From time to time, I get messages from people wanting to transition towards a plant-based diet and wondering where to start. At first I didn’t know how to answer. It’s so personal! Someone’s food preferences, cooking skill, available time, household composition, family heritage, proximity to groceries etc will all determine how to approach a dietary change.
That said, I realized that I do have some general tips that I think anyone can use when trying to go vegan, or even simply incorporate more plant-based foods.
Adapt familiar favourites to become plant-based versions of the foods you already eat. Love spaghetti bolognese? Use beans or lentils and mushrooms instead of beef, or try beefless crumbles. Stir frying chicken on the regular? Swap it out for tofu. If you need help veganizing a particular recipe, ask a vegan—we’ll swarm you with ideas. We’re kind of enthusiastic that way :)
Identify one new plant-based dinner that you can incorporate into your meal rotation. That's easy, right? You can make delicious plant-based pastas, tacos, bowls, stir fries, salads, soups, curries, stews, chilis, and more. Commit to finding just one recipe that your household loves and make it regularly. When you’re comfortable with that, find one more. You don’t have to make dramatic changes overnight—in fact, your habits and tastebuds may even prefer gradual changes.
Learn to make bowls. I think when people are new to plant-based eating, they picture the meat/starch/veg plate they grew up with, imagine a gaping hole where the meat used to be, and wonder what the heck to put there instead. No, you don’t have to just eat a pile of plain beans with your potatoes and peas. Plant-based cuisine tends to follow a bit of a different formula: grain, legume, veggies, sauce or dressing, and toppings, like toasted nuts and seeds. For more on how to make a bowl and some ideas for easy and delicious combos, check out this dedicated post.
Swap out animal-based dairy for its plant-based counterparts. These are straight-up, easy swaps, although admittedly some are better than others—experiment, and don't give up! We like Silk unsweetened soy milk and homemade cashew-hemp milk for cereal and tea/coffee, Silk or Yoso coconut yogurt, Miyoko’s cultured cream cheeses, Earth Balance or coconut/olive oils, Umaluma ice cream, Chao slices for the occasional grilled cheese, and cultured nut cheeses for cheese plates. There are so many options these days, it’s fun and delicious to find new favourites. These don’t have to be staples, but it’s nice to know the options are out there, and supporting them is voting for a more humane and sustainable world.
Eat hummus. It’s delicious, incredibly nutritious, easy and inexpensive to make, school friendly, familiar, kid-approved, and you can eat it straight out of the fridge. If you have no idea where to start, just buy or make some hummus and have it for lunch, then pat yourself on the back for taking your first step. There aren’t words to express my undying love for hummus, but if I ever write a sonnet, it will be an ode to hummus.
Don’t write yourself off as a vegetable-hater. Our gut bacteria need lots of fibre to thrive, and when they get it, they start to signal to our brains to get more of it via cravings. It can take as little as two weeks for these changes to take root, so even if you don’t love salads or lentils, go through the motions for two weeks until these foods start to become appealing to you. Your habits and tastebuds will adjust, and soon enough they’ll become the familiar comfort foods you crave. Do NOT get between me and my bowl of dal on a rainy day, is all I’m saying.
Learn some nutrition basics. We'd all be wise (vegan or not) to be mindful of the nutrients our body needs and have a basic awareness of where they come from. Once you've created new habits you won't even need to think about this much. For example, based on my family's needs and habits, I try to include legumes at least two meals per day, tofu and hummus regularly, leafy greens at as many meals as possible, brassicas in some form daily, flax or chia seeds daily, and iodized salt for cooking. I also ensure the kids get healthy fats throughout the day, even if it means drizzling on some extra olive oil to their meals. This is autopilot for me now.
Go at your own pace and have a sense of play and exploration. Eating good food is one of life’s great joys—eating plant-based isn’t and shouldn’t be a sacrifice. It’s an opportunity to create a better world with each meal. If that isn’t delicious, I don’t know what is.
Fellow plant-eaters, what have I missed? What first steps did you take on your path towards vegan living?