Ready to go vegetarian?
Thinking about making a big dietary change this year? Like going vegetarian?
I’m far from being a vegetarian veteran, but, I’ve put together some thoughts on the experiences I’ve had. There have been many, many good experiences, mostly small, private moments, like discovering the simple beauty of grilled avocado spread on a fresh baguette, or learning that massaging kale turns it into something silky and other-worldly. Or finding out that friends were making the very same change, and sharing our successes and challenges and tips with each other.
But, as with everything, the road hasn’t been perfectly smooth. I’m not sure I’m providing any answers here, but if revealing some things that surprised me means others will be better prepared, then it might be worth a read (if all else fails, there are pictures).
So, let’s dig in:
You have to like vegetables. Be honest with yourself about that.
Following a primarily vegetarian diet is super easy for me, because I honest-to-goodness love vegetables.
I don’t walk around with a carrot stick in each hand and kale bits stuck in my teeth, but I do consume a decent volume of vegetables and fruits every day. Salads are my favorite. (If you’ve visited this site before, you know that to be true.) And yes, I do love dressings — I rarely eat raw salads straight-up. Most often, I use a simple, homemade blend of olive oil, lemon juice, raw honey, raw apple cider vinegar, and salt, and apply the dressing with a light hand: a drizzle, not a dump.
I know salads are not for everyone. But there’s no way to get around the vegetables and stay healthy. Grains, nuts, seeds and legumes are great sources of protein, fiber and other nutrients — and they contribute flavor and texture and flair to vegetarian that dishes will you love and serve over and over again — but you still need to eat the rainbow.
Our tastes change as we age. If you haven’t tried a certain vegetable since you were a teen, try it now. Learn how to prepare vegetables properly. Buy a vegetarian cookbook — I’d recommend anything by Deborah Madison — and carefully follow a recipe. Try vegetables raw; try them sauteed. Try them roasted or baked. Cauliflower takes on a whole level of sweet, nutty wonderfulness when roasted in the oven with a little olive oil and salt. Baked kale chips are the darlings of food blogs for a reason: they’re absolutely delicious.
Growing up, I never, ever had raw spinach. It was always cooked, and it was always creamed. Gah! No wonder I hated it. Trying raw spinach in a salad for the first time as a young adult was a revelation.
If you’re still not sure how you’re going to incorporate all of those servings of fruits and vegetables into your day, I recommend exploring green smoothies and/or juicing.
Green smoothies are absolutely addicting, and if you use restraint with the dairy and nut milks, they’re incredibly healthy. My standard concoction is frozen grapes, blueberries and strawberries — no more than 1 cup total — plus half of a lime or lemon (peeled), a coin of ginger (also peeled), half of a cucumber, a biiiig handful of fresh spinach and/or kale, chia seeds, a glug of low-fat strawberry or blueberry kefir, and plain water or coconut water. You will not taste the greens. I promise.
Juicing is still fairly new to me, but so far it has nicely complemented my green smoothies consumption. Best of all, it fills the one huge gap that smoothies leave behind: green juice is portable and do-ahead-able. I can process enough juice to last two days, and take it with me in a Thermos (kept cold with ice cubes made of green juice).
The downside of juicing is that all of the super healthy fiber from fruits and veggies gets filtered out by the juicer. That’s why I would recommend green smoothies to go along with juicing. (I’ve never owned a mega blender, such as Vitamix or Blendtec, so I can’t comment on whether they would be a good replacement for a juicer. I’m certain, however, that they produce completely satisfactory and healthy green drinks.)
Acknowledge how you best handle change, and set yourself up to succeed.
Are you a dip-a-toe-in-the-pool personality, or a dive right in head-first kind of person?
There’s nothing saying that you have to go vegetarian whole hog (um, so to speak) on Day 1. I began by setting a simple goal: 75% of the week’s 21 meals — so, 15 or 16 meals — would be vegetarian.
The 25% cushion was to factor in a lack of reasonable meat-free choices — say, dining out at any of the iffy restaurants around my office building — or cravings for favorites like smoked turkey and hard-boiled egg sandwiches on toast. Before the month was out, I was at 100% without even realizing it.
And more to the point, there’s nothing saying that sticking to the 75% goal for the long-term is a bad thing. Heck, I cheer when folks observe Meatless Monday. Despite my personal choices, my wishes for humankind is to simply eat more vegetables and fruits, and less meat — with animals being treated with love and respect during their lives — not to eliminate meat consumption entirely.
Place value on being a healthy vegetarian first, then a political vegetarian.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with activism, and many vegetarians and vegans find themselves drawn to evangelism due to their personal successes with change. But first and foremost, you need to be — and stay — healthy.
Vegetarianism does not automagically equate to a healthy diet. One can eat bread, pastries, pasta, ice cream, chocolate, and sugar all day every day, and rightfully call oneself a vegetarian. That, however, is an extremely unhealthy eating plan, and you’ll pay for it very quickly.
