Becoming a vegetarian does take dedication, but I have some steps to tell you that will make the whole process easier and rewarding.
Years ago, when someone told me they were a vegetarian, I thought, “Oh no, they’re into that New Age stuff.” Well, I’m now one of them and it has made quite a difference in my family’s health and well being. This is the reason I decided to share my journey with all of you.
I’ll get to the positive changes right away so you can decide if you want to read on. My husband, who has gone vegan, has lost 30 pounds in these few months, my daughter and I have lost 12 together (but we aren’t exercising like he is) and my son has gone up one size in his slacks (of course he’s only 10 so I’m assuming he is just growing)! My cholesterol has gone down 51 points in that time. And, now that we are over the shock of not eating meat, we are really enjoying the new variety of meals we are eating.
We haven’t noticed this in our own lives, but I’ve read that a vegetarian diet can lower blood pressure, help to control diabetes and it helps to prevent cancer. Vegetarians are at a lower risk for osteoporosis and are less likely to form kidney or gall stones. (I can get into some of the reasons for these if you’d like to know but for now let’s keep it light!)
I do feel obligated to mention to you that I am no expert. I am learning as I go and have made some missteps along the way as I find new information or talk to others who are already vegetarian. I have been at this new eating style for almost 5 months and because of the positive effects on our health, I have no plan on going back. Don’t think it has been fun though, in fact, it has been a very difficult 5 months. Those of you who create daily meals for your family can imagine. It’s tough enough to feed your family every day when you KNOW what you are doing.
The foods you see in the photo to the right are just some of the things we are now eating. There are at least a dozen more packages I could have put in this photo…all things that were never in my house nor did I even know existed 5 months ago. Imagine starting over with new ingredients you’ve never heard of, tastes that are unfamiliar, and very little “step by step” information out there.
So, I’m trying to create those “step by step” instructions, since that is what I do! I’m all about breaking something down into easy understandable steps that have wonderful results. This article won’t exactly end with the final result because I don’t believe I’ve finished this project yet. I’m somewhere in the middle of it. I do have enough information to get you started thinking about the possibility of making a change and I can help you get started.
Let’s start with a couple definitions. There are several different levels of vegetarianism which means eating no meat, poultry or fish. Aside from my vegan husband, (he eats NO animal products at all) the rest of us are Ovo-lacto vegetarians meaning we will eat eggs and milk. Lacto-vegetarians eat dairy products but not eggs. These are categories that you can wander through as you start your process of eating healthier. My husband went all the way to no animal products at all and because of that we have certain items that are “his” products in the house and are trying them all the time. I wouldn’t be surprised if we all headed that direction in the coming months. Time will tell.
What do vegetarians eat? A vegetarian’s main diet consists of vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. Of course eggs and milk are available too. You’d be surprised what is out there for non-meat eaters. There are actually microwave meals for vegetarians. However, this might be the answer when you are just getting started and struggling with what to eat but they aren’t the long term answer.
My friend Katherine is a doctor and nutrition expert and she has mentioned that even though there are “manufactured” vegetarian meals out there for those of us struggling with this new concept, it is still better to stay away from any food that has gone through too much processing.
However, when you are just getting started, these can be life savers. I particularly enjoyed this frozen vegan meal. After I tried it, I kept the package in a file folder in my kitchen and have been working at recreating it. I can tell by the ingredients list what it is made out of and I can create it myself out of fresh produce and organic whole grain pasta. This is one my whole family likes and I top it with half real mozzarella cheese and half of my husband’s “veggie shreds”!
I will make sure to share all the recipes I have developed for my family and the ones I’ve tried from other sources that I have really liked. So at least you can count on us as a source for vegetarian and vegan recipes.
Why choose to go vegetarian? Well, I’ve already told you about the health benefits that my family has experienced in a very short time. There are other reasons as well. For me, it was a growing concern that I love animals, but I was OK allowing them to be killed (and live in some awful conditions) just for me to eat…I can hardly type this…. Not to mention that those animals are being given hormones and being fed grains that have been chemically treated and those chemicals are entering our bodies as well. The whole process makes me very uncomfortable and I finally took control of my real feelings and did something about it.
