Time to get your veg on peeps…today’s the Great American Meatout!! Launched in 1985 by FARM, a national non-profit, Meatout is an international event that “advocates plant-based (vegan) diets to save animals, protect the environment, and improve health.” Eating less meat lowers your cholesterol, reduces your carbon footprint and is kinder to animals. So I’ve put together 10 tips for those of you curious about embarking on a vegetarian or vegan diet. But you also don’t need to overhaul your entire lifestyle. Even if you incorporate one or two of these tips, just a few changes and several substitutions really can make a world of difference.
1. Break out of the meat, starch, veggie rut with meat-free alternatives. When I was growing up, we always ate pork chops with rice and broccoli. Or steak with mashed potatoes and green beans. Or…I think you get the idea. My family didn’t think a meal was a meal without meat. But I’m here to tell you that you don’t need meat to have a delicious and satisfying meal. Making pasta? Leave out the sausage or meatballs and incorporate sautéed veggies instead. Having hamburgers? Make a veggie burger or grill hearty veggies like portabella mushrooms, eggplants and peppers. Cooking a stir fry? Instead of chicken, toss cubed tofu in your pan or wok with some veggies. Taco night? Skip the meat and use black beans with all the fixings instead. Beans, legumes, tofu, tempeh and seitan are all great substitutes when you’re craving something hearty and filling.
2. Drink fruit smoothies. In vegan writer Kathy Freston’s tips to become a “veganist,” she lists making smoothies as one easy way to incorporate a meat-free meal and get more fruit in your diet. Fruit is jam packed with antioxidants and nutrients. Smoothies are delish and easy to make. Just throw some fruit and ice in a blender and voila! Or you can add some soy yogurt or soy milk if you want a creamier drink. Adding a little protein powder will give you a complete meal.
3. Eat a big salad every day. Kathy Freston also says to eat a big salad (ahh Elaine Benes just popped into my head!) every day. While I’m not a huge salad person (that probably sounds weird coming from a vegan!), I do love baby spinach (ditch that shitty iceberg lettuce) with earthy mushrooms, juicy tomatoes and briny olives drizzled with some balsamic vinegar. You could also try other leafy greens like peppery arugula along with sliced apples and nuts. Get creative. One time I even had caramel popcorn in my salad! Eating more salads is a fantastic way to incorporate more heart-healthy veggies into your diet.
4. Read a vegetarian cookbook, magazine or blog. Many people tell me they’d like to try vegetarianism but they don’t know what to eat. Most people think of tofu, veggie burgers or salads as the staples of a vegetarian diet. But there are so many more dishes vegetarians eat. Reading a cookbook can show you all of the vegetarian possibilities. Even celebs like Alicia Silverstone and Rachel Ray have vegetarian cookbooks. Some great ones are The Vegetarian Times Complete Cookbook and Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. If you’d like to try some vegan recipes, my personal faves are the Joy of Vegan Baking, The Vegan Table, The Veganomicon, Viva Vegan! and Great Chefs Cook Vegan. You can also subscribe to Vegetarian Times or VegNews for new recipes or even enroll in a cooking class. And there are SO many great veg blogs out there. Some of my fave veg blogs include Cafe VegNews, Vegan Cooking, By Any Greens Necessary, Compassionate Cooks, The Post Punk Kitchen Blog, Spaces Between the Gaps, Happy Herbivore and Vegan in the Sun. And then of course there’s mine…ahem…hint, hint ;)
5. Stock your pantry with staples. I always make sure to have pasta, rice, olive oil, veggie broth, flour, soy milk, frozen veggies, potatoes, mushrooms, olives and black beans on hand. That way I can whip up a meal on the fly. Condiments like non-dairy butter, soy sauce, balsamic vinegar, lemon juice and vegan mayo help elevate your dish when you’re making a mushroom gravy, veggie stir fry or homemade salad dressing. Having a well-stocked kitchen means you’ll always have options.
6. Replace your dairy products with non-dairy alternatives. So let’s say you’re a vegetarian and you’re thinking about going vegan. Instead of butter, use Earth Balance (a culinary savior with all its buttery tasting yumminess!) or olive oil. Replace cow’s milk with milk made from soy, almonds, hemp or rice. My fave is soy as it’s packed with protein. But the other milks have a subtle sweetness. If you’re a coffee drinker, there’s even soy creamer! For yogurt, you can eat soy yogurt or So Delicious’ coconut milk yogurt (mmmm….coconut milk). Tofutti makes non-dairy sour cream and cream cheese. Vegenaise is every bit as creamy as dairy mayo. You can use agave nectar in lieu of honey. But what about the two biggies? Cheese and ice cream?? Daiya dairy-free cheese sates all my cheese cravings. And decadent So Delicious’ coconut milk ice cream is simply divine.
7. Visit your farmer’s market or join a local food co-op or CSA. Eating fresh, seasonal veggies is not only great for your health, it also supports local farmers and is kinder to Mother Earth. If you feel overwhelmed by choices, going with what’s seasonal can help guide your meal selections. With local co-ops or CSAs, you pay a fee and then they send you a basket full of goodies each week. Not sure what to do with all of these new veggies?? Check out cookbooks featuring seasonal recipes, such as Terry Walters’ Clean Start or Jae Steele’s Ripe From Around Here.
8. Make friends with herbs and spices. Before I started cooking, the only herbs and spices I used were salt and pepper! Now, I infuse my dishes with dill, cilantro, cumin, turmeric, rosemary or thyme. Herbs and spices bring out ingredients’ flavor and make dishes burst with zest.
9. Be a culinary adventurer. When people discover I’m a vegan, the question they often ask is what do you eat? Many are surprised to hear that I actually eat a wider variety of foods now than I ever did when I ate meat. Being vegetarian or vegan forces you to step out of your comfort zone and explore new ingredients and dishes. Look to global cuisines; Indian, Jamaican, Ethiopian, Middle Eastern, Italian and Mediterranean restaurants all offer delectable veg entrees. Visit your local vegetarian restaurants. Even if you don’t live in veg havens like NYC or San Francisco, Happy Cow, Veg Guide and Urbanspoon are great websites to help you find locale vegetarian fare in your area.
10. Embrace Meat-Free Mondays. Started as Meatless Mondays by the Monday Campaigns Inc. along with the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, this is an easy way to incorporate healthy vegetarian meals into your diet that doesn’t require a massive commitment. Pretty soon you may just see that you like it so much you want to eat more meatless meals. Many establishments, including famed chef Mario Batali’s restaurants, serve vegetarian dishes on Mondays. Some people take Meat-Free Mondays a step further and go meat-free before 5pm or all during the week and eat meat only on the weekends. With Meat-Free Mondays, no one has to label themselves as a vegetarian, vegan or meat-eater; everyone can just join in.
So what are some of your fave vegetarian and vegan tips?? Be sure to let me know in the comments!