I have been a vegan for over 15 years and a vegetarian for over 20. I am often asked by veg-curious folks about how to make the switch to plant-based. Honestly, there isn’t one best way to make the switch. But having helped a few people work through it, I have some tips to share.
1. Make a commitment. It doesn’t matter if you decide to go “cold tofurkey” on all animal products or if you phase them out one at a time. It doesn’t matter if you start with an all plant-based diet or two days a week. The key is to think it through and make a plan and stick to it.
Decide what you plan to do and write it down. That will help you get it firmly into your mind so that you don’t mindlessly eat things that you weren’t intending to eat. If you are going to give up one item at a time, make an actual schedule and mark it on your calendar. If you are making the switch all at once, make yourself a list of things to eat (see below) rather than a list of things that you can’t eat.
If you haven’t already made a firm choice and established your boundaries, you aren’t likely to make it though the times when your plan is challenged by the need for a quick meal, or takeout food, or a party with a buffet.
2. Research alternatives before you start. You know what your animal product weaknesses are. Those are different for everyone. Yours might be cheese (that’s a common one), milk, beef jerky, honey, cream, hamburgers. This allows you to make a plan for how you will replace them in your diet. Almost anything can be replaced with something vegan that will satisfy the same taste urges, but you have to figure out what it is, and that’s easier when you aren’t starving or trying to cook dinner in 20 minutes.
Don’t assume that your replacement items have to be things that mimic the food you previously ate. Sometimes that may work out (milk to soy milk was an easy transition for me). Other times, it may not work as well (vegan cheese is just now getting to the place of tasting more like cheese). So, you need to think more about the kind of taste you are looking for and what could replace that kind of taste. For me, burgers were really always about the combination of chewy protein, a smoky flavor, and all the condiments. So, it wasn’t too hard to find vegan friendly items that took care of that combination pretty well.
3. Plot ways to maintain your usual ratio of “fun” to nutritious foods at first. It’s wonderful if part of your reason for a plant-based diet is health, and it certainly can be efficacious there. But, if you try to totally shift the things you eat at the same time as cutting out all junk foods, it may be hard to manage. If you are accustomed to having cheese puffs every night for a snack, and you go vegan and try to replace that with celery, you are going to be an unhappy camper.
There is so much available vegan “junk” food that it is really not necessary to deprive yourself of that at first. You can start changing the ratio after you get more comfortable with the overall choice. There are even vegan cheese puffs!
4. Don’t deny yourself the use of prepared foods for a while. I am not a big fan of frozen veg prepared foods (though dang that Boca faux chicken patty is tasty), but when you are first starting a vegan diet, it might be easier to microwave a Boca burger and some veggie baked beans, or an Amy’s meal, than to come up with a menu on your own. Prepared foods are definitely more expensive and you don’t have as much control over nutritional issues like sodium, but that’s ok for a while.
If it’s a choice between going plant-based and eating some prepared foods, and not making the plant-based transition at all, then go ahead and eat the prepared foods. Mainstream vegetarian brands (like Boca and Morningstar) have plant-based items, but be sure to double check labels for milk and eggs. Field Roast, Tofurkey, and Gardein are currently all vegan.
5. Eat a VARIED diet. I really can’t stress this enough. If you start out by eating salads for every meal, with the same set of four ingredients, you are going to get so bored and so frustrated and are more likely to crack and order an extra large cheese pizza.
There are plant-based cookbooks and websites galore! Find one that you like to look at. Even if you never actually make any of the recipes, you will get some ideas about how to eat in a plant-based style, and will probably be shocked by the amazing variety of choices. And, some of them are very entertaining, as well!
If you make your meals interesting enough, then you will probably find that you forget what you aren’t eating because you will be more focused on how good the things you are eating taste. You may find that the things you thought you would miss aren’t a problem at all!
Plant-based food ROCKS!