Since I wrote The Smart Girl’s Guide to Going Vegetarian, I’ve had the opportunity to be in touch with all kinds of interesting people in the plant-based world. One person I’ve been so excited to chat with is Sharon Palmer, RDN, author of The Plant-Powered Diet and Plant-Powered For Life (we actually knew each other through our work a while back, and it’s been so nice to reconnect!). Sharon is an amazing resource for people of all ages who are interested in shifting toward a more plant-centric way of eating. What I especially love about Sharon’s approach is that she puts the focus on “more” and not “less”—in other words, when you’re reading one of her books, articles, or blog posts, the emphasis is on delicious food and whole-food ingredients that put plants at the center.
I wanted to interview Sharon for the SmartGirlVeg blog because I often hear from parents who are anxious about their kids going veg, since they worry about what they will feed a house full of people with different eating styles. Well, Sharon is a mom who navigates this challenge every day, and she has loads of tricks up her sleeves to make it work for everyone.
Here are the highlights of my conversation with Sharon Palmer, RDN.
SGV: How did you become a plant-powered eater?
SP: I was raised in a semi-vegetarian family. We rarely ate meat, so I was used to meals that didn’t include meat. In fact, I didn’t really like the taste of meat growing up. Later on, even when I didn’t call myself a vegetarian, I rarely ate meat and would choose other things on the menu—I was essentially a flexitarian even though this term had not yet been coined. As I learned more about nutrition, become a registered dietitian, and grew more interested in the food system and sustainability, I gradually turned to an increasingly plant-based diet. I went from pescatarian for some time to lacto ovo vegetarian. Then I tried a vegan diet as research, and I found that I really liked it!
SGV: There are so many ways to classify one’s self as a plant-based eater. How do you categorize yourself—or do you stay away from labels?
SP: I like to use the term plant-based. I don’t really like these narrow categories people use, and some people have a negative attitude towards the word “vegan”, which I don’t understand personally! But I prefer more positive terms, such as plant-based. My diet focuses on plant foods.
SGV: Keeping it positive—love it! We always say “put the focus on what you’re adding, not subtracting.” On that note, what are the five top “must have” plant-powered foods in your kitchen?
SP: I always have a variety of whole grains on hand—always steel cut oats, farro, brown rice, quinoa and usually even more, such as teff, millet, rye, barley, and amaranth. I also always have a variety of dried beans on hand—I collect heirloom beans! They are so fun and interesting. Right now I have some Yellow Indian Woman beans, Rattlesnake beans, and flageolet beans. But I also have dal, lentils, black beans, and chickpeas, too. I always have extra-firm tofu in my fridge. I can make that into a plethora of healthy dishes all week long: stir-fries, curries, baked tofu, tofu lasagna, tofu pot pie…the list goes on.
I always have fresh, seasonal fruit and vegetables from the farmers market. In the cooler months I have chard, squash, sweet potatoes, apples, pears, persimmons, and pomegranates in my fridge. I always have a variety of nuts and seeds in my freezer (they store better there), such as walnuts, pistachios, almonds, hemp, and chia.
SGV: You have so many great recipes in your repertoire. What is your favorite meal to make for someone who is hesitant about plant-based diets?
SP: I like to make things that aren’t obviously plant-based, but are obviously good! One of my most popular dishes hands down is my Southwest Mango Black Bean Quinoa Salad. It’s like a meal in one: black beans, quinoa, mangos, cilantro, spices, bell pepper, corn! People don’t even realize that they’re eating a plant-based meal when they eat this as the main star of the plate.
SGV: Here at SGV HQ, we hear a lot from parents of those girls (and boys!) who want to go vegetarian. They often think that when family members have different eating styles, it means they will become a short-order cook. What is your take on this, as a mom? What are some techniques you use to please everyone without spending your life in the kitchen (which, as a busy professional, you clearly do not!).
