Megan May, creator of Little Bird Organics and its Unbakerie cafes, wants to share with others just how delicious plant-based wholefoods can be and how easy it is to create meals from them. "I have been so fortunate to experience good health and vitality through eating this way," she says.
"I have always wanted to be a columnist for Bite. I remember the very first edition that came out and how great it was - I still have cuttings from it somewhere in my recipe collection!
"Through my column, we’ll focus on laying the foundations of plant-based eating, like how to create staples such as coconut milk, jams and nut butters. With a little preparation and planning it’s a lot simpler and cheaper than people think."
We catch up with Megan below.
If you had one piece of advice to give people keen to move to a raw, plant-based diet what would it be?
It’s not an all or nothing thing. You don’t need to be a raw vegan to get the benefits of a raw food diet. Everyone can benefit from adding more fresh veggies and unprocessed food into their daily meals. Focus more on what you can have, and less on what you can’t – try something new every day, week or month and figure out what you like, and what your body thrives on. Food swaps are also an easy way of incorporating more raw foods into your diet – try replacing spaghetti with courgette noodles, and rice with cauliflower ‘rice’. Give your body time to adjust – after a few weeks or months of slowly incorporating more and more raw food into your diet, you’ll be hooked and can look forward to benefits such as increased energy, clarity, stronger immunity and glowing skin. Choosing to eat a more plant- based diet is beneficial for your health and the environment - so moving towards a more plant based diet is a good thing, but do it at a pace that works for you and your family.
What is more important in your mind, that it's raw or organic?
The most important thing for me is that food is organic and from a wholefoods source. In our modern day society we are exposed to an overwhelming number of hidden toxins on a daily basis – from the pesticides, herbicides, additives and preservatives in the foods we eat, to the chemicals in our cosmetics, and the pollution in the air we breathe. Organic wholefoods are so important, as they reduce this toxic load on our body and the environment. Additionally, when you choose to buy wholefoods, you’re not buying processed foods that have been stripped of their nutritional quality. In saying that, I believe that raw foods are also extremely important and beneficial for your health, as many of the vitamins, minerals and enzymes in our food are killed during the heating process – and so by consuming more raw food, we are essentially getting more nutritional bang for our buck – and so I aim for an 80% raw diet overall but I really don’t get hung up on the details. I eat to feel good, and that’s generally what works.
You are leading a super busy life. How do you fit it all in? Describe your day for us.
I’m constantly learning and getting better at managing the business and life as a busy mum. I’m not a particularly organised person, and have found that getting more organised has been really key to making a busy life work. The way you perceive stress and busyness is the most important thing - if you break down the time in a day and what you’d like to accomplish into a pie chart, you’ll find you have a lot more time than you think (you can’t complain you have no time to prepare wholesome meals when you’re watching 2 hours of Netflix each night). I try to wake up early to get some ‘me’ time in before I wake up my daughter, and get my daily dose of exercise by cycling to work and doing walking phone calls and meetings. If there’s a will there’s a way – as people we are incredibly resourceful. If we take time to assess what our priorities are in life, stop stressing or complaining about how we can’t find time for something and look for creative solutions, life gets a whole lot easier and more enjoyable.
What about supplements? Do they have a place in a plant-based diet?
We are only as healthy as the soil our food grows on. Soil is where plants get many of their key nutrients from, and thus the soil is where we get many of the key nutrients from the plants we consume. Due to modern day harvesting techniques, our soil isn’t nearly as rich and diverse in mineral and bacterial content as it once was. This is where supplementation can play a vital role in supporting any diet, not just plant-based, by replenishing vital nutrients missing from our diet. For example it has been estimated that 91 per cent of New Zealander’s are deficient in iodine, being an essential nutrient for thyroid function, metabolism, hormone production and growth – and so this is where supplementation can play a vital role in ensuring we maintain a well balanced diet with all the nutrition we need.
Have you noticed your customer base changing in the last few years as raw, plant-based foods become more mainstream?
Our customer base has significantly changed over the past few years. Raw and plant-based food has become a lot more mainstream as people begin to take more proactive steps in preventative health and wellbeing, as well as increased athletic performance. Too many people suffer from unnecessary health issues that can be helped significantly by a plant-based diet. The evidence is out there, and more and more people are starting to become aware of it through documentaries, articles, friends, family, social media influencers and celebrities.
Any more Unbakeries? What’s next on the horizon for you?
I’m currently working on introducing plant-based dinners at our Ponsonby café, expanding some of our current offering nationwide, creating some long overdue products to add to our Little Bird Organics range, and working on the final tweaks for a new cookbook due out in September 2017. No more Unbakeries on the near horizon, but plenty of other exciting things coming - it’s definitely never dull around here!
Do you still create the recipes yourself for the cafes?
The menu is a mix between our kitchen team and me. I recently got to spend a bit of time in the kitchen creating our new superfoods coffee and smoothies menu, but it’s usually a very collaborative effort. Our menus, cakes and drinks are the creative effort of a lot of talented people who share the same passion and vision for what we do. We have a lot of new things happening at the moment and with the cookbook writing and testing I’m getting to spend more time in the kitchen again which is fun for me - I don’t spend nearly as much time in the kitchen as I used to and I miss that.
Tell us about your recipe app. Does it feature dishes on the menu in the cafes?
The app is a combination of my style of cooking at home and some of our most popular dishes from the cafés. The first book I wrote was an entirely raw book and was about my journey from being unwell to eating a raw diet and finding health and wellness through that. The app and new cookbook are more the way I eat everyday now, with a lean towards the 80% raw style of eating and a lot of quick recipes - as being a mum now I find I need to be able to create quicker meals for my daughter.
