Transitioning to a healthy vegan, whole food, plant based diet is so exciting! So many delicious foods to eat! So many new foods to try! So many cookbooks and recipes – it can be overwhelming. To help you think about what constitutes a useful cookbook, one that you actually use, (not just drool over aka food porn), I wanted to offer you some ways to think about them. I touch upon this briefly in Session 7, Meal Planning.

The Author: First of all, who is the author and what story are they telling? Read the preface or introductory comments. Is this a cultural story, historical story, a quest for the perfect dessert, or global travel adventure? What is the author’s cooking voice saying to you? Are you captivated? How do you feel? How does the author envision you, a novice or experienced chef? All of this is very important. An author’s quirky, funny, interesting, smart, emotional notes along the way often make or break a cookbook. Little stories and comments can make recipes come alive like cooking with a friend. Cooking with friends is more fun!

Painting a Picture with Words: Some of my Grandmother’s recipes are hilarious. They list ingredients then say nothing, although they clearly say things like “cook until done”. What the heck is “done”? What does that mean? What does that look like?  In cooking, the word “done” means a bazillion things. Likewise bubbles. Cook until bubbles appear. Well are these tiny in prick sized or Lima bean sized bubbles? When an author paints a picture with words you can SEE what it is supposed to look like.

Ingredients: As you scan the cookbook, are there ingredients you can pick up in the local supermarket or do you have to go to a specialty store? Are there resources, or suggestions, for places to buy the special ingredients?  A friend loaned me a gorgeous cookbook, I wanted to make and eat everything, but the ingredients were wild! I hadn’t even heard of some. That might be considered a fun challenge for some and too daunting a task for others. You decide.

Art, Design & Pictures: I appreciate good design because – ideally – it is both stylish and functional. Do you love pictures (I think we all love pictures, which supports the industry of “food porn” but that’s another story!) but do you need pictures? Some people need to have a lot of graphics, photos, drawings, something to supplement text. Personally, I don’t care for a lots of pictures. Sure, some are fine, no big deal. However I can easily feel intimidated because my food never looks as pretty as the food in the picture so feel disappointed in myself. For complicated, food that requires a lot of handling, rolling up, arranging, or special TLC, pictures can be helpful. I prefer authentic pictures without a lot of dressing up and fancy styling. I also like text features (bold type, italics, side bars, big text on one side). Again, you decide.

Table of Contents, Index, and Glossary: Look at how the book is structured. It should be / must be cross referenced. This is essential! The table of contents has the larger categories: appetizers, soup, lunch, dinner, salads, sauces, etc. while the index has ingredients and actual recipes. Bonus: There may be other pages with other categories like one pot meals, brunch, buffet ideas, picnics, seasonal meals, etc.  How authors organize and index their recipes is varied but must be clear and easy to use. Be sure to check out the front and back of the book. Look at the top and bottom of each page and where the page numbers are. Are there colored tab-like shadows along the pages to delineate chapters; are chapters highlighted as you riffle though the book? The important thing is how do you find what you want to find?

Nutritional information is also useful. With healthy vegan, plant based food it is actually a lot easier because there are fewer processed foods used. With a healthy vegan diet you can happily eat lots of whole food packaged in neat and tidy skin, shells, and peel. Counting calories and specific nutrients is not as crucial as for other types of diets.

Added sugar yes, we must know how much added sugar is in our food. What is the recommended source of the sugar? Chopped dates or refined white cane sugar? We need to pay attention to saturated fat too. Plant based, saturated fat is obviously healthier than animal based fat. Does the recipe call for mashed avocado or clog your sink and arteries refined oil? Their nutritional information is very different from each other. More about the nutritional information, sugar, salt and fat in recipes at another time. Back to cookbooks!

Measurement equivalences are really important in today’s world. Liters, cups, grams, tablespoons, oh my! When we lived in New Zealand, I would text a friend and ask her “just what the heck is 500 grams?” She would fire back “oh about a pound”.  I was embarrassingly illiterate (as are most Americans) in how the rest of the world measures stuff. I love it when recipes offer us both measurement systems, or at least a chart so I can keep my gooey, sticky fingers off my phone.

Page Layout and Format: I like large white spaces on the page to scribble notes. When I buy a cookbook I use it. Mine are a mess, covered with drips, stains, and scribbled notes. Same for downloaded and printed recipes. I write if I like it.  Add more spice? Cook for less time? Use parchment paper? Served with what?

Back to formats, the margin near the center binding is really important. Since I’m a lefty, I’m always aware of how close my hand can get to the center binding. If the text is too close to the center, I can’t read it or write my notes. I also like bigger text size because when I dashing about listening to music, talking, and cooking tiny print just doesn’t work. Tiny print doesn’t work much at all these days! I like books that lay reasonably flat when you open them too – but maybe that’s just a dream, am I asking too much?

Additional information in cookbooks can be useful, such as lists of basic ingredients, equipment, and supplies, menu ideas, where to find food, spices, or special ‘bits and bobs”, all that is lovely and enhances any cookbook. For more novice oriented cookbooks a section on food safety, kitchen safety, and cook safety is helpful. For example: Keep knives super sharp and move them away from the body!

I now encourage you all to march confidently to the library and/or bookstore and look at some cookbooks. For a more academic (fascinating!) exploration into cookbooks, check out 2 of the links below. With a transition to a healthy vegan diet you will be astounded at how many delicious foods there are to eat! I have added so many more food to our daily fare in the past 11 years. Not only are we saving our health, our waistlines, animals’ lives and the environment, but we are taking the risk of feeling fabulous! You can too. Happy Eating!