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Are You Ready to Go Vegetarian?

Are you ready to take the big plunge and go full-on vegetarian or vegan? I was a strict vegetarian for seven years, with ups and down, successes and head-scratching challenges. Here are some observations about my own experience transitioning to vegetarianism, and the issues I encountered as I made my way through this complex maze of avoiding animal products in a meat-centric culture.

Basket full of beautiful, healthy, homegrown vegetables.

First up: You have to like vegetables. Be honest with yourself about that.

Following a plant-centered diet is super easy for me, because I honest-to-goodness love vegetables. (Yes, I crave them, lol.)

I don’t walk around with a carrot stick in each hand and kale bits stuck in my teeth, but I do eat a lot of vegetables and fruits every day. Salads are my very favorite. Srsly. #ilovesalads

And yes, I do use dressings — I rarely eat raw salads straight-up. Most often, I use a simple, homemade blend of lemon juice, maple syrup, raw apple cider vinegar, prepared mustard, a tiny bit of olive oil, and salt, and apply the dressing with a light hand: a drizzle, not a dump.

I know salads are not for everyone (here are some great tips for learning to love salads). But there’s no way to get around the vegetables and stay healthy. Grains, nuts, seeds and legumes are great sources of protein, fiber and other nutrients — they’re critical to a balanced diet, and they contribute flavor and texture to vegetarian dishes you’ll love and serve over and over again — but you still need to eat the rainbow.

Here’s a little secret: Our tastes change as we age. If you haven’t tried a certain vegetable since you were a teen, try it now. You might be surprised! Learn how to prepare vegetables properly. Buy a vegetarian cookbook and carefully follow a recipe. Try vegetables raw; try them sautéed or steamed. Try them roasted or baked. Cauliflower takes on a whole new level of sweet, nutty wonderfulness when roasted in the oven. Baked kale chips are the darlings of food blogs for a reason: they’re absolutely delicious.

Old-fashioned wooden crate filled with vegetables harvested from thegarden

Growing up, I never, ever had raw spinach. It was always cooked to mush in creamed form. No wonder I hated it. Trying fresh, raw spinach leaves in a salad for the first time as a young adult was a revelation. So crunchy and sweet, it put iceberg lettuce to shame.

I couldn’t stand green bell peppers in my youth — I always picked out the stuffing from my mom’s famous stuffed peppers. Now, they’re staples in my backyard garden, and I can eat them like apples.

If you’re still not sure how you’re going to incorporate all of those servings of fruits and vegetables into your day, explore green smoothies and/or juicing.

Green smoothies are absolutely addictive, and if you use restraint with the dairy, they’re incredibly healthy. My standard concoction is frozen grapes, blueberries and strawberries — no more than 1 cup total — plus half of a lime or lemon (peeled), a coin of ginger (also peeled), half of a cucumber, a biiiig handful of fresh spinach and/or kale, hemp seeds, and plain water or coconut water. You will not taste the greens. I promise.

Grocery stores are also now carrying bottled green juices. Some have a lot of sugar, but I’ve been able to make some good choices from a few favored brands. In my area, they’re in the produce department – check them out!

I don’t personally do or recommend juice fasts, but juicing nicely complements my green smoothies consumption. Best of all, it fills the one gap that smoothies create: green juice is do-aheadable and portable. I can process enough juice to last two days, and take it with me in a Thermos (kept cold with ice cubes made of green juice).

The downside of juicing is that all of the super healthy fiber from fruits and veggies gets filtered out by the juicer. That’s why I would recommend juicing as a supplement, not as a mainstay, and if you have any issues at all controlling your blood sugar, be sure to check with your doctor before you begin any serious juicing.

Acknowledge how you best handle change, and set yourself up to succeed.

Are you a dip-a-toe-into-the-pool personality, or a dive-right-in-head-first kind of person?
There’s nothing saying that you have to go vegetarian whole hog (um, so to speak) on Day 1. I began by setting a simple goal: 75% of the week’s 21 meals — so, 15 or 16 meals — would be vegetarian.

The 25% cushion was to factor in an escape hatch for situations that I wasn’t prepared to deal with — say, dining out at any of the iffy restaurants around my office building — or cravings for favorites like smoked turkey and hard-boiled egg sandwiches on toast. Before the month was out, I was 95% without even realizing it.

And more to the point, there’s nothing saying that sticking to the 75% goal for the long-term is a bad thing. Heck, I cheer when folks observe Meatless Monday. Despite my personal choices, my wishes for humankind is to simply eat more vegetables and fruits, and less meat, with animals being treated with love and respect during their lives. There are many paths to the goal.

