TIPS TO START A VEGAN DIET

Original Date: Sep 17, 2015 

I am often asked for advice and tips for eating either vegetarian or all out vegan diets.  In fact, this very post is inspired by such a question.  A Yoga Teacher Trainee was asking me for tips to start a vegan diet this very week.  I am always excited when folks are interested about eating little or no animal products.   I won’t go into the “why” one might consider eating a vegan or plant based diet.  There are many possible reasons that include healthcompassionconcern for the environment, or plain curiosity.   Whatever the reason one might choose, it has to come from a place of honest interest and curiosity about changing your lifestyle and not forced from the outside.  When you feel moved to make such changes, and if they are followed by conviction, you will be more likely to sustain over time.

Eating a Vegan diet can be easy and simple.  I feed a family of 4, and we eat home cooked meals.  I don’t give food any more thought than any other person planning family meals.  Cooking should be simple, natural, joyful, and efficient! I like to have the majority of our meals made in 30 minutes, and I often make extra so all I have to do the next day is warm up leftovers.  The key is having the right ingredients on hand and to become familiar with a few key recipes that everyone loves.  Yes, LOVES.

I see three key areas that might prove difficult in embracing a Vegan diet:  Dealing with cravings, The transition from meat based to plant based, and Navigating the social pressures.  Let’s address these areas.

DEALING WITH THE CRAVINGS

One of the first things I often hear from people is “I don’t eat a lot of meat, and don’t much care for it, but I LOVE MY DAIRY”.   It isn’t usually steak that is challenging to drop, but cheese and greek yogurt is a strong hold for many.

There are many wonderful replacements for dairy.  Here are a few ideas if you are sad to leave behind your yogurt and cheese:

Non-Dairy Alternatives

MILK:  Today, many grocery stores carry non-dairy milks such as Almond, Coconut, Soy, Hemp, Flax, Cashew, and more.  These milks are made with primarily nuts and water, a few added supplements and preservatives.  You can also purchase soy creamer for coffee or tea, and cold coconut milk in a can makes a fantastic whip cream replacement! Many cafes now carry Soy and Almond milk, so when you are ordering out be sure to ask your barrista!

Cheese:  There are also many amazing cheese replacements available today.  Daiya is a soy-free brand that makes shredded cheeses, slices, and cream cheeses.  Tofutti is another brand, they make slices, cream cheese, ricotta, as well as frozen pizzas with tofutti cheese.  Earth balance makes great “butter” replacement, and makes a perfect exchange in recipes.

Natural Creamy:  I like to add natural creamy tastes to my dishes.  While the store bought cheese replacements are nice to have, they are processed and not a great source of nutrition.  Using avocado or guacamole in a sandwich instead of cheese gives that creamy taste.  Cashews also make a great cheese replacement.  You can make your own cashew cheese, and raw cashew desserts.   Another great replacement is to use nutritional yeast in place of parmesan cheese in recipes and salads.  You can even sprinkle some on your popcorn!

Yogurt:  Most people consume yogurt in belief that they need probiotics.  But there are so many other ways to deliver probiotics to your gut that don’t involve diary the potentially harmful side effects.  You can simply use non- dairy yogurt, such as almond, soy, or coconut.  These products are available at any grocery store, and come in a variety of flavors.  You can eat raw sauerkraut!  Health food stores sell sauerkraut, and itssimple to make your own!  Kimchi is also available if you like things on the spicier side.  Many people are making their own Kombucha, a fermented probiotic drink, or you can buy a bottle already made. The most direct way to ingest probiotics is to simply take probiotic supplements!  We had a packet of Vegan probiotics on hand while in India to help with digestion.  We didn’t have too many digestive woes, so I guess it worked well!

THE TRANSITION FROM MEAT BASED TO PLANT BASED

Unless you have been slowly changing your eating habits, or you enjoy eating Vegan meals but have the occasional meat or fish, you are probably wondering what it is you will be eating if you cut out all meat and dairy.  Maybe vegetables have only been a side dish in your meals, and you cannot fathom how to make a whole meal out of vegetables.  Again, there are many “meat” replacements available to you in your grocery store.  I have found even the most remote stores often sell something for the wayfaring Vegan.  While meat replacements may not be a preferred long term meal solution, they do make the transition from Meat based to Plant based much easier.

Meat Replacements:   Often called “fake meats”.  Now, I prefer to phrase things in the positive and call these “veggie proteins”.  They are usually made of soy though with careful inspection you may find some soy free varieties such as Field Roast, and Gardein.  If you are truly following a Vegan diet, be careful and watch your packaging ingredients as milk and eggs often make their way into meat free products (I find this especially in the brand, Morning Garden).  With these products you can virtually make all recipes as you have in the past.

Beans, Rice, Tofu, Seitan, Nuts, Seeds:  At our house we rarely use these meat replacements.  They can be expensive, loaded with processed ingredients, and create a lot of packaging waste. They are great to start your Vegan journey.  But as you become more used to eating plant based, you may find yourself purchasing fewer meat replacement products and instead begin cooking with natural ingredients.  Why do you need meat, or meat replacement in a chili? Or a stew?  Making pasta?  Steam broccoli instead of cooking veggie “meat” balls.  Stir fry, curries, and roasted veggies can make great filling meals.  Add some whole grains, like quinoa, some veggies, maybe a starch, tofu, or beans, use Seitan- a wheat based meat replacement, or sprinkle nuts or seeds on top of a dish, and you have a wholesome nutritious meal.

