How to Ease the Transition to Vegetarian Eating
Whether you're just thinking about doing the vegetarian thing, have decided to make the change, or are struggling to make the switch, you’ve likely heard as much about how difficult the change can be as you have about how awesome it is. People make the choice to reduce or eliminate their consumption of animals for all sorts of reasons and benefits, yet even with diverse motivations, many of us face the same challenging questions when we actually start to act:
- What if I really miss and crave meat?
- What if there’s a special circumstance where I feel I should eat meat?
- What if my health suffers because I don’t have as much protein?
- What if I don’t have the willpower?
- What if other people in my life don’t understand?
You Can Do It!
Rest assured; as a vegetarian for the last four years who has moved home cities thrice, changed jobs five times, and been a visitor to ten countries in as much time, I promise that all these obstacles have fairly simple solutions, even if your life isn’t simple. There are three main keys to remember in easing your transition to an animal-respecting, earth-loving, body-nourishing vegetarian lifestyle:
- Everything in Balance and Moderation
- Positive Reinforcement
- Community Support
Everything in Balance and Moderation
Tip #1: Don’t Go Cold Tofurkey
Going veggie is a big deal. It’s no small potatoes. So let yourself have time to wean yourself off the foods you no longer want to choose, and slowly introduce more of the foods that can replace them. Make a plan that works for you, and be realistic about how much you can handle at a time, so that it sticks. I started the process of going vegetarian in March one year, but it wasn’t until August that I finally cut out seafood for good.
There are different ways to wean yourself off the stuff – for example:
- Cut out types of meat in a hierarchy of sorts, like: pork, then beef, then poultry, then fish
- Cut out meat altogether from certain situations, like: home, then roadtrips, then restaurants, then friends’ houses
- Use the classic “Meatless Mondays” approach and spread it to other days of the week
Combine different methods in whatever combination works for you. I personally chose the first option, with the added decision from the get-go to simply have a meat-free house.
Tip #2: Don’t Punish Yourself If You Choose to Eat Some Meat
It’s pretty common for people to get over-eager about a goal, and then correspondingly, be harsh on themselves when they“slip up.” In your weaning process, don’t view a choice to eat meat as a mistake, or a “guilty pleasure.” If you do, you might actually thwart your own attempts to change by discouraging yourself, or, worse, psychologically putting meat in the same category as other guilty pleasures and rewards, like chocolate or sleeping in.
You’re probably going to need to make a few exceptions during your transition, and maybe even a long time after that, and no, that doesn’t mean you’re not a vegetarian anymore. You just need to choose the appropriate times for exceptions and know that you’re making a choice of which you approve. Some of my exceptions since being vegetarian have been:
- Trying a bite of shark that my Dad caught at his destination wedding, because he was so proud of himself (though this was years ago, and now I probably wouldn’t make the same choice because I would feel ill trying to put a piece of fish in my mouth)
- Devouring tons of local dishes in Southeast Asia while not knowing enough of the necessary languages to ask if something was cooked in fish oil or fish sauce, and knowing that it would probably be tricky to get it without anyway!
- Eating vegetable soup this summer that my elderly and not-so-well Nagymama made precisely because she knows I'm a veg-head - I could taste the chicken broth but I wasn't about to reject her labour of love when she shouldn't have been up cooking in the first place
Tip #3: Replace Your Protein!
This one seems really obvious, but I think it’s important to mention, because I’ve seen several people “try” to go vegetarian by simply cutting out meat and not doing anything else to supplement their diet. Surprise! They feel weak and/or tired because they’re eating a whole lot of plain spaghetti and veggie footlongs... not going to give you the nutrients you need.
Bonus: if you start paying attention to your protein, iron, and other things you normally get from meat, and actively seek out the nutritional value of new foods (like beans, nuts, cheeses, lentils, or soy), you’ll likely gain a deeper understanding of your whole diet, and being more aware of your health is a good thing.
Tip #4: Remember the Secret Weapon to Battle Cravings: Umami
One of the most common objections I hear from people who say they could “never” give up meat (which is excessively dramatic, in my view) is that they just love the taste too much. That’s it – it’s not about protein, health, convenience or anything else. They just love the physical pleasure of eating meat.
