Two weeks ago we published our post and podcast episode on umami or what I call the "yum" factor.Adding ingredients with certain flavor profiles that can completely elevate the yumminess and heartiness of a dish to new heights, was one of my tips for adding that "yum". Today however, we're talking about another little factor that can really make a difference in your eating, your cooking, and especially in your enjoyment of food. Nowadays there's no lack of posts and articles that all seem to focus on the nitty gritty details of what you should and shouldn't eat on a vegan diet, what I call sub-vegan diets, an intense focus on superfoods, nutrient boosting powders, etc. Food, at least online, is becoming more of a science experiment than the beautiful art form that it is, and since I'm all about going back to basics in the kitchen, I think we need to talk about the love of food and being able to find joy in the process of cooking and eating again.
Hence, the fun factor.
Sure, nutrition is important, and by eating a plant-based diet you're doing so much for your health and well-being, don't even get me started on that of the planet and the animals. We have however, at least in recent years, lost touch with the joy of cooking and the pleasure of eating. I think it's kind of inevitable coming from a moment in time in which popular blog posts, news articles and even news programs on TV are promoting headlines like "The 3 foods you have to stop eating now to start losing weight", "or the one food you're not eating that can save you from having cancer". We talked about these types of headlines in last week's post and episode on finding your food stories, and it's no wonder many of us have become afraid of food. Our time in the kitchen and the moment we fill our plates with food is now slightly haunted by all these voices of doubt as to whether or not we should add this, or that, this much, or less and at what times. Where did the joy of cooking go? Where did the fun and pleasure of eating go? We can certainly bring it back, and we can of course have all of this as vegans.
I want you to think about the foods you used to love when you were a kid. Seriously, think about them for a moment. Were they burgers? Fries? Fried chicken? Pb and j sandwiches? Mac and cheese? Ice cream? Where did your parents serve them? What was your favorite restaurant and how did they serve your favorite dishes there? Did you dip? Dunk? Spread? You know how much I love going to the past for these little eating cues, and today we're going back on a "fun food hunt".
Fun on a plate
For me, there are many things that symbolize fun at the table, and there are different categories of food fun. Some have to do with where you eat, some have to do with where the dish is served, some have to do with the actual dish itself and some have to do with the mechanics of eating (a.k.a the utensils, using your hands, dipping or dunking or having a sauce to pour on top).
Here are some of the silly little things that make me love and enjoy my meals and the little fun factors that make me feel a meal was totally scrumptious and special: eating on a table lower to the ground, Japanese style. Eating with my hands (think burgers, pizza, sandwiches), having something to dip and something to dip it into, having a picnic style meal even if it's indoors, and even if it's on a table but with lots of small dishes that I can mix and match and play around with. Using chopsticks, having to build a dish on the table, having an unusual dish or platter on which the food is served. To this day, when I go to a diner and have a veggie burger and they bring a bottle of mustard and a bottle of ketchup just for us and plop it in the center of the table I get the biggest sense of giddy excitement since this is what I saw in the diners I ate at growing up as a kid.
You get the idea right? Fun can come from eating delicious dishes and ingredients, but it can also come from how and where you eat, meaning you can infuse the fun factor to anything from the most scrumptious burger to a salad or a simple soup.
Here are some ideas of fun factors you can start thinking of when you cook at home. I've divided them into categories:
Timeless fun food just because
You know what that is right? The delicious comfort foods we know and love: burgers, pizza, mac and cheese, lasagna, fries, cupcakes, grilled cheese sandwiches, pancakes, waffles, all of them can be made vegan with delicious natural ingredients.
Where to have your fun food
Think picnic table at your local park, blanket on the grass (or in the floor of your living room- yes we have done this at our house), low coffee table and sitting on the floor Japanese style, eating outside if you have a terrace or balcony.
When to have your fun food
Enter the most fun invention when it comes to food: Breakfast for dinner! Mixing it up adds such an element of joy to meals, and for me, breakfast for dinner is the perfect example: hash browns, pancakes or French toast, some crispy tempeh bacon, all after sunset. Priceless. Take it up a notch and try crazy surprising favorites for breakfast as well! Don't knock it ´til you try it! It can be as simple as a BLT sandwich, to looking at what you're craving in the morning. I can't tell you how many times I've had toast with non-dairy butter and jam with a side of sautéed greens and shiitake mushrooms with tamari soy sauce. You get the idea, just mix it up.
