Wednesday, October 21, 2009

How To Go Vegetarian (Without Alienating Everybody or Only Eating Peanut Butter)


Dear Sarah Von,

I am a vegetarian who lives in a small town. We are starting to get more soy/tofu products but I still feel limited when it comes to food. I was wondering, what are some of your favorite meals/recipes? How do you deal with being a vegetarian in a non-vegetarian world?


Dear Sarah Von,Why did you become a vegetarian? I'd love to read a post on that.

Becoming A Vegetarian
Just like starting anything new, it's good to slowly ease into it - eating a a few meatless meals every week, experimenting with fake meat products, avoiding the meat aisle at the grocery store. While it's not the case for me, a lot of new vegetarians report feeling a bit tired and mopey when they're trying to get off The Meat, so make sure you're getting enough sleep, taking your vitamins and being a bit more gentle with yourself.

Knowing How Much Protein You Need
Before you remove all the meat from your diet, it's a good idea to calculate what your daily protein intake should be. It varies significantly from person to person and if you're Suzy Beansalot, then you might not even need to up your protein intake. Sparkpeople is a great place to run these numbers and keep track of how you're doing.

Getting Enough Protein
I grew up in the sort of town that didn't even have basil in the produce department, so you can imagine that meat substitutes were nonexistent. But you can get plenty of protein from stuff that's widely available, even in Middleofnowhere, MN. Beans are super cheap and provide a lot more protein that tofu, even! I love this super simple black bean soup, beans and rice, hummus and vegetarian chili. Also, I cannot recommend the Fantastic brand boxed chili mix enough - even if it creates gas so bad that you can't eat if for lunch at the office.

Tofu does have a decent amount of protein in it, but it can be hard to find and a bit of a pain to cook with. If I'm using it, I usually use the silken variety and incorporate it into yummy desserts like chocolate pudding or tofu cheesecake. (I'm totally that person who brings tofu dishes to small-town potlucks and then when people have complimented me on them I get all "Ha! There was tofu in it!" And then they never speak to me again.)

If you can find quinoa at your local co-op or health food store you've got it made. Quinoa is cool for multiple reasons. A) it is an ancient Andean grain B) it is the only non-meat complete protein C) it's pronounced keen-wha D) you can eat it all the time, with everything, or maybe even with a fox in a box. I even it it for breakfast! You can use it in place of couscous in any recipe, as a side dish or a main. I really love this recipe with garlic and thyme and this one for quinoa vegetable soup.

If you're really rushed for time and protein, just drink a protein shake. Really! There are actually some yummy ones out there these days. I quite like the chocolate and vanilla varieties of Body Fortress. I swear that if you can get past that ridiculous name, it's really pretty good!

Getting Enough Iron
If you give up meat, there's also a chance that you won't be getting enough iron. You can certainly take iron supplements, but for some reason they give me terribly stomach aches, so I opt out. Instead I (try to) eat heaps of spinach, nuts and the occasional spoonful of molasses. I love this spinach strawberry salad and this spinach and pasta recipe. Here's a list of other iron-rich foods if spinach isn't your bag.

Eating Out As a Vegetarian
Not eating out is one of my secrets to living a champagne life on something of a beer budget, and being a vegetarian makes it even easier. When you're vegetarian and you're eating at a traditional American restaurant, you're usually limited to soup, salad and pasta ... and I'll be damned if I'm going to pay $12 for something I could make at home for $3. As such, I usually opt for Asian, Indian or Middle Eastern food instead. It addition to being more veggie friendly, it's usually cheaper, more fun, more flavorful and healthier, too! That's, like, a win/win/win/win situation.

When People Ask You About Being Vegetarian
If you made the choice to become a vegetarian, you probably had a good reason for it, right? And, on multiple occasions, you will surely be called upon to discuss your decision. There are heaps of reasons that people don't eat meat: maybe they want to save money, lose weight, reduce their carbon foot print, observe their faith's teachings on the subject, support animal rights or, like me, they just don't like meat. Whatever your reason for going veg, you should be prepared to talk about it in a calm and articulate manner. Because if you ever go to rural Minnesota someone will probably call you a Gawdam Hippie and tell you that you're personally responsible for the plight of the failing family farm.

