As we approach 2018, thousands of people across the world are planning to try out a plant-based diet or vegan lifestyle in the new year. Whether you’re taking part in Veganuary, or you were inspired by a documentary, or you’ve just been waiting for the right time to ditch animal products, I’m here to help! You’re about to embark upon a journey that, while challenging at times, will make a positive impact on the planet, on the animals, and on your health, with every single bite you take. I started my own journey about nine years ago, and I won’t pretend the first year was easy. I was 100% confident in my choice, so I never doubted that I was doing the right thing, but I was unhappy a lot of the time. There are so many things I wish I could go back and tell that 22-year-old version of me that I know would simplify and improve her experience! Alas, I don’t yet possess a time machine, so instead I am imparting this knowledge onto you. I hope it helps!
*Note: While a vegan lifestyle extends past dietary choices (into fashion, cosmetics, etc), this post is mainly geared towards plant-based food, as that will be the biggest life change you make when you go vegan!
#1: Cashew cream is magical.
For me, the biggest dietary challenge was cutting out dairy. I had been mostly vegetarian already for over a decade, so I was used to replacing meat with extra cheese on absolutely everything. After going vegan, I really missed that rich, decadent flavor and experience that comes along with mac ‘n cheese, scalloped potatoes, green bean casserole, etc. It’s hard to imagine comfort food without that creamy element. Fortunately, cashew cream works in so many of these dishes, and it’s extremely versatile. The only tool you’ll need is a strong high-speed blender, ideally a Vitamix (the best investment you can make in a vegan kitchen; they’re pricy but you’ll use it forever). I’m planning to make an instructional cashew cream video this weekend, but until then, just follow these simple steps:
- Soak 2 cups whole raw cashews (not pieces, as they’re often dried out) for a couple hours or, ideally, overnight.
- Drain soaked cashews and rinse. Place in blender and add enough water to cover the cashews by about an inch. Too little water is better than too much, because you can always add more.
- Blend on high until completely smooth, this may take a couple minutes. If the cream is too thick for your desired use, add water and re-blend.
Many recipes will call for you to add nutritional yeast, miso paste, garlic powder, and/or salt and pepper. When improvising sauces from scratch, I usually start with all of those things (heavy on the Nutritional Yeast, which contains Vitamin B-12 and also adds a cheesy flavor). For many dishes, I also recommend replacing the water with vegetable or mushroom broth, which adds an extra layer of flavor. I’ll also add that I don’t always soak the cashews, because I’m not good at planning ahead. This results in a slightly sweeter final product, and it requires a tough blender like the Vitamix to blend unsoaked nuts, but it’s definitely possible. If you’ve forgotten to soak the cashews, or you don’t feel like it, adding some lemon juice or vinegar (a little at a time) can reduce the sweetness. Perfecting cashew cream (especially for your own made up recipes) takes some practice and a lot of taste testing, but that’s part of the fun!
Below are links to some of my favorite recipes that harness the magic of cashew cream- enjoy!
#2: Your tastebuds and cravings WILL change.
I know you might not believe me. I wouldn’t have either. But I promise it’s true. We tend to think of two culinary realms: one that contains animal products and one that doesn’t. However, switching to a plant-based diet is more like moving to another country after having primarily eaten cuisine from your own country. Most American kids I know aren’t big on Indian food. It’s foreign, it has different spices, different ingredients, and different smells. But for children who grow up in India, these same dishes are as basic as chicken nuggets are to kids in America. Intentionally or not, we train our tastebuds with every meal. My husband lived on steak, chicken and French fries before going vegan a decade or so ago. He hated green veggies. When he started going to vegan restaurants, he was introduced to a much wider variety of vegetables, and now he absolutely loves Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and spinach (sometimes I can even sneak in kale!). It also works in reverse; I used to think it was unfathomable to live without cow cheese pizza or salmon topped sushi, and now both of those thoughts completely gross me out. For some people, these changes happen in weeks- for me it took about a year- but it happened. And it will happen for you.
