After my last post about the importance of maintaining balance, it's a perfect time to talk about how the idea of balance applies to structuring meals. Don't worry, this isn't going to be a boring step by step tutorial or a set of stifling rules for how your meals must be composed in order to be healthy- rather, it's a look at how easy and simple it can be to throw together a healthy and delicious meal without a lot of effort or forethought, simply by following some basic guidelines.
Much in the same way that we need to maintain balance in our lives by prioritizing supportive and beneficial practices of self care that keep us healthy, happy, and grounded, we also need to maintain balance on the plate in order to create a healthful, stable, and flexible condition in the body. We need nutritious, wholesome, natural foods in combinations that provide our body with the necessary nutrients in proportions that allow our body to maintain balance in order for us to be healthy, strong, and functioning optimally. The point here is to get your nutritional needs met without having to spend all your time strategizing, and to do so in a way that's pretty easy, super tasty, and flexible enough to keep things fun and interesting.
Some of you may be familiar with the term Macrobiotics and the school of thought and practice that it describes. Most people who are casually aware of it think of it as a dietary system, but it extends beyond that into a way of life. People harbor all kinds of preconceived notions about macrobiotics, from the good to the bad, often settling on an assumption that it is a super-restrictive and "clean" way of eating that allows for little more than brown rice and vegetables. But the truth is that the main principle of macrobiotics is all about Balance, not restriction. It means the food we eat is chosen in a way that balances the conditions in the body to allow for optimal digestion, assimilation, nourishment of our organs and bodily systems, and that creates physical, emotional, mental, and energetic harmony. While there are general guidelines that apply broadly, it is a system that can be and should be modified and personalized depending on the individual needs of the person and the situation they're in; and the most important and always constant part of the approach to eating is the reliance on natural, wholesome foods in the appropriate proportions to create and maintain balance.
But this post isn't about teaching you how to be macrobiotic or encouraging you to be, although I will happily teach you how to implement macrobiotic principles into both your diet and your life if you are interested. Rather, this post is to help you and anybody out there to adapt principles of balance into planning and creating wholesome, natural meals in a way that is intuitive to you but also easy and fun. Being that I began my training in nutrition specifically with a focus on macrobiotics and it is still one of the main schools of thought that informs my approach, much of my cooking style has developed based in the general principles of macrobiotic philosophy, specifically the emphasis on a plant-based, natural diet of wholesome and unprocessed foods combined in ratios that are supportive of the body. But I am also a modern person living in the real world, in New York of all places, and I believe in flexibility and being realistic and being free to do what feels good, while always keeping one's intutive sense of one's individual needs at the center of one's awareness. And I know that my clients have varying needs, desires, physical make-ups, and schedules, so rather than give them "rules", I teach them how different foods work in the body and what foods and proportions create and sustain optimal health and balance, while encouraging them to allow for creativity, flexibility and the dictations of their own needs all while working within health supportive guidelines.
To help you with the inspiration side of things and to give an idea of how a healthy meal comes together, the following are descriptions and pictures of the kinds of meals that I cook for myself and my family, the meals and foods that I teach my clients how to prepare and eat; and the idea is that you take the ingredients and combinations presented here and think of them not so much as a recipe but as a guide for creating these meals using the inspiration presented and then using them as jumping off point for creating your own new combinations for future meals. You'll notice that many ingredients appear several times or even frequently but in different variations or combinations; this is because I rely on certain healthful standard choices in my meal preparation (unrefined sesame oil, extra virgin olive oil, certain whole grains) and also because this is a sampling of what I cooked over a particular period of time, meaning it reflects different and interesting combinations of the foods I had in the kitchen at that time, rather than requiring a large array of different ingredients. This will help you to get in the habit of smaller shopping trips, cooking for more than one meal at a time, and then using what you make to create various different and satisfying meals; thus minimizing effort, time, and money. Get to cooking, and enjoy!
