Growing up, I tried multiple times to become a vegetarian, with little success. Animal rights interested me, but eating meat was so ingrained in my daily routine that I didn’t know how to give it up. Family dinners centered on mashed potatoes and meat loaf. Big Macs were a road trip staple. And bacon—oh god, bacon. I can’t count the number of heart-to-hearts I’ve had with friends at 24-hour diners over that salty breakfast staple. While I knew in theory that food and experience were two different things, in practice, it was a lot harder to actually separate. Plus, bacon is just delicious.
I had a few friends who had successfully gone the way of tofu and would ask them how they did it. Most of their replies were the same. “I dunno,” they’d tell me, “I never really liked meat to begin with.” This made no sense to me—had they never had chicken wings? Elsewhere, the only major animal-rights group I knew of appealed very little to me, using sexism and racism to “raise awareness” for their cause (I’m not naming names, but let’s just say this organization sounds like a love interest in The Hunger Games). (OK, it’s PETA.)
I’m pleased to say that I have since been successfully vegetarian pretty solidly for more than two years now. There are probably many of you out there considering going veg yourself. Maybe you read something on factory farming that grossed you out, or looked into the health and environmental benefits of a vegetarian diet. Whatever your reasons, deciding to give up meat is way easier than actually doing it. If going vegetarian overnight just isn’t an option, I’ve compiled a list of tips (with the help of my Rookie co-workers) that will help with the transition.
Before you make any major changes to your diet, it’s important to do some research. If you have any health concerns, talk to your doctor. Cutting out meat is more complicated than eating hamburger buns without the patties—you need to make sure you’re eating the right kinds of food and getting all the main groups covered. Look for new protein sources like tofu, lentils, and tempeh. Tofu is especially versatile and is used in a lot of vegetarian recipes, but there are also a lot of protein sources in the foods that you might already eat regularly. Nuts? Full of protein. Beans are also great (burritos from Chipotle are my personal favorite).
Sometimes you might just crave the taste of a hamburger. There are a lot of great meat substitutes out there that mimic the taste of burgers—and chicken nuggets, and cold cuts, and, yes, bacon. Almost everybody I know swears by Morningstar Farms (I always stock up when I’m in the United States). Yves Veggie Cuisine is my go-to brand—their veggie burgers are to die for. Boca, Zoglo’s, and Amy’s are all reputable brands, and you should try a few out to find which you prefer. Most of these are easy to cook and make good meat substitutes in your regular meals.
Perhaps you are still living at home and eating a lot of your parents’ cooking. Rachael wrote a great article about seeking your parents’ support when going vegetarian. If you don’t already, maybe it’s time to look into preparing your own meals. Vegetarian cooking might seem intimidating, but there are some pretty simple dishes that you can learn to master without going full-Martha. Chickpeas and lentils are cheap and easy to boil and/or purée—they’re great on their own or in salads. Grilled cheese and stir-fry were my staples at the beginning. (Cut up some tofu, fry in oil with whatever veggies you have, add some soy sauce, and bam.) I usually keep pita, veggie turkey slices, and tubs of hummus in the fridge for easy snacking, and cans of lentil soup in the cupboard for when I’m feeling really low-key. If you feel like getting into more sophisticated meals and are looking for free recipes, check out the links from our staffers below or go to your public library—they have cookbooks!
The options for vegetarian meals are literally endless (well, not literally, but you know what I mean). Jessica doesn’t really care for a lot of meat substitutes and so swears by Deborah Madison’s cookbook. If you’re a picky eater, eating food you’re used to but prepared a different way and dressed up with spices might appeal to you (see: my relationship with sweet potato fries).
Here are some favorite veggie recipes from the Rookie staff: quinoa chili (Anna), farfalle with mushrooms and parmesan (Hannah), black-sesame otsu (Leeann), quick cashew curry (Leeann), potato gratin (Phoebe), spinach with garbanzo beans (Shelby), and Southwest sweet potato chickpea delight (Stephanie).