If not meat, then what’s for dinner? The “3-3-3” Method. This simple method is what convinced me that I could go vegetarian. Here’s how it works.
Most families, and you are probably one of them, have several dinner dishes in their repertoire and they simply repeat them throughout the weeks. The truth is, the average family eats only eight or nine different meals and just keeps rotating them. Think about your dinners and write down the ones you use on a continuing basis. My list looked like this;
Spaghetti and Salad
Quesadillas, Burritos and Tacos
Oven Fried Chicken and Rice
Meatloaf and Mashed Potatoes
Steak and Baked Potatoes
Hamburgers and Potato Wedges
Stuffed Pork Chops
Roast Beef and Potatoes
Pizza & Salad
Yours will probably look a lot better, but forget about making comparisons and move forward! Now, out of those 9 dinners, are any of them already vegetarian? Or are there already vegetarian meals that you make on occasion that you may not have added to your list? For me, Spaghetti, Bean Burritos and Veggie Pizza were already there and we all loved them. That was easy, three vegetarian meals just like that! These three can be vegan too if you use parmesan cheese substitute on your spaghetti, veggie shreds in your burritos and on your pizza! That’s our first “3”.
Now, of your meals, are there any you can make vegetarian with a little tweaking? In my case, hamburgers became veggie or garden burgers, I now make my meatloaf out of texturized vegetable protein (I know that sounds horrible but no one can tell the difference in my meatloaf recipe!), and we enjoy a variety of fake “chicken” in nuggets and strips. Again, all vegan as well! Do you have a chili recipe that you can replace the meat with more beans? How about a favorite soup recipe that you could just eliminate the meat? The second “3” is all about slightly altering something your family already enjoys to make it vegetarian and now you have 6 meals that are family favorites!
The final “3” is where it gets fun. Choose three new dishes that might make your family happy. You may have to go through 10 different dinners to find your new three, but it will be a fun, culinary adventure. We have fallen in love with eggplant parmesan (vegan if cheese substitutes are used). We are all enjoying my veggie soup recipe, especially during these cold winter months and I believe I am still searching for my last recipe.
I have made all sorts of casseroles with pasta and vegetables, other soups and some sort of “appetizer” type meals when I was at my wit’s end, but still haven’t really found that other great staple recipe. I have become quite fond of brown basmati rice and I’m working on a tofu stir fry. I think that might give us our nine basics that we can count on.
When I decide to go Vegetarian, how do I start?
Week 1. Go through the process of figuring out your “3-3-3” meals. Make enough to give your family a meal and leftovers and your first three dinners will last about a week. During this time, purchase a vegetarian cookbook. I bought several vegan cookbooks because of my husbands desire to eliminate all animal products. I would suggest finding a book with lots of pictures since some of the ingredients may be unfamiliar. Plus, you can decide if a recipe looks appealing by the photo!
Week 2. Make up your second batch of “3” meals. At least your family is familiar with these foods and they are just altered to eliminate the meat. This gives you more time to try some things. This week I would consider finding a Whole Foods store in your area and bringing home some prepared foods so you can try eggless egg salad, grilled tofu, hummus, quinoa, and portabella or garden burgers. Serve these as a side to your normal meals so your family won’t feel starved. Make it an adventure!
Week 3. Now it’s time to try a new recipe or two that you’ve found in your cookbook. Make sure they don’t use ingredients you’ve never heard of. This week is all about trying veggie dishes that are rather common, like eggplant parmesan or vegetable stir fry. Remember, even a baked potato with steamed broccoli on top with a nice side salad and whole grain bread can be a fine meal.
Week 4. If something new from last week didn’t satisfy the entire family, try to introduce a couple of new vegetarian meals from your cookbook. If one evening doesn’t work out too well, make sure to fall back on those tried and true recipes for the next evening so your family doesn’t get discouraged. At the end of one month, you should have your 9 vegetarian meals figured out and have one full month of vegetarian eating under your belt, so to speak. Congratulations!!