Even if your meat elimination plan has nothing to do with health reasons, learning to consume all the nutrients you need to be healthy must be your first focus. It’s like the rule on airplanes: put on your own air mask first, then help others. Get a grip on your diet, then spread the word. If you’re tired, bloated, and splotchy, you won’t make a very compelling case anyway.
Have one clear reason in mind for going vegetarian.
Any kind of elimination diet is fraught with challenges and temptations, so make sure you have one overriding reason, clearly defined for yourself, that rests comfortably in the forefront of your mind. For many of us, the decision is complex, with many layers of reasons that favor a vegetarian diet. But, your path will be clearer if you frequently remind yourself of that one, compelling reason.
Stay true to that reason
I learned this lesson the hard way. I had several reasons for going veggie, but what sent me over the edge was cleaning out my freezer one day a couple of years ago. I was appalled at the amount of meat that had worked its way to the back wall, expired, dried out, and frost covered. Appalled and ashamed. All those animals, wasted. It was a horrible, horrible personal moment.
Once I was 100% vegetarian, I took a really strict approach, consuming no meat or animal parts no matter what. Then, twice in one week, restaurants mistakenly served me chicken, and I sent it back both times, with the restaurants dumping the meal in the trash. It suddenly struck me that I was doing the very thing — again — that made me go veggie in the first place: wasting meat. Wasting the lives of those animals. While I make every effort to avoid meat and to avert confusion concerning menu items, I let my heart and my gut make the ruling on unexpected situations.
But forgive yourself when you slip.
You’re human. Okay? It’ll happen. Chin up, keep moving.
Be prepared for people to not understand what it means to be vegetarian.
The biggest surprise I had when going veggie was learning that a disturbing number of people think that chicken isn’t meat. That’s right, that it is not meat.
By this writing, in addition to the two incidents above, I have ordered dozens of meatless meals from restaurants that came piled with chicken. And I’m not talking about me deconstructing a clearly meat-filled dish to suit my own requirements. I mean dishes where there are protein choices — say, beef, chicken, or seafood — most often rice and vegetable sautés, where meat is completely unnecessary to the success of the dish. I simply ask them to hold the meat. And it arrives with chicken.
Dinners in private homes can be tricky, too. For every person who thinks chicken isn’t meat, there are two who believe seafood is not meat. I’ve witnessed plenty of awkward dinners where vegetarians in attendance were served seafood by the proudly beaming, totally well-meaning host.
You can’t completely prevent misunderstandings, but think about what your response will be to these situations. Will you politely decline the meal? Accept it and discretely pick around the meat? Eat it anyway? Upturn the plate, jump onto the table in your spiked heels and chant, with fist pump, “Veh-GEE! Veh-GEE! Veh-GEE!”? (Just think of the awesome YouTube potential.)
The correct answer is the one that’s best for you in that situation.
People can be judgmental, harsh, narcissistic. You’ll be criticized for your choices.
I’ll start with the obvious: we’ve all seen the comments sections on online articles where folks get all riled up and rip into each other for one reason or another. Whenever I wander into a discussion about vegetarianism or veganism on the internet that turns unproductive, I simply wander back out. (As it’s been comically said, if you’re arguing on the internet, you’ve already lost.)
Criticism and snarky comments from family and friends is a little bit tougher to take, as relationships are loaded with historical baggage that often has nothing to do with the situation at hand.
For every friend who hugs you for your success, there’s always that aunt or cousin or in-law ready with the left-handed compliment.
“Fair-skinned blondes usually don’t dare to be seen in public without make-up. You’re brave!” (true story)
“Most people can’t pull off a shirt the color of baby poop, but it really works on you.” (true story, same person)
“You’re a vegetarian? Too good for farm animals, now, are ya? (ditto. god I hate her)
Just kidding. (Mostly.)
Try not to fall into that trap. Either trap, in fact. Don’t allow yourself to be judged, and don’t judge others. It’s quite easy to feel beaten down and excluded due to your choices. Likewise, it’s very easy to tsk-tsk-tsk the mom dragging after her kids into McDonald’s, all the while impossible to know what her day has been like, or what that family’s overall eating plan is.
Like so many things in life — politics, environment, politics, personal finance, politics — true change doesn’t happen through judgment and ridicule. It happens one step at a time, one person at a time, through leading by doing. Take the high road, be respectful, and cut people — including yourself — some slack. Especially when you’re at the table with relative strangers and mere acquaintances. It’s easy to get caught up in the moment, sharing your views and passions. But picking kind words over harsh ones can mean the difference between others respecting or disliking you.
I’ll admit that this trips me up (see above re: color-of-shirt commentator). Folks can be unintentionally (and, well, intentionally) overly defensive about their refusal to give up steak, and say hurtful things in the process. To which I almost always nearly respond with a Homer Simpson “Why, you little…” lunging instinct. Sometimes I’m successful at holding my tongue, sometimes less so. But I generally find a shoulder shrug to be the better response. It’s not reasonable to expect that I’ll convert a carnivore with a few pithy sentences, and I regret shoulder shrugs far less often than snippy retorts.
