If you are looking to make the leap from omnivore to herbivore, there are a myriad of approaches. You could start by having three vegetarian days a week, and then add more. You could turn around one day, and immediately eliminate all animal products from your diet. You could set a day in the future to be your last meat eating day. If your diet has been riddled with tons of animal products up to now, throwing them out the door immediately might be a shock for your body. On the other hand, if you already eat a lot of fresh, wholesome food, an immediate meat-out might feel fantastically freeing.
Regardless of how you decide to make the change, you are going to encounter some splendiferous benefits, and some causes for concern. Here are some tips to guide you through the first couple of months:
- Learn to cook. I've said it before, and I meant it. Don't be scared. If you can read and follow directions, make slicing motions with a knife, and turn on a burner, you can cook. Everyone should cook, obviously, but preparing your own food is particularly important for anyone not eating a standard western diet, because most processed, pre-packaged food is aimed at people who do eat a standard western diet. So unless you really, really, really like toast, you need to start cooking.
- Buy a good vegetarian cookbook. So, you've decided you don't want to eat meat anymore. You've decided you want to turn over a new leaf both for yourself and for the victims of the meat industry. You're excited and raring to go, but like many people, you were raised eating a slab of meat with some boiled carrots for dinner What the face are you supposed to eat? Enter the glorious and inventive array of vegetarian cookbooks. Buy a good, all-purpose vegetarian cookbook, and try to make every recipe in it (not all at once. Well, maybe all at once). To start off with, one all-purpose everyday vegetarian cookbook, one special occasion-oriented cookbook, and one baking book will serve your purposes very well. I could spend the entire blog recommending books, but for newbie vegetarians I would recommend the Moosewood Collective, (UK), (CAN), Colleen Patrick Goudreau, (UK), (CAN), or Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero, (UK), (CAN).
- Scouts and new vegetarians need to be prepared. I've never really figured out what Scouts need to be prepared for (some sort of Lord of the Flies situation, I guess?), but new vegetarians need to be prepared for the hostility they will encounter from some awesome geniuses who think it's ok to question other people's food choices. To deal with people who are trying to convince you that carrots have feelings too, I would recommend my boyfriend's method of ending arguments he doesn't want to have: while the other person is arguing, shut your eyes and emit a high-pitched, child-like squeal until they stop talking. After a few moments of stunned silence, change the subject to TV.
- Feed your friends and family. Your parents might be frustrated, worried about you, or even feel rejected, as you suddenly refuse to eat the food they've been preparing you since you were small. Your friends might not understand, and might feel that you are getting high and mighty. Most of my friends and family were very supportive of me, but I know that not everyone is so lucky. The solution? Patience and deliciousness. Cook and bake food for everyone. They will get off your case once you've made them sweet potato burritos. Happy tummies do more good than all of the animal rights literature in the world.
- If you are still living with your parents, help them with the cooking, especially if they haven't cooked a lot of vegetarian meals in the past.
- When people ask you about the change that you've made, be sure to explain it personally. Saying, "I gave up meat because eating dead animals is wrong and disgusting, and anyone who participates in the meat industry horror show should be ashamed of being culpable in the slaughtering of sentient beings, and will die of obesity-driven heart disease at 45" is being kind of confrontational. I am by no means recommending that you shy away from giving your real reasons for your change; I think you should be absolutely honest, but people are much more likely to be on your side if you explains things in the context of personal decisions, ie "I really love animals, and I found that for me, eating them didn't feel right anymore," or "I personally feel so healthy and clean now."
- Research nutrition. We've talked about this before. Everyone needs to research his or her health, but now you've got an opportunity to become more informed. Learn what will need to plan for, in particular, vegans need to start supplementing with vitamin B12. Researching your health will also set your family's mind at ease. Once they see that plenty of reputable studies and doctors recommend vegetarianism and veganism, and once you've made them sweet potato burritos, they will really get off your case.
- Draw your own line in the sand. Do I eat/wear red meat, white meat, fish, dairy,eggs, free-range, honey, gelatin, stearic acid, or wool? There are a million different stances that people take on their diet. Many veg*ns (vegetarians and vegans) debate constantly about these issues with no real answer in sight. You have to make up your own mind as to what you think is wrong or right, unhealthy or not a big deal, or a manageable change. That doesn't mean that other people won't come up with arguments that make sense and help you refine your diet, but ultimately it's your decision.
- Learn how to shop. If you are converting to lacto-ovo vegetarianism and you live in the UK, you don't really have to worry about this one. Every single truly vegetarian food item in the UK is labelled as such by law. Amazing! However, if you live elsewhere, or if you are also giving up dairy and eggs, you may want to learn the names of the different additives in food. The most significant sneaky dead animal additive is gelatin, which is made from boiled pig fat and horse hooves, and is found in jelly candies and the like. For vegans, the big ones are casein and whey. Some people choose to worry about every little additive in their food, and some people take the attitude that these things are the byproducts of the meat industry, not the cause of it.
- Get familiar with www.happycow.net. Happy Cow is a very comprehensive website and has many uses, my favourite of which is their database of vegetarian restaurants from around the world. You'll be amazed at the vegetarian restaurants you can find in Paris, Texas, Dubai, or anywhere else in the world!
- Feel free to experiment with different meat substitutes. I don't eat a lot of them now, but meat substitutes are perfect for your transitional phase. Some are amazing, some are disgusting, and some will simply suffice. If you ever feel yourself craving a meat dish, trust me, someone somewhere has vegetarianised it. Example? Vegan meat cake. Veggie burgers are great for satisfying meat cravings. They are familiar, they can be dressed up just like their meat versions, they are easy to find even in the middle of nowhere, and there are a million different versions for you to try. I've also had good veggie mince, chicken pieces, chicken nuggets, and meatballs. In fact, I like them much better than the meat versions. Vegans be warned: some vegetarian meat substitutes contain eggs, so check the label.