But I digress.

People are often genuinely interested to know about your choice and it's nice to be able talk about it in some manner other than "but baby cows are soooooo ceeeee-ute!"

Not Alienating Everybody
Now. This is certainly not the case with everyone, but (like new converts to anything) the newbie vegetarian can occasionally be a total pain in the ass. You know who I'm talking about. That girl who would sit next to you at the cafeteria table in 9th grade while you ate peperoni pizza and shrill "It's not any different than eating your cat! I bet you'd do that too, wouldn't you!?" Or that co-worker who insists on telling you that marshmallows are made from cow hooves.

And while these arguments carry some weight, they're not going to win you any dinner party invites. We all have our causes. Some people picket. Some people donate money. Some people change their eating habits. Who am I to say that my particular habits are any better than a meat-eater's? I could be eating all the veggies I want and drive a gas-guzzling SUV, shop exclusively at Wal-mart and kick puppies in my spare time. Eating habits do not a martyr make.

When people ask me why I'm a vegetarian I explain that I've just never really liked meat and that since I've been a vegetarian for so long, I've gotten out of the habit of eating it. I might also add that since going veggie I've learned that avoiding meat has a huge impact on my carbon foot print, which is a pleasant side effect to something I was already doing.

Are you a vegetarian? Have you ever tried to be one?

original image (without text on top) by foto scon letra, for sale here

38 comments

  1. This would come through better if we'd have a language class but since we're not. There are two versions of the word skin in the lingo that was used. One word for skin as in human skin and another as for skin such as chicken skin. And the recently turned veggie sat down next to the rest of us that were having whole chickens from a rotisserie and said, with disgust, Are You Aware of That You Are Eating SKIN (the word for human skin). Well yeah but no and I am suddenly not hungry.

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  2. i always liked that you were a Gawdam Hippie, Sar :)

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  3. I was vegetarian for two years during university because I dislike the taste of meat. I loved it, I was unbelievably healthy, my skin was clear, it was cheap and so on.

    Then I moved to Poland. Poland isn't exactly a good place to live if you're vegetarian or don't like cabbage. I eventually started eating fish and then had to start eating meat on the occasion that the restaurant didn't even offer a fish dish.

    I moved back to Ireland after a while and kept eating meat occasionally. My boyfriend is a meat-eater so we have a compromise- meat twice or three times a week, vegetarian food for the rest of the week.

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    1. I'm pescatarian rather than vegetarian (vegetarian plus seafood), but I'm facing a similar problem now. I moved to North Germany about a year ago from the US and it's a lot more difficult. My favorite common vegetarian cuisine (Mexican, Thai and Indian) are so bland (seriously, the "salsa" you can buy is more like ketchup) that I either have to try making everything from scratch (easier said than done, considering available ingredients) or just eat the same things over and over again. It can get incredibly frustrating not being able to eat satisfying food regularly!

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  4. Thanks for the post!

    Although I must disagree, it is ALOT of fun sometimes to answer in a 12-year-old way to the 'why' question. I seriously often answer that I think animals are cute. But this is only if you are not trying to impress the person you're talking to!

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  5. Just over 5 years for me!
    I don't think I could go back to being a carnivore now if I tried :/

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  6. Yay! I've been a veggie for about 9 years now. No turning back!

    Also, I find it a bit amusing that people assume that, just by being vegetarian, you are automatically 'healthier.' Umm, no. You can still live on fried food, junk (i.e. pizza and chips), and sweets. My diet was not as extreme as that, but I ate quite badly until recently. I'm trying to eat healthier now... and a multivit helps, too.

    Another tip: Buy fruits and veggies that are in season. It's just strange eating cherries in the winter. Opt for butternut squash and pumpkins and potatoes... better for the environment to eat in season, plus, it gives your body just what you need during the colder months.

