If you’re accustomed to eating meat and/or dairy at most meals, the notion of going vegan might seem daunting and somewhat scary, if not totally impossible. Personally, I rarely succeed with a “cold turkey” (no pun intended) mentality when it comes to diet. That being said, “balance” and “moderation” can be a slippery slope and difficult to define. In both cases of going vegetarian and then, a couple decades later, going vegan, I gradually changed my diet over a period of several years. Both changes have stuck without any feelings of deprivation and virtually no cravings for animal based products. I became vegetarian as a child, first giving up red meat, pork products and fish. Several years later, I ate my last bite of chicken. More recently, I decided to give up most dairy, but hung on to cheese for a few extra years until going fully vegan. This worked for me because I needed to feel behind the wheel of my dietary decisions, and getting to control why and when I was giving up certain things helped to make it a permanent change. I also had very strong emotional and ethical driving forces behind my decision, which was also key for me in sticking to it.
If you’re not ready to turn vegan overnight, that’s OK. Dipping your toe in the water definitely feels safer. Don’t tell yourself that these are your first steps to becoming a vegan (unless, of course, that helps you!) – see any changes you make as healthy adjustments to your diet. We can all agree that less meat and less dairy is better for our bodies and the planet. So cutting back when and where possible can only mean positive things for your overall well being! Making some tiny, effortless shifts can be all the momentum you need to make bigger changes down the line.
Here are my top 5 (small) changes you can make to reduce meat and dairy in your diet:
- Decide what meat and dairy products you currently eat but don’t love and cut them out. For me, initially, this was milk and yogurt. I added milk to my coffee and cereal and ate yogurt for breakfast occasionally, mostly out of habit but never because I particularly loved or craved these foods. I decided to experiment with drinking my coffee with non dairy milk, adding almond milk to my cereal, and replacing yogurt with other non dairy foods that were more satisfying to me. To my surprise, I didn’t miss milk or yogurt at all! And like that, I gradually cut out other dairy until I was ready to finally say goodbye to cheese. So, for example, if you don’t love hot dogs, don’t eat one just because someone handed it to you at a BBQ. If you could care less about the parmesan cheese garnishing your pasta, leave it off next time. And if you like cream in your coffee for the added richness, experiment with all different types and brands of non dairy milks until you find one you like. You don’t need to give up an entire food group right away – just eat the foods that really serve you and get rid of anything else that you don’t love.
- Eat one vegan meal a day. If you’re someone who eats meat and/or dairy at most meals, dedicating one meal a day to veganism will cut down on your animal product consumption by 33%! That’s huge! If you’re unfamiliar with plant based eating, treat yourself to some vegan cookbooks, or even a vegan cooking class, to acquaint yourself to a whole new world and style of cooking.
- Give up conventional baked goods and sweets. Sugar is flat out terrible for our bodies and health, so dropping the cupcakes, candy, cookies and ice cream is something everyone should be striving toward, regardless of whether or not veganism is your end goal. There’s ZERO nutritional argument for keeping sugar in our diets, so it’s best that we just cut it out entirely, or at least limit your intake to truly special occasions, and in the bargain, you won’t be eating the added eggs, butter, and cream! Win win.
- Eliminate animal products as a condiment. What do I mean? Bacon bits, parmesan cheese, splashes of milk/cream, fish sauce, etc. Yes, these things provide a lot of flavor. But if the food that they’re garnishing is well made and well seasoned, you shouldn’t need them. And if the food you’re eating is so bland that you need to pour cheese all over it to make it appealing, re-consider if it’s worth eating in the first place. Animal-based condiments can also be substituted with equally flavorful dairy-free/meat-free/fish-free substitutes. There are countless recipes on the internet and in cookbooks for tempeh bacon, shiitake bacon, cashew parmesan, cashew cream, etc. Most of the time, we use animal based condiments for added salt and fat, which can be found in tons of plant based sources!
- Eat more ethnic foods. The United States arguably eats more meat per capita than any other country. That’s not to say that you won’t find meat on the menu overseas, but it takes up far less room on the plate! Ethnic cuisines are typically more vegetable, legume and grain heavy. From Indian curries to Thai noodles to Mexican fajitas, it’s much easier to stay away from the meat and dairy if you opt for other cuisines at mealtime. You’re bound to effortlessly end up with a more vegetable centric plate if you stay away from steakhouses and burger joints.
photo credit: by CHLOE.