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When it comes to how to transition to vegetarian, I’m going to start this post by saying this – I hate labels.
While I often call myself a vegetarian in an effort to avoid having a conversation about it, I do occasionally eat fish, eggs, a bite of chicken, or a cheese that contains animal byproducts. There are different labels you could give yourself based on what you do or don’t eat, but I’d like to stay away from that and just focus on how you can make a drastic change to your diet that includes less to no animal products.
There are more reasons for changing your diet as there are diets out there. Whether you’re trying to lose weight, be healthier in general, or care a lot about animals, cutting out meat or other animal products from your diet can feel daunting at first. After all, many of us come from families where it’s not a meal unless there’s meat present. And what about hidden animal products in processed food? If you’re saying “I want to become vegetarian in the new year”, I’m here to help!
There are basically two ways you can go about this. You can ease into it, or you can go all in. Easing in involves swapping out one or more meals a week where you would normally eat meat with recipes that are meatless. You can slowly increase the amount of plant based meals you’re eating each week until you’ve fully transitioned.
Please also note that I am not a dietician or even a self proclaimed nutritionist. I’m just a person who has been pretty much meatless for the last four years and is feeling great. If you have specific nutrition information or health concerns, I urge you to speak to your doctor before making significant changes to your diet.
Know your nutrients
Many people are concerned about getting enough protein without meat in their diet, but I have found this to be far less difficult than expected. Good meatless protein sources include beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds. There is also a fair amount of protein in whole grains, dairy products, and even vegetables, so if you’re eating a variety foods you’re likely going to be ok.
Another nutrient to be aware of is iron. Low iron levels can leave you feeling weak and fatigued. Easily absorbed iron is most readily found in red meat. However, it is also found in leafy green vegetables, raisins, lentils, tofu, nuts, and seeds. You can increase your iron absorption by pairing iron rich foods with those high in vitamin C such as red bell peppers, oranges, and pineapples. I’ve also found cooking in a cast iron skillet whenever possible to be a great way to add iron to my diet.
Vitamin b12 can be a concern for some, especially if you’re also cutting out dairy and eggs. Some dairy free milk alternatives and breakfast cereals are fortified with b12, I find nutritional yeast to be a great tasty way to add b12 to recipes. If you’re concerned about finding whole foods ways to get b12 you may want to consider taking a supplement.
Let’s rethink some common meat products and how we can swap other protein sources in their place.
Chicken – Garbanzo beans, white beans, tofu, or jackfruit
Beef – Black beans, tempeh, seitan, textured vegetable protein, or lentils
Pork – Pinto beans or jackfruit
It’s probably best to avoid processed foods as much as possible, but if they help you make the transition or round out your diet I say go for it. Gardein is one of my favorite meatless brands with a taste and texture that rivals the real thing (almost too much for some!). MorningStar Farms spicy black bean burger is my favorite all-purpose burger that can go between two buns or be crumbled into a burrito, but I also love Amy’s brand. I can also vouch for Lightlife tempeh and House Foods tofu.
Make vegetarian (or vegan!) friends, but don’t leave the meat eaters behind
I’m aware that you might care deeply about animals. Like, maybe more deeply than you care about people. And that’s ok! But the worst way to win people over to your new meatless ways is to be judgmental about it. Everyone is on a journey of one kind or another, so let’s give everyone a little grace for where they are right now. You don’t have to get angry with your mom if she doesn’t offer a meatless main dish at every meal. You can eat a handful of nuts along with her mashed potatoes and you’ll be just fine.
Making new friends is 100% ok, and can really help you in your transition. If you don’t know any other vegetarians where you live, consider joining a Facebook group for vegetarians. People there are more than happy to share recipes, tips, and support.
Have a plan for when you’re away from home
Eating at restaurants or other people’s houses can be challenging. Look up menus online before going out and don’t be afraid to make requests and ask for substitutions at restaurants. Sadly American restaurants tend to be the meatiest. Mexican, Italian, and Indian restaurants always have at least several meatless options.
If you’re going to a party where you’re not sure there will be anything you can eat, eat a light meal before or bring some trail mix or other easy traveling snack in the car. I almost always have one of these little Justin’s nut butter packets in my purse.
Give yourself some grace
As you’re transitioning to vegetarian, you might give in to a bite of chicken, accidentally eat something made with beef stock, or decide you want to eat a whole rack of ribs. This doesn’t make you a bad person or a failure. You can still go forward with your new lifestyle from there, or choose to allow these things once in a while. It’s your life and it’s entirely up to you.
Have a handful of go-to recipes
If you don’t know what to make, you’re not going to make anything. I plan meals and snacks a week at a time and try to hit the grocery store only once a week. Find a few meatless food blogs you like (Hiiiii) and use Pinterest to save recipe ideas. I have boards for vegetarian, vegan, and meatless meals among others. When you sign up for my email list I’ll also send you a list of 100 Vegetarian Dinner Ideas, which is linked to recipes on my blog where applicable. This list would only have to be repeated 3 1/2 times to get a full year of meals! It doesn’t get much easier than that.
Hopefully this post will help empower you as you transition to a vegetarian diet. I’d like to leave you with links to a few of my favorite easy vegetarian recipes. If you have any questions please email me or leave them in the comments, and if you have a favorite meaty recipe you’d love to see turned meatless let me know and I’d be happy to give it a try!