#3: You are going to eat animal products, intentionally or unintentionally.
I don’t know a single person who decided one day, “I’m going vegan,” and then never ingested another animal product. Whether it’s because they lost willpower a couple weeks in and ordered a late night cheese pizza, or they just misread ingredients or were served the wrong item at a restaurant, at some point an animal product was consumed. In a world where most humans are still eating animals and animal products, it happens. Don’t get discouraged, even if it was your “fault”. Reprogramming your entire diet is a huge change- it requires extra thought, extra patience, and extra dedication- at least three times a day! When the mistakes happen, forgive yourself or your server, and move on. As they say, don’t let perfection get in the way of progress.
#4: Everyone will want to talk to you about protein and B-12. So you might have to learn some things.
Protein: “Where do you get your protein?” is probably the number one question vegans hear. It’s funny, because there’s such an abundance of information out there about plant-based protein, but people still assume it’s only found in animal products. It’s not their fault, we’re programmed from a pretty early age to associate meat with muscles. If you’re in the U.S., the animal agriculture lobbyists make sure of that. Fortunately, if you’ve already decided to go vegan, you’ve probably done the research and you understand that protein is everywhere! I don’t claim to be a dietician, so I’m not going to spend this section teaching you about nutrients (for some of the nitty gritty details, head over to this Vegan Health article). Rather, I’ll share a few simple facts and statements that might make you feel more comfortable with your own health going forward and might prepare you for the inevitable questioning.
- Everyone talks about “complete proteins”. Complete proteins are built from 20 essential amino acids, 11 of which are already present in your body, meaning you only need to consume the other 9. Many animal products already contain complete proteins, and that’s why we’ve come to rely on them. However, as long as you consume a variety of proteins (and enough calories) throughout the day, you’re most likely intaking all the right protein building blocks. That said, there are plant-based sources of complete proteins like quinoa, tofu, and buckwheat, so feel free to load up on those.
- Look at the elephant. The rhinoceros. The bison. Some of the world’s largest and strongest animals eat plant-based diets. Their muscles seem to be developing just fine. As my buddy Domz Thompson says (and wears), “Eat What Elephants Eat!”
- More and more athletes are turning to a plant-based diet for clean, sustainable nutrition. If vegan protein were a real problem, this wouldn’t be the case. To learn about some celebrity vegan athletes, check out this Business Insider article or this slideshow from Men’s Fitness.
B-12: Vitamin B-12 is the only vitamin you can’t reliably obtain from a fully plant-based diet. It’s created by a certain strain of bacteria, which many herbivores have in their intestinal tracks. Non-human animals also absorb B-12 by eating feces and/or bacteria-contaminated food straight from the dirt; obviously, this is not recommended for us! B-12 is crucial to many functions of the body, but it can take years to notice a deficiency. Many vegan foods are fortified with B-12 (I eat at least one Vega Meal Bar every day, and that takes care of 50% of my daily B-12 needs), but if you don’t want to keep track of that all the time, it’s smart to just take a daily supplement (I take this one).
#5: Learn to cook. (You may be surprised by how much you love it!)
This point serves two purposes. Obviously, you need to feed yourself, and developing or expanding your culinary skills is necessary for this. Additionally, delicious food is (in my opinion), one of the best forms of activism. Decadent, hearty, satisfying meals are likely to silence those who may be acting less than supportive of your new life change; you never know who might be swayed by your masterpiece! If you’re not super excited about this, I understand. I never used to cook (unless you consider following the directions on a box of Kraft mac ‘n cheese “cooking”); I considered it a chore, but I was forced into it as a hungry new vegan. As the years went by, I fell more and more in love with my time in the kitchen. Now, I honestly get annoyed when I’m too busy to make a big, gourmet dinner! You may want to invest in a few new kitchen tools/appliances, I list some of my most commonly used items in my Amazon shop. You can find my favorite cookbooks here, but I also recommend checking out these fantastic vegan food blogs:
For some of these recipes, you’ll have to source new ingredients, practice new methods, and even learn new words. You’ll also have some disasters, unless you’re some kind of alien vegan prodigy. That’s okay though, as long as you don’t give up and you learn from your disasters, you’re on the right track! Feel free to tag me on Instagram so I can see your early successes and failures!
