This month will make it seven years since I watched “Meet Your Meat” and swore off eating animals forever. By now, being vegan is second nature. I know which foods are vegan and which are not; it takes me no time to scan an ingredients label; and I can veganize any dish or recipe I want to eat. It wasn’t always like that, however, and I like to stay cognizant of that fact. Often, I hear veteran vegans telling new and prospective vegans how easy it is to be vegan, how effortless it is and how they should have no problems becoming completely 100 percent vegan today…now…in one giant leap for animalkind. And I’m sure there are plenty of people who can do that, who can change their entire lives all at once, but I also know there are many people who can’t.
There is a definite learning curve when you become vegan, and it’s easier for some people more than others. I, myself, have had moments when I stood in the middle of a supermarket in tears because I was confused about what to buy and what to eat. Cooking became a daily challenge for me. I had to learn how to make plant-based meals that not only tasted good but were satisfying for me and my husband. I had to learn how to deal with my cravings for favorite, familiar foods while staying true to my ethics. It’s important for me to remember my struggles so that I can help others who might be having a tough time. Here I would like to share several food- and cooking-related problems I had when I went vegan and how I tackled them. Hopefully, it will help some of you who might be experiencing similar issues.
1. Learning to See Your Dinner Plate Differently
This was not only a problem for me when I became vegan, but seven years later, it is still one I battle with. Growing up, a dinner plate in my family meant a main dish (usually meat), a starch (usually potatoes), a vegetable (usually peas or corn) and a green salad on the side. Today, when I make dinner, I think my dinner plate should have a main dish (like seitan steak), a starch (maybe mashed potatoes), a vegetable (broccoli, please) and a salad on the side. That is the schema in my mind for a meal. Logically, I know that it doesn’t have to be that way. There is no reason dinner can’t be two or three vegetables on a plate. The problem is that many of us have been trained to categorize food into entrees and side dishes. When you become vegan, it might seem like much of what you eat are side dishes and the entrée, the main dish, is missing. So unless my dinner has tofu, tempeh or seitan, some vegan way of replacing the meat, my dinner may feel lacking.
Tackling this problem means changing my schema and learning to recategorize food. Instead of seeing dinner as a main recipe with side dishes, I try to look at it from a nutritional perspective – protein, starch and vegetable. Since protein comes in many forms including beans, quinoa and mushrooms, my main dish and my side dishes often merge. Another way I deal with this issue is by making bowls – combinations of greens, grains and protein all served in one bowl. Then it seems I don’t worry as much about filling in the imaginary compartments of my dinner plate. But I still always want a salad on the side. Not everything has to change.
2. How to Cook Vegan-Specific Food
While you don’t have to be vegan to eat tofu, tempeh or seitan, chances are great that you never even tried them, or heard of them, until you went veg. Ok, I did know about tofu – it was those spongy, white cubes I picked out of my Chinese food. When I became vegan, it felt like cooking with these ingredients was a rite of passage I had to go through. The first time I cooked tempeh, I attempted to make it as a vegan version of chicken parmigiana. It was terrible; I couldn’t eat it. So I read about these foods, I studied lots of vegan recipes and I kept trying to make them. When I wasn’t even sure if I was doing it right or not, I went to vegan restaurants and ordered dishes with these foods so I could know what they were supposed to taste like. It took some time and practice but eventually, I not only came to love tofu, tempeh and seitan, but I am confident in my abilities to cook with them. For tips and advice, read my articles 7 Tips for Making the Perfect Tofu Dish and 6 Tips that Will Make You Love Tofu.
3. How to Substitute for Dairy and Eggs
Another huge challenge when becoming vegan is how to substitute for dairy and eggs. It might seem simple: swap cow’s milk out and drink any of the dozen types of non-dairy milks available and buy vegan butter spread. When it comes to cooking and baking, however, it gets a bit more complicated. What if a recipe calls for cream, condensed milk or buttermilk? Can you use the vegan butter spread for baking? What about palm oil? For me, eggs were even more of a challenge. I thought I couldn’t live without chicken but it was eggs I missed most. I had to learn how to make breakfast without eggs, how to make omelets, frittatas and quiche without eggs. Then I had to learn how to substitute eggs in baking. How was I going to make vegan challah, which is essentially egg bread, without eggs?
Again, the way to tackle this problem is by reading, learning and practicing. There are a lot of vegan hacks out there that can show us how to substitute for almost everything. We can learn to make our own non-dairy milk, buttermilk and even, palm oil-free vegan butter. We can learn that there are a dozen ways to cook and bake without eggs. In the end, when you know multitudes of ways to substitute for these two ingredients, your initial confusion and frustration turns into empowerment.
4. How to Live Without Cheese
Honestly, I didn’t think giving up cheese would be a problem for me because I never liked many cheeses. It was my husband, who LOVED cheese, that I was worried about. Still, having to find vegan versions of any cheese that tasted good was tough. Suddenly, it felt like the number of dishes I cooked that required cheese grew exponentially. How would I make mac and cheese or grilled cheese? How would I top my beloved Italian food without mozzarella and parmesan? Were my husband and I just supposed to live without cheese? The answer is no.
