Think “plant based” rather than “vegetarian” or “vegan”. It is possible to eat a terrible vegetarian or vegan diet (Oreo cookies are vegan!). Move to a whole food, nutrient rich, plant based diet. If you keep meat and dairy, reduce your amount by using a few substitutions, buying farm raised products (which are more expensive), and increasing vegetables and other plants.
Assess your current diet. In my section on substitutions, I list animal products from a typical American diet. How does your diet compare to that list? Count the number of animal product servings you typically eat each day and think about where you might make some changes (don’t forget to consider the ingredient list of packaged foods and ingredients in cooked or baked dishes).
Take small steps; doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Start with making plant based meals 1 or 2 days a week and move up. Or save meat for eating out. Every step you take will make a difference. If you want to use substitutions, use up the animal product foods you have on hand, and replace a little at a time.
Cut back on the sugar, salt, and oil that the food industry has hooked us with in processed foods, (including some vegan packaged dinners and substitutes) which use the most energy to produce. This will help you learn to like plants better.
If you don’t like many vegetables, start with what you do like–but make a commitment to add to your palate. Babies and children need many tries when encountering new foods, and it can be the same for adults! If you desire to eat better, keep trying until you are used to new tastes. My family did not like a lot of vegetables, but has made the effort to try more out. Over time, they have come to enjoy more tastes.
Try to add the vegetables that pack the most nutritional punch–such as leafy greens and legumes, which are high in fiber and vitamins. If you don’t like the taste, try “hiding” it in smoothies, soups, blended, or small amounts cooked with other vegetables you do like with spices and sauces.
Home cooking is better if possible; try not to rely on corporations. I was struck by a statement Michael Pollen made in a TED talk: “Even poor women who cook have healthier diets than wealthy women that don’t.” That said, there are many non-meat/dairy ready made items to make it easier.
Make it simple and something you will stick with. It does not require any exotic or expensive supplements. If you are a gourmet cook, you can enjoy making countless culinary delights. If not, you can make it work with your budget, time and cooking ability. Find 5-10 main meal recipes that you can find time for, everyone in your family will eat, and that you can repeat with some variations over and over. Don’t give up if you fail!
Don’t expect substitutes to taste the same. Honestly, the recipes that claim they will “fool any meat eater” don’t always live up to that expectation. Food may taste different, but that does not mean it will not be satisfying. Be willing to change. The more you eat a plant based diet, the more you will enjoy it and the less you will miss meat and dairy. The question should not be “does this taste like meat or dairy?”, but “can I be satisfied with this?”
Rethink traditions. You can have a great Thanksgiving meal without the turkey! For one of my first attempts for the holiday, I asked each of our adult children and my husband to pick a plant based recipe and make it. We had a great time working together the day before and day of, and created a wonderful plant based feast. Here is a few of the recipes we chose:
Try juicing or smoothies to get started or for breakfast. If time is an issue in the morning you can make them the night before. Just add a little juice or water if it is too thick. This is a good way to get in some raw greens.
Invest in some key kitchen tools to help with chopping, dicing, and cutting, such as blenders, choppers, dicers and graters.
Get everyone involved in the meal preparation. Even small children can begin helping with simple tasks like pulling kale off stems.
If you can find it in your area, I highly recommend joining a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group. This supports local farmers–your neighbors–and gives you fresh, usually organic food every week. This is a great way to expand your vegetable palette, and to be “forced” every week to eat more plants.
If you have dietary restrictions or allergies to certain foods, look for plant based options that fit within those restrictions.
Patronize plant based restaurants or order vegetarian/vegan when available.