As simple as it gets: a plate of brown rice, chickpeas (cook your own or use organic from a can), steamed green beans and steamed kabocha squash (which is like a small, dense pumpkin). This meal is complete with a healthy fat for flavor and nutrition, hence the homemade miso-tahini dressing to the right- simply mix a bit of tahini paste with a small amount miso paste and a few tablespoons of water until desired consistency is achieved, then drizzle all over the plate of goodness! This is a perfect example of the standard balanced meal, and the ingredients can easily be changed out for others from the same category.
Brown rice couscous (or you could use whole wheat couscous) tossed with lightly sauteed carrots, onions, and baby golden beets, then mixed with raw spinach leaves into a room temperature salad dressed in a zesty olive oil vinaigrette. This idea can be made into many different variations by switching out the greens to arugula or watercress or another salad green, switching the grain to millet or quinoa, or throwing in some cubed avocado. To make this a more substantial and filling meal, simply top with some lean protein; either beans, lentils, or some grilled fish or other lean meat would be the perfect accompaniment.
A side dish of grapefruit and avocado salad, made by combining peeled grapefruit segments (easily peel the clear skin away from each segment and toss into a bowl), cubed avocado, sliced scallions, and a very small amount of dijon mustard to taste. Mix well to combine all of the flavors, and serve as a breakfast or brunch dish with whole grain rye toast and soft boiled eggs, or serve over a beautiful bunch of salad greens such as mâche or mesclun as a side salad for lunch or dinner, alongside an entree of your choice.
A simple but hearty breakfast: leftover brown rice warmed on the stove and tossed with cubes of steamed tofu, seasoned with basil, sea salt, and unrefined sesame oil. To make this a complete meal for lunch or dinner, simply add some green vegetables, such as either roasted broccoli or asparagus, or sauteed kale or collard greens with seasoning of your choice, or even a simple green salad.
An easy, scrumptious vegetable side: cauliflower and acorn squash cut into cubes and roasted with unrefined sesame oil, garlic, and a bit of turmeric to bring out the flavor. This could be served with any meal and seasonings of your choice, but to balance the hearty and rich flavors and textures of the roasted vegetables, I served this alongside a lighter entree of broiled flounder with a miso glaze over a bed of quinoa topped with sauteed bok choi in olive oil. Or, it would go very nicely with the simple and light tofu meal described above.
A typical macrobiotic meal, combined into one main dish: cooked chickpeas and brown rice tossed with cooked arame seaweed and lightly sauteed kale, then mixed with unrefined sesame oil and sesame seeds, and served with a side of carrots sticks and cornichon pickles. This idea can be used to create countless takes on the one-dish meal: you can use a different kind of bean or a different whole grain, skip the seaweed if you like, or add some fish or lean meat into this mixture instead of beans for protein. The idea is to keep the balance and ease, and have fun with it!
Here's an idea for a quick last minute meal: this mixture can be used as a filling for quesadillas, sandwich wraps or crepes, or can be folded into an omelet, stuffed into thin slices of lean meats (see below), or simply served over a bed of cooked whole grains as it is here. This is something you can make from items stocked in the freezer and pantry when you're short on fresh stock: simply combine cooked black beans, thawed and drained frozen chopped spinach, thawed frozen organic corn, garlic (fresh or powder), onion (fresh or dried), and chili powder, along with olive oil, and simmer over low heat until warm and flavors have combined, then add toasted sunflower seeds or pumpkin seeds. Then it is ready to be enjoyed on it's own with a grain, or added into your meal of choice.
I enjoyed the mixture over some cooked whole grain polenta above (beans and polenta go very well together), and mixed the rest with leftover cooked quinoa and stuffed it into rolled thin slices of turkey for my husband's lunch, along with cut carrot sticks. (Read here about this lunch container and how ones like this can help you to save time, money, and effort in bringing lunch to work while encouraging healthy balance and proper portions.)
Here is a hearty, balanced meal of delicious goodness, clockwise from top right: a baked casserole made from cooked green lentils and cooked brown rice mixed with garlic, onions, chopped spinach, spices and herbs, and 1 beaten egg to hold it together and then baked in the oven; cooked arame seaweed dressed with a bit of unrefined sesame oil and rice vinegar; roasted parsnips and sunchokes (Jerusalem artichokes) roasted with unrefined sesame oil, thyme, and sea salt; and lightly sauteed watercress. This meal was DELICIOUS! Again, this is one you can take and run with- try your own casserole ingredients using whatever protein and grain you have on hand, or try different combinations of starchy and sweet vegetables for roasting. The seaweed is optional but provides a wonderfully healthful boost!