Place value on being a healthy vegetarian first, then a political vegetarian.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with activism, and many vegetarians and vegans find themselves drawn to it due to their personal successes with change. But first and foremost, you need to be — and stay — healthy.

Vegetarianism is not a built-in healthy diet. You can eat bread, pastries, pasta, ice cream, chocolate, and sugar all day, every day, and rightfully call yourself a vegetarian. Even Oreos are vegan. That, however, is an extremely unhealthy eating plan, and you’ll pay for it very quickly.

Even if your vegetarianism has nothing to do with health reasons, learning to consume all the nutrients you need to be healthy must be your first focus. It’s like the rule on airplanes: put on your own air mask first, then help others. Get a grip on your diet, then spread the word. If you’re tired, bloated, and splotchy, you won’t make a very compelling case anyway.

Leaves of Boston lettuce arranged in a circle.

Also remember that humans cannot live on kale alone! Leafy greens have an astonishing array of vitamins and phytonutrients, but having big green salads as your primary source of nourishment is insufficient.

Calorie-wise, a pound of kale — and that’s a lot of kale, lol — has only 220 calories. Even if you ate a pound at every meal (oh my goodness, I can’t even!), that would still add only 660 calories to your day — far short of what you need to thrive with energy and vitality.

The point here is to completely relieve you of the pressure to transition to an all-green-salad diet. Indeed, you need to consume a variety of foods to remain healthy and satiated.

Have one clear reason in mind for going vegetarian.

Any kind of elimination diet is fraught with challenges and temptations, so make sure you have one overriding reason, clearly defined for yourself, that rests comfortably in the forefront of your mind. For many of us, the decision is complex, with many layers of reasons that favor a plant-centered diet. But, your path will be clearer if you frequently remind yourself of that one, compelling reason.

Stay true to that reason

I learned this lesson the hard way. I had several reasons for transitioning to a plant-centered diet, but what sent me over the edge was cleaning out my freezer one day many years ago. I was appalled at the amount of meat that had worked its way to the back wall, expired, dried out, and frost covered. Appalled and ashamed.

All those animal lives, wasted. Not only did they die for human consumption, but they didn’t even get the chance to fill that goal and provide nourishment and comfort as food. As an animal lover, it was a horrible, horrible personal moment.

Once I was 100% vegetarian, I took a really strict approach, consuming no meat or animal parts no matter what. Then, twice in one week, restaurants mistakenly served me chicken, and I sent it back both times … and the restaurants dumped the meal in the trash.

It suddenly struck me that I was doing the very thing — again — that made me go veggie in the first place: wasting the lives of those animals. While I make every effort to avoid meat and avert confusion concerning menu items, I let my heart and my gut make the ruling on unexpected situations. (IOW: sometimes I’ll eat the chicken.)

But forgive yourself when you slip.

You’re human. Okay? It will happen. I can almost guarantee it. Chin up, move on, and don’t look back. Tomorrow’s another day to do better.

Be prepared for people to not understand what it means to be vegetarian.

The biggest surprise I had when going veggie was learning that a surprising number of people think that chicken doesn’t actually count as meat: Beef, steak, sausages, bacon, yes. Chicken, turkey, seafood, no.

By this writing, in addition to the two incidents above, I have ordered dozens of “meatless” meals from restaurants that came piled with chicken. And I’m not talking about me being a p-i-t-a, lol, by tediously deconstructing a clearly meat-filled dish to suit my own needs (“Hi, I’d like the beef bourguignon with vegan-red-wine-braised portobello mushrooms instead of beef and no bacon kthanks.”).

I mean dishes where there are protein choices right on the menu, cooked to order — say, beef, chicken, or seafood — to accompany rice and vegetable sautés, where the meat is completely unnecessary to the success of the dish. I simply asked them to hold the meat. And it arrived with chicken.

Legumes in a wooden bowl.

Dinners in private homes can be tricky, too. For every person who thinks chicken isn’t meat, there are two who believe seafood is not meat. I’ve been a part of enough awkward dinner parties where vegetarians in attendance were served seafood by the proudly beaming and totally well-meaning host.

Another fact of veggie-dom: You can’t completely prevent misunderstandings. So, it’s always a good idea to think ahead of time what your response will be to those situations. Will you politely decline the meal? Accept it and discretely pick around the meat? Eat it anyway? Upturn the plate, jump onto the table in your spiked heels and chant, with fist-pump, “Veh-GEE! Veh-GEE! Veh-GEE!”?

