Last week, I found myself chatting with a friend who’s trying to incorporate more vegan foods into his life. This friend has been eating what he calls a very “meat and potatoes” diet, and he asked what my most fundamental tips are for someone who’s thinking about making the plant-based transition in any degree of totality. I shared a few of my basic words of wisdom, but of course I started with the advice that I consider the cornerstone of a healthy approach to vegan exploration: add first, subtract later.
More specifically, I wrote:
Add first; subtract later: I have this cheesy motto emblazoned all over the blog, but it’s not without good reason! Instead of focusing immediately on what you have to give up in order to eat more vegan, focus on adding new stuff you haven’t tried yet, but suspect you’ll like. Adding more vegetables and meatless dinners to your overall diet, rather than dwelling on what you can’t have, will make it so much easier to feel motivated and excited–rather than feeling as if you’re stuck on a diet plan.
So, plan 3 or 4 meatless lunches and dinners each week that sound really good: tofu and rice stir fry, pasta with roast vegetables, smoothies, sandwiches with grilled vegetables and hummus–whatever. Buy some veggie burgers and figure out which ones taste good, and keep those around for quick meals. Buy a cookbook (I love THE VEGAN TABLE by Colleen Patrick Goudreau and VEGANOMICON by Isa Chandra Moskowitz) and play around with recipes that sound great. But no matter what, think about new dishes you’re trying, and don’t dwell on old dishes you’re giving up.
This may be simple advice, but I find that it has a huge psychological impact on those who are trying to eat more plant based food: nothing feels worse to us than deprivation, or self-imposed restraint, whereas the notion of exploring something new and exciting is…well, new and exciting!
This advice has been on my mind lately in a different context. Some of my clients who are already vegan—not aspiring, but already there—have confessed to me that they sometimes feel as though they’re constantly saying “no” to themselves: they can’t eat this, they can’t eat that. This is natural, of course: when you make the choice to be vegan, you stop eating a lot of things. But attitude is once again important: focus on what’s been lost, and you’re sure to feel like a schoolchild in detention. Focus on what’s being gained—a wide array of new favorite dishes—and you’ll instantly forget to feel deprived.
It’s interesting to me that so many vegan critics—and some new vegans—worry about the diet being limited. As a counselor, I noticed long ago that most diets–vegan, vegetarian, and omnivore alike—are pretty repetitive. Most of us eat a lot of the same stuff, day in and day out: a PB&J here, a bowl of cereal there, a soup here, a casserole there. Most of us have diets that revolve around a small, consistent group of dishes that we know and love. I don’t think this is a bad thing, as long as those dishes are healthy: there’s nothing wrong with knowing what you like, and sticking to it (I happen to love repeating my favorite dishes). But I do think it’s important for us to remember that vegan diets really aren’t so much more limited than omnivorous ones, at least not in the real world. In theory? Sure, eating as an omnivore may present more options than eating as a vegan will. But in practice, most vegans and omnivores have comparably broad dietary ranges.
In fact—and this is the key point for new and struggling vegans—many vegans find that veganism opens them up to dishes and cuisines and techniques they never knew. This is certainly true for me: as a pescatarian, I ate the same oats or yogurt every morning, the same sandwich for lunch, and the same pasta every night for dinner (when I wasn’t restricting food, that is: when I was, it was a sad little rotation of greek yogurt, rice cakes, cereal, tuna salad, and romaine lettuce with vinegar and no oil). As a vegan, I became a voracious eater, but I also became a foodie, a cook, and a lover of global cuisines and dishes. In the last night, my boyfriend and I have eaten dishes from Egypt, Greece, Israel, and Ireland: what’s limiting about that?
If I’d never found my way to veganism, I might have caught the food lover’s bug anyway, but I doubt it. I suspect that I’d have continued to make conventional and uninspired choices. Veganism is what taught me to appreciate food from around the world. It’s what inspired me to learn how to bake, broil, and sauté; to make homemade pasta, pizza crust, and pastry; to learn how to use a rice cooker, pressure cooker, and dehydrator. All of that range came from veganism. My story may not be typical—most omnivores eat better than I did, and many vegans aren’t as intensely inspired by the shift as I was—but I don’t think it’s totally out of the ordinary, either.
So, new vegans: if you find yourself dwelling on all the things you used to eat, and don’t anymore, try a shift in perspective. Start thinking about all of the dishes that veganism has given you, rather than the dishes it has taken away. If you want, sit down and make a list of your favorite vegan foods. What are they? Burgers, casseroles, bakes? Porridges, pastas, or pies? Stir fries, risottos, or terrines? Sandwiches, soups, or stews? Whatever they are, write them down. Then read them carefully, and take a moment to consider that you might never have found these dishes if you hadn’t stumbled upon the plant-based lifestyle. Isn’t it amazing to think about all of the foods that veganism gives you? And the best part is that your own little list is probably just a small fraction of what’s out there in the world of vegan dining. With any luck, you’ll be instantly galvanized on your vegan path, and eager to get cooking once again.
To end this post, I thought I’d make my own list of dishes I’d never have found without veganism:
And the best part is, this list represents about 1/50th of foods that I eat all the time. Thank you, veganism. Thank you.
Hope this post inspires any new vegan—or even veterans—to take stock of all the incredible food that veganism gives us, and feel inspired. And now, it’s your turn: what’s on your list of foods that veganism led you to?