If you could go anywhere for a special meal, where would it be? And what would you eat?
I have been reading about the Buddhist monastery food in Japan or Korea which is supposed to be out of this world even though the food is incredibly simple. They create almost everything from organic produce that they grow, and include plenty of fermented foods in their diet. If I could be transported to a large wooden table in a temple in Japan I would eat anything they serve me with immense gratitude.
What’s the biggest selling item on the Unbakery cafés menu? Is there anything so popular that you simply could never stop making it?
The raw tacos we sell are an all-time favourite - we tried taking them off the menu once but people were not impressed so they have stayed on ever since…
The chocolate brownie is one of our best sellers too, and our cacao superfoods smoothie - people love their chocolate! We do sell a lot of green smoothies, green juices, turmeric lattes and nut milks too.
Is there an upcoming plant-based food trend that you can see gaining traction?
It’s incredible what’s happening in the plant-based food sector. Everyday people are going plant based everywhere I look – there is a massive trend towards people eating less meat. You even see supermarkets like Sainsbury’s redesigning their product offering to accommodate for the increased demand - they have even launched their own vegan cheeses! As well as companies like Beyond Meat who are making meat-free alternatives that taste and act like meat (ie they bleed). With all the new products coming out it’s important to look at the ingredients. Just because it’s vegan doesn’t make it healthy! The same goes for a lot of gluten-free foods, which we tend to assume are healthier options - and so it always pays to read the label!
What are you most excited about cooking now? Eating now?
I’m really excited about working with spices again – while pregnant and breastfeeding my diet was a little blander and now I’m back on the spices, reading about and cooking with new combinations. We have a lot of international people working at Little Bird so it’s always great learning from them about the different dishes and ways they use spice. I think I overused spices when I first started cooking and now it’s a more peeled back approach, letting individual spices and simple combinations lift a meal, dessert or drink.
Do you have a sweet tooth? What’s your food weakness?
I don’t have a massive sweet tooth anymore - the more greens and wholefoods I eat the less I lean towards sweets. I do love my chocolate, especially chocolate milk and our macaroons and cookies - okay so I do have a raw cookie or macaroon pretty much everyday so maybe I still have a little bit of a sweet tooth…
What items are always in your fridge and pantry?
Lots of fresh greens, sprouts, avocado, matcha, kimchee, Kombucha, sprouted bread, coconut oil, cashews, lots of different spices and cookies.
Preparing raw food is more time consuming than it sounds. Do you have a speedy weeknight meal you can rustle up? And some advice for time-poor people keen to eat healthier?
My quick go-to evening meal is a big pile of greens with sprouts, sauerkraut, avocado and some raw crackers, or if I’m feeling really hungry a kimchee pancake.
When you’re throwing together a quick meal you just need to have some basics ready to go in the fridge – I like to have some of the more hearty ingredients pre-prepared, having some nut cheese, raw crackers and a jar of kraut in the fridge is a life saver.
Fermented pancakes like the kimchee, or dosas and our veitnamese crepe made from fermented quinoa are great quick dinners. On a Sunday night make a batch of fermented pancake mixture and keep it in the fridge to pull out each night to make a quick pancake filled with fresh veggies.
Does your two-year-old eat a raw, plant-based diet too?
My daughter eats a plant-based diet and loves her veggies – currently. She happily drinks green juices and smoothies, it’s pretty cute! I wish I had videos of some of the things she says - ‘mummy I love sprouts’ she is only 2 so I know once she goes to kindy and school things might start to change, but I’m enjoying seeing how much she loves her veggies and the power of her wanting to eat what we eat.
How important is exercise in your life?
Exercise was a really important part of my life until the past few years - since I had my daughter exercise pretty much went out the window – the past few months I have been getting a lot more active cycling to work and getting up earlier in the morning to walk the dog which has been life changing. Exercise is such an important part of a healthy lifestyle. If you combine a healthy plant based diet with moderate exercise it’s hard not to feel amazing.
Who is your food hero?
My original food hero was Jamie Oliver. As an 18-year-old I had his first books and cooked my way through them feeding my very grateful flatmates – his food was fresh and prepared from scratch, something that I had grown up with. I love that he uses food to educate and inspire people to live and eat better. Food is a powerful agent of change - when I decided to become a chef it was because I felt that I could make more of an impact on the world by changing people’s relationship with food and what’s on their plate than the job I was in, which was environmental planning. When it comes to plant-based cooking, Mathew Kenny, Chad Sarno and Tal Ronnen are some of the leaders in this field, and gave me the confidence to pursue my dreams through their work, by showcasing how plant-based cooking was a culinary art that could be served in a fine dining restaurant not just something you can serve in a health food store.
What's an early food memory for you?
One of my earliest food memories is eating and picking strawberries – we grew up on an organic market garden in West Auckland. Next would be making butter, we had this butter churner that we used to make fresh butter with from the cream we got off the milk. I used to love eating fresh butter until the doctor discovered I was lactose intolerant and then fresh butter went off the menu, which works out fine for me now but at the time was a great loss.
It's your birthday ... what cake do you choose?
It’s always a toss-up between something really fresh and fruity, either passionfruit or berries, or a rich chocolate cake like our chocolate layer cake, which is my perfect chocolate cake with layers of rich chocolate and almond cake and a coconut vanilla cream.
For more see Megan's recipe for blackcurrant coconut ice blocks.