Healthy, Seasonal Eating and Quick Meal Prep
A Complete Practical Guide to Better Eating with Mindful Frugality
Adopting the Buddha bowl as a meal plan: how to embrace and enjoy leftovers
To some, leftovers may sound unappealing. There is a connotation of unfinished food, often fated to a slow, cold death at the back of the fridge where it will be discovered eventually and then discarded. Not so in my kitchen. Leftovers are met with glee and excitement. In fact, much of my daily diet consists of leftovers.
This eating style works for me on all levels: it provides good nutrition with healthy, delicious meals. It gives me a framework for preparing my own meals with less cost and less waste, and it makes it easy for me to shop for and use seasonal ingredients from the farmer’s market.
When I moved out of my parents’ house at age 19, I was completely clueless about nutrition and cooking. My mother had always prepared healthy and delicious meals for our family — a feat I still admire, considering there were six children to feed. The only downside: she was so good at it, I learned little about cooking. We helped her around the house by washing the dishes, cleaning the bathrooms, vacuuming the floors, but I did not slice an onion once.
Learning about nutrition has been a challenging and rewarding endeavor. I was vegetarian for 5 years, converted to veganism for 2 years, then took on a raw diet for an entire year. Fish and dairy started to creep back in slowly. A visit to Denmark (where my grandmother fed me pork) re-introduced me to the pleasures of eating meat on occasion. I am now 36 years old, and I am still experimenting with my diet — adding or subtracting different foods to better understand my body and energy levels.
How I Learned to Use this Eating Style
Whether vegan or omnivore, a hurdle I often faced was: what am I going to eat today?
When I was younger, the hurdle was intertwined with my financial situation. I wanted to be healthy, so fast food was not an option, but I couldn’t afford to eat at restaurants where they served real food. I had no other choice but to go to the supermarket and figure out how to cook.
The learning process was slow going. I lived alone and I became stuck in this loop where I was too tired to cook because I was not eating enough because I was too tired to cook.
When I did venture out to restaurants, my favorite dishes resembled a Buddha bowl (a trendy name for a meal of cooked and raw veggies, a whole grain, leafy greens, and a protein). As a vegetarian attending college in Austin in the early 2000s, I went to Mother’s Cafe for their “Vegetable Medley” dish — fresh vegetables steamed to order, organic brown rice, sage mashed potatoes, and a choice of beans. Another veggie-friendly restaurant, Casa de Luz, served a daily macrobiotic menu that always left me feeling nourished and satisfied.
Being vegan led me to similar experiences when I migrated to New York in my mid-20s. At a lovely restaurant in the East Village called Angelica Kitchen (now closed), I found their “Dragon Bowl” — rice, beans, tofu, sea vegetables, and steamed vegetables. The comprehensive nature of the meal fortified me for the long city walks I enjoyed, but at nearly 20 dollars a bowl, I could only afford to eat there once or twice a month.
A significant turning point for my diet occurred when I lived with my friend Lavinia. She introduced me to the affordable aisles of Trader Joe’s, and she made cooking appear a lot less complicated than I imagined. I would watch her prepare dishes like lentil soup or tofu scramble. And lucky for me, she liked to share her food. With a more consistent source of nutrition, I finally felt like I had the energy to tackle home cooking. I was also motivated by the desire to be a good roommate and return Lavinia’s generosity.
During one of my long city walks, I stumbled upon a bookstore where I picked up a copy of Brendan Brazier’s Thrive: The Vegan Nutrition Guide to Optimal Performance in Sports and Life. Unlike recipe books full of intimidating photos and complicated instructions, Brazier’s book focused on practical advice with easy to follow, nutrient-dense recipes. I read Thrive like a textbook, studying its contents as a tool for experimentation. Up to that point, my decision to refrain from eating meat had revolved around notions of animal cruelty and the environmental impact of the meat industry. Brazier identified veganism as a holistic approach to eating, based on whole foods. He also introduced me to the concept of smoothies as a meal.
A few years later, an online search brought me to the Oh She Glows website, where Angela Liddon sold me on overnight oats. Her story was particularly inspiring because she was not a classically trained chef. Instead of thinking about food strictly as a science or an art form, she brought attention back to the ingredients themselves. By craving a diet that would make her feel good, Liddon created a trove of recipes that are accessible and nutritious. Reading her blog instilled a passion for eating meals that featured beautiful, colorful vegetables.
