I never thought I’d fall under the vegetarian label*, yet now it’s already been more than four years since I’ve had a taste of meat or poultry. It literally happened overnight, without warning. I watched “Food Inc.”— which I highly recommend whether you intend to stop eating meat or not!— and suddenly found myself with no appetite for animal products. I thought it would be a phase, and I’d progress to buying locally-sourced, grass-fed, humanely-treated proteins.
That may be the case, but the phase is still going strong!
The shift simply required a new way of thinking about meals and experimenting with things I do, and most certainly DO NOT, enjoy eating. As a dietitian, I immediately did the research to see what nutrients may need some special attention and how to get enough of them (e.g. Iron and B12). Not so surprisingly, plant-based diets are high in almost every nutrient and rarely leave your system unhappy. Getting that recommended 5-9 servings of fruits and vegetables? Not so tough when that’s what every meal consists of!
*Labels are no fun. Decide what vegetarian means for you, and know that your diet should only matter to, and be healthy for, you! I consume eggs, and occasionally fish. By definition a “pescetarian,” but I think that makes it sound like all I eat is fish (….no thanks!). Some vegetarians opt to consume dairy and/or eggs, some don’t. You choose!
All of that said, what can be a shock is finding yourself having to think about meals and snacks from a different perspective. If you’re new to the veg-head world, or have been here a while and feel the need to spice it up (literally?), here are some tips from experience:
Know your protein sources!
And yes, you’ll get plenty of it. Protein is found in most vegetables and whole grains, all nuts and seeds, soy, dairy and eggs. Here are a few detailed examples :
- 1 cup black beans: 15 grams
- 1 avocado: 4-8 grams (depending on size)
- ¼ cup almonds: 7 grams
- 1 cup (cooked) wild rice: 7 grams
- 1 cup (cooked) broccoli: 4 grams Source: USDA Nutrient Database.
Mix up your meals.
Prepare yourself to branch out of all your dietary norms. Trust me, it helps! A meat-free diet may seem very boring at first— any diet could be boring if you eat the same things all the time.
- Do a little bit of research and find one new recipe to try per week. There are plenty of resources out there to make this easy! My favorites include Pinterest and EatingWell.com.
- Remember that most of your favorite meals taste just as good without the meat! Try veggie pizzas, bean or tofu tacos, stir-fry mixes, grilled vegetables or fruits, etc. and you likely won’t miss the beef (chicken, turkey, etc.).
Add nuts and seeds to your daily food staples.
They provide essential fats, protein and a variety of micronutrients. They make a great snack or a crunchy top to soups and salads. Nut butters are an easy vegetarian sandwich spread, or an easy way to add bulk to a smoothie.
- Tip: Make your own trail mixes! It’s cheaper to buy nuts in bulk and create your own snacks by combining nuts, seeds and your choice of dried fruit, coconut flakes, dark chocolate nibs, etc.
Plan ahead for eating out.
Many restaurants offer vegetarian options, but check first! No one wins when you’re hungry but staring hopelessly at a menu with no options that work for you. Good news: most menus are posted online now, so it’s easy to do the research and make sure you’ll be well-fed and happy.
- Tip: look for ethnic cuisines such as Thai, sushi, Mexican and/or Italian. More often than not they have plenty of vegetarian options! If you consume eggs, many restaurants that serve breakfast/brunch will have a variety of options for you, as well.
Base your meals around vegetables, not just grains.
The easiest “vegetarian” meals are often those that load up on carbs— think pasta bowls, rice, cereal, sandwiches, pizza, burritos and pastries. With all of those options it’s easy to quickly tip your nutrient intake heavily towards starches and grains, leaving you too low on protein and fat.
- Tip: Make the base of your meals/plate vegetables, fruit and/or a meat-alternative protein (e.g. tofu, tempeh or seitan) and be mindful of serving sizes for carbohydrates.
As with any dietary preference(s), expect to find yourself in plenty of situations where people ask why, or even HOW, you survive on a meat-free “diet.” You don’t need to justify it, but you should stick to it for your own reasons (whatever they may be). No one dietary choice is right for everyone, but how you choose to eat should make you feel healthy and happy. If at any point you feel your diet is lacking in nutrients or leaving you feeling deprived, know that there are health professionals out there who are happy to help and provide support and tips!