You may realise that it will be harder to meet your nutritional needs if you almost always eat out. Making food gives you full control and more access to the necessary nutrients at a cheaper price. Keep in mind that 1) I am not a medical/nutritional professional, always consult one if unsure AND 2) advice here may not work for everyone, as we are all unique individuals with different needs. If you’d like professional medical or nutritional advice, visit your doctor or talk with a certified nutritionist. If you suspect that your levels of a certain nutrient may be low, ask for a blood test or similar.
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All about balance
Whether you’re eating out or cooking, a balanced meal can include these nutrient categories, unless you’re on a diet prescribed by a medical professional/nutritionist:
– Rice, bread, pasta, rice noodles, wheat noodles, starchy plants (potato, pumpkin, sweet potato). Not all carbs are bad. If you blanket ban yourself (unless on doctor’s orders), you’re missing out the nutrients in good carbs that are vital to function well. Unrefined carbs are the better choice. Choose what suits you best!
– Any bean, lentil, nuts, seeds and gluten (seitan/面筋) foods.
- Vitamins and fiber
– Any fruits, green veggies, non-green veggies, root veggies, sea veggies and mushrooms. Important to eat your colours! And, fruits SHOULD NOT be equated with refined sugar. The way to eat less sugar, is simply eat less sweet foods with added sugar.
- Good fats
– First press plant oils (Extra virgin cold pressed olive/coconut oil), avocados, coconut milk, nuts, nut butters and seeds. A small amount is enough. Choose a whole food over processed oil whenever possible.
For in-between meals, there are plenty of vegan eats we can buy easily from supermarkets or foodcourts:
- Snacks – nuts, granola bars, nut bars, fruits, dried fruits, seaweed snacks, dark chocolates (many are vegan, check labels), local desserts (for traditional ones like pulut hitam, bo bo cha cha etc, coconut milk is used, not dairy), local kueh and fritters (most are vegan, check for egg), beancurd (tauhua), local jellies (agar is used instead of gelatine), chips and (occasionally) accidentally vegan junk food. (Yes SG oreos are vegan!)
- Drinks – non-dairy smoothies, soy milk (some brands have many flavours), nut milks, oat milk (highly recommend Oatly Chocolate), juices (go for freshly juiced ones instead of bottled if possible), tea and coffee with non-dairy creamers (many coffee places have non-dairy option), non-dairy bubble teas (pearls and jellies are made from tapioca and agar). For local coffee (kopi), note that some places roast beans with margarine or butter.
Putting together a meal
You don’t have to cook well to eat well. Firstly, cooking is a common sense understanding of 1) how long to heat things (hard ingredients = longer time) and 2) what foods goes with what flavours (blueberries might not work in miso soup right?).
My tips to maximize time and money for the best nutrition and taste:
1) Use ‘fast’ ingredients
Use ingredients that are:
- Little washing & peeling needed – Rinse with baking soda to remove pesticides. Generally, plants like mushrooms, cucumbers, french beans, tomatoes, most fruits that’s got no skin (or with edible skin), no roots, visible sand and mud need minimal preparation.
- No cutting involved – Soft or crisp veggies (bak choy, spinach, broccoli etc), tofu, beancurd skin etc can be broken into smaller pieces by hand.
- Ready-to-cook – Can be used immediately after removing from packaging. Frozen edamame, frozen veggies, sprouts (alfalfa, wasabi, broccoli sprouts), canned beans, dried seaweed, pickles, plant milks and condiments are completely fuss-free.
Plants that take much longer to prepare but still good to include in your meals due to the nutritional benefits:
- Dried legumes need to be soaked to shorten cooking times, which also reduces digestive troubles while making more nutrients available. Canned ones are more costly and less fresh. Soaking can take a few hours to overnight depending on variety and soaking water MUST be discarded. Cooking times vary too. Here’s a detailed guide to cooking legumes commonly found in Singapore and detailed steps using pressure cooker and recipe ideas. The cooking water can be used as soup stock if you like – just add salt and spices. For chickpeas, the cooking water is called aquafaba and can be a great egg replacer in baking and savoury dishes.
- Dried mushrooms and certain seaweeds like kelp, need to be softened before cooking. Wash and soak for at least half hour with warm water, remove mushroom stalks then wash again in case there is sand. Don’t throw away the soaking liquid – it can be used as a vegetable stock. For softer seaweeds like wakame, most brands made them ready to use so you likely just need to add them into your dish directly.
- Starchy plants (potatoes, yam, pumpkin, sweet potatoes etc) takes time to be cooked. Duration varies depending on heating method, variety, size of cut, and temperature. Steaming or boiling with skin is the fastest and healthiest way. To check for doneness, poke the centre with fork or chopstick. If it sinks in or cuts easily, its done.
