Tuesday, January 6, 2015

6 Tips for Happiness on a Plant-Based Diet

I stopped eating meat over eleven years ago, and my diet has undergone some dramatic changes in that time. In a relatively short period of time, I went from full-on carnivore to no pork to no pork/red meat to no meat at all. And while I am not strictly vegan right now, I do tend to lean in that direction; I don't drink animal milk (although until fairly recently I enjoyed the occasional glass of raw cow or goat milk) and I have a love/hate relationship with eggs (meaning I usually hate them, but am okay with them in some foods). These days, I think of my diet as whole foods, plant-based. Not quite vegan, but focusing on real foods and trying to eat for the best me.

It was a long journey to get here. Before I went vegetarian, I spent very little time in the kitchen, aside from Foods class in high school and cookie baking marathons with my best friends. Eschewing meat forced me to start cooking, because eating pasta with jarred sauce or frozen vegetarian meals got very old very fast. What was harder was figuring out just how to make a plant-based diet work for me. I had no idea how to structure my meals, or what kinds of foods I should be cooking. I actually was pretty bad at cooking in general.

I had a lot to learn.

But never one to shrink from a task, I set about figuring out how to make a vegetarian diet work for me. Here are some ideas that might help make the transition easier for you!

Tomato pumpkin soup.

1.  Stop trying to "replace" meat...

We're all very indoctrinated in the standard American meal of meat + side dishes. So it's not surprising that a lot of people who have little or no experience with meatless eating have a hard time actually putting together a meal; if there's no meat, than what's the central part of the meal? This dilemma causes a lot of new vegetarians, especially those of the lacto-ovo variety, to simply form their meals around non-meat sources of protein: eggs, cheese, soy-based fake meats, slabs of baked tofu.

I don't want to bash that idea too much; goodness knows I went that route myself when I first stopped eating meat. It's hard to break free from our cultural idea of what a meal should look like. I ate plenty of "breakfast for dinner" meals and pasta dishes loaded with cheese. I don't really want to admit how often we ate frozen veggie burgers, chick'n nuggets, soy riblets, spaghetti with fake meatballs, and other meat substitutes. Baked tofu is still a common meal in my home, with veggies and grains on the side.

Honestly, we all probably have inflated ideas of how much protein we need in our lives anyway. Most people probably eat way too much, and there is a lot of solid science that shows that a lower protein diet is actually much healthier. (Read The China Study if you're interested in learning more about that!)

So while I don't want to say you can't just replace the meat, I also encourage you to look outside the box, as it were. Your meals don't have to look like that typical American meal at all. Your meals, whether vegan or vegetarian or omnivore, do not have to be centered around a source of protein. Consider making a stir fry for dinner, with a wide variety of vegetables, some added beans or cashews or tofu for protein if you desire, and served over a bed of whole grains. When you make pasta, don't feel like you have to add crumbled tofu or beans or cheese or any dedicated protein source; chances are that a good, hearty sauce with whole grain pasta will be a balanced meal on its own, especially if you eat a salad on the side. Make a giant pot of soup and load it with veggies, beans or lentils, and some kind of grain; I usually add a scoop of quinoa to my soup, and I always have barley in my cupboard too. Serve cooked and seasoned beans or lentils over cooked greens, with a fruit salad on the side.

These are all well-balanced meals containing a wide variety of nutrients, and not a single one of them is centered around protein (although each one still definitely contains it!). Expand your horizons, and broaden your idea of what a meal "should" look like. You'll probably be happier once you get rid of preconceived notions of what makes a proper dinner.

2.  ...And stop expecting your food to mimic meat.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to make meals that are similar to the non-vegetarian favorites you used to eat. The problem comes when you expect to be able to eat something that looks, feels, and tastes like it contains meat (or eggs, or cheese) without it actually containing said ingredient. Because if that's what you're looking for, you're bound to be disappointed.

Sure, there are meat substitutes that have a texture that is shockingly similar to meat, and even probably taste pretty close too. (I honestly can't remember what meat actually tastes like, since it's been so long, so I can't give my opinion on that!) The problem is that those kind of faux meat products are super processed, so not only are they expensive, they probably aren't particularly good for you either.

With some good recipes, you can make some decent substitutions at home. A basic bean-based veggie burger tastes nothing like a hamburger, but it is tasty in its own right and satisfies that craving while giving you something to eat at the family BBQ. It's easy to make a creamy pasta sauce using silken tofu, nutritional yeast, soaked/blended cashews, or other non-dairy ingredients; it might not taste like macaroni and cheese, but it will be tasty and healthy and cruelty-free. Nobody will confuse a lentil-based veggie loaf for grandma's meatloaf, but the lentil loaf is delicious in its own way.

Don't expect your homemade substitutions to taste like the foods you remember fondly from childhood. The sooner you acknowledge and accept that, the happier you will be.

"We have to change our expectations when preparing plant-based recipes intended to remind us of familiar animal-based foods--not lower them, mind you, simply change them. It would be unreasonable to expect cashews to have the same taste or texture as dairy cream. Let these types of recipes be defined by their own qualities so that you can genuinely enjoy the results. They are delicious in their own right!"  ~Mielle Chenier-Cowan Rose, Veganish

3.  Try new types of cuisine.

I think one of the reasons going meatless can be daunting is because so many meals in the standard American diet are so completely centered around meat. And as mentioned in the above point, it can be hard to envision what a meal should look like without meat when it was a central part of most every meal you ate growing up.