PS: If you don’t have a lot of time or energy for meal planning, check out Purple Carrot, a plant-based recipe and ingredient delivery service. They’ll bring all the necessary ingredients and instructions right to your door, all you have to do is prepare the meal!
#6: Resources exist that will make your life easier.
I honestly have NO idea how the vegans of 20 or 30 years ago figured things out without the magic of social media, blogs, or apps. Kudos to them! Fortunately for the newbie vegans of today, infinite assistance is right at your fingertips. These are some of the top resources I use (aside from the last one, which I’m still figuring out):
- Happy Cow (website and app): Location based directory of all vegan, vegetarian, and vegan friendly restaurants in your area. Many descriptions and reviews for the vegan friendly restaurants will mention specific dishes, which is really helpful!
- Barnivore (website): Searchable directory of wines, beers, and liquors that are either confirmed vegan or confirmed not vegan. (if you’re confused and panicked about the thought of non-vegan alcohol, you’re not alone; learn more in my vegan wine guide!)
- Logical Harmony (website): While this blog post is primarily about food, if you’re fully committing to a cruelty-free lifestyle, you’re going to need to know about cosmetics. Are they tested on animals? Do they contain animal products? The Logical Harmony blog is thoroughly researched and constantly updated with this information.
- Is It Vegan + // Vegan Pocket – Is It Vegan (apps): These confusingly similarly named apps both claim to have pretty much the same function- that is, you can scan items and it will verify whether or not the item contains animal products. I’ve tested both out and found some aspects to be glitchy, but other people I know recommend them highly. I get the feeling they’re both in early stages of growth, so the more users they acquire, the more comprehensive the info will be. So, try them out, but don’t expect perfection.
#7: You’re about to realize how many things contain animal products. It will likely shock you.
This isn’t advice so much as it is a warning. You’re going to be annoyed. Things you assumed were “safe” will not be. As I mentioned above, many winemakers and breweries use animal products (like egg whites, fish bladders, and gelatin) to clarify/filter their liquids. Bloody Mary mix often contains anchovies. I’ve seen bags of salted peanuts that for some inexplicable reason contained milk powder. “Lactose-free” almond cheeses sometimes contain casein, which is a cow milk protein. And then there are the mysteries you can’t even solve with an ingredient label. Sometimes sugar is bleached with animal bone char. Vitamin D3 (a common food additive) is made with a substance derived from sheep’s wool. The list goes on and on. You’re going to have to decide how strict you are, and this decision will likely fluctuate over time. Just remember, 100% animal-product-free life is nearly impossible, but 99% is a whole lot better than not even trying.
#8: Stock up on satisfying snacks and junk food.
In my early “transitioning to vegan” days, my slip ups happened as a result of cravings and impatience. If I’d had a bag of Earth Balance sour cream & onion chips, a frozen box of Chao mac ‘n cheese, or some Louisville Maple Bacon jerky stashed away in the cupboard, I bet many of those slip ups could’ve been avoided. Technically none of those products existed when I was a newbie, but they do exist for you!
You’re probably thinking a lot about health and nutrition during this time of change, but keep in mind that sometimes you’re just going to need something to hit the spot, whether it be creamy, salty, or even just crunchy. If you’ve planned ahead, you can still satisfy that urge with something free of animal products! You’ll have to experiment to find your favorite treat, but you can check my list of vegan snacks & quick meals for ideas!
PS: If you don’t live near a store that stocks products like these, consider placing an order with Vegan Essentials!
#9: You won’t like every vegan product, and that’s okay.
