5 tips for cooking at home for healthier plant-based meals

Eating Right | September 12, 2019
Cecelia Jacobsen at Youth Farmstand near PeaceHealth hospital in Springfield, Oregon
Nutrition expert shares personal insights to help you make the most of the foods in your pantry and fridge

If life gives you lemons, make lemonade. But what if life gives you rice and beans? Or tuna?

Cecelia Jacobson, RD, a dietitian at PeaceHealth in Springfield, Oregon, learned early in her career how to make the most of the foods she had on hand as an intern.

“One of my rotations was in a food bank,” she says. “For foods we had a lot of, we’d find or write recipes we could share with people who came in. We’d demonstrate how to cook or use these abundant ingredients. They could then take the ingredients and the recipes home to recreate meals for their families.”

“I thought it was great to show others with minimal resources how to eat relatively healthy using foods they have available,” she notes.

Since then, Cecelia carries on that approach with mostly plant-oriented foods. She has developed nearly 100 recipes at work and at home. (Many of her recipes can be found in Healthy You.)

Cecelia’s own experiences with cooking started early—at the feet of her great-grandmother, grandmother and mom—who encouraged her, along with her brother, to try new things. The family loved to entertain so there were many opportunities to spend time together in the kitchen during her years growing up in Bellingham, Washington.Cecelia Jacobsen poses at a holiday-themed cooking demonstration

“It was always an experiment. If we didn’t like something, we didn’t have to eat it,” she recalls. “The goal was just getting into the kitchen and getting comfortable.”

Those childhood memories seemed to pave the way for her choice in career. Cecelia earned her associate degree in nutrition and then worked as a diet technician at PeaceHealth in Bellingham where she saw “what a positive impact the dietitians had on people’s lives.”

She went on to become a dietitian and has seen firsthand the power of small changes—especially when it comes to healthy eating and good nutrition.

“There’s a patient I’ve seen for a couple of years who used to eat the ‘Standard American Diet (SAD).’ Together, we slowly worked at changing things—adding a fruit or veggie to each meal,” says Cecelia. The patient started walking and it wasn’t long before she had lost about 40 pounds.

“It started the snowball effect.” Cecelia was thrilled by how excited the patient was. Seeing the benefit of small changes motivated her to make additional changes. As the numbers on the scale went down, her patient exclaimed, ‘Oh, this really does work!’

In 2015, Cecelia stepped into a role where she could share the power of nutrition in monthly cooking demonstrations at the Oregon Heart and Vascular Institute in Springfield, Oregon.

These sessions help people feel empowered to take more control over their food choices and make the kind of meaningful small changes that can lead to big differences in their health.

Whether you attend a demo or not, Cecelia offers these five tips for cooking at home—and maybe even developing your own recipes—for better overall health and pocketbook savings:

1. Keep it simple.

It’s easy to think you need to produce elaborate meals with lots of ingredients. Some people love that kind of thing, but most of us don’t have the time or energy for it. You’re more apt to make dishes that call for a handful of ingredients. Keeping it simple is cheaper, usually requires less energy and typically dirties fewer dishes.

Cecelia says she often falls back on one staple in her fridge, a creamy vegetarian cheese sauce made of raw cashews, sweet potato, an onion and spices. It’s both delicious and satisfying served over veggies or noodles.

2. Start with foods you like.

You’ll have more success by starting with a food you like. Build your dish or meal around one veggie or fruit you enjoy. You can add one or two other healthy ingredients to enhance the flavor.

If you want to try foods that aren’t your all-time favorite, try new ways of cooking them. Roasting is great for all sorts of veggies. “It really tones down the pungency and earthy flavor of some things like beets, broccoli or brussels sprouts,” says Cecelia.

3. Tap inspiring resources.

Scan cookbooks, reliable websites or cooking apps for inspiration in how to use particular foods. Note: To move away from the SAD (standard American diet), avoid sources that promote heavy use of meats and fats.

Did you know you can sauté foods in vegetable broth?  If you’re trying to cut back on fats—even good fats—this is a great alternative.

4. Cook once, eat at least twice.

Make this your motto. There is nothing wrong with leftovers. In fact, sometimes dishes taste better the second time around.

You can also usually freeze some dishes and reheat them later for lunch or dinner. This is a far healthier, cheaper option than buying takeout on a regular basis. 

5. Don’t be afraid to experiment.

If you want to try something new, start with a small batch to test things out. That way, if you don’t like it, you don’t have to feel guilty about not eating it. If the results are just “okay,” you might have ideas to make improvements the next time.

Cecelia says even seemingly odd combinations might surprise people. She uses black beans in brownies and bananas in cookies. “Both goodies pass the kid test with flying colors. Adults likes them, too.”

Cecelia Jacobsen poses with a volunteer at a Hawaiian themed cooking demoThough it’s more difficult for them to get together now, Cecelia’s family still enjoys gathering for annual summer picnics or holiday meals. And true to her upbringing, she’s not afraid to push the boundaries of their culinary experience.

Since she’s primarily vegetarian, her contributions are usually plant-based or meat-look-alike dishes. Family members will sometimes eye them with a little suspicion. But Cecelia says she has yet to add something to the family table that hasn’t been polished off. “One year, I took a dish that looked like pulled pork that was made of jackfruit. They ate it all.”

This year she fixed “carrot dogs” that look like hot dogs, only healthier. They were popular. In fact, her 83-year-old grandpa gave a ringing endorsement…“I’d eat those again.”

Inspired? Go ahead and get cookin’ and try a new twist on a dish or two.