Can I go to my favorite restaurants? Don’t forget the idea of eating out. This may sound impossible, but I have found that if there isn’t something strictly vegetarian on the menu, you can always have a salad! Or, you can tell the waiter that you are a vegetarian and they can always bring you a plate of sides, like rice or potato, a couple steamed vegetables and a salad. Ethnic restaurants carry a lot of vegetarian dishes. Check out your favorite Mexican, Asian or Greek restaurants.
We love pizza! Remember pizza will save you no matter what else is going on. Everyone loves it and a good veggie pizza will fill up even the toughest tummy to fill! We are now using whole grain flat bread as our pizza crust and we really enjoy it. Our new name for pizza is “pizza crackers” because the flat bread is so thin it gets real crispy in the oven. Yummy!
What about the old food pyramid and four food groups? Well, guess what? New four food groups. Here they are, and you could probably figure this out yourself if you weren’t so nervous about trying this!
1. Fruit – 3 or more servings a day
-choose fresh, frozen or dried
- rich in fiber, vitamin C, and beta-carotene
2. Vegetables – 4 or more servings a day
-choose green, red, orange, yellow or white veggies
-add leafy greens
-provide vitamin C, beta-carotene, riboflavin, iron, calcium, fiber and more
3. Whole Grains – 5 or more servings a day
-choose whole grain bread, rice, tortillas, pasta, fortified cereals, corn, millet, barley, etc.
-rich in fiber and other complex carbohydrates, protein, B vitamins and zinc
4. Legumes – 2 or more servings a day
-this is another name for beans, peas, lentils and this category includes tofu, tempeh, texturized vegetable protein, nuts and seeds
-great sources of fiber, protein, iron, calcium, zinc and B vitamins
I add a fifth being drinks. We all need a lot of fluid in our bodies during the day so make sure most of it is water. I’ve read where others recommend the non-dairy fortified milk…of course that’s all up to you!
What are some basic breakfast options?
Fortified cereal with non-dairy milk, Orange juice and Strawberries
Raisin toast with jam, Hot green tea, Banana
Tofu scramble, Oven roasted potatoes, English muffin
Toasted bagel with fruit spread, Acai Berry juice
Oatmeal, Whole Grain Toast with Sunbutter
What’s for lunch?
Pita filled with hummus or black bean spread, lettuce and tomato, Applesauce, Soy chips
Vegetable soup, Salad, Whole grain bread
Veggie burger, Potato wedges, Corn
Veggie or bean burrito, Rice, Orange
Almond butter and jelly sandwich, Veggie chips, oatmeal cookie
Grilled Portabella Mushroom Sandwich, Potato salad, Apple
Butternut Squash Soup, Spinach salad
And for dinner?
Spaghetti with marinara sauce, green salad, garlic toast
Pasta Primavera, Caprese Salad
“Meat” loaf, Scalloped Potatoes, Green beans
Stuffed Peppers (with rice and nuts), Mashed potatoes
Vegetable lasagna, Waldorf salad
Here are 10 tips I would like you to know before going Vegetarian.
1. Don’t make the change miserable….like I did!
If you feel stressed, slow down, this can be taken a step at a time. The first best step is to cut back on red meat, then eliminate it. Do the same with chicken and fish. Do these while bringing in new vegetable dishes. Many people go back and forth between vegetarian and non-vegetarian for a long time. If you must have meat, have some, and then go back to your healthy eating habits.
2. Spend the bucks for ORGANIC.
Buy organic foods whenever you can. I mean this especially for fruits and vegetables, milk and eggs. This helps to eliminate any unwanted pesticides and herbicides from entering your body. I warn you, they do cost more, but isn’t your health and family worth it?
