Here at Earth911, I am surrounded by folks that walk the walk when it comes to sustainable practices. As the media team’s lone, resident omnivore, changing my diet for the sake of trying something new seemed like a logical experiment.
These days, vegan and vegetarian diets are becoming more and more commonplace. In addition to the many health benefits and the argument for animal welfare, these diets also have environmental impacts that often go unrealized.
To name a few, going veg can save water, fossil fuels, GHG’s and help preserve open space. In fact, going meatless for just one meal a week is estimated to save about 84,000 gallons of water per year- so you can see how it could really add up as part of a low-waste lifestyle.
So there you have it. With the help of my very supportive co-workers, and the encouragement of my very patient boyfriend, I signed up to try a vegan diet for a week.
Rather than try to sustain myself on bananas, Oreos and the five or six other vegan things I already knew I liked, for the sake of the experiment, I wanted to be sure to try to get a real taste for the lifestyle. That meant not just grocery shopping and cooking at home, but dining out and discovering suitable snacking options (aforementioned bananas and Oreos fit nicely in this category).
I knew I wanted to cook a few recipes at home that week so I was excited to hit the grocery store to get what I needed. That said, I made some classic rookie mistakes.
While a few of my ingredients were diet-specific or specialty items compared to average grocery fair, the majority was not. It turns out that even items like almond milk and tofu that were new to me are stocked at most grocery stores for reasonable prices. You don’t need to buy all your groceries at the same place, so don’t feel compelled to drop extra cash unless you want to.
Next tip: pace yourself. This will ring especially true if you are simply trying the diet on to see if it fits. Restocking your entire fridge with every meatless alternative you can think of would be expensive and is unnecessary. Pick a couple recipes for the week – plan for those, learn, repeat.
While you’re learning and accumulating supplies, also try to pick recipes that have a few overlapping ingredients. This is especially helpful to remember as you buy fresh ingredients, so they get used up that week and never wasted.
Last, there is a pretty incredible variety of alternative meat and dairy products out there, as well as some staples in vegetarian cuisine that aren’t too well known. With the assistance of my work team, I was armed with some basics and have shared them below:
- Tofu: A celebrity among meat alternatives, tofu is a soy product. To prepare it yourself, make sure you know the firmness you want to buy, and for best results, it is highly recommended that you press your tofu prior to cooking.
- Daiya: Dairy-free cheese that is sold shredded or by the wedge.
- Tempeh: Touted as an alternative to tofu, this is a high protein, soy-based product that can be prepared a variety of ways.
- Seitan: Pronounced “say-tan”, this is also an alternative protein source, but is a gluten-based product and can take on the textures and flavors of meat better than other meatless alternatives.
- Quinoa: A seed product that behaves like a grain and prepared like rice or barley. It’s a popular super-food in vegetarian diets as it is full of amino acids and is cholesterol- and gluten-free.
- Nutritional Yeast: While not outwardly appetizing, this deactivated yeast product is sold in flake form and is popular for its similarity to cheese. Great for recipes, or to sprinkle on the likes of garlic bread or popcorn- not to mention an excellent source of B12.
When it comes to cooking, there are some adjustments to make, but I was pleasantly surprised to learn you don’t need to reinvent the wheel to accommodate your diet at home – go with what you know! Take a look at recipes you already enjoy and see if they could fly without meat, or with a meat substitute. That’s how it played out with our favorite (now vegan) chili recipe and it turned out beautifully.
One part I really liked was noticing how much more fresh produce I bought at the grocery store. That means I was shopping for healthier food and dealing with far less packaging. This was especially noticeable the night I tried my hand at roasted sweet corn and tomato soup. As I made it, practically all of the mess in my kitchen was food scraps – no garbage. Like with any change we make to our routine, it’s exciting to notice a payoff, and in this case, it was noticeable right away.
Trying new recipes can be a lot of fun, but failing at new recipes can cost time, patience and ingredients. That said, when you’re getting started, be sure to punch your weight. In my case, I was pretty intimidated by recipes involving faux dairy, and my lovely boss volunteered to cook butternut squash mac and cheez and let me observe.
I ended up grateful not just for a belly full of delicious pasta, but I was also glad I hadn’t jumped in the deep end of the cookbook my first week in. A seasoned veganista, my boss knew the produce and ingredients well and was able to walk me through the process and give me tips on potential substitutes and best practices as she went. If a recipe has more than a couple ingredients you’re not familiar with, try something more scaled back until you’re better prepared to tackle bigger challenges.
Dining out can present some challenges as a vegan. Choosing restaurants that cater to your diet restrictions is swell, but not always a luxury you’re afforded when it comes to meeting up with a group of friends or a lunch meeting.
I learned the hard way that after researching a mainstream menu’s ingredients list and carefully placing an order that appears to be vegan, you can still end up at home with your take out order only to find your guacamole ruined by the dusting of grated cheese it received just for good measure.
Devastating, yes, but on the flip side, you may also end up pleasantly surprised by ordering something new on a menu that you had previously overlooked. Suddenly, my new favorite craving involves falafel and salad. Believe me, nobody saw that coming.
The truth is, you’ll find restaurants that do a great job, and the ones to skip. In between, you’ll become savvier and learn how to ask the right questions when you’re ordering. For example, when asked about dairy, restaurant staffers often forget that butter counts, and the same goes for Parmesan, when you ask about cheese. It’s an important part of the learning curve and something of a right of passage as you master your diet.
Your motivation behind changing your diet will probably impact your experience. My experience taught me that I missed dairy more than meat, so some vegetarian middle ground might be in my future. However, it turned out that there were very few moments where I really felt like I was missing out on something. I think a lot of people shy away from making changes to their diet or lifestyle because they fear the sense of deprivation. I was surprised to notice that the shift in mentality from ‘I can’t have that’ to ‘I don’t eat that’ made a huge difference. If you are committed to a cause behind your actions, the rest falls in line more easily.
It’s okay to say “yuck.” I don’t like everything I try that’s non-vegan, so it’s a silly expectation that I should like everything under the sun that is vegan-friendly. While keeping an open mind is important, keeping it real is, too.
Have some fun and share the experience! While you’re bound to get a few stereotypical responses about “rabbit food”, let people know what you’re up to. I was surprised to learn how many people I knew already who are vegetarian, vegan or had dabbled with either, so I got some great recipes and advice. I even had people tell me they had been curious about it but were too intimidated to try it out. My mom tried to eat vegan the same week I did, just out of curiosity. The point is, it’s always easier and more fun if you have advice and people to share new experiences with.
In the end, I got to experience a lot of new food and found some new, healthy faves that will surely make their way into my routine no matter which diet I’m on. On top of all of that, I got to see some real-life examples of how a diet switch can impact the way I purchase food and how much I throw away each week as a result – plus the warm fuzzy feeling I get remembering that it makes a bigger picture impact on the environment. Not too shabby for just one week!
Feature image by RitaE on Pixabay