One phrase that I’ve heard dozens of times is “Oh, I used to be a vegetarian, but…” Some people say it remorsefully, almost out of failure, that they just couldn’t hack it. Others say it in the same disdainful way that people announce that they “used to listen to Britney Spears.”
There are a lot of reasons why making a lifestyle switch like this can fail. Swearing off meat is a big change, and we veg*ns are unfortunately in a minority, so a lot of times we’re going at it alone. But there are a few things you can do, strategies, approaches, or whatever you want to call them, that may help you avoid the pitfalls that end up in a wistful “used to be a vegetarian” story.
Meat Substitutes are Transition Foods, not Long-Term Solutions
Many vegetarians get started with what seems to be the obvious entrance: meat substitutes. Brands such as Morning Star, Gardenburger, and Boca Burger all make meatless food items that are designed to look (and to a lesser extent: taste) like something resembling meat.
These are the quick fix foods — like a smoker using the Nicoderm patch to ease those hard cravings. Your kitchen may already be geared up with condiments and foodstuffs intended for use with burgers, chili, and breaded chicken breasts. Or maybe you live in a mixed home and are the black sheep veg*n, and it’s simply not feasible to have the entire meals changed around your new dietary choices (if you’re young, this is more likely; particularly if you still live with your folks). They’re also useful in a pinch when you’re invited to an impromptu grill-out or dinner event, and don’t have time to prepare a proper veg*n dish in advance.
But if you don’t make efforts to explore the world of Veg*n food, and instead continue to eat meat substitutes, you will probably fail. We humans enjoy novelty, and variety is the spice of life. There are only so many ways you can prepare a veggie burger before you just get burnt out on it. Limiting your palate to such a miniscule subset of a gigantic domain of food is a disservice as well!
So in the same way that a smoker intending to quit knows they can’t rely on patches forever, you must make the effort to venture into the great unknown. I promise it’s worth it.
Know Your Protein Sources
One question I often hear from carnivores skeptical of vegetarian diets is an almost incredulous inquiry about where we get our protein if we aren’t eating meat. When you grow up being told that “meat” = “protein”, it can be hard to fathom that “other things” can also equal protein as well.
Melissa and I eat plenty of protein. The trick is that you get lots of protein in small amounts from many sources. There are certain sources that have more protein than others, and it’s good to know those. So here are the usual suspects:
- Tofu (4 oz is 11 grams)
- Tempeh (1 cup is 41 g)
- TVP (Textured Vegetable Protein)
- Chickpeas (1 cup is 12 g)
- Beans / Legumes (1/4 cup Almonds is 8 g, 1 cup of Black-eyed Peas is 11 g, 1 cup Kidney beans is 13 g)
- Nutritional Yeast
- Peanut Butter (8 g in 2 Tablespoons — go for natural, if you can!)
- Eggs / Cheese (for non-Vegans)
- Soy Milk (1 cup in 7 g)
- Whole Wheat Bread (2 slices is 5 g)
- Bagels (9 gin a medium bagel)
- Spaghetti (1 cup is 8 g)
- Green vegetables (Broccoli is 4 gin 1 cup, Peas are 9 gin 1 cup, 5 g in 1 cup of Spinach)
- Brown Rice (5 g in 1 cup)
- Veggie burgers (see above!! 13 grams in 1 patty)
Here’s the kicker — the FDA only recommends 50 grams of protein per DAY in a 2,000 calorie diet! You really don’t even need to count your protein if you are eating a variety of foods (which you should be doing anyways). Once you get into a good rhythm of exploring new dishes, you won’t even think about it anymore. If you are a weight-trainer or someone that needs extra protein per day, you can either do Soy/Whey protein shakes, or just simply eat more of the light protein sources.
Protein is really not the problem that many skeptics seem to think it is.
Consider Vitamin Supplements
While we can get pretty much all the nutritious elements we need from a vegetable-only diet, it is recommended that you take a general vitamin supplement to cover two of the Essential Amino Acids that are not readily available in most vegetables. The B-Complex vitamins are kind of hard to come by in vegetables (unless you have a REALLY diverse diet – I’ve heard that seaweed is a good source of B-Complex), so it would behoove you to invest in some cheap general vitamins. You can pick up a jar of 250 tablets from Meijer or Kroger for under $10 — this will last you nearly 9 months. If you miss a few days, no biggie.
If you are shooting for a Vegan diet, it’s especially important, unless you’re a seasoned vegan veteran. A comprehensive vitamin supplement will help to cover your bases and prevent malnutrition while you learn to flap your veg*n wings. Kids should also be taking vitamin supplements (whether or not they are veg*ns!) to be sure they grow up healthy.
(Note: some meatless foods, such as soy milk, nutritional yeast, and others, are fortified with vitamin B12 and should more than account for your recommended daily allowance. But again, $10 / 9 months is a small price to pay for not having to be meticulous and BORING about your eating)
Experiment, Experiment, Experiment
When Melissa plans our meals, she frequently looks on the Internet, in one of the many veg*n cookbooks we have, or just draws on her own experience to invent new meals. There are scores of delicious meals out there that don’t pretend to be meat-entrees, and are as nutritious (if not MORE nutritious) than the meat-and-potatoes style dinners.
You certainly don’t need to give up your favorite dishes from growing up, either. Most entrees can be adapted and extended to be meatless and still carry their original charm. The trick is to learn the substitutions.
Some meals, such as Pizza, Spaghetti, casseroles, Chili, Stews, Soups, etc. are easy adaptations. Just take the meat out altogether; if you’re feeling adventurous, add some other ingredients instead. (When we make Pizza, we often use artichokes, feta cheese crumbles, green peppers, mushrooms, etc.)
Other meals require a little more finesse to prepare (although it’s hardly impossible): Eggplant can be used in Lasagna and as a substitute for chicken as Eggplant Parmesan. TVP can be used flawlessly in Veg*n Sloppy Joes (those are AWESOME — we’ll post the recipe up here someday). Tofu can be swapped in most meals involving chicken bits (although the texture is a little different).
There are so many different combinations, assortments, and variations of meals you can prepare with meatless ingredients; The possibilities are virtually endless!
Be Patient With Yourself
As Melissa said in her previous post, it’s ok to start small and dip your toes in first. Even after being meatless for nearly a year, I still find that I really miss two foods: Pulled-pork sandwiches and General Tso’s Chicken. But when I thought about it some more, I don’t miss the meat; I just miss the sauces. (I like sweet and spicy. :-9 )
If you can reflect on your dietary preferences and figure out why you REALLY like chicken, steak, pork, etc., you may find that living without the meat is easy, it’s the sauces / spices you miss. Fortunately, nearly all the sauces used in those recipes can be prepared meatless and work great in veg*n entrees. We occasionally have Barbeque Tofu Wraps, the local Chinese restaurants will prepare deep-fried Tofu in the General Tso’s sauce (for no extra charge!), and I’ve discovered many more flavors that I enjoy even more than those old favorites.
Give yourself some time and stick with it. If you find yourself craving some food, feel it out. Maybe your body is telling you it wants a chicken sandwich because it wants a certain flavor or ingredient that it knows can be found in those foods.
Most importantly of all — seek out other vegetarians. ProgressiveWayneCounty has sponsored some potluck dinners where some of the members are veg*ns, and you may find there are more of us around town than you think! [And of course, keep checking back here! We're here to help!]