With a new cookbook out (more on that here) and a blog that keeps us coming back for more (The Full Helping), Gena Hamshaw has cemented her place in the plant-based foodie-verse. She’s the thinking person’s vegan recipe developer, and she’s the friend you wish you could call when wondering, “Is this meal giving me the nutrients I need?” and “What should I read this weekend?” That’s why we just had to ask …
[Vanessa] How has your cooking style evolved over the years—and over the course of three cookbooks?
[Gena] It’s changed considerably! And of course, in some ways it’s stayed the same. I’ve always loved certain ingredients and featured them heavily in my cooking: kale, tahini, lemon, chickpeas, sweet potatoes, toast.
But—aside from the obvious transition from eating a lot of raw food to eating much less—I think my food has gotten more complex and layered. My early recipes often featured only one or two flavors, whereas nowadays I’m conscious of trying to balance and mingle different flavors in a single dish. I use more spices, and I season my food more boldly. My first cookbook features a lot of bright recipes with simple ingredients and not a lot of cooking. I love many of the dishes, but my own diet has evolved to be heartier.
My second book was probably more representative of the way I eat now, though it was a collaborative project intended to reach those who were relatively new to veganism. Power Plates has more of my personality woven into it.
Sometimes I look at old recipes and think about how differently I’d make them now, but I try to remember that each book has been an honest representation of where I was in my food journey at the time. More importantly, they serve as a reminder that my relationship with food is always growing and expanding, which for a former anorexic is an important fact to acknowledge and be grateful for.
[Q] Could you explain your approach to macronutrients (fats, carbs, proteins)?
[A] Well, my hope is that it’s an intuitive and common-sense approach! The goal of the book wasn’t to give some sort of macronutrient prescription. Rather, I wanted to suggest that it’s helpful to think about macronutrients at mealtime and to source them intentionally. Many of us eat meals that are rich in protein, fat, and carbohydrates already, but for those who are new to plant-based eating or trying to eat with more intention, macronutrient balance can be an important guiding principle.
I don’t stand by the idea that there’s an ideal macronutrient goal or ratio to aim for. But I do think that it can be helpful to organize meals around a plant-based source of fat, protein and complex carbohydrate, keeping in mind that some foods double as both (beans have carbohydrates and protein, for example).
Every time I sit down to eat, I ask myself whether those groups are represented on my plate. If something’s missing—for example, a healthful fat, or a quality source of plant protein—I’ll often make a quick modification. This can be as simple as adding a dressing or a scoop of lentils to a meal.
The idea behind Power Plates was to shape one-dish meals around the three macronutrients. No tracking or counting: just a quick and simple consideration of each group within each recipe. In many ways it’s just regular vegan fare, but with some underlying nutritional intention.
[Q] You’re a nutritionist, and you’re studying to become an RD. What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned about healthy eating?
[A] For a long time my interest in nutrition translated into a focus on specific foods or ingredients and wondering about whether they’re “good” or “bad” for you. It was a very granular approach. I still take interest in the health properties of specific foods, but if there’s anything I’ve taken away from my education, it’s a newfound emphasis on eating patterns, rather than good/bad thinking about ingredients.
Nowadays I have an “all foods fit” philosophy, which is to say that any food can fit within a healthy diet, depending on the context. Of course there are some foods that evidence suggests we emphasize, and others that it tells us to limit. But I think it’s more helpful to think about the balance and patterns than to get overly fixated on individual foods.
[Q] You ventured into veganism while recovering from anorexia. How did plant-based eating help you on your journey?
[A] It was a powerful reminder that food and mealtime could be more than an opportunity to worry and obsess. Eating had become an isolated, anxious act—an expression of my compulsions and fear. There was no joy or freedom, and more importantly, no sense of connection to anything greater than me and my body.
Going vegan showed me that our food choices have a profound impact on the environment, on our fellow humans and on our animal neighbors. It asked me to eat with a sense of respect for how my food choices might reverberate around me. It got me out of my head, and it showed me that mealtimes can be an avenue for activism, for exercising compassion and for making a difference.
[Q] You acknowledge that a plant-based diet isn’t always the best choice for some people recovering from an eating disorder, but that for others it can be a powerful tool. Why is this?
[A] I think it depends on so many things: where you are in the process, what kinds of support and help you’re getting, and what your intentions are.
I think that veganism can be healing for those who are truly committed to recovery, to breaking down their own rules, and to expanding their diets. For those who are still battling urges to restrict, the lifestyle could be triggering or keep them stuck. And there are some people for whom full recovery necessarily means never regarding any food as off limits again, in which case veganism may not be possible.
When folks in recovery ask me about veganism as a possibility, I encourage them to examine their mindset and intentions with fierce honesty and self-awareness. There’s no right or wrong way to be or to feel, only the need to honor one’s own truth.
