The Fit Foodie: Vegetarian cooking doesn't have to be boring

This week I’m focusing on vegetarian diets and the move towards more plant based eating. I’m also sharing two of my favourite veggie recipes for you to try.

The Fit Foodie: Vegetarian cooking doesn't have to be boring

Personally, I eat meat and animal sourced food. I have a really balanced diet and I feel if I cut out meat or dairy it would make that much harder with my lifestyle (busy working-parent lifestyle!).

At the same time I notice the move towards vegetarian diets has grown hugely in recent years. I do make a conscious effort to mix up my protein sources and include a variety like fish, eggs, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds. When buying any ingredient I try to focus on quality. In Ireland we have an amazing dairy industry that is a world leader in terms in quality.

Here are a few questions I thought about in relation to vegetarian diets and ones that I wanted to know. I had a great chat about this with Aishling in my office. Aishling has a degree in nutritional science and was a vegetarian for a time, so her thoughts were really interesting around this topic.

Firstly, what is a vegetarian diet?

A vegetarian diet generally excludes meat, poultry and seafood but there are variations including vegan (eat only plant foods) lacto (eat dairy foods), Ovo- (eat eggs) and Ovo-Lacto (eat both dairy foods and eggs) vegetarians.

What are your health challenges with a vegetarian diet?

Certain nutrients are harder to obtain and you need to give these some thought if you are going towards a vegetarian diet. These are:

1. Protein

Good sources include dairy, eggs, beans, lentils, soy products, seeds and nuts. Animal proteins are a complete protein source whereas getting your complete protein from plant based sources can be trickier and require more food combination.

2. Calcium

For those avoiding dairy getting their calcium may be harder. The focus can be on fortified soy, rice and oat milk are good alternatives. Other sources include dark green vegetables, tahini, lentils, tofu and dried fruit. Personally I’m a huge fan of the dairy industry in Ireland and think we produce incredibly high quality dairy.

3. Omega 3

Vegetarian sources of omega 3 include flaxseed oil, rapeseed oil, chia seeds, and walnuts.

Whilst these are good sources they are not as efficient as those found in oily fish. While I eat all of the above I’m still very conscious to consume fish.

4. Iron

Vegetarian sources of iron include beans, lentils, nuts, dried fruit, dark-green vegetables, whole grains and fortified foods.

To get sufficient iron from plant based sources your consumption needs to be higher than from animal sources.

5. Vitamin B12

This is a really tricky one for vegetarians and needs to be considered. To get your vitamin B12 as a vegetarian it’s important to consider supplementing it.

In the end I believe diet comes back to the simple idea of doing your basics well and having balance. In recent years I’m much more inclined to focus on increasing my vegetable intake and having variety in my diet.

I’ve become very conscious of the source of my animal protein and I would rather pay more and eat it less to ensure quality.

I think we could all do with being aware of what we are eating and the benefits.

If you are considering a diet that restricts certain food groups it’s a great idea to talk to a professional in the health care industry and to think about the reality of how that will fit into your lifestyle.

I hope this week’s column has given you food for thought.

Fitspiration: @NDC_ie are the national dairy council. Their social media will give you a big insight into their work to promote Irish dairy here and abroad.

Tomato and aubergine bake

This dish is great for dinner. It’s delicious by itself or served with some chicken, fish or couscous. If you want a freezer-friendly version, just leave out the egg topping but cook everything else as normal.

  • Prep time: 10 minutes
  • Cook time: 35 minutes

Serves: 3

  • 2 aubergines cut lengthways into thin slices
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 onions, finely chopped
  • 5 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 400g tin of chopped tomatoes
  • 2 tbsp tomato purée
  • A handful of basil leaves, torn
  • 3 eggs, beaten
  • 30g mozzarella, sliced
  • 1 tbsp grated Parmesan

Preheat the oven to 160C/325F/gas 3.

Lightly brush both sides of the aubergine slices with olive oil and season well. Divide the aubergine slices between two baking trays and bake for 12 minutes, turning once during cooking.

Meanwhile, heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a large pan on a medium heat. Add the onions and cook for 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for two minutes. Stir in the tomatoes and tomato purée. Remove the aubergine slices from the oven and increase the heat to 180C/350F/gas 4.

Layer half of the aubergine slices in the bottom of a large ovenproof dish. Add the basil to the tomato sauce and stir well. Pour the sauce over the aubergines in the dish. Add the remaining aubergine slices in an even layer. Pour the beaten eggs on top and scatter over the mozzarella and Parmesan. Bake for 15-20 minutes. Divide the bake between warmed serving bowls.

Three Bean Salad

This salad makes a filling and healthy lunch — and the Tabasco and chilli give it a nice spicy kick. It keeps really well, even with the dressing on, making any leftovers perfect for a work lunch the following day.

  • Prep time: 15mins

Serves: 2

  • 400g tin of mixed beans drained and rinsed
  • 80g tin of sweet corn drained and rinsed
  • 3 scallions, finely sliced
  • 1 red pepper, finely chopped
  • a handful of coriander leaves

For the dressing:

  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tbsp agave syrup
  • 1 tsp red wine vinegar
  • juice of 1 lime
  • a few drops of Tabasco sauce
  • ¼ tsp chilli flakes
  • Salt and pepper

Place the beans, sweet corn, scallions and red pepper in a large serving bowl and mix well.

Place all of the ingredients for the dressing in a jar with a lid and shake to combine.

Pour the dressing over the salad. Scatter over the coriander leaves and serve.

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