2) Food prep
Food prep is preparing ingredients in advance to make your daily cooking faster and easier. You can dedicate a couple hours on weekends for food prep to reduce weekday stress.
- Wash in bulk: Wash veggies/fruits and portion them into containers or bags. Can also be frozen for a longer shelf life. Note that freezing may change the texture of certain plants. Soft leafy greens and mushrooms can spoil if refrigerated for too long after washing so freeze if you intend to keep them for longer than 5 days.
- Boil then freeze: For hard-to-cook foods like starches and legumes, cook in bulk. Portion and freeze them, taking out some whenever needed.
- Cook carbs in advance:
Cooked grains, starches and noodles can be refrigerated (up to 2 – 4 days max) or frozen (for months). If freezing, separating into individual portions in bags or boxes is a must.
- Buy frozen: Ready to use, no washing and cutting needed. Frozen edamame and the classic corn peas carrots are found in most local supermarkets. Larger supermarkets might carry frozen broccoli, spinach and smoothie fruit packs.
- Preserve and pickle: Make a huge bulk of fermented or pickled veggies so there’s a tasty raw side dish during the week. They can keep for weeks in the fridge too.
- Cut and portion: Unlike veggies and fruits which oxidize after cutting, proteins like tofu, tempeh can be cut in advance without much nutrient loss. Separate large blocks into smaller cubes and refrigerate or freeze them. Frozen firm tofu has a meaty texture and absorbs sauces better. For more flavour, marinate in different sauces then bake or saute.
3) Making ‘fast’ food
Everything is made in a single pot. Minimal smoke is produced which keeps the kitchen clean too. Refer to my guide written last year to making Asian one-pots focusing on pantry basics, flavours and textures and cooking times.
If you have no access to a stove, a mini electric cooker is a great idea. Small size, affordable, easy to clean AND it can boil and steam at the same time. I used to use it in office everyday to make one-pot lunches, steam veggies and reheat buns.
If you don’t have a stove or electric cooker, fret not. As long as you have any source of heat, you can make a decent hot meal.
I barely use them as there is evidence that it turns molecular structure of foods into something our bodies don’t recognise. It also doesn’t taste as good as food cooked on direct heat. Still, good to use when you’re in an emergency! Note that:
- ONLY use glass and plastics labeled microwave safe to heat food. DO NOT USE METAL.
- Gluten foods (pizza, breads, buns) can dry out and harden while reheating. Add about 1 teaspoon water per piece into the container during cooking.
They can do much more than reheating breads. Note that I’m referring to toaster OVEN not toaster for bread slices. In my house it even replaced the microwave completely. I treat it like a junior oven that can be used like an oven except for roasting starchy plants and baking, which needs much higher heat.
Things to note:
- Always line the tray with aluminum foil. Don’t heat food directly on the oven tray as it might stick or permanently stain your oven. I don’t really recommend parchment paper although I use it carefully. The heat source of a small toaster oven is close to the paper. It might burn it and become a fire hazard. If you smell something burning, turn your oven off immediately.
- Exercise common sense and wear kitchen gloves while removing the tray after heating. It’s hot!
- Preheating will help to shorten cooking times. Before starting your meal preparation, set your temperature, turn the time dial and let it run.
Here’s some simple foods I cook in the toaster oven:
- Toasted mushrooms & veggies: Simply wash them and mix in a bowl with 1 tsp oil + ½ tsp salt + any spice. Toast for 10-15mins until soft and juicy.
- Toasted garlic tempeh: Crumble or cut a block of tempeh into small pieces, mix with 1 tbsp oil + ½ tsp salt + crushed or sliced garlic. Toast for 10 mins or so until lightly browned.
- Sambal tempeh: Cut a block of tempeh into bite sized pieces, mix with 2 tsp oil + 1tbsp vegan sambal + juice from 1 lime. Toast for 10-12 mins until darkened and fragrant.
- Pizza toast: Coat 2 slices of bread lightly in oil and place on aluminium foil lined tray. Spread any sauce, add sliced veggies/proteins of your choice, top evenly with crumbled vegan cheese and sprinkle with spices. Toast for 15-20 mins or until cheese melts.
- “Fried” rice/noodles: Mix a bowl of cooked rice/noodles with ½ tsp salt, 2 tsp oil, any preferred spice, sauce and finely chopped veggies and proteins of your choice. Spread evenly onto your tray and cover with aluminium foil to prevent burning/drying out. Toast for 10-15min until the centre is hot. To check if the centre is hot, you can taste from the centre or lift up some food with utensils. If it’s steaming, it’s good to go. Great way to clean up leftovers!
Using Hot Water to Cook
This is inspired by instant noodles, but it’s much more wholesome and healthier. Simply add boiling water to cover all ingredients, put a lid on and wait 5-10 minutes till everything softens. Best when made in a large thermal pot. This is extremely useful when traveling.
