11 Tips for Easing the Transition to a Plant-Based Diet
Are you thinking about reducing the amount of meat, eggs, and dairy you eat? Limiting your intake of these things is sure to benefit you physically, but it’s not always an easy adjustment to make, mentally. I have several friends and family members who have been told to adopt a plant-based diet for a variety of health reasons, so this has been an ongoing discussion around our house lately. I thought I would share some of the things that have made the transition easier for us, for those who are interested.
The standard omnivore meal is a no-brainer – cook a piece of meat, and make something to go with it – done. I’ve been a vegetarian most of my life, but on the odd occasion that we did go back to eating meat, I always found the times when we went back to being vegetarian a bit of an adjustment. Eliminating all animal products can make that learning curve even steeper.
Why We Made the Change
It’s not my intention to convince you of the merits of eating a more plant-based diet, but to talk a bit about our experience, and to offer some advice if you’re curious and thinking about giving it a try. If you’re looking for information, there are some links on my resource page that might be helpful, and the Veganuary page is full of great recipes and tips. I especially love the work of Dr. Michael Greger, as his nutrition recommendations are all evidence-based, (focusing on scientific studies that haven’t been industry funded), and his work is all not for profit.
Even the Canadian government is getting on board the plant-based train. They’re in the process of revamping the Canadian Food Guide, free from the influence of the animal food industries; the draft recommendations have removed dairy as a food group, and puts the priority on plant-based proteins over animal protein.
Our family’s decision to eat a more plant-based diet is one we just happened to arrive at all at the same time, for our own distinct reasons (with some overlap, obviously).
My initial decision to become a vegetarian as a teen was largely due to my love of animals, and wasn’t necessarily inspired by a desire for healthy eating (cheese please!), but I was largely unaware of the of the brutal treatment of animals raised for eggs and dairy. My reasoning has changed in recent years, as I’ve become aware of farming practices and environmental impacts, and as I learned more about the health benefits of eating this way. I could no longer justify ignoring the evidence before me.
Our kids became aware of the horrors of large-scale animal agriculture as they got older, so that played a large part in the decision for both of them. In addition, my daughter recently began experiencing symptoms of lactose intolerance (she blames it on her cheese and gelato binges while traveling through France and Italy, poor dear), and my son noticed that his acne cleared up when he ate less dairy (it’s pretty much non-existent now).
My husband, always happy to eat whatever vegetarian foods we were eating at home, was a part-time carnivore for years, falling back into old habits while eating in restaurants, etc., but even he is now fully committed, and has turned into quite the plant-based advocate himself. As a bonus, his persistent struggle with dermatitis has largely subsided since we eliminated dairy from our diet.
11 Tips for Going Vegan, In No Particular Order
With all four of us on board, there was no turning back. The best thing about this is that we are each other’s greatest support system, which brings me to tip number one:
1. Find a tribe. Reach out to friends and acquaintances that you know are eating this way and ask to pick their brains. This doesn’t have to be family members, or even friends in real life. There are lots of online groups (try Facebook, for starters) where you can connect with seasoned veterans, as well as other newbies who are just embarking on this journey. More than likely, they will be more than happy to share personal tips and favourite recipes. Which brings me to number two:
2. Find a few plant-based recipes that you know you like, and ensure you have the ingredients on hand at all times. Cook up big batches of rice, quinoa, beans, and whatever other grains you enjoy and keep them in the fridge/freezer for quick and easy meals. Stock up on frozen veggies and sauces for on the fly veggie bowls (served over your choice of grain or noodle), as well as leafy greens, salad dressings, and your favourite toppings for delicious big salads. We always have stacks of tortillas and our favourite canned refried beans in the pantry for instant burritos. There’s no surer way to write off your new lifestyle than to have the new habits feel too frustrating to execute. It will feel like living this way is overly difficult, and you’ll be more likely to give up. Avoid letting yourself get to the hangry stage by:
3. Keeping a good supply of easy to grab snack foods at the ready to stave off hunger pangs. We always have multiple containers of hummus and salsa on hand, as well as an assortment of things to dip (pretzels, crackers, tortilla chips, carrots, bell peppers), nibbly fruit (grapes, apples, cherry tomatoes), as well as bread, bagels, and rice cakes that can be topped with nut butters and any number of dairy-free spreads. Nori is a great snack if you’re into that, and of course, homemade vegan cookies and other baked treats. When school’s in session, we try to have a box of Lara Bars or other packaged bars on hand for those times that we haven’t had time to pack snacks or make breakfast (the commute starts at 5am when living on an island). We try not to rely too much on ready-made foods, but they’re handy in an emergency (and cheaper than a crappy coffee shop pastry).