There’s a certain vegan cheese that’s widely distributed and used by many restaurants, and I hate it. I actually find myself resenting people who eat it, that’s how much I hate it. But I try to keep that opinion to myself, because I don’t want to scare people away from trying it in case they happen to love it! The same goes for vegan meats; one of the plant-based burgers that’s all the rage right now is beloved by my husband, my friends, and my family, and I can’t even be in the room when it’s cooking. Just because we’re all vegan doesn’t mean we all automatically have the same taste in foods. Some people love plant-based meats and cheeses, some prefer to just stick with whole plant foods (veggies, fruits, nuts, etc). Some people start out feeling one way and end up feeling another. All of these opinions are valid, and just because your impression of a certain product doesn’t match that of someone who raves about it doesn’t mean you’re destined to hate vegan food. All too often I see someone sample a product that a vegan friend has raved about, and when they don’t like it, they conclude that “vegan food just isn’t for me”. Spoiler alert: No matter what, you’re already eating a lot of vegan food. It’s all the stuff you eat that isn’t meat, dairy, and eggs. Plants are for everyone!
#10: When you’re in a pinch, remember the classics.
Peanut butter and jelly. Hummus and pita. Pasta with marinara sauce. Bean and rice burritos. Chips and guacamole. Apple cinnamon oatmeal. Whether you’re constrained by time, budget, or creativity, keep these accessible staples in mind. Don’t feel the need to reinvent every meal. There’s a time and a place for making Isa Chandra’s Mushroom Hot Pot with star anise, lemongrass, and shiitake mushrooms, and that time isn’t when you’re racing between meetings and only have 5 minutes to fill your tummy (do try that recipe though- it’s amazing). Not every meal has to be Instagram worthy!
#11: People might be mean. Smile through it.
If you’re newly vegan, and especially if you’ve chosen this path for ethical reasons, expect some pushback. The loveliest people in your life might come up with some unexpected sass. I find that this usually stems from defensiveness. Even if you aren’t directly criticizing their life choices, the fact that you’ve chosen to omit animal products to take a stand against animal exploitation and cruelty immediately makes them feel the need to explain why they haven’t, or why you’re wrong. Sometimes the biggest animal lovers and most compassionate humans react the worst, because they’re the most sensitive to having their choices (and the consequences of those choices) examined. This is natural, I remember being a bit rude and defensive in college when I was still eating eggs and dairy and a friend of mine went vegan! Dealing with these conversations takes practice, and there’s no perfect answer. I’ve handled them well and I’ve handled them poorly, and I can tell you that the times I’ve been the most level-headed, empathetic, and non-defensive have been the most productive interactions. If you need a handy guide to answering the most common questions, I highly recommend Vegan Sidekick’s Guide To Animal Rights Discussions.
#12: Find a vegan friend (or a few!).
It makes me sad to think about how long I struggled with confusion and questions before actually meeting real vegan friends I could chat with. It was at least a couple years before I really met and bonded with likeminded people. I highly recommend going to events, volunteering at farmed animal sanctuaries, connecting with people on social media, and just seeking out people you can learn from. You’ll have more questions than I answered in this blog post, I promise you. You’ll probably have them every day. And Google is helpful, but not as helpful as communicating with real humans who have real experiences you can benefit from. If you’re on Instagram, try searching #vegan(your city) (i.e.: #vegandenver, #vegandesmoines) to find local meet ups, vegan restaurants, and vegan festivals. You’d be surprised how many cities have vibrant and growing vegan communities! Force yourself out of your comfort zone and go make some friends!
PS: I also recommend joining the Facebook group “Power To The Veg”; I find most Facebook groups to be annoying, but this one is incredibly valuable. It’s full of new and experienced vegans, vegetarians, and veg-curious people, all asking questions and giving advice. No judgment or bullying allowed, so it’s a great space to be honest and find insight.
It’s tough for me to cut it off here, but 12 seems like a digestible number of lessons and tips for now! If you’re here reading this as you begin your vegan journey, please know that I appreciate, admire, and love you for even trying! Feel free to follow me on Instagram, where I share daily tips and ideas in posts and on my story. Good luck!!