In addition, I’ve also heard the phrase quite often that someone is just “craving protein.” I used to say this all the time when I first gave up meat, until I was surprised to discover that that’s not what I was craving at all. In fact, when we “crave meat,” what we are actually craving is a fifth taste, aside from the four basics of sweet, salty, sour, and bitter: we’re craving umami, which in Japanese literally means “yummy.” (For more information on how umami was discovered, read the entertaining NPR article linked here.)
What’s very interesting is that if you look at a list of umami-rich foods, like the one provided online by the Umami Information Centre, you see that in a typical North American diet, the umami-rich foods we eat regularly are in large part beef, pork, chicken, and potatoes. Yet it’s also strong in foods like the following:
- soy sauce
- Parmesan cheese
- shiitake mushrooms
- sweet potatoes
- soy beans
It’s also in a ton of seafood for all you aspiring pescatarians out there (the fancy-fun word for those who avoid meat other than seafood).
It’s a lot easier to overcome “cravings for meat” when you understand that you’re not actually craving meat, but simply a taste which can be found satisfyingly in lots of other choices.
Tip #5: Make Delicious Meals You’ll Really Enjoy
At a Weight Watcher’s meeting, my mom heard someone detail how they’d had a sandwich for lunch that consisted of whole wheat bread, lettuce and a slice of non-fat cheese. The meeting leader asked with a smile if the speaker would eat that once she was down to her target weight, and then pointed out that if you want a lifestyle eating change to stick, you have to make it something you want to stick with. This lesson is a good one for new vegetarians, too, because if you’re not making something more enjoyable than your old burgers or meatloaf, you’re way more likely to go back to them instead.
Conversely, if you don’t like tofu, don’t eat it! I avoided all “fake meat” for more than a year of being vegetarian. I found I was always consciously comparing it to real meat, and as the memory of the latter was vivid, the former always failed. However, once I had sort of forgotten what meat actually tasted like, I started trying some soy, tofu, and setan products, and now find them wonderful, but only if marinated and prepared properly.
Some of my favourite easy, hearty, veg-friendly meals include:
- grilled wraps filled with veggies and black beans smothered in melted cheese
- stir-fried vegetables and rice with soy sauce or peanut sauce
- chunky vegetable soups or stews with lots of potatoes, thrown in the crock pot and cooked all day (note how these are rather heavy in the umami department?)
Tip #6: Remind Yourself of Your Reasons for Choosing Veggies
I would venture a generalization that all people who choose to cut meat out of their diet do it for a conscious, and often ethical, reason. In this sense it’s very different than most other food choices we make, which are more often based on taste, economics, or availability. So whatever your reaons, remind yourself of them and take small actions that reinforce those motivations in the rest of your life.
- Motivated by your love of animals and respect for non-human life? Enjoy spending time with animal friends, whether that means getting to know your at-home animal companion better through play or snuggles, or even taking a moment when you’re outside to closely watch a squirrel or a duck going about its everyday routine.
- Motivated by a desire to improve your health? Pamper your body in other ways, too – enjoy exercise on a regular basis, give yourself a delectably scented skin scrub, do more frequent at-home manicures, or meditate on your own body-awareness in yoga. Make the care of your body holistic, from what goes in it to what goes on it and what you do with it.
- Motivated by a desire to reduce your negative impact on the environment? Think consciously about how you’re doing your part while you shop for food or cook in the kitchen. Buy your veggies at a farmer’s market to support locally grown foods. Get into canning or preserving your own recipes to reduce the amount of transportation used to import veggies in winter.
Tip #7: Seek Out Vegetarian or Veggie-Friendly Restaurants
One challenge that you will face as an herbivore is a distinct lack of choice in many restaurants. You may find yourself going out with friends, and while everyone else scans page after page of the menu, you quickly locate your three, possibly bland, options. Solution? Find better restaurants!
Think of your choice as a great opportunity to find some new places to eat, and if that’s really hard where you are, then it’s a chance to give a chef a challenge by asking your waiter very politely if the kitchen might be able to concoct you an impressive veggie version of a dish you are interested in on the menu. You could even call in advance if you have a reservation with a group, and the chef might welcome the chance to try something new, too!
Here are some veg or veg-friendly places I’ve been and LOVED, some that are/were local to me, and some that are chains:
- The Green Door and its sister restaurant, The Table, in Ottawa, ON
- Veg Out and Mongolian Grill in London, ON
- A&W for their mouth-watering Garden Deluxe veggie burger
- New York Fries and Harvey’s for using veggie-gravy on poutine (at least in Canada, I’m not sure about the US locations)
- Many ethnic restaurants, especially Indian (my favourite!), which offer an absolute plethora of interesting, superb veggie dishes.
