This post is for those of you thinking about changing your eating habits. Whether you want to try vegetarianism or veganism, or you simply want to try to cut back on meat and dairy and eat more veggies. It’s a crash course at best, but I hope you find it helpful. If you stick around there’s a really good cookie recipe at the end!
We’ll talk more later, but if you’re looking to get a jump start, download my quick handout of dairy replacements here.
Elephants Don’t Take Protein Supplements
Say you want to start eating healthier, so you decide to cut back on meat and dairy. You make the mistake of posting about it on Facebook or telling your uncles at the family BBQ. Suddenly, everyone has something negative to say about eating vegetables. Maybe they mean well, or maybe they’re just being haters. Either way, you shouldn’t let anyone discourage you from what you feel is right for your health and your body. Plus, elephants are vegan, and they seem to get plenty of protein. Oh, and you can arm yourself with some sassy answers to common questions about veganism here.
What Do I Eat?
Personally, I think you should eat vegetables and lots of them. Eat a wide variety across the color spectrum – green, yellow, orange, purple… if it’s pretty, eat it. Along with your veggies, you should eat some whole grains – oats, barley, brown rice, quinoa – the possibilities are endless. You can eat pasta (I like brown rice pasta and whole grain pasta,) eat beans, lentils and legumes (those may or may not all be the same thing, I didn’t pay attention in science class).
One mistake I think people make when they stop eating animal products is mentally subtracting meat from the dinner plate and getting bummed on what’s left. Hm, steamed broccoli and a baked potato. Yay! And from that sad scenario comes the inevitable “where do you get your protein?”
Long story short, most Americans get too much protein because of their animal product-based diets. Additionally, the protein they’re consuming is cheaply produced, pumped full of hormones and hard to digest. I’m not touching too much on animal rights here because I know that topic can polarize some folks, but I do get annoyed when people argue about humane slaughtering methods or they say “well what about organic, grass fed beef?” First of all, how about I humanely slaughter you? Second, are you really buying organic, grass-fed meat ALL the time? Really? What about when you go out to eat? My money says you aren’t. So unless you’re Ted Nugent, step off with that argument. And if you are Ted Nugent, get off my blog because you are the worst.
If you want to read a lot more about protein and a vegetarian diet, Rip Esselstyn does a very concise job of explaining it here. He also cusses and threatens violence a lot less often than I do.
So that’s the “no, you will not die of vegetarianism” part of the show. Let’s get back to the food.
In my humble opinion, the more open you are to experimenting with cooking methods, other culture’s spices and ingredients and just trying stuff in general the happier you will be as a vegetarian. I grew up eating Mexican food in Arizona and Chinese take out in the Midwest. It might not impress you, but if you’ve ever been to Joliet, IL a 7 year old girl who loves Mandarin Chinese is pretty rare. Because my palette was never really “meat and potatoes” I’ve adjusted quite well to the idea of veggies in a spicy sauce or rice and beans with savory collard greens on the side. If you hate vegetables, you’re going to have a tough time, let’s be real here.
So let’s talk about fake meat, because for most people new to this game, fake meat is an easy transition. There are some truly amazing options out there these days – made from everything from pea protein to mushrooms. Companies like Beyond Meat and Gardein are setting the new standard for delicious, healthy meat alternatives. Previously in this post, I warned against eating too much soy and seitan but with all of the new alternatives out there made from pea protein and even fungus it’s easier than ever to eat a plant-based diet.
I also previously mentioned that building your diet around fake meat is expensive, and implied that you’d need to be the Queen of England to afford such a diet – but even that has changed since I originally wrote this post. You can now find really good meat alternatives at very affordable prices in stores like Target and even Walmart (no comment). I do still like to make and eat whole food alternatives whenever possible, like jackfruit, which we’ll talk more about later.
OK, But Also Eat Plants…
Plants are seriously tasty, you just haven’t given them a chance yet. One night at my house we’ll have brown rice pasta with marinara (throw a handful of spinach in, you won’t even taste it and it’s super good for you) and the next night we’ll have a bowl of brown rice topped with bean and veggie chili and a side of collard greens. We eat a ton of Indian-inspired food – lentils in tomato sauces, chickpea mashes, spicy potatoes… we make all-veg tacos (cook all your favorite veggies together in some taco seasonings, throw them on a corn tortilla with some fresh crunchy greens and avocado and that’s a damn good taco.) Stir fry, soups, stew and man-oh-man do we eat stuff out of the slow cooker!
I could go one for days, but let me just answer the question “What can I eat?” You can eat food.
Check out the recipe section above for things I make regularly. (Keep in mind this site started in 2006 as a vegetarian, but not vegan blog, so some of my older recipes do call for dairy.) And check out these resources for more ideas:
Whole Foods recipes – free online resource of thousands of recipes. You can search for vegetarian, dairy-free, vegan, you can even tell the finder that you want something featuring beans, or something healthy. I use this all the time. There’s also an app that you can whip out at the grocery store.