These days, eating is less mysterious. On Saturdays, my partner Ilya and I visit the local farmers market to buy as many fruits and vegetables as we can carry. The rest of our pantry staples — grains, beans, nuts, and seeds — are mostly sourced from Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods. We still ask each other the question: what are we going to eat today? But the answer is usually right in front of us. We are going to eat leftovers.
Both Ilya and I are first-generation immigrants. Our mothers emigrated with traditional European recipes in their cooking arsenal. We grew up eating a diet that relied heavily on meat and potatoes. Although we both still love to eat our moms’ cooking, we gravitated to a plant-based diet because we could feel a difference when we cut back on meat to make room for other sources of protein. If we go out to a restaurant and eat pork tacos or a hamburger, we enjoy it at the moment for the experience, but it doesn’t leave us feeling energetic. A meal like that usually just makes us want to take a nap.
Having a fridge full of food is a really good feeling. Having a fridge full of food that is ready to eat is even better. After a few years of living together, Ilya and I got into a rhythm with our food prep. At any given time, we have at least one cooked whole grain on hand and several prepared vegetables.
When it’s time to eat, we assemble what looks like a Buddha bowl.
This approach has several benefits and advantages:
- Nothing goes to waste, because we eat all the food that we buy.
- On busy days, we don’t have to compromise our healthy diet for takeout food.
- There is no need to look at a recipe for guidance.
- Lots of colorful vegetables make for an aesthetically pleasing meal.
- Eating from a bowl is more comforting than eating off a plate.
- Packing up a meal for work or on-the-go is a cinch.
- The act of assembling the meal is a path to mindful eating.
Our “leftovers” meal plan serves as a baseline for our diet. We still find time to make recipe-based dishes that don’t follow this format. I like to practice my quiche skills a couple of times a month. Ilya has recently started experimenting with baking bread in a Dutch oven. Food is one of life’s greatest sources of pleasure and we want to honor that, but we also understand that food is a daily necessity. Both of us exercise regularly, and we rely on healthy food to help us recover from our workouts. Streamlining our food prep has made us appreciate the unsung glory of leftovers.
The “Leftovers Meal Plan“: A How-To
Step 1. Buy fresh produce at least once a week
Try to get every color of the rainbow. More variety means more minerals and vitamins. On a recent trip to the farmers market, for example, we bought raspberries, beets, radishes, tomatoes, peaches, carrots, gooseberries, corn, cucumbers, green beans, zucchini, fresh dill, blueberries, eggplant, and cabbage.
The farmers market is ideal because the items are local and seasonal. It’s the perfect way to add variety — from week to week, the selection changes. Talking to farmers can also be helpful. A few weeks ago, we came across some gorgeous cone cabbages. We had never purchased them before, so we asked the farmer how he liked to prepare them. He recommended slicing them up in a salad. So simple and so delicious.
Step 2. Keep whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds on hand
Buckwheat, quinoa and brown rice are great sources of protein and complex carbs. Canned beans like chickpeas, black beans, and kidney beans are super handy and packed with nutrition. Nuts and seeds provide fiber and healthy fats — so important for stable energy. Almonds are a favorite in our house for snacking, and we also use them to make almond milk for our overnight oats.
Step 3. Invest in high-quality containers for storage
Glass is easy to clean and it’s a durable material. For on-the-go, it’s also nice to have a couple of plastic containers. We prefer ones that are BPA-free and made in the USA. Mason jars are useful to store nuts and seeds for freshness and organization. We have a tier in our fridge completely occupied by mason jars.
Step 4. Purchase a beautiful Japanese bowl
Not necessary, but highly recommended. Enjoying your food in a beautiful bowl that is a pleasure to hold is a motivation for making beautiful, healthy food. It reinforces the commitment you are making for healthy, frugal eating—something special you are doing for yourself.
In New York, we have Pearl River Mart in Chinatown where they carry a huge selection, but we actually found our current bowls at a Marshall’s. Be sure to check the bottom for “Made in Japan,” as there are a lot of Chinese knockoffs on the market.
