SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. — Most of us want to eat healthier. We want to cut calories, cut fat, drop the starch, get rid of the artificial ingredients teeming in most pre-packaged meals and just eat better.
But we don’t.
With Americans seemingly getting fatter and fatter each year, it’s hard to argue that we’re eating enough vegetables. Plant-based dishes tend to get relegated to the side of the plate, after the meat, after the potatoes and sometimes after the bread.
Online “YumUniverse” creator, kitchen explorer and cookbook author Heather Crosby said that when she was a kid, she didn’t eat her vegetables, calling herself a complete “veggie-phobe.”
The Jefferson County resident got over her fears in a big way.
Crosby has a new cookbook out, “YumUniverse Pantry to Plate,” which she hopes will make it easier for others to get over their fears of the things in the crisper drawer, too.
The author’s vegetable patch journey began on her grandparents’ horse farm in Maryland, where she grew up.
“There was a big garden on the farm,” she said, “but, the thing is, a lot of the food my mother cooked was convenience food. Vegetables came in a frozen block.”
None of it tasted fresh. None of it appealed to her. So she didn’t eat it.
Instead, Crosby said, “I grew up on a lot of comfort foods. There was lots of sugar, lots of processed foods — if it wasn’t white, I wouldn’t eat it.”
Her mom did the best she could, but Crosby was picky, which may have led to her regular bouts of strep throat.
“I was constantly on antibiotics,” she said.
The problem was always her diet, she said. Crosby just wasn’t eating “real food,” and it caught up with her in her late 20s. Her health deteriorated. After a slew of uncomfortable tests, doctors told her she’d have to take medicine for the rest of her life.
That wasn’t even the worst part.
“There were all these random other things doctors were throwing at me,” she said.
Crosby said she had physicians who wanted to prescribe her antidepressants, even though she wasn’t depressed, because they felt it would make her feel better, too.
“It just wasn’t adding up to me. So, I decided to take things into my own hands,” she said.
At the time, Crosby had several friends eating plant-based diets. She noticed that they looked great and seemed to feel great.
She began looking into the benefits of eating more vegetables.
Through an online forum, she read comments from people describing symptoms which sounded very familiar to her own. She also read about how they said changing their diet eliminated or reduced the symptoms and made them feel better.
“There just wasn’t a connection for me between what you eat and how you feel,” she said.
In 2008, Crosby decided to give eating vegetables a try.
“2008 is a long time ago in internet years,” she laughed.
Better health or not, Crosby wasn’t suddenly in love with eating spinach and broccoli.
“It was hard for me,” she said. “I was the kid at the dinner table who would do the all-night standoff instead of eating the broccoli.”
Just to get the vegetables down her throat, she had to blend them into green smoothies, but after drinking the smoothies for a short while, Crosby said she began to feel better. She started craving the ingredients in her drinks.
This led to her first experiments with food preparation.
“I wasn’t familiar with how to cook vegetables,” she said. “It gave me a lot of freedom to cook however I wanted.”
Crosby collected the results of her flavorful experiments into a binder, which she wanted to share with others.
“So, I decided to create YumUniverse. That was kind of the beginning,” she said.
She made a website, posted her recipes online and built a community around eating tasty, plant-based foods, which are also gluten-free.
The site took off. Crosby and “YumUniverse” have been featured, profiled and mentioned in several magazines, websites and media outlets, including Cosmopolitan, Reader’s Digest, The Chicago Sun-Times, HGTV and NPR.
“It’s been a fun ride ever since,” she said.
The website led to her first cookbook in 2014, “YumUniverse,” which included a collection of recipes as well as a kitchen guide with suggestions for tools to acquire and ingredients to keep on hand, plus ideas on how to add vegetables into one’s diet.
“YumUniverse Pantry to Plate” further explores that idea with more recipes for healthy meals and snacks.
Unlike some plant-based cook books, which can be loaded with unfamiliar or uncommon ingredients, “YumUniverse Pantry to Plate” offers options for using just what you have.
Not every local grocery store stocks items like almond butter (similar to peanut butter), quinoa (a grain) or Sucanat (a sweetener).
“With this book, you can pick and choose based on what’s available,” Crosby said.
People can get hung up on fancy ingredients anyway. Every couple of months, some new bean, seed, berry or vegetable is proclaimed a “superfood.”
Crosby said, “I think all plant-based foods are superfoods. They all have properties that make them special.”
Just use what’s available, she said.
If you’re still having trouble finding ingredients (and it might be more challenging in some areas, particularly with the gluten-free flours), Crosby suggested ordering online.
Most of her recipes, however, should have enough options for people to work with and choices for the kinds of dishes they want to make.
“You can start with the things you like to eat and the things you have, and then, if you feel a little adventurous, you can try something more exotic,” she said.
Crosby’s books represent a lifestyle, which — if it’s going to work, she said — has to be sustained on a day-to-day basis.
She said, “How do I do this when I’ve planned out all my meals, but life throws me a curveball and I can’t quite make everything like I planned? What if my food mood changes? What if I was supposed to do Mexican on Wednesday, but now I really want Italian?”
Crosby said it can be done.
“I’m always trying to give people the tools so they don’t have to compromise their health when they have to make changes.”
People should experiment, too — and there are no recipe failures, she said.
“Unless you burn something maybe,” she said. “Or if you don’t follow the instructions for baking.”
Most of the time, a wild recipe can be tamed and some sort of meal can be salvaged. Every attempt is a lesson.
Crosby has come a long way from hating vegetables. Her tastes and food moods change, but lately, she said, she’s been eating a lot more cabbage, which she often ferments.
“I’m such a geek when it comes to fermenting stuff,” she said. “But what I really like about cabbage is if you have leftovers, it holds up really well in the fridge for the next day.”
“Pantry to Plate” will take Crosby on the road off and on over the next few months for book signings and demonstrations. In West Virginia, she’ll be one of the guests at this year’s Wanderlust Festival at Snowshoe Mountain Resort in Pocahontas County.
She’ll also be doing some pop-up dinners and events in Shepherdstown.
The “YumUniverse” website, meanwhile, keeps her busy. Along with free recipes, the site offers meal plan subscriptions and other services through a membership program. In September, Crosby said, she’ll offer another four-week online gluten-free baking academy.
“But I’m really looking forward to the tour and getting out there and interacting with people in person,” she said.
Information from: The Charleston Gazette-Mail, http://wvgazettemail.com.