The correct answer is the one that’s best for you in that situation.

What about protein: How Do Vegetarians Get Protein?

One question that you’ll hear a lot — a lot — from the skeptical is, where do you get your protein? I could write an entire piece devoted to this eye-rolling topic, but, I’ll just cut to the chase here: plants have protein.

The animal that omnivores love to eat the most get their protein requirements from plants: Cows are herbivores. That’s right, the cattle that are slaughtered for tenderloin, ground beef, ribeyes and filet mignon are themselves vegetarian.

Elephants are herbivores. Mountain gorillas are herbivores. As are rhinos, pandas, horses, and bison. If these great beasts can thrive on a plant-based diet, then so can we puny humans.

People can be judgmental, harsh, narcissistic, defensive. You’ll be criticized for your choices.

I’ll start with the obvious: we’ve all seen the comments sections online where folks get all riled up and rip into each other for one reason or another. Whenever I wander into a discussion about vegetarianism or veganism on the interwebs that turns unproductive, I simply wander back out.

As it’s been comically said, if you’re arguing on the internet, you’ve already lost.

Criticism and snarky comments from family and friends are a little bit tougher to take, as relationships are loaded with historical baggage that often has nothing to do with your dietary choices. For every friend who hugs you for your success, there’s always that aunt or cousin or in-law ready with the left-handed compliment.

Try not to fall into that trap. Either trap, in fact: Don’t allow yourself to be judged, and don’t judge others. It’s quite easy to feel beaten down and excluded due to your choices. Likewise, it’s very easy to tsk-tsk-tsk the mom dragging her children into McDonald’s, all the while impossible to know what her day has been like, or what that family’s overall eating plan is.

Like so many things in life — politics, environment, politics, personal finance, politics — true change doesn’t happen through judgment and ridicule. It happens one step at a time, one person at a time, through leading by doing. Take the high road, be respectful, and cut people — including yourself — some slack.

Especially when you’re at the table with relative strangers and mere acquaintances. It’s easy to get caught up in the moment, sharing your views and passions. But picking kind words over harsh ones can mean the difference between others respecting or disliking you.

I’ll admit that this trips me up. People can be overly defensive about their refusal to give up steak, and say hurtful things in the process. To which I almost always want to respond with a Homer-Simpson-“Why, you little…”-lunging-for-the-neck reflex.

Sometimes I’m successful at holding my tongue, sometimes less so. But I generally find a shoulder shrug to be the better response. It’s not reasonable to expect that I’ll convert a carnivore with a few pithy sentences, and I regret shoulder shrugs far less often than snippy retorts.

Colorful radish sprouts in a square wooden bowl

How strict do I have to be?

Technically — and political vegetarians love calling out newbies on this, in one of those aforementioned, unproductive Interwebs arguments — you can’t call yourself a vegetarian until you reject all meat products. And animal parts sneak into a surprising number of things.

Did you know marshmallows contain animal parts? So does Jello. Gelatin, an ingredient of both, is made from boiling animal skins and bones.

Beer is sometimes not vegetarian. Some brewers use isinglass (made from the air bladders of fish) in their filtering processes, while others might use glycerol monostearate (often, but not always, derived from animal fat) to produce the foamy head on a poured glass. Guinness, btw, is vegan.

Eggs are another sticky wicket. Whether you will consume eggs depends entirely on your personal views about the life potential of an egg. Here’s the coop. Er, scoop:

A hen does not need a rooster to produce eggs. At certain times of the year, when the light/dark cycles are right, a hen will self-produce an egg a day, and those unfertilized eggs are not and never will be a chicken, as they do not contain embryos. But as a consumer, you are not likely to know whether a rooster mixed with the hens, producing eggs with embryos that could possibly hatch into chicks under incubation conditions. (Note that chicks don’t suddenly pop out onto your kitchen counter, because the refrigeration process of transporting and storing eggs halts embryo growth.)

Ironically, the dreadful, inhumane battery cage eggs available at the grocery store are almost guaranteed to be unfertilized eggs. Hens in those industrial installations are heartlessly confined with no possible exposure to roosters. (But regardless of one’s interest in consuming only unfertilized eggs, I can’t for the life of me recommend purchasing battery cage eggs under any circumstances.)

It’s fresh farm eggs that you can’t be so certain about without talking to the farmer. Farmers who raise their own chicks will keep a rooster around for breeding purposes. Only the farmer knows whether the rooster has access to the hens. (Although, sometimes he or she might not know either, teehee.)

