If adopting a plant-based diet is among your strategies for bettering the planet, you’re not alone. Rather, you're in luck: Nisha Vora, the lawyer turned plant-based chef and cookbook author—the brain (and tastebuds) behind Rainbow Plant Life—is here to help.
In this week’s episode of Good Together, we discuss how making small swaps in your diet can benefit the planet, how to cook up plant-based dishes even the pickiest eaters will enjoy, and ways you can develop more sustainable habits in the kitchen.
A study published in The Lancet found vegan and vegetarian diets were associated with significant reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions. Still, to some, these diets remain daunting. Rather than expecting an overnight shift in dietary habits, she encourages cooking what feels right for you.
"It’s about those small wins," says Vora. "If you used to eat meat five times a week, and now you only get it two or three times a week, that's still a big win—for your health, for the planet, for the animals."
The Benefits of Plant-Based Swaps
There are a variety of ways to incorporate plant-based products into your cooking, compatible with whatever eating habits you practice. Switching out cow's milk for alternatives with drastically lower carbon footprints is one such environmentally-friendly change. Between raising cows and producing milk, one liter of cow milk uses 1,050 liters of water. And while not every alternative milk is better for the environment (sorry, almond milk), plenty—like soy and oat milk—require far less water to produce.
As for meat, it requires a massive amount of resources. According to a study from Nature Food, the process of raising cows, pigs, poultry, and other animals, as well as generating livestock feed, is responsible for 57% of all food production emissions. Comparatively, plant-based foods only produced 29% of emissions. Not to mention, plants are easier on your wallet: There have been a handful of studies suggesting that plant-based diets are actually cheaper than meat-based ones.
Though there are many clear benefits to a plant-based lifestyle, perhaps the most integral in terms of habit forming is to ensure that the food is delicious. That’s where Vora comes in—the chef has plenty of tips, tricks, and advice for plant-based newbies and seasoned pros alike.
Having a Healthy Mentality
One of the major obstacles to switching to plant-based options, Vora says, is that it's associated with giving up your favorite foods. "It's associated with [the kind of] deprivation that's associated with a diet,” she explains. For Vora, it's neither a diet nor a sacrifice, but a way to be more connected with your environment and your food.
"With the rise of the [content] creator economy, we get to see that being plant-based or vegan can look like so many different things,” says Vora. Creating culinary environments that are judgment-free spaces, mostly through blogging and Instagram, has offered a much-needed mindset shift from traditional notions of a vegan lifestyle. "The thing that excites me a lot is just seeing how we're finally embracing different kinds of vegan food and different kinds of traditional practices and recipes from different cultures," she says.
All of this feeds into Vora's notion that allowing people to grow at their own pace on their journey toward sustainable eating habits is more possible now than it has ever been before.
Getting Creative With Your Recipes
When experimenting with plant-based substitutions and recipes, creativity is key. To start, look to cuisines outside of typical Western diets. "[There are] so many global cuisines that are naturally very plant-friendly,” she says.
Experimenting with vegan recipes through a single cuisine is a great way to get to know both that cuisine and the overall potential of plant-based meals. Challenging yourself to incorporate a vegan item, like tofu, into a week’s worth of meals is another fun way to get familiar with plant-based dishes.
For Vora, there are a handful of hacks she keeps in her back pocket when cooking vegan that would satisfy the palette of even the most skeptical eater—and all of them center on taste. One is umami-loaded ingredients, especially when making vegan-ified versions of meat-heavy dishes.
Umami, one of the five tastes, is often described as the hearty, earthy, and rich flavor present in ingredients like tomatoes, mushrooms, meat, and hard cheeses. Dried mushrooms, soy sauce, miso paste, nutritional yeast, olives, walnuts, and tomatoes are just a few mainstays that Vora relies on for a savory, deep quality.
Another hack is keeping acidic ingredients on hand. A splash of vinegar or squeeze of fresh citrus offer a bit of zing to what could otherwise be a flat-tasting dish. Rich, fatty vegan ingredients are another important consideration for dishes that aim for a creamy texture—avocados, tahini, and coconut cream are all great ingredients to deliver that texture.
Through trial and error, open-mindedness, and a bit of creativity, everyone can learn how to eat more plant-based food in a way that works for them. You’ll be sure to figure out your go-tos and favorites—and Vora will have your back every step of the way.