While I did learn that I preferred some foods, like pizza, with other toppings besides cheese, I also discovered that there is a world of vegan cheeses out there. The number of commercial vegan cheeses has exploded and the quality of those cheeses keeps getting better and better. It has also become a popular trend to make one’s own vegan cheese. Books and recipes abound with methods of making vegan cheese that run from simple to gourmet, with ingredients that span from nutritional yeast, to tofu, to nuts. You can make your own cream cheese, mozzarella, Pepper jack, and Gouda. You can make cheese logs for holidays and create gourmet cheese plates for parties. Anyone can go out and buy cheese but how impressive is it to say you made your own?
5. How to Deal With Cravings
I am going to say this simply and directly: it is not a bad thing to have cravings. Craving meat, cheese or any animal products does not make you a bad vegan. Cravings are normal. Not all vegans give up animal products because they don’t like the taste and are disgusted by it. Many people, including myself, loved the taste of meat, dairy and eggs but made a decision to no longer engage in the cruelty that brought those tastes to us. But going veg doesn’t automatically wipe the slate of one’s brain clean. Sometimes when I see certain foods on TV or in real life, I have cravings. Sometimes when I smell certain foods, I have cravings. When I am in certain places or moods that have food associations for me, I have cravings. There are many foods I loved that I still miss and there is a part of me that still wants those old favorites.
Having cravings is normal; what matters is what I do about them. I remind myself about why I am vegan, what the animals go through to end up on plates and then I go make a vegan version of the food I’m craving. My cravings have led to my veganizing most of my favorite foods like Buffalo wings, Philly Cheesesteaks and Chinese food so I don’t feel deprived or like I am missing out on something I desire. If you have cravings, don’t beat yourself up for it. Figure out what you are craving and why. Maybe you want something fried and crunchy; maybe you want something sweet and sticky; maybe you are feeling sad and need comfort food or you are feeling nostalgic for a childhood favorite. Figure out how to satisfy those cravings in a cruelty-free way. Learn how to make vegan versions of your favorite dishes. Have some of those foods and snacks readily available so you can easily reach for them when the craving hits.
6. How to Not Get Bored With Your Food
Since I became vegan, I have tasted so many new foods. It’s amazing how we can get into ruts and eat the same things over and over again. Let’s face it: new foods can be scary, both cooking them and eating them. That’s why I came up with a few rules that I imposed upon myself.
Rule #1: I am not allowed to say I don’t like a food until I have tried it several times, prepared in several ways. It took me over a year to like tofu and over two years to like tempeh and now I love them both.
Rule #2: I make sure I try new foods all the time. It’s easy to keep eating kale, broccoli, potatoes, and the familiar foods. Even foods I had never eaten before, like kale, become familiar after a while. When shopping, I try to buy something new or prepare a familiar ingredient in a new way. Maybe you always eat your mushrooms in a stir-fry. Try them in a soup or as the filling for ravioli instead. When you expand the variety of foods and cooking techniques, it’s harder to get bored.
Rule #3: When you do buy a new vegetable and you’re not sure what to do with it – roast it! Everything tastes delicious roasted. Roasting brings out the sweetness and deep flavors of foods, especially root vegetables. Along those same lines – fry it. Everything tastes delicious battered and fried. It just does.
Rule #4: Try new ethnic flavor profiles. I grew up eating Italian and Jewish food every day. Today my favorite foods are Spanish, Jamaican and Indian. The same vegetable, like an eggplant, can taste completely different when it’s prepared as Italian Spicy Caponata, Indian Char-Roasted Eggplant Dip or a Thai Eggplant Stir-Fry with Basil.
When you keep adding new foods to your arsenal and try old favorites in different ethnic cuisines, your choices expand and it’s much harder to get bored with your meals.
7. How to Keep the Whole Family Happy
Maybe you are fortunate and your entire family is taking the vegan journey together. Or perhaps you are making these changes yourself. Either way, unless you live alone or everyone cooks their own meals, getting the whole family on board with plant-based meals might be a challenge. Your significant other might be convinced that vegan food is bland and boring. Your kids may be unwilling to try new foods or give up their old favorites. Your mother might be convinced you will starve to death. Change makes many people uncomfortable and becoming vegan is a big change.
The best way to ease the fears and soothe the concerns of your loved ones is to show them that not everything they ever knew and loved will change. Learn to make vegan versions of everyone’s favorite dishes. Show your guy vegan food can be hearty, satisfying and delicious. Show your meat-loving wife that she can still have pot roast and steak without the cruelty. Amaze your kids with vegan tofu nuggets, burgers and ice cream cake. Make them feel secure that their whole world will not be turned upside down. This applies to your friends as well. Don’t avoid inviting your friends and relatives over for dinner. Let them know in advance which foods you will and will not eat, share a few recipes with them and ask them to bring simple vegan dishes or snacks. Host your own vegan dinner parties, barbeques and picnics and show everyone how delicious vegan food can be. Before you know it, you might find you have company on your vegan journey.
There is a lot to learn when you become vegan and most everyone will find something challenging. Cooking and food is a huge part of our histories, our relationships, our activities and our lives. It’s only natural that we may struggle with some aspects of it but hopefully, with these tips, you will be able to tackle any problems that arise and continue on your vegan journey with confidence.
Lead Image Source: Seitan Steak in Beurre Blanc Sauce
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