Brain Food

For me, trying to move my family to healthy eating is a slog.  A marathon.  A never-ending battle.

In one corner, we have my convictions that they will be physically, intellectually and emotionally healthier if they are given healthy fuel for their growing bodies.

In the other corner we have some really strong opponents.  Taste buds that are motivated by sugar and salt and a food industry that has decades of research on how to make the foods they sell taste best to consumers. Confusing information about nutrition and food guidelines from the government, industry and doctors. Fatigue, stress and hungry kids. (I dare you to have no plan and quickly come up with healthy food options for kids who are melting down. Try offering them a salad instead of granola bars, and see what happens.)

So recently I had my own mini-crisis. I’ve been happily plant-based for two years, but then read a book by a well-known MD and started questioning. Maybe animal products aren’t so bad. Maybe a couple of cage-free, organic, pastured eggs for breakfast every day would be good for me. Maybe bacon, chicken and beef aren’t so bad. It’s fascinating to me how quickly my brain is able to adapt it’s views of what is and is not healthy. However within two weeks of adding back meat and more eggs my acid reflux, constipation and generally feeling poorly was back.

I connected with some other MDs, and asked their opinions re: the theories put forth by Dr. X, and the responses ranged from “that doesn’t sound right to me, there is a lot of research to the contrary” to “This is simple. This particular doctor is motivated by making profits and selling books and supplements.”

How Not To Die.jpgI’ve discovered that what I feed my brain is as important as what I feed my body. And I’ve got some new food for my brain. The book “How Not to Die” by Dr. Michael Greger. I was extremely pleased that in the forward of his book he notes that all of his speaking fees and book profits go to charity. I was more pleased at the solid research he uses to inform his advice. And I’m even more pleased that after a week of returning to a whole-foods, plant-based diet I feel more energetic and my abdominal symptoms are completely relieved.

So, for my kids, I’m back in the ring and ready to fight. This morning I won two out of three matches (kids) with Chocolate* Pancakes.

The * is for the hidden ingredients… whole-grain flour, about 3 cups of spinach, 3 tablespoons of ground chia seeds, two cans of  organic coconut milk.

I’m not a chef, and I’m confident others could improve on my recipe. Especially since I’m not big on measuring, I’m more of a “concept cook”.

But in case you want to give it a go, here’s the approximate recipe:

  • 1 tub organic spinach, blended in vitamix with 1-2 cups water
  • 3-4 tbsp chia seeds, ground and mixed with about 3/4 cup of water to make a goopy paste (egg substitute)
  • 2-3 cups whole-grain flour (I used wheat)
  • About a cup of baking cocoa
  • About a cup of coconut sugar
  • 2 tbsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • Two cans organic full fat coconut milk

Mix everything well to pancake batter consistency. You may need to add more or less water or flour. Cook on a griddle like regular pancakes, although these are slightly more delicate conventional pancakes. Top with strawberries. Or (sigh) jam.  Because to win the war, I’m going to need to compromise on a few battles.


When I was in college, I created this meal I called “cheesy egg pancakes.”  It was sort of half-omelette, half-pancake with a few slices of cheese melted on top.  The reason this became a favorite for me was simple:  I could whip it up without a recipe, with ingredients that were easily on hand, and it was quick and filling when I was hungry.

I think most people have at least 2-3 “memory meals.”  Quick dishes they can whip up without cracking open a cookbook or thinking carefully and shopping for unusual ingredients.  With new recipes, I always find that I need to expend some amount of mental effort to monitor and follow new directions.  Did I add enough flour?  Wait, how long am I supposed to saute this ingredient?  But those memory meals — grilled cheese, macaroni and cheese, a bowl of cereal, spaghetti with meat sauce — these ones become staples in our diets because of how little effort it takes to whip them together.

Often, when people hear that I follow a plant-based diet, they comment how hard it sounds to follow this new and strange way of eating.  However, I think success is linked to practice, and one key is to develop a few easy meals you can make without much effort.  When you’re hungry, you don’t want to spend 30 minutes exploring a half-dozen websites, you want to just open your fridge, pull out a few things, and happily munch away in less than 10 minutes.

With this in mind, I’ll share my new favorite easy-to-make-it-from-memory staple:  Chick-in-Salad.  The Chick is for chick-peas, and the process it pretty simple and adaptable to your tastes.  That’s what I love about this recipe:  once you’ve made it a few times, you can easily recreate it from memory, and adapt it to both what you have on hand and your personal tastes.  The recipe I have listed below is adapted from Angela Liddon’s blog “Oh She Glows.”  Here is a link to the original recipe.  Her original recipe is delicious, but what I really love about this — now that I have made it a few times — is how easy it is to make and adapt without a lot of thinking.  That’s why my version has so many optional ingredients — they are all for flavor for your personal taste.  Start with the basics:  chick peas and vegenaise, and it’s unconsciously easy to go from hungry to chick-in-salad sandwich in about 10 minutes.  Yum!

Some readers may be wondering if this is really any healthier than chicken salad.  It’s a valid question, and the short answer is YES.  Chick-in-salad has more fiber, less calories, and no cholesterol.

Let’s look at the two basic ingredients that make up the bulk of the recipe

Vegenaise vs. Mayonaise:  1 tablespoon of Vegenaise has 45 calories, 3.5 grams of mono-unsaturated fats and 0.5 grams of saturated fats, and no cholesterol.  Compare this with one tablespoon of mayonaise:  94 calories, 1.6 grams of saturated fat, 2.3 grams monounsaturated fat, 6 grams of polyunsaturated fat, 0.026 grams of trans fatty acids and 6 grams of cholesterol.  Overall, the mayonnaise packs in a lot more calories, and a lot more unhealthy fats.  Vegenaise is still primarily a fat, though, and should be eaten sparingly. 

Chick Peas vs. Chicken:  1 15-oz can of chick peas (about 1.75 cups) contains 130 calories, 5 grams of fiber, 7 grams of protein, 1 gram of fat (no saturated or trans fat), and 21 grams of carbohydrates.  It also provides a fair amount of folate, along with magnesium, phosophorous, zinc, iron and calcium.  About 1.75 cups of roasted, skinless chicken breast contains 404 calories, 76 grams of protein, 2.5 grams saturated fat, 3 grams monounsaturated fat, 1.9 grams polyunsaturated fat and 208 mg of cholesterol.  I was surprised to find that chicken also contains some calcium, magnesium, iron and phosphorous although the chick peas were a much better source of these minerals.

Print Recipe
Learn to substitute chick-peas for your favorite chicken or tuna salad recipe.
  1. Drain and rinse chick peas. Dump entire can into food processor and process until the mixture is even crumbles.
  2. Transfer chick peas to a medium mixing bowl, add additional ingredients and stir to mix well. That's it.
Recipe Notes

If you'd like to try with cashew cream, rather than vegan mayonnaise, here's a link to a good basic cashew cream recipe from Meg van der Kruik at her blog "this Mess is Ours."  Cashew cream is great to have on hand and works in a variety of different recipes, but takes some advanced planning to soak the cashews.

I make this when I'm hungry for a quick and filling sandwich, and keep the extra in little glass jars in the fridge.  I've never had it stick around longer than a few days because it is so delicious and easy to use on top of spinach, in sandwiches, scooped up with crackers ... but it should keep for 4-5 days in the refrigerator.

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