goodness.

The recipes for theses dishes can be found on my facebook page

Final notes
The first step for a successful meal preparation is grocery shopping.  The careful selection of ingredients is essential for the preparation of a quick meal. When I do not want to spend much time in the kitchen, I buy pre-cut, frozen vegetables or vegetable types that do not require chopping and cooking, such as dark leafy greens and cherry tomatoes.

Don’t be afraid to try new things. Experiment in the kitchen and discover new spices and flavors. Find out what you like. Soon you will be able to create amazing dishes in a short time.

For more recipes, inspirations and questions check out my facebook page:

About Anastasia

Anastasia is a powerlifter who has a BSc in Chemistry, MSc in Chemistry/Life Sciences and is currently PhD candidate in Biochemistry at the University of Cambridge.  She also has a love of healthy eating & the fitness lifestyle, so is often in the kitchen whipping up wonderful treats that actually aid you in your fitness goals.