- Focus on what you are gaining, not losing. Most vegetarians find that they have more options than meat eaters, not less. There are hundreds of different plant foods to explore. There are only a handful of different kinds of meat. When you start cooking vegetarian, you start to think outside of the box, and discover culinary creativity you didn't even know existed.
- Have fun! Seriously, I'm a little envious of new vegetarians. The world is your artichoke! When people go vegetarian, they will inevitably try new cuisines, new vegetables, new flavours, new recipes, and new products. So many people say that they feel cleaner and lighter, and have more energy.
- Stress. If you're met with opposition from friends and family, don't worry about it. They will come around. Be patient, and feed them. Trust me.
- Expect everyone to jump onboard. You might have watched Food, Inc, (UK), (CAN), or Earthlings and had an irreversible epiphany, but others might not have the same reaction to new information. You might have been moved by The China Study, (UK), (CAN), to make a change in your own health, others might be moved to go to Burger King. Your choices are your choices, you can't force them on anyone else. Don't bother trying.
- Assume everyone knows what you can or can't eat. Right at this very moment, someone's grandmother is trying to convince them that vegetarians can eat chicken, because chicken is fowl, not meat. Plenty of people still genuinely don't really know what vegetarians/vegans can or can't eat. If someone else is preparing you a meal, you may have to be very specific about your diet, and don't forget to mention things like chicken stock and gelatin.
- Get on your soapbox. When you first find out what's going on behind closed slaughterhouse doors, you might think that if only you could share this information with the world, you could single-handedly bring peace to our furry and feathered friends. Cut to you berating everyone you meet with animal rights slogans, UN statistics, and World Health Organisation reports. Cut to you playing Jenga with your cat on Saturday night. Educating people is all very well and good, but you might want to wait until they ask.
- Try to be perfect. Vegetarianism is not a perfect science. Period. You will never be a perfect vegetarian. Ever. Excluding every little tiny bit of animal products from your life isn't the point. And when you take a bite of something you didn't realise contained meat, you can't beat yourself up about it. That bite won't be the last bit of animal you accidentally ingest. Shrug it off and move on.
- Don't OD on processed substitutes or cheese. I know I said earlier to have fun with substitutes, but at the same time, a lot of the pre-made meat/cheese substitutes aren't exactly health food, so don't go too nuts. On cheese, don't make the mistake of 1970's LO vegetarianism, and substitute the meat you've taken out with a whole buncha cheese. Eating silly amounts of cheese isn't going to help your health or the dairy cows.
- Worry about going out for dinner. Almost everywhere has lacto-ovo vegetarian options, so if you are still eating eggs and dairy, you will nearly always have at least one option on the menu, even at steakhouses. Vegans, eating out at restaurants that focus on British or French food isn't going to be the easiest, and both vegans and vegetarians will find more options at ethnic restaurants. But don't that stop you from going to western-style place; restaurants do not exist merely as glorified butchers. If you don't see options for you on the menu, ask for them! Restaurants are there to serve their customers. They aren't there so that we can beg a meal from them and eat whatever they are willing to serve us.
I like gradual changes. When I gave up meat, I cut out red meat for a year before I cut out white meat and fish as well. Now that I'm giving up eggs, dairy, and honey, I'm taking a year to say goodbye to those things I love the most. I like slow changes because I think it makes me less likely to feel wistful cravings for the things I've decided not to eat anymore. I won't be turning around saying to a tub of cookie dough ice cream, "we never even got to say goodbye," because I have every intention of slowly and deliberately saying goodbye to Ben and Jerry's. Thirteen years ago, on New Years, I gave up meat entirely. I've set the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve as my cut-off point for eggs and dairy.
I thought at this point I would be dragging my heels, desperately clinging onto some brie, but actually, I'm really excited to make the change. I think I'm going to feel amazing. I think I'm going to relieved not to be eating any animal products at all, and I'm looking forward to exploring more vegan food. I'm already noticing that I've stopped thinking of dairy as a staple food, and as for eggs, giving them up is a non-issue.
I'm also really, really looking forward to those vegan superpowers I heard so much about in Scott Pilgrim vs the World, (UK), (CAN). Who knew?
Dan Gerou's Meatless Spaghetti Bolognese
This yummy recipe is my boyfriend's culinary pride and joy, and with it's familiar, meaty texture, pretty perfect for your transitional phase. He is reluctantly letting me borrow it. I asked him if he wanted to contribute an introduction for the recipe, and his contribution is, "don't mess it up."
1 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 carrot, grated
4 mushrooms, chopped
400g of veggie mince*
2 tins tomatoes
1/4 cup red wine
1 sprig fresh rosemary
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp dried basil
1 tsp sugar
2 tsp salt (or to taste)
pepper to taste
100g spaghetti per person
Heat the oil a frying pan over medium heat. Add the onions and garlic, saute until onions are golden brown. Add mince, season with first tsp of salt, mix together. Add carrot and mushrooms and saute together for a minute or two. Add two tins of tomatoes and mix together. Add herbs, remaining salt, pepper, sugar, and red wine. Bring to a boil, then simmer. Dan says to simmer for a minimum of an hour, but he's done it for 20 minutes or so before and it's been good. In the meantime, bring a pot of water to a boil, and cook the pasta until al dente. Plate the spaghetti and top with the sauce.
This recipe makes a large amount of sauce, and will keep well for a few days.
*Choose your favourite veggie mince, but be warned that Quorn contains eggs. If you are in Canada, Yves Veggie Ground Round is a good option.