Recently I had the opportunity to speak with cookbook author Dreena Burton about her Newfoundland roots and living a vegan lifestyle. (She's a distant cousin, although I didn't know that until I got to speak to her.)
Dreena has been a vegan for almost 20 years, and in that time has written five bestselling cookbooks charting her journey as a plant-powered cook and at-home mother of three. Her newly released cookbook “Plant-Powered Families: Over 100 Kid-Tested, Whole-Foods Vegan Recipes” is a must read and valuable addition for any kitchen.
Q: In the book you mention growing up on traditional N.L. foods like cod tongues, fried bologna and Vienna Sausages, among others. What do you think of the typical Newfoundland diet, and how realistic do you think it would be for Newfoundlanders to transition to a more plant-based diet? What advice would you give to those of us looking to eat more plant-based foods?
A: I have some funny food memories, that’s for sure! Beyond those meats, I also ate more than my fair share of chips, candy and pop in those days. That was over 30 years ago, and I’ve seen dietary habits change in Newfoundland since then.
We visited St. John’s a couple of years ago, and enjoyed quite a few local restaurants and cafés — in fact, it was easier for us to dine there than here in White Rock, B.C. (we are an hour’s drive from Vancouver). There were also plenty more choices in supermarkets than there used to be.
Plant-based choices are more available everywhere, and awareness has grown significantly, particularly in the past five years. I think documentaries like “Forks Over Knives” have brought much greater awareness.
With all this expanded awareness, people are making more plant-based choices as a whole. I know many people that eat vegan with even more specialized diets because of allergies (for example, gluten-free vegans and soy-free vegans), so I think ultimately it’s about your desire to eat plant-based.
We all come to the diet for a reason. Whether for ethics, environmental concerns, or health (or all three). If we make those choices a priority, we find ways to make the diet work. Also, when our diets focus on more of what I call the “vegan basics” (beans, grains, greens, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds), it’s quite accessible for most people. It’s the convenience foods that become trickier.
For readers in Newfoundland that want to explore the diet, I’d suggest connecting with vegans in the area through social media and also on a local level (ask in health food stores and restaurants like The Sprout.) Farmers’ markets are also great sources for networking, and also for the freshest produce.
The other tip I’d offer is for people to recognize that these dietary changes are a journey. Most of us already eat a lot of vegan foods — bananas, potatoes, rice, carrots, beans, berries, almonds, peanut butter, and more. It’s a spectrum, and it’s possible to eat all plant-based foods over time, starting with the foods you already love and know and building on those.
Q: Where do you get your recipe ideas? Is there a vegan chef or author that you draw a lot of inspiration from?
A: My ideas and inspiration often come from my own meal planning these days. If I have certain foods on hand and want to pair with another dish or ingredient, I can have this spark of an idea to bring a recipe together.
Other times, I may taste or see a dish that looks incredible, and I want to find a way to make it healthier, or make it plant-based. My readers often inspire me, as well, with feedback from their families or requests for a particular dish.
Years ago when I was learning to cook, I used to love watching James Barber. I found his approach to cooking was very practical and yet fun-loving. Other chefs I’ve learned from include Bonnie Stern, Bobby Flay, and Jamie Oliver.
Q: What is your all-time favourite vegan recipe?
A: Wow. That’s hard. I love simple foods like sweet potatoes, lentils and quinoa, and also love soups, dips and desserts. So, I’d have to mention a few, like the Artichoke Spinach Dip and Chocolate Sweets Frosting from “Plant-Powered Families,” and my Sweet Potato Lentil Chili from one of my earlier cookbooks, “Eat, Drink & Be Vegan” (the recipe is also on my blog, plantpoweredkitchen.com/blog/).
Q: What tips do you have for parents who are looking to incorporate healthier options, like fruit, veg, vegetarian and vegan foods into kids’ diets?
A: I often encourage parents to do two things. First, work with foods your kids already love, and then build on those choices. If your children love fruits and smoothies, for instance, it’s really easy to make fruit smoothies that include nutrient-dense foods like greens, chia seeds or berries. If your kids love pasta, find ways to make those pasta dishes healthier, with sauces or by swapping in vegan options like beans or vegan meats for ground beef or chicken.
Second, I remind parents to keep a longer-term focus in mind. We can become overwhelmed in a day and discouraged when our children reject foods or put up resistance to healthier lifestyle choices. Over time, though, I’ve seen that children truly grow with diet and lifestyle. Diet is learned, and children love the food they know. So, keep that longer-term perspective in mind and continue to offer the healthy choices.
Persistence and consistency truly pay off.
Amanda O’Brien is a registered dietitian in St. John’s. Contact her through the website www.recipeforhealth.ca. Watch for her column Tuesdays in The Telegram.