I’m usually a planner. I make plans and alternate plans just in case. But when I started eating vegan, I wasn’t prepared at all. While I had entertained the idea of becoming a vegetarian for years, I was a big meat-eater. I really didn’t think I could do it and so I didn’t even try. Then one day I watched a video about what happens to animals raised for food and vowed to never eat animals again. That night I made eggplant and then I was at a loss of what else to eat. My fridge and pantry were still packed with meat, dairy and eggs and foods containing animal products. I had never eaten, let alone cooked, tofu and there were no restaurants with vegan options in my neighborhood. To say I was unprepared is an understatement.
Becoming a plant-based eater is a big undertaking. It affects all aspects of one’s life. If I had known then a fraction of what I know now, it would have been a much easier transition for me. Now I hope that I can pass along some of what I have learned and show others how to survive their first week as a plant-based eater.
1. Out with the Old, In with the New
There is a learning curve to plant-based eating so don’t worry if you don’t know the names of every vegetable and legume that exists. For me, veggies used to mean potatoes, corn, peas and salad. I hadn’t eaten that many vegetables and I wasn’t aware of just how many there are. Years later, I still learn about new veggies and fruits that I have never tried. There were also a lot of foods I swore I didn’t like even though I hadn’t tried them or only eaten them once. Now I know how to give new foods a chance. Read my 5 Rules to Start Enjoying New and Unfamiliar Foods to see how I learned to experiment and explore with food.
Make a list of fruits, vegetables, grains and other foods you know you like and those you would like to try. Think about how you might like them prepared. You might want to even take the time to write out a few meal plans for a week or two and then buy the ingredients you need to make those dishes. Having a plan definitely beats having a confused meltdown in the middle of the supermarket (like I did). For the best tips, read The Smart Shopper: A Beginner Vegan’s Pantry List for Winter and For the Newbie Plant-Based Eater: Your Vegan Starter Shopping List. Avoid buying non-vegan food by reading 15 Sneaky Foods that Might Be Hiding Animal Ingredients.
Make sure your pantry and fridge are filled with lots of plant-based options. There are some items that are vital to every pantry. Make sure your condiments are vegan too. Being vegan is a great excuse to try all sorts of new foods. Have a fully stocked cabinet of spices and dried herbs as well as fresh herbs in the fridge. Read 12 Must-Have Items for Your Vegan Pantry for tips and ideas. Remove the foods that contain animal products. Pack them up and give them away. If your kitchen is well-stocked with only plant-based foods, it will be easier to stay on track when you’re hungry.
2. Take Help from the Store
While it’s better for your health and your self-efficacy to learn how to make your own plant-based meals, in the beginning the idea of eating and cooking all new foods is too overwhelming for you. That’s fine. You don’t have to. There are so many vegan products in the supermarket you can buy that will make cooking and eating easier for you. If you are worried about giving up your favorite foods, buy some vegan versions of them. There is a vegan substitute for almost everything. There are vegan meats, vegan burgers, vegan chicken, vegan fish, vegan hot dogs and sausages, vegan milks, cheeses and ice creams, vegan butter, and even vegan eggs. That means you don’t have to experiment with all new recipes and foods. You can eat all your usual favorites, just in vegan versions. Eating the foods you usually eat with just that one change can make it much easier to transition to plant-based eating.
3. Learn and Be Realistic about Substitutions
As you go further, you can learn to make your own vegan versions of your favorite foods. What most people come to find is that with the right textures and flavors, vegan food tastes pretty close to the original and many times, even better. Learn more about substitutions in 10 Food Substitutions Every Plant-Based Eater Should Know, 10 Vegetables that Can Substitute for Meat and How to Veganize Your Favorite Familiar Dishes.
An important tip for new vegans regards having realistic expectations. There is a vegan version of almost every food but don’t expect them to taste exactly like the original, non-vegan versions. Vegan cheese is delicious but it doesn’t taste exactly like dairy cheese. Veggie burgers are great but most don’t taste like the meat burgers you are used to. Learn to appreciate the new flavors and textures of vegan food rather than comparing them to their non-vegan counterparts.
4. Plan Meals and Snacks Ahead of Time
If you take the time to plan your meals and snacks each week, you will be less likely to find yourself standing in the kitchen wondering what in the world you will eat. Having a plan reduces the risk of eating something out of convenience or frustration. Peruse the internet for recipes. Websites like One Green Planet give us 24-hour access to millions of recipes as well as articles about living consciously and any other issues you may be interested in. There’s no need to toss your hands up and say you don’t know how to press tofu when in less than a minute, you can find how-to articles and even instructional videos online. The web is also your place to find out which restaurants near you have vegan options so you can plan ahead when dining out and not be tempted by all the non-vegan food on the menu. There are also more vegan cookbooks than ever and you can choose whether you want a print version in your hands or an e-version on your phone. Read reviews and get a couple of vegan cookbooks that other new vegans recommend.
5. What to Do With Cravings
The sentence I may repeat most often in regards to being vegan is “cravings are normal.” You may hear many people say how they don’t miss meat or cheese and that may be true for some people but I don’t believe it’s true for everyone. If it were, why would people keep creating recipes for vegan meats and cheeses? It’s certainly not true for me. I loved meat and I didn’t stop eating it because I didn’t like the taste. Six years later, I admit I still get cravings for some of the foods I used to eat. Rather than giving in to temptation, I find ways to make vegan versions of all my old favorites. Cravings are normal. They don’t mean you aren’t meant to be vegan or that you’re doing anything wrong. Cravings can be physical, emotional or experience-based. If you have a craving, figure out how to satisfy it in a plant-based way. If you are craving meat, read Miss Beef? Try These Yummy Alternative Recipes, 10 Meaty Vegan Recipes to Choose if You’re Trying to Eat Less Meat, 5 Tips to Make Meatless Food Taste Meaty and 6 Vegan Options for Hearty, Meat-Free Eating. If you are missing cheese, check out 5 Ways to Battle Those Cheese Cravings After You Go Vegan and for more on cravings,A Guide to Understanding and Managing Your Food Cravings.
If you do give in to a craving, don’t beat yourself up over it and give up. You’re human. Just get back on track and look forward. Take a look at Why Eating Vegan is Not About Being Perfect, But About Being Aware.
6. Get Support
It always helps to do things with a partner. See if any of your friends or relatives want to take this plant-based journey with you. When I became vegan, my husband did it with me but the two of us often felt alone. We reached out to local vegan groups and went to many pot lucks and vegan functions. Joining a meet-up group or even chatting with some vegans online can provide a wealth of information and support. The majority of vegans we know are online. The vegan community can be very helpful and someone is always willing to answer any questions you might have. Read Finding Community as a New Vegan for more tips.
7. Know That It Gets Easier
At the beginning, I would stand in the middle of the supermarket in tears because I didn’t know what to buy. Many meals ended up in the trash because I didn’t know how to cook vegan foods like tofu, tempeh and seitan. It took a lot of time and a lot of practice to get good at it. As I stated at the beginning, there is a learning curve. No one knows how to do it all right away. There is a lot to learn – about food, ingredients, cooking, health and more. Give yourself time and learn a little more every day. Even now that I write recipes and advice about vegan food, I still learn new things and experience new foods all the time. I promise you that it does get easier.
Deciding to follow a plant-based diet is a big decision and at times, it can feel hard or even overwhelming. Having advance knowledge of plant-based foods, knowing what to shop for, planning meals, having realistic expectations and getting support can all make it easier. Hopefully, these tips will help you survive your first week as a plant-based eater and every week after that.
Lead Image Source: 6 Vegan Options for Hearty, Meat-Free Dishes