Fun dishes, serving platters, utensils and jazz hands
Where you eat your food can make such a difference in adding an element of fun, and I'm talking about the serving platters, dishes and bowls. Here are some ideas:
- Using small wooden cutting boards as dishes, especially for your vegan barbecues, breakfasts, burgers and sandwiches.
- Using little baskets lined with parchment paper (or if you can find it, checkered paper!), or metal or mesh baskets for sides like chips, fries, raw veggies, etc.
- Serving soups and stews in individual, enameled cast iron or clay pots. Seriously, how cute are those?!
- Having different plates with different patterns and having each person pick the one they want to eat from, a trick that works like a charm for kids to help them get more interested in the meal ahead.
- Drinking coffee or even serving soups, desserts or fruit salads in glass bowls or cups.
- Using bowls instead of standard plates to mix things up.
- Using chalkboard slates as plates.
- Using cardboard boxes as plates (think box of donuts or the kind you get at Whole Foods), that people can open up and discover their meal inside.
- Using mini cast iron pans as plates, especially for bubbly or sizzling dishes like lasagna, or fajitas.
- Using mason jars (large and small) for desserts, puddings, breakfast porridges, or layered salads.
- Using food as plates, for example serving pumpkin soup inside a roasted pumpkin, or serving fruit salads inside a halved coconut.
- Serving different components on different mini dishes on top of a plate or cutting board for people to assemble.
- Buying a beautiful big platter and setting it on the center of the table for people to serve themselves, Moroccan style.
- Using chopsticks instead of forks and knives.
- The joy of eating with your hands, and doing jazz hands when you finish.
Family style and smorgasboard
Serve beautiful platters at the center of the table and have each person pick and choose what they'd like, this always makes me remember Sunday lunch at my house growing up and it makes me so happy. Instant fun. Also, embrace the smorgasboard way of eating, making different little dishes, even if they don't necessarily go together and assemble your plate with a bit of this and a bit of that, combining foods you love, like if you were eating at the prettiest buffet.
Work for it: Audience participation
Have people assemble their own dish with components they find at the table. For example, having different herbs, nuts, seeds, toppings and sauces next to grain or bean dishes and have people create their own pilafs at the table. Serve a delicious soup and different toppings in small bowls, from crunchy chopped cucumber and bell peppers, to croutons, crispy onions and non-dairy sour cream. Have a burger buffet! Place the buns and veggie burgers at the center of the table surrounded by toppings and sauces and have each person make their own. Make our sticky toffee sweet potato cakeand have all your guests do the "stabbing of the cake" part (huge hit at a recent party we had at our house, you'll see what that is when you watch the video, and I do it much more dramatically when I ask my guests to do it).
Dipping and dunking
Anything you can dip or dunk is so much fun. Make crispy eggplant wedges with breadcrumbs in the oven to dip in marinara sauce, fries with ketchup or guacamole, tofu nuggets with barbecue sauce, tempura and soy sauce, vegan fondue (from cheese to chocolate.... recipe coming soon!), crudités and dips, a Mexican layer dip and some corn tortillas. You get the idea.
Condiments and sauces at the table
Summon the diner server in you and place sauces and condiments at the center of the table for people to experiment with. From bottles of mustard and ketchup, relish and chopped onion and chips when you serve veggie hotdogs, to placing some gomasio (a delicious ground sesame seed and herb mix), sea salt flakes and soy sauce or truffle oil at the center of the table. Include fresh herbs, or crunchy toppings for people to pick and choose from. Do this for yourself too if dining alone.
Nothing beats handheld
Ahhh... the magic of using your hands. Nothing equals fun for me as much as eating with my hands. I'm talking about burgers, hot dogs, pizza, lettuce cups, tacos, crackers or toast with toppings, and you can even get Middle Eastern or Indian on your grub by eating delicious tagines or curries with the help of some pita bread or garlic naan. Veggie sushi hand rolls and summer rolls are also awesome.
Having fun yet?
I love the idea of thinking about this when I assemble my meals. It may seem like extra effort, but once you get familiar with some options, you'll simply have them in the back of your mind and start infusing some fun into your meals effortlessly.
Enjoying the food you eat and eating for pleasure are such essential components of having a balanced relationship with food. They help you focus on your meal, get centered, so you can eat more mindfully, slowly, and be able to listen to your hunger and fullness cues. So yeah... "FUN!", it rocks, and it ain't just for kids.
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