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  7. Great post! Great advice. Especially on how to talk about reasons for going vegetarian and how not to alienate everybody. I struggled with that-- both as a vegetarian and a meat eater. I was guilty of being an elitist, and I've also rolled my eyes when elitists preached their beliefs.

    I was a vegetarian for two years back in high school. I didn't do it right. Not that I ate unhealthy or made myself unhealthy, but I didn't do a lot of experimenting with different types of food-- I stuck to Morningstar meals, vegan burritos, and quesodillas.

    Now a days, I don't prepare meat for myself, but I do I will eat it when I visit my parents. And, I've been more adventurous when it comes to the meals I prepare.

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  8. Thanks Sarah! Great advice and that black bean soup sounds really good. :)

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  9. I just wanted to add that you can get local meat in most (if not all) places at a farmer's market. I don't eat factory farm meat for most of the reasons why people become vegetarians (poor treatment of the animals, carbon footprint, etc) but I think that as humans, we are biologically omnivores. Also, it's hard to be a sustainable family farm and survive without raising animals for meat - but those aren't the people you're supporting when you get a Big Mac. I would strongly recommend to anyone doing some research about it and maybe talking to some local farmers in your area to see if that might an option that works for anyone's purposes.

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  10. i've been vegetarian for a couple of months. i never really enjoyed meat enough to eat it a whole lot before so giving it up was pretty easy. at first, i continued to eat fish, i grew up by the bay and grew up on seafood so it was harder to let that go.
    my reasoning was basically that it's a huge pollutant and i no longer see how people can eat some animals and not others. not eating meat is basically my way of showing respect for the world.
    i can't stand the vegetarian who feels the need to "convert" others. it is your choice what to eat, and if some people like eating meat, let them.

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  11. Just went veggie about a month ago, and it hasn't been nearly as hard as I thought it'd be. I did it more for what I felt were ethical reasons and also to reduce my carbon footprint. I'm still learning how to eat without meat, but I am definitely enjoying the journey and the discipline of it. Thanks for the article!

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  12. I'm vegetarian.

    It bugs me when people say "But where do you get protein?" I should start asking them, "But where do you get phytochemicals if the only veggies in your life are french fries?"

    No one EVER worried about my eating habits when I was living on Ramen noodles, why start now? =)

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  13. Yes I tried being a vegetarian. My boyfriend called me a vagitarian .. haha. anyway i read that horryfying book skinny bitch and was completely traumatized. The switch actually wasnt that hard for me because i grew up on a middle eastern diet so i knew how to make a bunch of dishes anyway. The veggie lifestyle lasted for about three months. The first meat product I ate after i finally caved was a gyro at a diner... sooo gross but sooo good. Now i eat less meat than i used to and i'm definately more aware of it. So all in all the experience was a good one.

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  14. I went vegetarian and then vegan earlier this year, and it's been great fun! I never really cooked before, and now I make stews and salads and soups and such, all from fresh veg. I now have a shelf in my cupboard solely for different kinds of beans, and have discovered a love for cumin.
    I do have a tendency to chew everyone's ears off about how going vegan is the best/easiest thing you can do to reduce your planetary impact, but i'm not sure i've alienated anyone. yet...

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  15. I've been veg for over two years now, & was vegan for the first 6 months of those years. I'm half Pakistani, so I'm pretty sure my family thought I'd lost it when I told them I was giving up meat. Becoming a vegetarian forced me to learn how to cook a lot of traditional Pakistani dishes, as a lot of them have lentils & beans in them.

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  16. I've been a vegetarian for...gosh, like seven or eight years now? Maybe 9? I think it's 8-9 years. And the town I used to live in was TINY. My entire high school had one or two other vegetarians in it. So the part about 'gawdam hippies' made me laugh - I've definitely been there!