Step 5. Prepare vegetables in the simplest way possible
Steam, saute, bake, boil, but keep it simple. Vegetables taste amazing with light cooking and a touch of salt to bring out the flavor.
Right now it’s summer, so we are eating green beans and zucchini. For the green beans, we just trim the ends by snapping them off. Bring a large pot of water to boil, add the green beans, and cook for 5 minutes. Drain and rinse with cool water.
For the zucchini, use a grill pan or frying pan. If you’re grilling, cut the zucchini into spears and cook each side on high heat for a couple of minutes. If you’re sauteing, cut the zucchini into rounds and cook each side on medium heat with a light coat of olive oil.
In colder months, we love preparing a mix of hearty root vegetables — carrots, beets, parsnip, onion, sweet potato — by roasting them in the oven for 30 minutes at 400 degrees F. This is a great time to add seasoning with dried herbs like oregano, paprika or coriander, but even with just salt, these veggies will taste fantastic. A light drizzle of olive oil keeps the veggies from drying out and adds a touch of healthy fats.
Step 6. Cook grains and pulses in large batches
Grains and pulses (the seeds of plants in the legume family: dried beans, lentils, chickpeas, etc.) can be cooked ahead to have on hand for the week.
Our favorite grains are buckwheat and quinoa. Both of them are technically seeds, but their nutrition profile is closer to that of a grain because they are high in carbs, not fats. Quinoa is also a complete protein (containing all essential amino acids). We usually cook a cup at a time, which lasts 3–4 days. To prepare, combine 2 parts water, 1 part grain in a small pot with a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil, cover for 15 minutes on low heat, let rest for 5 minutes.
Chickpeas taste amazing when cooked from scratch. They are a cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet, which has been cited as one of the healthiest ways to eat — linked to longevity and lower rates of heart disease. To cook, soak a cup of chickpeas in water overnight. Drain and transfer to a large pot. Cover with at least an inch of water. Bring to a boil and cook until tender, about 90 minutes. Drain and rinse. Store once completely cool.
Red lentils are the fastest-cooking lentils, and they taste delicious with little to no seasoning. No soaking is required. Boil them in water for 15 minutes and they are ready to eat. A great source of protein and fiber, they also provide iron, which can be challenging to source outside of meat.
Step 7. Assemble a bowl of healthy and delicious foods
When hunger strikes, retrieve the prepared and raw items. Slice up any raw foods, such as cucumbers, tomatoes and bell peppers. Portion out a mix of the prepared foods, being mindful of the serving size.
For example, one assembly might look like this: a scoop of roasted buckwheat, a couple of spears of grilled zucchini, a handful of baked sweet potatoes, several slices of bell pepper, a cabbage-carrot slaw, all on top of a bed of spinach.
You can also vary the temperature of your food by heating ingredients or having them cold, as you wish.
You might be wondering: what about fruits and nuts and seeds? Those are usually included in our breakfast oats, salads or smoothies. But hemp seeds and sunflower seeds make regular appearances at any meal.
How This Plan Works Over a Week
For us, this meal plan is an ongoing process throughout the week where some nights we spend zero time cooking and other nights we might be preparing one or two items in large batches. The result is a rotating mix of grains and veggies, some lasting for a couple of days and some lasting for nearly a week, depending on the portions cooked. We do the bulk of our cooking on the weekends because that’s when we are home for the longest stretches of time.
In practice, we are actually toeing the line between leftovers and meal prep. Leftovers are typically a portion of a meal that was prepared and did not get eaten, inadvertently becoming a candidate for the fridge. Meal prep is the ambitious project where several different recipes are tackled simultaneously for a week’s worth of food.
We intentionally prepare an excess of food, but we do not micromanage the outcome. This way, our meals take on a flexible, modular structure that enables us to always be well fed without the constant headache of sourcing specific ingredients to complete a recipe.
A typical food week for my partner and me
- Buy — Fresh produce at the farmers market.
- Cook — Buckwheat, cauliflower, green beans.
- Eat — Overnight oats, salad, Buddha bowl.
- Buy — Eggs, bananas, oats, yogurt at a local grocery store.
- Cook — Zucchini, sweet potatoes, chickpeas.