I also make the gentle suggestion that the opportunity to explore a vegan lifestyle isn’t finite. A person might be in a place where it isn’t a wise choice yet, but as recovery deepens, it becomes the right choice. Life is long, and veganism isn’t going anywhere. The top priority at the height of ED recovery is mental and physical well-being, and food choices need to align with those needs. But recovery is an ongoing process, and one can redefine one’s relationship with food many times along the way.
[Q] Do you think women tend to have a more complicated relationship with food than men do?
[A] Gosh, what a tough question! I think I’d hesitate to make a generalization here. My experience in nutrition counseling has been that women’s relationships with food often appear to be more emotionally charged than men’s. My male clients’ goals are often practical, whereas my female clients’ goals are multifaceted and typically animated by an interest in mind and spirit as well as physical health. But it’s hard for me to know whether this is some sort of innate difference or a question of socialization, and I can’t really speak to how extensive or deep the differences are.
[Q] How can we all inject more joy and ease into our eating habits?
[A] I think it all begins with accepting the idea that we’re entitled to enjoy and take pleasure in food. Nowadays I think there’s a lot of fear and alarmism surrounding food and the idea of healthful eating: conflicting schools of thought about nutrition, rightful concerns about the food system, anxieties about the relationship between diet and disease. It can be difficult to distill a sense of freedom and pleasure from all of that.
For many people, I think it’s also a question of embracing appetite and desire, of cultivating a sense of self-worth and entitlement to happiness. It took me so long to feel unashamed about the fact that I love food. I have a big appetite, and not every single thing I love to eat is nutritionally pristine on paper. My appetite had been problematized at a young age, and I’d stopped believing that it was all right to enjoy eating. Obeying dry, self-imposed nutrition rules was a lot less fraught and scary than it would have been to heed my own cravings.
So, I think that the process of finding joy with food begins with acceptance of one’s entitlement to sensory pleasure. And it continues with asking the questions, “What do I crave? And, what would taste good?” with each meal.
[Q] What tips do you have for people who want to become more spontaneous in the kitchen instead of always following recipes to the letter?
[A] I actually think that following recipes is the best way to learn how to not follow recipes! Ina Garten gives the advice to always follow a recipe once in order to know how it ought to taste; after that, you can tweak and adjust it to fit your tastes. It’s a great tip for any new cook, and I follow it myself. Having a benchmark for how dishes were intended to turn out teaches you a lot about your own unique flavor preferences. Following recipes has shown me, for example, that I like a lot of acid and salt in my food, but my tolerance for heat is lower than many people’s.
I think it’s also a question of building confidence, and the only way to do that is to cook more. At the beginning, every recipe that doesn’t turn out perfectly feels like a big deal—a failure, even—but over time you’re more able to recognize that the only way to learn about cooking is to welcome kitchen disasters. They’re good teachers! And cooking is like anything in that, the more you do it, the stronger your instincts and talents become.
[Q] Your blog is a lot more than a recipe site. You write about the not-so-pretty parts of being human: break-ups, depression, failure. But there’s an underlying sense of gratitude—that you’re finding something beyond the pain. How do you decide when it’s the right time to share a struggle?
It’s not really a decision so much as a realization of readiness. I’ve rarely shared big challenges or heartaches immediately; it’s just too painful to write about those things right away, and I don’t have the necessary perspective to say anything about them. I also see blogging as a form of “owning” my experience, and it’s often the case that I need to work through some shame or self-blame or confusion before I can claim the experiences through writing.
I’m trying more lately to write about things that are relatively raw, because it’s good practice in not crafting pretty stories about everything. But I never disclose things on the blog that I’m not ready to talk about. And there are of course some things I don’t write about publicly at all, which is important—having parts of my life that I consciously choose not to share.
As for gratitude, it’s easy to transmit into words because I have so much of it. Plenty of challenges, yes—that’s part of being human—but also so many blessings and privileges. Writing about them reminds me that they’re there. In many ways it plays the role that gratitude journaling or prayer might take for other people.
[Q] You’ve written that “one of my own challenges in being authentic is to express myself without wrapping all of my feelings in elegant words or neat narrative scaffolding.” How do you do this while still giving your readers a message of hope?
[A] I guess I don’t really think I need to impart a message of hope so much as put things into words and allow readers to take from it what they will. Maybe the things that seem hopeful to me about any given situation don’t strike someone else as hopeful, but my hope (no pun intended!) is that readers will find a glimmer of light in my posts. It may simply be recognition of one’s own experience in somebody else’s: empathy and shared understanding give me a lot of hope!
What’s bringing joy to your everyday?
Homemade bread baking. It’s this year’s cherished hobby!
What are you reading right now?
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund
What food are you falling in love with?
What are you letting go of?
An arbitrary, self-imposed sense of urgency about work and deadlines. There are real deadlines—ones that are mutually agreed upon or not of my choosing—and then there’s me telling myself that I must get X, Y or Z done by a certain date, when in fact there’s no real reason to be fretting.