All the Post-Punk Kitchen books – there are so many. Veganomicon, Vegan with a Vengeance, Vegan Brunch… sooo many books! If you’re just going to buy one I recommend Veganomicon – it actually tells you how to cook different grains, beans, veggies. It’s a great book for beginners.
Here are some of my other favorites: Chloe’s Vegan Italian Kitchen: 150 Pizzas, Pastas, Pestos, Risottos, & Lots of Creamy Italian Classics, Vegan Casseroles: Pasta Bakes, Gratins, Pot Pies, and More, Vegan Pizza: 50 Cheesy, Crispy, Healthy Recipes, Artisan Vegan Cheese, The New Chicago Diner Cookbook: Meat-Free Recipes from America’s Veggie Diner, and, of course, Bake and Destroy: Good Food for Bad Vegans.
What About Breakfast?
Tony and I invested in a powerful blender and we both drink a smoothie every morning. Tony says he’s full until lunch on his smoothie, but I usually have a whole grain English muffin with hummus or apple butter or a bagel with avocado and sea salt when I get to work. On the week ends I’ll make something from Vegan Brunch – waffles, or the delicious vegan biscuits and gravy recipe. You can find some of my favorite smoothies and juices here.
If you’re athletic, or just really hungry in the morning, I suggest Rip’s Big Bowl from the Engine 2 Diet book. Oh, and when I was talking about books I forgot to mention Meat is for Pussies as another good one for tough guys and athletic types.
Stuff You Need
A plant-based diet can be very inexpensive, you just have to invest in a few things to make it fun and then the food itself is pretty cheap.
- a blender – you’ll want it for smoothies and for pureeing soups and things
- veggie scrubber – Tony uses one to scrub organic fruits and veggies so we don’t have to peel them & lose those nutrients. (You might want to peel non-organic, since the skin is where the pesticides tend to seep in.)
- slow cooker – we use ours constantly – throw stuff in when you wake up, come home to dinner
- rice cooker – another machine running near-constantly in my house. We use ours to cook rice, quinoa, cous cous and more.
- freezer bags – I know they aren’t eco-friendly, but when you make stuff in a crock pot as often as we do, you have a lot of leftovers. It’s awesome to come home and throw some frozen leftover chili on the stove and then dick around on Tumblr until dinner is ready
nutritional yeast – nutty, cheesy and super nutritious. We put this in everything we eat – chili, stir fry, greens. It’s good on popcorn and you can even made mac n’ “cheese” with it…more about “nooch” here.
- a variety of grains – quinoa being the awesomest. Quinoa is a perfect food. You should eat it ALL the time. And keep a variety of rices, couscous and other grains on hand.
- TVP or Soy Curls – textured vegetable protein is available in the bulk section at Whole Foods, which makes it pretty cheap. Both of these proteins soak up flavor, so soak them in veggie broth and slow cook them for great sandwich fillings, stews, salad toppers, etc.
- seasonal fruits and veggies – whatever is in season will always be cheapest, will always taste best and will always make you feel good
- Bragg aminos – like soy sauce, only cooler. We put this on EVERYTHING. Helps with digestion and tastes like smokey heaven.
- jackfruit – I buy mine in an Asian market, but you can also find it online. Make sure you get it unripe, and in brine, not syrup. Check out my Jackfruit WTF for a super simple recipe and more on this weird, meaty fruit.
Mayhem and foolishness:
OK so here are other things I thought of that may or may not be helpful:
- If you shop at Whole Foods, do the bulk bins and whatever produce is local and affordable. I try to get other staples at Trader Joe’s or my local produce stand.
- Pre-game it when dining out. Check the menu online or call and find out about veggie options. Most likely even the gnarliest steak house will have a pasta dish for you. Don’t get stuck eating a salad like a loser.
- Eat “bowl of stuff.” This has become my favorite meal. I make things I like together – BBQ jackfruit, collard greens and brown rice, and then I layer them in a bowl and eat them all together. It works with almost anything. Different textures and temperatures are awesome too. Warm quinoa with chopped raw tomatoes and red onions, cooked back beans, avocado, crunchy cabbage slaw and Kalamata olives? Throw on some Bragg aminos and I’ll be your girlfriend til recess.
You’ve Behaved Yourself So Far, So Have a Cookie
And now, just a bunch of links to my favorite places to buy vegan stuff online:
Vegan Cuts – pantry staples, beauty items & various monthly subscription boxes so you can try new things all the time
Vegan Essentials – the name says it all
Herbivore Clothing – sassy t-shirts & whatnot
Abe’s Market – lots of vegan options + Meatless Monday recipes every week
Petit Vour – a monthly beauty subscription box
B.A.I.T. Footwear – seriously cute, 100% vegan retro-inspired shoes
Have more questions? Leave them in the comments! Experienced plant-eaters – comment with your favorite cookbooks & resources, too!