4. Find vegan chefs (see resources for a few of my favourites) whose eating style feels similar to yours and try some of their recipes (there’s so much available online, but I also like to check cookbooks out of the library to see if I like the recipes before committing to buy them). If you’re a “meat and potatoes” kind of person, you may feel unsatisfied trying to emulate the diet of someone who lives on nothing but green smoothies and cold salads. Your eating style will likely change the longer you eat this way, but a gradual change will make it feel more doable.
5. Make it fun. Gather your tribe and have a vegan potluck, where everyone brings a dish to share. Peruse your local natural foods store and spring for some non-dairy ice cream, do up an appetizing board of fancy vegan cheeses (Miyoko’s are amazing, but there are lots), fry up some vegan sausages, meatballs, chick’n nuggets or battered “fish” fillets (we’ve made vegan fish tacos that are to die for). This way, you’ll learn what’s out there and know what you like. Some of these things will seem expensive at first glance, but realistically, that big block of mediocre cheddar isn’t exactly cheap, and decent meat is downright expensive. Springing for treats once in a while will remind you that there are yummy options to be had.
6. Use some of your new-found favourite meat and dairy replacements to veganize some of your family’s favourite recipes. Swapping veggie ground round into a recipe that calls for beef is ridiculously easy, and you’ll be amazed by the results. Subbing your preferred non-dairy milk and egg replacer in baked goods will likely go unnoticed. If you can do this with a few old faves, it won’t feel like you’re doing anything too crazy different.
7. That being said, be careful about trying to replicate your regular diet by just substituting with the vegan versions of things. There are lots of great meat and dairy alternatives out there, so this will work to a degree, but while some of the alternatives taste as good as the real thing, others definitely don’t. If you normally eat nothing but hot dogs and cheese, and you don’t like the vegan versions of those things, you’re more likely to give up. Be sure to experiment with new foods as often as possible to expand your tastes.
8. Check out local vegetarian and vegan restaurants. Yelp and Tripadvisor should have recommendations for your area. Other great options include Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Mexican, Greek, Indian, Ethiopian, and Japanese restaurants, which all have great vegetarian/vegan options. Have fun with it! There’s so much great food out there, this doesn’t have to be at all restrictive!
9. Keep learning. Watch food documentaries, read vegetarian magazines, keep up on the latest research. This will remind you why you’re doing this in the first place, and will keep you committed.
10. Create new rituals and traditions. Rather than feeling like you’re missing out, find a new favourite meal to replace your Sunday night roast or Friday night pizza (homemade vegan pizza is amazing!). I think that often when people say “Oh, I couldn’t do without my…”, what they’re really afraid of losing is the comfort and familiarity of that thing. Work to recreate that within your new lifestyle. Make a fuss over sharing a new favourite veg item with your extended family at Christmas. Rather than feeling like you’re missing out, show them what they’re missing out on.
11. Don’t obsess!! When we started, we were vegan 6 days a week, but kept cheese as part of our family nacho/movie night until we were able to veganize it in a way that satisfied us all. We are plant-based/vegan at home, but will occasionally choose lacto/ovo vegetarian options when dining out if that’s all that’s available (though it’s good to ask for vegan options, so restaurants know there’s a demand!). This isn’t meant to be some sort of self-imposed torture; do what you’ve got to do to make this change workable for a lifetime (which it won’t be if you feel deprived).
One of my biggest pet peeves is the concept of “Clean Eating”; there’s such a feeling of guilt-inducing judgement around it that I just don’t like. Food should not have feelings of morality tied to it, that’s a recipe for disordered eating. Yes, some things are obviously healthier than others, but you’re not going to die if you occasionally have ice cream with your friends at the beach, or dig in to a piece of your nonna’s homemade lasagna. Life is about enjoying the moment and creating memories with loved ones, and food is so often at the heart of that. Nothing in life is ever black and white.
Finally, do what feels right for you. Working toward a diet centered around plant foods is an excellent goal that will do wonders for your health, but it will never last if you treat it like some strict food fad that you start on Monday, only to throw it aside when you “cheat” on Wednesday. So take control over it, tweak it, and make it work with your tastes and preferences; only then will it become enjoyable and empowering.
I will continue to add to my resource page over time, and am planning to do a post highlighting some of our favourite store-bought vegan items, but feel free to drop me any questions you may have in the comments. Stay tuned, there are lots of great recipes on the way – Breakfast Benny’s, nachos, and lasagna, just to name a few!