SP: Well, I became completely plant-based later in life, when my kids and husband had already developed their eating styles. So, I can identify with this. My philosophy is that we all should eat more plant-based, no matter what our chosen diet style is. And I feel that choosing your diet is a personal choice—I never put pressure on anyone to be vegetarian or vegan. But I do put pressure on people to eat more plant-based meals during the week. So, if your son or daughter is going plant-based, embrace eating more of these meals as you may gain positive benefits, too!
The way that I handle this eating style dilemma in my own home is that I make a range of healthy, delicious plant-based foods and then everyone at the table can choose from it. For example, I may have soup and/or salad, a bean dish, a grain dish, and sautéed vegetables. If my family, who are very pro-plant but not 100%, wants a piece of grilled fish to go with the meal, they can do so and add it to the table. I think this is a good strategy. Another strategy is to eat more interactive meals. One of my family favorites is Pho. I make homemade broth and cook the noodles, then I have a tray of interactive ingredients to add to the dish: diced tofu or seitan, greens, cilantro, basil, limes, chili, green onions, sprouts, etc. My husband may decide to add some diced cooked chicken as another option. You can do the same thing with meals like tacos (BYO tacos with all of the fixings), burritos, and pasta night. Another thing you can do is make vegetarian versions of your favorite meals. For example, if you have a meat lasagna, swap the meat for more veggies so that the whole family enjoys one of the classic favorites.
SGV: Some parents think that feeding their kids vegetarian foods means spending a lot of money. Myth or reality? How do you recommend people keep costs down on plant-powered diets?
SP: Actually, a plant-based diet can be less expensive, because meat is generally the most expensive thing on the plate. That’s not to say that you can’t spend a lot of money choosing expensive plant-based things, like berries out of season or organic macadamia nuts by the bagful! But in general, you can’t provide protein at a much cheaper cost than in peanut butter and beans! And using seasonal produce—even canned and frozen—will help keep costs down.
SGV: Can you share one of your favorite recipes with us?
SP: Sure! Here’s my Vegetable Tofu Pho:
Vegetable Tofu Pho
Makes 4 servings
4 cups reduced-sodium vegetable broth
1/2 medium yellow onion, chopped
1/2 cup sliced shitake mushrooms
1 medium carrot, sliced
4 garlic cloves, minced
8 thin slices peeled fresh ginger root
1 tablespoon reduced-sodium soy sauce
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
1 tablespoon agave syrup
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 cinnamon sticks
2 star anise pods
1/2 teaspoon whole coriander
6 sprigs of fresh basil
6 sprigs of fresh cilantro
One 8-ounce package flat brown rice noodles
One 15-ounce package extra firm tofu, pressed, cubed
2 bunch greens (i.e. Swiss chard, spinach, kale) sliced thinly
1/2 cup coarsely chopped cilantro
½ cup coarsely chopped basil
1 small lime, cut into wedges
1 small jalapeño pepper, seeded and diced
4 green onions, sliced
1. To prepare the broth: Combine all the broth ingredients in a large pot, cover, and bring to a low boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Strain the broth, discarding the vegetables and seasonings. Return the strained broth to the pot, cover, and keep warm (broth should be bubbling right before serving time). While broth is cooking, prepare noodles and toppings.
2. To prepare the noodles: Bring a medium pot of water to a boil. Add the rice noodles, cover, and cook until just tender, about 5 minutes, or according to package directions. Drain the noodles immediately and rinse with hot water. Return the drained noodles to the pot and cover.
3. To prepare the toppings: Arrange the toppings on a large platter.
4. To serve the soup, divide the noodles among four very large soup bowls. Either garnish the noodles with desired toppings or let your guests do their own. Ladle boiling broth over the noodles and toppings, and serve immediately. Allow hot broth to wilt vegetables and cool slightly before eating it.
We had a great time talking with Sharon Palmer! Have you checked out her books yet? Or made one of her recipes? You definitely should! Let us know what you think in the space below.