Cheese is yet another issue. Many cheeses, especially aged cheese, contain rennet. Rennet can be animal or vegetable derived, but sometimes the ingredient label does not specify. A cheese monger once told me that if a cheesemaker uses vegetarian rennet, they’ll usually list “vegetable rennet” or “microbial rennet” on the label. Otherwise, you have no option but to assume animal rennet.

Today, though, there is an intriguing rise in the availability of vegan cheeses and milks. Brands such as Kite Hill make a tasty lines of dairy-free cheeses, with some enjoying wide availability (I can find several at my local Kroger). My current favorite brand is Miyoko .

Miyoko Schinner and her team make an incredible vegan cultured butter, and I love to scatter bits of her Sharp Farmhouse cheese wheel over my salads. (Bonus, her products are organic, non-GMO, and free of cholesterol.) I’ve found some of her products at Whole Foods, and also at a local specialty store, Jungle Jim’s, here in Cincinnati. Kroger now carries her butter, which makes me so happy.

For me, my choices are my choices. Some make sense, some do not. They’ll inevitably evolve as I do. I go off course for long stretches, and then I get back on track. I skirt the political side of vegetarianism completely by simply saying, when asked, “I follow a primarily plant-based diet,” which is always true, even when I’m testing chicken soup for the blog.

What about bacon? Will I miss it?

Ah, bacon. I’m probably one of three people in the U.S. who doesn’t have bacon cravings. My appreciation of bacon slides with every passing year (and it took a huge skip downward in 2012 when bacon cupcakes and other bacon desserts were everywhere to be found. It makes no sense to me when folks rail at vegetable Crisco shortening in pie crusts, but find pig fat perfectly palatable in cream cheese frosting).

I absolutely cannot stand soft, flimsy bacon, but then bacon that’s cooked to perfect crispness is then … aggressively salty … too … I don’t know, something. I can do a can-spare on bacon.

Instead, I’ve learned that what I really do like about bacon is the smoky flavor. And that, friends, is easily replicated in other ways: smoked paprika, maple syrup, and a little salt is da bomb. My favorite substitute bacon is made of shiitake mushrooms marinated in a combo of soy sauce, smoked paprika, maple syrup, and balsamic vinegar, and then baked in the oven until crispy.

Of course, in line with my overall philosophy about eating: there’s nothing saying that you can’t have your bacon and eat it, too. You won’t find many pork bacon recipes on this website, but I’m just a cheerleader for healthier choices, not a fist-waving dictator for draconian diet changes. You make the choices that are right for you.

What about meat substitutes?

I’m ambivalent about meat substitutes: Bottom line, I can usually do without them, although they sometimes add bulk to an otherwise skimpy dish. Some brands are better than others: some are quite tasty; others, not so much. This will require some experimentation on your part, to find that happy meeting of good flavor and good texture.

I like tempeh (fermented soy). Tofu, plain and cubed, not so much, unless well-seasoned and baked until crunchy. Just as I was getting a grip on the meat substitutes that I preferred, studies came out about the health impacts of soy on women, which, until it’s all sorted out, I now largely avoid (once a day at the most).

But not all meat substitutes are made with soy, and it’s worth a visit to a vegetarian-friendly grocery store, like Whole Foods, to explore what’s out there. Field Roast, for example, makes a line of soy-free sausages that are worth checking out. And Jackfruit, the darling of the vegan world, is really interesting, especially as a substitute for pulled pork. My favorite vegetarian burger? Dr. Praeger’s Mushroom Risotto.

My ambivalence is sourced mostly in the fact that I don’t need them. I rarely ever miss meat. Preparing whole foods with lots of veggies is completely satisfying to me. Sure, I enjoy a slice of cake now and then, but when you change your eating habits, your taste preferences change right with them.

Take a moment to dig that groove:

Your tastes change to prefer the things you eat regularly.

Clementines and tangerines on a plate

We don’t pop out of the womb craving fast food burgers and Krispy Kremes — that’s a learned behavior. It might seem impossible to give them up, but believe me, once you stop eating the junk, you no longer want it. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that works in both directions, bad and good. The more junk you eat, the more you want it. But less you eat, the less you want it.

Now, I’m not saying it’s as easy as [snap!], and you’re over the junk food. I know this all too well. I’m an emotional eater, and when all is good and sunny and happy, my meals are the poster children for healthy eating. But when I’m having a bad day, my brain reaches right for those salty potato chips.

Whew, this was a long one — thanks for hanging in there. If you have tips to share about embarking on dietary change (even if it’s not vegetarianism), share them below!

Karen xo

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Red tomatoes