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  17. I became vegetarian again, after having a vegetarian childhood that was interrupted by a period (teens) when I ate meat. Coming back was easy for me, my parents are veg, my mom had a veg pregnancy (I was raised by blippies)

    I think it helps if you don't announce it, I don't hide it, but it is not something that I flaunt. I think the biggest awkward moment is eating with other peoples parents, they are the worse, being veg is not an eating disorder, and I DON'T WANT YOUR POT ROAST !

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  18. 8 Year Vegetarian, or as I like to call it, VegHead/BroccoliHead.

    I think eating out is probably the worst part of it. That and being called "difficult", or "picky", or as Zavi said, being accused of having an eating disorder (especially because I am naturally tall and thin). @ Zavi: I agree, other people's parents are sometimes terrible. "Oh, I just put meat in it for flavor", etc.

    If you like vegetarian chili, I have an awesome recipe:
    http://marrowofthevolcano.blogspot.com/2009/09/omnom-vegetarian-chili.html

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  19. I've been veggie c. 9 years, vegan for 2, and pseudo-raw for a few months now. Definite second on the Middle Eastern/Indian/Asian food note.

    My best advice for the newly veg (aside avoiding junk food vegetarianism)? If you're missing McDonalds, have a deep think about why. Our attachment to certain foods is usually emotional and can be easily substituted.

    Good luck!

    Post script: Another great soup brand is Amy's. It's organic and usually vegan too, bonus!

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  20. I am a vegetarian and am dabbling in veganism as well.. I think eventually I'll be a vegan but I'm not there yet. I have a vegetarian foodie blog (haha, totally plugging myself here) http://vegetarianchickie.wordpress.com/ which has loads of recipes.

    At first, I found it was all about finding good cookbooks, if the only cookbooks you have use strange and difficult to find ingredients then you will spend your time feeling overwhelmed.

    I love the Moosewood cookbooks for some great hearty vegetarian soups and I have a great slowcooker book "Fresh from the vegetarian slowcooker" which has easy and delicious meals for wintertime.

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  21. I'm currently living on my friend's couch so I'm limited to what they eat, but when I finally move into a place of my own I'll be able to dabble into vegetarianism. I live in a "hippie" city and used to work at a burger place where we did have vegetarian burgers, but some people just ordered them in such a smug, self-righteous manner that they left an awful taste in my mouth. I definitely don't want to be like one of those people.

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  22. I've been vego for about 8 years, no problem. I was vegan for a while, and mostly am, but living with French housemates drove me back into the arms of wonderful cheese.

    For good eating, see veganyumyum.com

    And look for the absolutely wonderful cookbooks from Sarah and Tanya from www.govegan.net/

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  23. I've been a pescetarian for about 2 and a half years now. My reason for not eating (other) meat is that I started over thinking it, realising I was chewing on the flesh of some animal and really grossing out. And that's what I tell people when they ask.
    They usually go "Oh, I've never thought of it like that, that's really gross, I don't want this huge chuck of steak anymore."
    Ha!

    And no, I have absolutely no idea why I don't feel gross when it comes to eating fish. I will suck the legs of a crayfish if given half a chance.

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  24. for a few months i am living vegetarian now, both for ethical/moral reasons and the environmental thing.
    i started eating less meat, and if so, only if it was a healthy, happy animal that was kept, treated & slaughtered appropriate to the species, mostly at local butchers & farmers. but since i already did that for ethical reasons it just didn't seem consequent enough, i felt like a hypocrit. so, now, it's only non-meat dishes for me. the only thing i miss is fish, at some times.

    for the last five years cooking was one of my favourit hobbies & there are a lot of vegetarian dishes you can make without "only" eating salat every day. whoever says vegetarian food is boring simply can't cook, or just sticks too much to "tradition" and the thought that a piece of meat belongs to a good meal. for me it's a CHALLENGE to cook a nice meal that i used to cook with meat & now want to replace that with veggies. because i must say, i'm not a too big fan tofu and soya (;

    as long as i have an alternative to eating meat, i will opt for that alternative. and there are loads of them! vegetables, nuts, fruit, seasonable or not, there are a lot of ways to eat healthier or at least to feel morally better. for yourself. besides missing fish at some times i only have one problem: some of my friends don't cope with it too well. we'll see about that, wish me luck (;

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  25. thanks btw for that lovely post. it is good to see, that nice, lovely people deal with that problems as well - and did just FINE. it's relieving (:

    cheers,
    martini

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  26. Eating out is always the hardest part about having any kind of diet restriction. I am allergic to Gluten, so Italian is usually impossible for me, but I end up going because everybody else wants to and paying $12 for a salad... sigh.