3. No sugar, junk food, soft drinks. YIKES!
This has to be the hardest part for me. I love bubbly pop and I’m a candy freak. I will say that after 5 months of vegetarian eating, I’m not as much into candy. I’ve thrown away Halloween candy, Christmas cookies and brownies and it’s actually very liberating. This doesn’t mean I don’t get a Peppermint Pattie every now and then! The soda, or pop as we say, is a tough one. I thought I had it licked when I switched to Club Soda. Then, I read that carbonated beverages aren’t good for digestion….rats, now what? The raw truth is that tepid water with minerals is probably the best thing you can drink. BORING…
4. Discuss this with your doctor.
Let your doctor know you have or are planning to switch to a vegetarian diet. They may or may not like the idea because many don’t know that much about it. Explain that you will be getting enough protein and will augment your diet with calcium and iron and B12, and then see what they have to say. My doctor said, “Oh, OK.” Then we had my blood work done and he took me off my cholesterol medicine…YEAH!
5. If you don’t like it, don’t eat it.
You may find that tofu isn’t your favorite food. If you can’t stand it, don’t eat it. A vegetarian diet has so much variety, there is surely something you will find that you like very much to replace it. Just keep sampling and enjoying the journey!
6. Travel with snacks – just in case!
If you travel, pack treats for yourself like nuts, raisins, fruit, raw veggies, etc. I have found I’ve been racing through the airport to catch my connection and I’m starving. This will automatically send you to the fast food line if you aren’t prepared!
7. Find a snack bar you enjoy. They’re your new cookies!
I have found that I enjoy having snack bars around when I am hungry but it’s not mealtime. I purchase Luna bars for myself, (I love the “sunrise” ones) and Clif bars for my husband and kids. Everyone can be satisfied by these snacks because they come in lots of yummy flavors. Plus, they don’t have refined sugar in them and they are made out of organic ingredients.
8. About milk. I say I drink milk, but really I don’t.
I use Almond Milk in my cereal and my kids drink fat free organic milk. At least they aren’t getting the hormones and chemicals. I haven’t been able to switch them to other milk sources but the fight continues! We’ve tried soy and it’s too thick and sweet for us, as well as rice milk, but tastes change as we change so I urge them to try other varieties now and then. I know many have nut allergies so avoid the almond milk by all means. However, you can eliminate milk completely and get your calcium through lots of leafy greens, broccoli, butternut squash, carrots, chickpeas, soybeans, tofu, etc. It’s not really that hard on a vegetarian diet.
9. Other dairy products. To cheese or not to cheese!
Your desire for cheese can be overcome if you use cheese substitutes in and on your recipes. We have not been able to handle the texture of the slices of vegetable cheese, like on crackers or something, but in dishes and on pizza it can be done. As for sour cream and cream cheese, the vegetarian substitutes seem pretty good when they are mixed in with other ingredients. However, I wouldn’t use a cream cheese substitute in a cheese ball and try to serve it to friends…yuk! But that’s just me. I haven’t gotten there yet! Hahaha!
10. What about protein?
Vegetarians get their protein from legumes which are beans, lentils, peas and soybeans. For those who can, nuts and seeds are wonderful sources of protein as well.
Again, talk to your family doctor to see what he or she might recommend as far as supplementing your vegetarian diet. Vegans and vegetarians generally need to supplement their diets with B12, Vitamin D and Calcium. I mentioned earlier all the foods you could eat to get the calcium you need. Vitamin D has become quite a topic of late and many believe you need really high levels of Vitamin D to help with the absorption of calcium and ward off osteoporosis and other diseases. Vitamin D comes from sun exposure (lucky me) and leafy green vegetables. The National Osteoporosis Foundation recommends daily values of 800 to 1,000 IU’s per day with an upper limit of 2,000 IU’s for adults over 50. Some studies and reports call for much more. Do some research in this area to determine if you need more vitamin D if you plan on eliminating milk and dairy products from your diet. With B12, which is mostly available through animal proteins, your brain health is involved. This is one of the vitamins that might need to be supplemented through capsules. Let me say here again, I am not an expert and these are the questions I am facing as I try the vegetarian eating style.
So, is that enough for the first time out? I think so; even my brain is fried as I read over this! Hahaha! I’ll be anxious to hear from you about your food experiments, both failures and successes. Let’s swap recipes and do our best to keep us all as healthy as possible!