Preparation is the key to success long term.  If you have the right ingredients in your pantry, and a few well loved recipes, you always have good vegan food around.  Clean out your cupboards and go shopping!  Stock up with healthy good ingredients, and  a few trusty snacks, and you won’t be tempted to fall back to your habitual cheese and crackers and yogurt.  Here is a great shopping list to help you out.  If you are wondering what kind of meals you can make, here are 30 quick Vegan dinners to try!

NAVIGATING SOCIAL PRESSURES

Truly, social pressures can bring the most difficulty being Vegan.  It is often listed as one of the down sides to being Vegan.  But considering all the positives, to your own health, to the health of the planet, and towards ending unnecessary violence to animals, I say its time we change social expectations.  The good news is there is no better time to be Vegan!  Awareness towards Vegan diets is growing every day.  Be a trend setter and an example of healthy living.

How to cook for a family when others don’t want to be Vegan:  What do you do when you have to cook a Vegan meal for yourself, and a meat meal for the others in your house?  I was a lone vegetarian in my house for 6 years before the rest of the family became Vegan (and my eldest daughter will claim that she is NOT Vegan.  I let her make her own decisions).  I was not going to cook two separate meals.  I learned to make Veggie based dishes that meat could be added to (it had to be easy cooking meat for me, ie: warm it up fast in the convection oven), or I made very delicious vegetarian meals that others didn’t mind eating.  The combination worked, kept us all happy, and I felt good knowing we were all eating healthier.

Examples:

  • Pasta with sauce, steamed broccoli, or a large veggie salad on the side, garlic bread (made with earth balance butter, or just plain bread)- and maybe pre-bought meatballs on the side.

  • A vegan chili with loads of beans and potatoes, bread, and perhaps chicken or sausage on the side-

  • Soups or stews, leave the meat out of the main pot cook it on the side to add individually

  • Veggie stir fry and noodles, with chicken/sausage on the side

  • Roasted veggies, rice, baked tofu or meat replacement

  • BBQ of Veggie burgers, tofu-pups, and fresh vegetables, and of course a few Meat burgers for the meat eaters

Navigating Restaurants and Family Functions:  This can be very tricky, as you have little control.  Over time, our families have become more receptive to this way of eating.  My own parents eat very few meat based meals these days and they always have vegan options for us!  But you might find resistance at first.  If you soften your expectations, plan ahead, and be kind, you will have the most success keeping to your Vegan diet.

Restaurants are improving!  Many restaurants have vegan options and are accommodating to requests. Always be sure to ask if meat, cheese, and egg can be left out of a dish.  You are likely to find at least 1 or 2 meals at most restaurants, such as a Veggie burger (you may want to ask if its made with eggs), or a large salad.  I have found that in some restaurants I need to combine a few sides, such as a salad and baked potato or sweet potato french fries.  Calling ahead or looking at a menu online can help you decide if the venue is a good choice, or if they make accommodations.  We have the best luck with:  Japanese, we can order Miso, vegetable sushi, tofu, and stir fry; some Thai (watch out for that fish sauce!); and Chinese.  Mexican also works.  A few chain restaurants that we can rely on are:  Subway (no cheese, ALL the veggies, and if you are lucky, Guacamole!), Moes, they serve Tofu burritos and tacos! A new discovery is Extreme Pita.  Pizza’s can be made without cheese, and you may discover that they taste a lot better without all that grease!  You can actually taste the sauce, bread, and veggies!  If you are lucky, you might find a pizza place that uses daiya!

Family Functions:  We recently made a cross country trip to visit family.  They are not Vegan, but were very accommodating to our choices.  We all got along just fine and ate plenty of food!  We made many trips to the grocery store to pick up foods to help stock the pantry, and we shared cooking meals.  Explain to your family why you are making these new choices, keep the explanation as simple as possible, and offer to bring a dish, help with cooking, and generally be very nice!  You may find people are more open to your changes when you approach them with love and not fear.  It may be hard the first few meals, especially if your family is not open to the idea.  If you accept the challenge, you can be compassionate when they question your change.  Plan ahead by bringing a meal you can share.  You will know there is at least one dish for you to eat, and you can show that eating Vegan can be simple and delicious!

I’d love to know if you are inspired to try eating Vegan, what challenges you may have come across, and what works or doesn’t work for you.  I am not interested in Vegan bashing, so if you are very anti-Vegan, you can put those comments on another blog site, they won’t be posted here.  Ahimsa- the yogic principle non-violence is often claimed by Vegans.  I think there are many ways to express non-violence, and for me, being Vegan is about causing “least harm”.  Harm to myself and to the world around me.  There is no one right way to go about this, and everyone needs to travel their own path.  But giving more thought to our eating choices and eating habits can make an enormous impact on the world around us.  If you are inspired to make just one Vegan meal, then together we are working to make the world a less harmful space.