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  27. RE Iron: A vegetarian acquaintance who was pregnant was actually told by her doc to eat LESS FRUITS because she had TOO MUCH IRON in her bloodstream ! So, as long as you eat lots of raw fruits and veggies you don't need to worry.

    Just wanted to say that I have been vegetarian all my life, and my iron level is perfect (doc's words). I do put nettles or spinach into my smoothies, I love my Maca but other than that I don't take any supplements. In Germany there is something called Krauterblut, it's a syrup made of herbs & veggies, full of iron. It's much better absorbed than typical iron pills.

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  28. Thank you for writing this. While vegetarianism has so many benefits, it's easy to turn people off of the idea because of a holier-than-thou attitude, which is just unbecoming 99% of time. Thank you so much!!

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  29. Have been a vegetarian for at least 11 years now. I don't mind responding when people ask why I became vegetarian, but not when that question is used as a lever for them to push their own meat-centric views. Eg, "but vegetables are living creatures too!"

    Please. I've heard all these questions before, and your "clever arguments" are not going to suddenly make me start eating meat again.

    Each to their own.

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  30. I love this post. Love it.

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  31. I've been a vegetarian for 13 years and would never ever convert back, but in this modern world I live in I find it increassingly hard to keep true to my vegetarianism, if its not putting animal rennet in cheese in pasta sauce or putting fish oil in butter, or animal rennet in the cheese flavouring in crisps! It is hard and at the moment is a constant struggle . I feel like someone is constantley tryin to poison me with one thing or another ! I'm finding it hard to eat !

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  32. The quinoa vegetable soup recipe calls for chicken broth. would veggie broth work instead?

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  33. Very interesting article.I recently became a vegetarian through the support of a good friend of mine. At first making a lifestyle change was a little scary for me, so i decided to do some research online I came across i a few free newsletters that really helped me alot.

    1 Vegetarian Newbie http://www.vegetariannewbie.com

    2 Savvy Vegetarian
    http://www.savvyvegetarian.com

    3 Vegetarian Secrets

    http://www.vegetarian-secrets.com

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  34. just the title of the post had me laughing . THANK you for laying it out so clearly...so tru about the "pain in the ass vegetarians"! Ha!

    i was vegan for 13 days, vegetarian for 3 months, a self-proclaimed "weekday vegetarian" for another 6 months, and now just try to eat meatless meals as often as possible. i admire anyone who can stick with it without judging others for not being able to!

    heart your blog-came across it via olivine's charm school.

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  35. I adopted a vegetarian diet 23 years ago for nutritional, ecological and ethical reasons. If you think eating out now is hard, it's gotten so much better in every way.

    As for not alienating everyone you eat with, I've found it helpful to advocate that everyone eat tasty food. Focusing on the pleasures of eating (rather than on what people shouldn't be eating) puts you on common ground with omnivores. For me, tasty means meat-free dishes. Plus, it's honest. Whatever other reasons you have for your food choices, if your meatless meals aren't tasty, you're doing it wrong.

    A little humor helps too. It's just food after all.

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  36. Love this! I stopped eating meat because I never liked it in the first place. I was a vegetarian for a long time before I ever called myself one. Once I declared myself a vegetarian I started cooking a lot more and found a lot of recipes that I never would have looked for before. And another plus: I lost a lot of weight!

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  37. ... And kick puppies at spare time! HAHAHAHHAH you're hilarious!! I just found your blog and it's amazing!

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