Here’s a list of ingredients that can be cooked this way:
Proteins: Tofu, tempeh, cooked seitan, pre-cooked legumes, ready-to-eat beancurd snacks (from Chinese vegetarian groceries).
Veggies: Green leafy veggies (usually stems may be too tough to be cooked thoroughly), thinly sliced crisp veggies (tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, bell peppers etc), freeze-dried veggies, kimchi (or any other pickled/fermented veggie).
Mushrooms and seaweeds: Ready-to-eat dried mushrooms snacks (from Chinese vegetarian groceries and Japanese shops), fresh enoki mushroom, seaweed snacks.
Condiments and seasonings: Any savoury sauce (soy sauce, chilli sauce, pasta sauce), fermented beancurd, miso, powdered spices, spice mixes, vegan MSG-free seasoning powder, nutritional yeast.
Toppings: Toasted nuts, dried roasted seaweed, vegan soy floss (from Chinese vegetarian groceries, chopped herbs (chives, parsley, coriander), deep-fried onion (炸葱头), preserved veggies (like chye poh or mei cai).
Some instant lunchboxes I packed to a no-cooking office I used to work at. There were options near the office but I wanted to save money:
1 – Cooked rice and green beans with sliced tomatoes, flaxseed powder, chopped cilantro, himalayan salt, white pepper powder.
2 – Brown rice noodles with steamed sweet potato chunks, silken tofu cubes, bok choy leaves, lemon slice, curry powder mix and himalayan salt.
3 – Dried kway chap (flat rice noodle) with baked tempeh, frozen sweet corn, dill, sliced green chilli, fermented beancurd and white pepper powder.
4 – White rice vermicelli with cherry tomatoes, sautéed tempeh crumbles, goji berries, sliced green chillis, frozen sweet corn, white pepper powder, black pepper powder, ginger powder and himalayan salt.
5 – Green bean vermicelli with cherry tomatoes, sauteed tempeh, toasted pumpkin seeds, dill, ground black pepper, ginger powder and miso.
6 – Brown rice noodles with boiled chickpeas, carrot, toasted tempeh bits, spicy red beancurd (nam yee) and chopped spring onions.
Since no high heat is used, nutrients in the plants are well retained. However it will be less tasty than cooking with oil and high heat. So flavour needs to come from the soup base – mix and match fermented sauces with lots of spices and herbs for best taste.
Being Chinese, my definition of salad is not a bowl of raw vegetables. In Asia, hot dishes are preferred but there are some dishes meant to be served at room temperature or chilled. They are often appetizers or summer dishes with strong flavours and a mix of cooked and raw, like Malay kerabu, Thai som tam and Chinese liangpi. Like many Singaporeans, I’m not a fan of Western-style salads so I use Asian condiments and spices with both raw and cooked ingredients. They can be prepared in advance with anything on hand and hence make a great lunchbox (dressing must be kept separate or ingredients will get soggy).
My tips to a balanced bowl that’s NOT lettuce and tomatoes:
Base – My preference is carbohydrates (cooked pasta, noodles, rice) but I know friends who love a bed of leafy greens – why not! Make your own rules.
Add softness – My favorites are chestnuts and soft tofu. Well-cooked fluffy legumes and starches are great too.
Add protein – Tofu/tempeh/seitan, cooked legumes, nuts and seeds.
Add interest – Dried fruits, sauteed mushrooms/garlic, fermented foods, wasabi, pickles, nutritional yeast, vegan cheese, spices and herbs, toasted nuts and seeds. Anything you love to make you feel excited to dig in!
Add texture – Hard or crisp veggies (cucumber, bell pepper, carrots), crunchy or juicy fruits (apples, pear, jackfruit).
Dressing – Find a balance between sweet, sour, savoury and creamy. Sweet can come from dates, juice and syrups, sour can be from citrus fruit juices and vinegars. Savoury can be from salt or any savoury sauce like soy sauce, and creamy can be from nut butters, hummus, avocado, blended silken tofu or non dairy yogurts. Experiment with your favourite combinations by blending or mixing in a bowl for a quick sauce. Top with fresh or dried spices and herbs for extra taste!
Possibilities are endless
Anything can be veganized, there are endless online recipes and resources to help you with that. If you want to explore international flavours, here are some recipe apps that can help.
3 meals a day means nearly 87,000 meals by the age of 80. A lifetime of dependence on our grandma, mother, partner, commercial eateries or profit-driven corporations for a
basic need isn’t ideal – proven by studies on the rise of chronic diseases related to diet over past centuries.
That’s why making good food is an important self-care life skill.
Keep trying new ingredients, methods and combinations till you find what works best for you. If you’re just cooking for yourself, you don’t have to be a good cook to eat well.