- Eat — Out for brunch, smoothie, Buddha bowl.
- Buy — Nothing
- Cook — Nothing.
- Eat — Overnight oats, Buddha bowl, salad.
- Buy — Fish from Whole Foods. Grains, nuts, seeds if running low.
- Cook — Fish.
- Eat — Smoothie, Buddha bowl, fish with salad.
- Buy — Nothing.
- Cook — Quinoa, broccoli, eggplant.
- Eat — Overnight oats, salad, Buddha bowl.
- Buy — Nothing.
- Cook — Nothing.
- Eat — Overnight oats, Buddha bowl, Out for dinner.
- Buy — Lemons, cheese, tahini, mushrooms from Trader Joe’s.
- Cook — Quiche.
- Eat — Smoothie, Buddha bowl, quiche.
We never know how all the food items are going to come together in detail, but knowing that we enjoy each item separately makes for a really easy and versatile meal plan. Instead of thinking ‘are we going to make a specific dish’— like a casserole or a quesadilla or a stir fry — we are always thinking in terms of actual food ingredients on hand. It’s brown rice and broccoli and chickpeas and carrots and cabbage. And it’s healthy and it’s delicious.
Overcoming Your Resistance to Leftovers
If the idea of eating leftovers sounds boring or subpar, here are some new ways to think about it.
Leftovers are simply foods prepared in advance
With this in mind, the cooked green beans in the fridge are not yesterday’s news, but rather a stock of ready nutrition that requires zero effort for today’s meal. In a similar vein, meal prep does not need to be a time-consuming project. It can be as simple as throwing some vegetables in the oven while watching Netflix.
Storing items separately allows for a rotating combination of food that is healthy and interesting
Think of it as a variety of side dishes instead of the same entree on repeat. As much as I love lasagna, I don’t want to eat it four days in a row. But I have no problem eating zucchini four days in a row, especially if one day it’s next to bell pepper and the next day it’s accompanied by tomatoes.
Less waste saves money
By having an open format for a meal plan, that bunch of radishes doesn’t need to wait for the right dish — they can be sliced and incorporated at any time. On the flip side, the fridge is not full of items that were bought for a specific recipe and is “saved” until it goes bad—like that tub of ricotta.
Moderation becomes a byproduct of consuming leftovers
With the intention to make food in advance, it’s easier to portion out the food actually needed at mealtime. The more hungry I am, the more susceptible I am to overeating and choosing less healthy food options. I find it difficult to even think about cooking when I’m hungry. If the food is basically ready to go, I can focus on having a quick healthy meal instead of solving a problem of deciding what to eat.
Use fresh herbs and healthy oils to add flavor
Incorporating sauces and dressings can brighten up a meal and shift the flavor palate considerably. Unfortunately, a lot of those concoctions have added sugar or excessive oil. Fresh herbs like basil, parsley, and cilantro are a great alternative for livening up a bowl and delighting your palate with some variety. Or try drizzling olive oil or tahini (sesame seed paste) over the bowl. Fresh ginger and garlic also add a nice flavor kick in a raw veggie slaw.
What I love most about this meal plan is that it allows Ilya and I to have a steady source of high nutrition. Being well fed supplies us with consistent energy. And with that energy, we are able to feel good (instead of guilty) on special occasions where we indulge. Whether it’s enjoying a craft beer on a Sunday afternoon or sampling the gelato at a local cafe, we know our bodies can handle it because we’ve been taking good care of ourselves.
We still consult our mothers for tips on cooking traditional dishes from time to time. Those beets we picked up on our recent trip to the farmers market inspired Ilya to call his mom for a chilled borscht recipe. But the influence goes both ways. Ilya purchased a Ninja blender for his mom’s birthday this year. She makes smoothies every day now — a significant uptick in her daily fruit intake.
On a weekly video chat with my own mother, she and I usually end up talking about what we’re eating for dinner. At 67 years old, she’s still learning and experimenting too, having recently signed up for online cooking classes after watching the documentary Forks Over Knives. When I asked her what was for dinner last week, her face lit up, “We have leftovers!” she said, and then described a plant-based dish featuring veggies, beans and fresh herbs that she had prepared the day before. “That sounds amazing,” I said.