How to Cook and Eat Healthier in the District

Let’s face it – it’s not always easy to eat healthy in DC.  Our work schedules, our social calendars, and our budgets can all impact our ability to make healthy, reasonable food choices.

There are ways, however, to change that – all it takes is a little planning, a little patience, and a willingness to try out some new things.  We talked to Lauren Mulcahy, the healthy eating specialist at the Whole Foods in Foggy Bottom, on her best tips for healthy cooking and eating in the District. (District Style note:  We have added links to guides for some of the foods mentioned so that readers can learn more about cooking, preparing, and storing them.)

Q:  How did you become interested in healthy eating?

A: I loved cooking with my Mom growing up, but my interest in nutrition was piqued when I decided to become vegan in high school.  My parents were supportive, but made it clear that I needed to read a few books, come up with a game plan, and prove that I could transition to a vegan diet in a healthy way. I was also responsible for creating my own grocery lists and cooking my own meals. So really cooking, nutrition, and meal planning all became very important and intertwined to me back then.

Q:  What are your go-to healthy snacks?  

A:  At home, I usually graze on whatever raw vegetables are on my fridge.  If I need something more calorie dense, I love almond butter and fruit spread on a rice cake.  On the go, I prefer whole fruits since they travel well.  If you add in a handful of nuts or seeds to the fruit, it’s a surprisingly filling snack. I also keep trail mix in my glove compartment for emergencies. There’s nothing worse than being hungry, away from home, in a hurry, and surrounded by subpar food options.

Q:  Let’s say someone doesn’t know how to cook.  What can they do to make the food they eat healthier?  

A: If you really aren’t cooking at all, adding a salad or a bag of frozen vegetables to your pre-existing meals is a good start. Frozen vegetables are nutritionally equivalent to fresh and require just a few minutes in the microwave.  For those who cook simple meals, you can always “bulk out” your dish with more plants.  When you cook a pot of pasta, for instance, add in a bag or two of frozen vegetables before you strain it. It requires literally no extra cooking time, and then you have no choice but to get some veggies in with your starch. The same holds true for, say, adding a can of no salt added beans to your rice.

Q:  What do you consider to be the staples of a healthy pantry?  

A: Grains, legumes, tomato products and vinegars are non-negotiable to me.  Ideally, a person can cook up a big pot of whole grains and a big pot of beans or lentils once a week, and then all you need to make dinner is veggies to stir-fry, put in a soup, throw in a tortilla, etc. In reality though, I’ve found that keeping things like canned beans, canned tomatoes, microwavable grains, and pasta sauce around is also crucial. We all have nights where we don’t have the time or energy to cook, and having healthy pantry items that can be thrown together quickly is a far better alternative to ordering in. As for the vinegar, it’s a flavor enhancer so you can skip the salt and finish dishes with vinegar instead.

Q:  What advice would you give to people who feel they don’t have the time and/or money to eat healthy food?

A: Matt Frazier of No Meat Athlete has summed it up perfectly: “A grain, a green, and a bean.” Dried grains and beans cost next to nothing, are immensely filling and nutritious, and can be cooked hands-off in a rice cooker or crock pot. Greens grow year round so they tend not to get very expensive, and they’re always available frozen.  The long shelf life of frozen produce is especially nice, since you can stock up when it’s on sale. Beyond that, it’s largely a matter of learning to plan meals, shop sales, and eat simply. You’re not getting a bargain if you’re buying ingredients that get thrown away.

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