I’m not going to make a joke about quitting cold turkey, because we are all too good for that. But seriously, if you are somebody who eats a lot of meat on a regular basis, you might want to begin by cutting back how much you consume. Try eating meat once a day, then once every other day, then once a week. Or start by cutting out only red meat, then poultry, and then seafood. It might help to give yourself a few deadlines so you can anticipate each transition. Make a list of every step in your vegetarian plan (I’m a big fan of lists), and put a mark on your calendar every couple of weeks or so when you want to hit the next step.
When I was starting, I tried to find the easiest possible places to cut out meat and took it from there. Grabbing a regular slice of pizza instead of a pepperoni one from the school cafeteria was way easier than trying to plan a whole meal. Try to find areas where you can make easy substitutions. When preparing a sandwich, could you use a veggie meat or a grilled vegetable instead of ham? Does the fast food place you go to have a veggie-burger option? Making these small transitions helped me get ready for a meatless existence, because I was already getting used to the taste of new foods.
Anticipate the hurdles.
Some of the biggest difficulties when going vegetarian include figuring out what you can eat when dining with others. In these post-Paul McCartney times of ours, most restaurants already have plenty of vegetarian options. But it never hurts to be prepared. Jamie, who is full-on vegan (I know, I know, I’m impressed, too), looks at menus on the restaurants’ websites before she goes out so she knows what she can eat. Call ahead—many restaurants will accommodate vegetarians even if there aren’t any options on the menu. Kelly keeps Boca burgers in her freezer so that she always has something easy to eat during a family dinner. I usually bring my own veggie burgers to barbecues for the same reason.
Sometimes you might be in a situation where, even though you tried to plan ahead, there just aren’t any great choices available. If there’s an event that you don’t want to miss but at which you know you won’t be able eat (say, a friend’s birthday at her favorite restaurant), eat beforehand so that you can get away with a side dish. It’s not always easy. I keep a couple of protein bars in my purse so I don’t go hungry. If you’re with friends, it doesn’t hurt to casually say something like, “Hey, there’s not a lot on the menu for me. Can we try someplace else?”
One of the trickiest parts for me was getting over the associations I had made between meat and family dinners or special occasions. One of the first times I had unsuccessfully tried to go vegetarian, I cracked on Christmas at the smell of turkey. Food can be closely tied with cultural celebrations. However, look into starting new traditions. I taught myself to make vegetarian curries (have you ever TRIED mutter paneer?) and would invite my grandparents over to dinner, which helped me reconnect with my Indian heritage. Of course, “culture” and “tradition” mean something different to each and every person. Maybe you’ll bond with your mom or dad by cooking alongside them in the kitchen for holiday meals. Or introduce your family to an entirely new dish. As I eventually learned, there are plenty of other great things to eat on Christmas. Like, a lot.
Cut yourself some slack.
It may not be realistic for you to become a vegetarian, at least right now. Maybe you have health problems that are already severely restricting your diet. Maybe your parents don’t want to support you, and you can’t afford to buy your own groceries. Maybe you live in a neighborhood where fresh meatless food is hard to come by. Maybe you’re just a really picky eater trying your darndest to love hummus and fruit. If this is the case but you are still passionate about vegetarianism, there are smaller things you can do. Make little changes to your diet where you can, and start collecting recipes to try when you eventually move out on your own.
Even if you are able to become a vegetarian, you still might have a few slip-ups here and there. If that happens, don’t stress! Giving in to a craving a few times at the beginning and eating a Big Mac doesn’t have to be cause for calling the whole thing off—just start again the next day. Many of my friends who have been vegetarians for years still slip up now and then (including yours truly), so don’t think that if you’re not a strict vegetarian 100% of the time, then you’re a total fraud. Know that the longer you go without meat, the fewer and farther between those cravings will become. And before you know it, you’ll be the vegetarian you want to be.
Welcome to the dark side. We have soy burgers. ♦