How strict do I have to be?
Technically — and political vegetarians love calling out newbies on this, in one of those aforementioned, unproductive Interwebs arguments — you can’t call yourself a vegetarian until you reject all meat products.
And animal parts sneak into a surprising number of things.
Did you know marshmallows contain animal parts? So does Jello. Gelatin, an ingredient of both, is made from boiling animal skins and bones.
Beer can be non-vegetarian. Some brewers use isinglass (made from fish stomachs) in their filtering processes, while others might use glycerol monostearate (often, but not always, derived from animal fat) to produce the foamy head on a poured glass.
Eggs are another sticky wicket. Whether you will consume eggs depends entirely on your personal views about the life potential of an egg. Here’s the coup. Er, scoop:
A hen does not need a rooster to produce eggs. At certain times of the year, when the light/dark cycles are right, a hen will self-produce an egg a day, and those unfertilized eggs are not and never will be a chicken as they do not contain embryos. But as a consumer, you are not likely to know whether a rooster mixed with the hens, producing eggs with embryos that could viably hatch into chicks under incubation conditions. (Note that chicks don’t suddenly pop out onto the counter, because the refrigeration process of transporting and storing eggs halts embryo growth.)
Ironically, the dreadful, inhumane battery cage eggs at the grocery store are almost guaranteed to be unfertilized eggs. Hens in those industrial installations are confined with no exposure to roosters. (But regardless of one’s interest in consuming only unfertilized eggs, I can’t for the life of me recommend purchasing battery cage eggs under any circumstances.)
It’s fresh farm eggs that you can’t be so certain about without talking to the farmer. Farmers who raise their own chicks will keep one rooster around for breeding purposes. Only the farmer knows the rooster’s habits.
Cheese is yet another issue. Many cheeses, especially aged cheese, contain rennet. Rennet can be animal or vegetable derived, but most ingredient labels do not specify. A cheese monger once told me that if a cheesemaker uses vegetable rennet, they’ll usually list “vegetable rennet” on the label. Otherwise, you have no option but to assume animal rennet.
For me, my choices are my choices. Some make sense, some do not. They’ll inevitably evolve as I do. I go off course (sometimes on purpose — I had a hamburger last 4th of July. I sourced the meat locally and ground it myself. And there’s a recipe for salad with smoked salmon on this very blog). Then I get back on track. I skirt the political side of vegetarianism completely by simply saying, when asked, “I follow a primarily vegetarian diet.”
What about bacon? Will I miss it?
Ah, bacon. I’m probably one of three people in the U.S. who doesn’t have bacon cravings. My appreciation of bacon slides with every passing year (and it took a huge skip downward in 2012 when bacon cupcakes and other bacon desserts were everywhere to be found. Folks cringe at vegetable Crisco shortening in pie crusts, but find pig fat perfectly palatable in cream cheese frosting. Quite puzzling).
When I hit a certain level of cooking confidence and began developing my own recipes, I quickly discovered that bacon was a cook’s cheap shot.
Brussels sprouts are paired with bacon for a reason: it positively masks the flavor (and scent) of this tiny cabbage. Looking at other recipes, it all clicked together: when a cook doesn’t know what to do with something, or wants to makes an attention-grabbing splash on the food blogs, they throw bacon at it.
Mass processed bacon is nothing to write home about, in my book. All I seem to taste is a super-salty chemical flavor. The trend of local and home charcuterie is the right direction to go. But, since I have never tasted carefully prepared bacon, I know not what I’m missing and therefore can’t mourn it. Your mileage will vary.
What about meat substitutes?
I’m ambivalent about meat substitutes. Some, I like (Morningstar’s veggie sausages being one of them), most, I don’t. This will require experimentation on your part, to find that happy meeting of good flavor and good texture. I like tempeh (fermented soy). Tofu, plain and cubed, not so much (it’s a texture thing). Just as I was getting a grip on the meat substitutes that I preferred, studies came out about the health impacts of soy on women, which, until it’s all sorted out, I now largely avoid (once a day at the most).
But not all meat substitutes are made with soy, and it’s worth a visit to a vegetarian-friendly grocery store, like Whole Foods, to explore what’s out there.
My ambivalence is sourced mostly in the fact that I don’t need them. I rarely ever miss meat. Preparing whole foods with lots of veggies is completely satisfying to me. Sure, I enjoy a slice of cake now and then, but when you change your eating habits, your taste preferences change right with them.
Take a moment to dig that groove:
Your tastes change to prefer the things you eat regularly.
We don’t pop out of the womb craving fast food burgers — that’s a learned behavior. It might seem impossible to give them up, but believe me, once you stop eating the junk, you no longer want it. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that works in both directions, bad and good. The more junk you eat, the more you want it. But less you eat, the less you want it.
My goodness, are you still with me? This was a long one. Thanks for hanging in there — I sure hope it was worth the read. If you have tips to share about embarking on dietary change (even if it’s not vegetarianism), share them below!