Find Yourself Some Local, Veggie-Friendly Options
The best place to start is online – check out the databases at Urbanspoon or Happy Cow for starters, or simply google “best vegetarian restaurants” and your city’s name. Finding these places will make dining out the same fun, variety-filled experience as it is for those who do eat meat.
- Vegetarian/Vegan Restaurants Guide by HappyCow
A searchable dining guide where you can look up your city and find the best local vegetarian places, plus information on vegetarian nutrition, raw food, veganism, vegan recipes, healthy cooking, travel, and more.
Tip #8: Take the Veg Train with a Friend or Family Member, if Possible
This is ideal, as you will have someone to discuss the transition with who understands any challenges you might face, and who will fully appreciate the pride you’ll feel as you progress! My sister and I became vegetarians when we lived together in university, and aside from the emotional support, it was so helpful to simply have a meat-free house. We could reward ourselves together, share recipes, and just generally feel solidarity. My mom is now a pescatarian, and the three of us plan to go for a weekend at a Veggie B&B/Animal Sanctuary – it’s going to be a very special way to celebrate the life choice we all decided to make.
Tip #9: Find Some Great Resources
There are more and more magazines these days devoted to vegetarian cooking and living – two of the big ones are Veg News and the Vegetarian Times, which I often see at the grocery store checkout. (These mags are often also filled with articles that will help you with tip #6.)
There are also fantastic online resources, including blogs, recipe databases, cooking videos, you name it. I find even Pinterest really helps me, because I collect the veggie recipes that make my mouth water all in one place from many sources of online inspiration, so whether for a dinner party or just for me, I always have great ideas at my fingertips.
- Vegetarian Times
Look to the Vegetarian Times for healthy, delicious recipes, plus expert nutrition and lifestyle information that is exclusively vegetarian but inviting to all.
- VegNews Magazine
Check out VegNews for recipes, travel, news, food, reviews, and so much more - their print magazine has even won awards!
Tip #10: Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Support
This can be a tricky area to negotiate – how do you express your own choice to friends and family, and enjoy the respect you deserve for it, while at the same time not imposing your choice upon them? Ultimately, how you address the issue with those in your life will depend on their individual personalities.
For example, there are some family members who for the first few years would try to “taunt” me with meat, saying how delicious it was and asking with a smirk if I was sure I didn’t want any steak. It feels downright rude when people do that, because you’ve put a lot of thought and soul into making this very personal decision, and it may feel as though they are mocking it.
My best advice is to tell them calmly and rationally that you have a difference of opinion about meat, that you’ll just have to agree to disagree, and that you’d appreciate it if they just ignored the subject, rather than tease you about it. Talk openly with those you can, just as you would about any new transition in your life, like moving to a new city or starting a new job. As a note, though, these conversations will go best if you don’t allow any emotional reactions you’re having to your process to come off as attacking their meat-eating choices or trying to ‘convert’ them.
There may be people who don’t want to let it go, and who insist on making giant leaps in logic in some vague attempt to reject your progress (like, for example, someone I know who asked me why I cared about animals but didn’t care about children, since I didn’t have a strictly-enforced “no sweatshop labour” policy for all my purchases). I can only advise you to extract yourself from these conversations, as these people are often interested in argument itself, rather than actually exploring issues.
One Final Tip
A final note on support and the vegetarian transition—know that your choice to not eat meat does not automatically mean you don’t support the people who make different choices, or the family traditions that may involve a turkey or ham. I noted earlier how I ate my Nagymama’s chicken-broth-vegetable-soup, but that doesn’t mean that I eat turkey at Thanksgiving or Christmas.
Holiday celebrations seem to be a common source of anxiety for new vegetarians, but hopefully you have a family bright enough to realize that although you’re not eating the turkey, you are eating 90% of what’s on the table, in the form of potatoes, corn, fresh-baked rolls, turnips, salads, sauces, dips, soups, desserts, etc., and that most importantly, you’re still at the table spending time together and enjoying the holiday. Who knows? Perhaps you even have a wonderful Grandma like mine, who started including a vegetarian stuffing at Thanksgiving so the veg-heads at the table could enjoy a holiday favourite, too.