As we approach 2021, thousands of people across the world are going vegan or planning to try out a plant-based diet in the new year. Whether you’re going vegan for Veganuary, or a documentary inspired you, 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 twelve 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 those of you going vegan now. I hope it helps!
*Note: While fully going vegan 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!
Lesson #1: Cashew cream is magical.
For me, the biggest dietary challenge in going vegan 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 indulgent 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 soon, but until then, just follow these simple steps:
- Soak 1 cup whole raw cashews (not pieces, as they’re often dried out) for a couple hours or, ideally, overnight. Alternatively, you can soak them for 10-15 minutes in boiling hot water (boil water first and pour over cashews; don’t boil the cashews!)
- 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.
Cashew Cream Variations:
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 savory dishes, I recommend replacing the water with vegetable or mushroom broth, which adds an extra layer of flavor. I also don’t always soak the cashews, because I’m not great at planning. 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, adding some lemon juice or vinegar (a little at a time) can reduce the sweetness.
Perfecting cashew cream takes some practice and a lot of taste testing, but that’s part of the fun. Find my favorite decadent, delicious vegan recipes made with cashew cream here!
Lesson #2: Resources exist that will make going vegan much 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 recommend:
abillion (free app):
* use THETREEKISSER as your referral code so I can follow you back on the app! *
This fantastic resource was created by Vikas Garg, the husband of one of my best friends from high school! He explains the name “abillion” saying, “We want to help a billion people join the (plant-based) movement by 2030 and donate $1 billion to support animal welfare causes.” This community-sourced review app helps you discover restaurants and plant-based food products from all around the world. For example, if you’re in the grocery store trying to decide between five different vegan mozzarella products, you can quickly look up the different brands on abillion and find real reviews (and photos!) from people who have used and evaluated the various options. This is incredibly valuable for new vegans who typically struggle with choosing products to try. The app’s restaurant search feature is similar, in that you can find user reviews and meal photos from vegan and non-vegan restaurants in your area. The added bonus of this app is that for each 10 reviews you leave, the company donates $10 to an animal rescue or sanctuary!
* use THETREEKISSER as your abillion referral code so I can follow you back on the app! *
Happy Cow (website and free app):
Location based directory of all vegan, vegetarian, and vegan friendly restaurants in your area. Happy Cow has been around since 1999, providing a valuable resource to hungry vegans and vegetarians! If you can’t find restaurants in your area on abillion (as it’s still a newer service), give Happy Cow a try.
Barnivore is a searchable directory of wines, beers, and liquors that are either confirmed vegan or confirmed not vegan. Barnivore is a fantastic and thoroughly researched resource; however, it can be a little tricky to use if you’re standing in a liquor store. For a list of widely available vegan wines, visit my Guide to Vegan Wines You Can Find and Afford!
Lesson #3: 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 after going vegan- but it happened. And it will happen for you.
Lesson #4: 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.
Lesson #5: Everyone will want to talk to you about protein and Vitamin B-12. So you might have to learn some things.
“Where do you get your protein?” is probably the number one question vegans hear. It’s funny, because there’s so much 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 an 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’re already going vegan, you’ve probably done the research and you understand that protein is everywhere! I’m not 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.
Complete Proteins: In discussing vegan nutrition, you’ll often hear people refer to “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 through food. Many animal products provide complete proteins (meaning they contain adequate amounts of each amino acid), 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. There is no need to combine all 9 amino acids in every meal, but some people prefer to just to make sure they cover their bases. That said, there are plant-based sources of complete proteins like quinoa, tofu, and buckwheat, so feel free to load up on those. Many plant-based meat alternatives, like the Beyond Burger, are formulated to provide complete proteins as well.
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.More and more athletes are going vegan for clean, sustainable, plant-based nutrition nutrition. This includes a large number of NFL players- including 15 members (as of 2018) of the Tennessee Titans! If vegan protein were a real problem, this simply wouldn’t be the case. To learn more about thriving vegan athletes, I highly recommend watching the acclaimed documentary (produced in part by James Cameron, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Jackie Chan), The Game Changers.
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, 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).
Lesson #6: 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 you going vegan; 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.
Pictured above are some of my all time favorite vegan cookbooks! You can find my full list of favorite cookbooks here.
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 recipe and ingredient delivery service with great vegan options. They’ll bring all the necessary ingredients and instructions right to your door, all you have to do is prepare the meal!
Lesson #7: You’re about to realize how many things contain animal products. It will likely shock you.
Boca Veggie Burgers contain dairy cheese, Lisanatti Foods Almond Cheese contains casein (milk protein), and many (not all!) wines are processed using animal products.
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 salted peanuts that for some reason contained milk powder. “Lactose-free” almond cheeses sometimes contain casein, 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 lot better than not even trying.
Lesson #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 box of Earth Balance Cheddar Squares, an assortment of Go Max Go candy bars (incredible vegan versions of popular candy bars like Milky Way, Mounds, Reese’s etc) a package of Annie’s Vegan Mac ‘n Cheese* (in my opinion, the closest vegan version of the old school Kraft blue box), or some Gardein vegan jerky stashed away in the cupboard, I bet many of those slip ups could’ve been avoided. Unfortunately 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 Amazon 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 Thrive Market!
Lesson #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!
Lesson #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 Tal Ronnen’s Pine-Nut-And-Basil Seared Gardein Chick’n With Lobster Mushroom Beurre Blanc, 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!
Lesson #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.
Lesson #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 about going vegan 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 about going vegan. 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!!