A light dinner: red lentil soup with kombu seaweed served with sauteed collard green ribbons dressed in unrefined sesame oil and sprinkled with sesame seeds, and a side of Mestemacher whole rye bread. I make various versions of red lentil soup all the time; another recent one contained chopped sunchokes (Jerusalem artichokes) and parsnips and was seasoned with nutmeg and thyme, a different one cooked with chopped carrots and sweet corn and seasoned with garlic, turmeric, cumin, and paprika. Be creative! Soup is pretty failsafe- lots of room for experimentation.
Cooked chickpeas and sauteed tatsoi (a bitter Asian green; you can substitute kale, collards, or bok choi easily) with unrefined sesame oil, caramelized onions, garlic, and fresh ginger, and lightly sauteed buckwheat sprouts thrown in at the very end of cooking (any kind of sprouts would work), served over fluffy cooked millet and topped with a drizzle of tahini dressing, with a spoon of sauerkraut on the side. This meal was sooo tasty!
Sauteed tempeh (made from fermented soy beans) and watercress in unrefined sesame oil served with cooked black quinoa and thin-sliced red radishes. Black quinoa may be hard to find; you can easily use regular quinoa or red quinoa here, and since this is a very simple dish, season as you would like to pump up the flavor. If tempeh is not desirable or available, you could use tofu, a cooked bean of your choice, or a fish or lean meat of your choice.
Here's a version of one of my favorites, cabbage slaw. You can find my basic cabbage slaw recipe here, but I make this a bit different each time to keep it interesting and depending on what I have around. In this version, it's simply shredded Nappa cabbage, carrots, sweet corn, and toasted pumpkin seeds in a lemon juice and flaxseed oil dressing with a dash of sea salt. For my own breakfast, I served this with a scoop of fluffy cooked and seasoned millet as seen here.
For my husband's lunch, I filled thin slices of turkey breast with the seasoned millet and the served the cabbage slaw on the side, as seen here. Don't hesitate to use these meal ideas as a jumping off point for modifying them based on your own preference or needs, or for varying tastes of members of your family, as I did for us with this meal. Making a small change or addition in order to create two versions of one meal can be extremely simple once you get the hang of it. (Tiffins are very handy for transporting this type of balanced, three-part meal to work or elsewhere!)
Here is another riff on the bean-vegetable-grain formula, which can be made in literally endless combinations and kept interesting by clever and creative use of seasonings such as gomasio and tekka, both macrobiotic/Japanese condiments used here, or simply having fun with whatever herbs, spices, and seasonings are in your own cabinets. Here we have aduki beans mixed with black quinoa and cooked kombu seaweed (optional) and seasoned with unrefined sesame oil, gomasio (sesame seeds ground up with sea salt), and tekka (a condiment made from ground root vegetables and miso), topped with white turnips that have been cut into matchsticks and simmered with a splash of water, unrefined sesame oil, and tamari (wheat-free soy sauce) until the liquid is absorbed/reduced, and accompanied by a simple salad of chopped mizuna greens dressed with flaxseed oil, apple cider vinegar, and a sprinkle of sea salt. If mizuna greens are not available or desirable, arugula or watercress would work perfectly with this meal and are both easy to find.
This last one I don't have a photo for, but it is so easy and simple that it doesn't need one: cooked brown rice pasta (any whole grain pasta will do, such as whole wheat pasta or quinoa pasta) tossed with fresh basil, cooked kidney beans, sauteed arugula, sweet peas, olive oil, and garlic. This is comfort food at it's best and easiest!
I am looking forward to hearing which ones you try and how you make them your own; remember, once you have the basic proportions for health and balance in place, it's time to be creative and have fun with it!
Interested in finding out more about what foods are right for your own body and why? Looking for personalized information and support to help you change your eating and lifestyle choices in order to achieve your own specific goals for health and wellness? Contact me to set up a consultation: firstname.lastname@example.org