In other parts of the world, however, meat is not always the central attraction.

So branch out! Indian food, for example is full of dishes centered around lentils, chickpeas, and other beans/legumes. There are many excellent Chinese options that use tofu. Japanese, Mexican, Thai, Ethiopian... there are so many delicious options out there that are perfectly suited to a vegetarian or vegan diet. Try some new restaurants, pick up some new cookbooks (Happy Herbivore Abroad is my favorite for easy recipes inspired by foreign cuisine), or check out some food blogs and eat up!

Thai curry with pineapple, bell pepper, peas, and tofu.

4.  Find a few "staple" recipes that you love and always keep the ingredients on hand...

I make meal plans most weeks, and use them to dictate the food I buy and what I cook. But some nights, I just want something easy. Or we get to the end of the week and I find myself not wanting to make whatever recipe is left on the list.

So what's a busy mama to do?

On nights like those, the temptation to get on GrubHub is strong. And, of course, there's nothing wrong with that every now and then, but eating out is expensive and usually much less healthy than the food I prepare at home. (And if you're new to being meatless, being in a restaurant or ordering take out may make you tempted to "cheat" on your diet, regardless of what your reasons are for going meatless in the first place.)

My solution is my list of staple recipes. These are meals that my entire family loves and is always interested in eating, and for which I almost always have the ingredients stocked in my pantry. So when I don't want to make something on my meal plan, I always have an option to fall back on. For example, I always have cans of beans in the cupboard and burger buns in the freezer, so Quick Burgers are one of my go-to meals; just add extra veggies on the side and dinner is ready! Other staple meals are pasta with marinara sauce, Chana Saag (a recipe from Everyday Happy Herbivore, which is probably one of my favorite cookbooks ever; it uses chickpeas, plain tomato sauce, and spinach, all things I almost always have), stir fry (tofu and frozen stir fry mix are always on hand), and baked tofu with veggies (I usually use the recipe for Savory Baked Tofu from Vegan Eats World).

While I love experimenting with new recipes, there's something to be said for old favorites. And old favorites that are always an option? Some nights, those are simply the best.

5.  ...But don't let yourself get stuck in a rut.

Sure, it's great to build a repertoire of recipes that are easy to make and you know your entire family will willingly eat. But what's bad is finding yourself relying on that repertoire so often that you are cooking the same meals week after week. Then you'll just get bored of your food, bored of cooking, and you'll likely be tempted to eat out more or start buying intriguing (but expensive, and probably less healthy) packaged meals.

So the solution, for me anyway, is to keep trying new things. If you try a recipe from a food blog and love it, follow that blog (by email or the social media of your choice) in hopes that they will inspire future dinners in your home. Pull recipes from magazines that sound appealing. Check out new cookbooks from the library on occasion, and if you find one that's a real winner for you go pick up a copy for your own bookshelf. Page through the cookbooks you already have with regularity, and remind yourself of recipes you've tried before and enjoyed, or find some new ones you've overlooked in the past.

As an aside, cookbooks are the only books I own that I am comfortable writing in. When I try a new recipe, I note the date, I rate how much everyone in my family enjoys them, note any substitutions I may have made, and add suggestions for ways it might be made more to my taste in the future. This prevents me from re-making anything my husband thought was awful or that my son wouldn't touch, and often sparks memories of "I loved that dish! I should make it again!"

Butternut squash bread.

6.  Read up on plant-based nutrition!

I firmly believe that a well-balanced diet will also be a nutritious diet, and that you will most likely be getting everything you need from your food so long as you're eating a wide variety of different things (with the possible exception of vitamin B12, depending on what exactly you do or do not eat).

But I also firmly believe that knowledge is power, and it never hurts to be knowledgeable about the nutrients in your food. Plus, you have no idea how many times you are going to get asked by friends, family, and well-meaning strangers about where you get your protein, or your iron, or any number of other nutrients. (Chances are also good that you'll be told over and over again that you need to combine proteins carefully during your meals, which is a myth. A good book on plant-based nutrition will help you separate facts from fiction and figure out how to make your diet healthy.)

Consider picking up a few good books on plant-based nutrition, both to educate yourself and to arm yourself against the naysayers. Some of my favorites are Vegan for Her by Virginia Messina, Becoming Vegetarian by Vesanto Melina & Brenda Davis, and Your Vegetarian Pregnancy by Holly Roberts (honestly, this book has a lot of fantastic nutrition information even for non-pregnant women). (I'm always interested in other suggestions, too; if you know any great books on plant-based nutrition, please suggest them in the comments!) Reading is always a good use of your time, and the time you spend on learning about nutrition will be valuable indeed.


  1. Great article! I have the same philosophy on food and love to hear how you incorporate veggies into all areas. Thanks for the tips!

  2. I love the way you write! Easy to read and always informative . . . ♡ ♡ ♡ ♡

  3. This is great advice--quite similar in some ways to my 7 Ways to Eat Less Meat:

    I'm going to look at some of those recipes now. Quick Burgers are especially intriguing: We like veggie burgers, but they tend to take a long time to make, so if we're in a hurry we do more of a "sloppy joe" style beans with sauce on a bun. Could there be a quicker way?? I'm excited to find out....

    1. Totally not kidding when I say we eat Quick Burgers all the time! They are so easy to put together and bake 15 minutes. Not the fanciest veggie burgers in the world, but my entire family enjoys the taste, and they are wonderful on a bun with whatever kinds of greens we have on hand piled on top!