Believe me, I know. I remember when I first became vegan, I was so confused about so many things that (more than once) I froze in the middle of the supermarket, crying in frustration, “I don’t know what to buy! What am I supposed to eat?”
Now that I’m an old pro at it, I can look back and see what I could have done to make it easier on myself and appreciate the things I did that were helpful in those early days. That’s why I am going to share with you my 7 Steps to Becoming a Vegan. Hopefully, you can benefit from my hard lessons learned and have a much easier time crossing over to the green side.
Step 1: Take a Look Inside
Why do you want to become a vegan? No, this isn’t a test, but it certainly helps to know what your motivation is. There are many paths to veganism and the one you take should match your outlook. A person is much more likely to stick with something if the actions they take gel with their wants and needs.
Is your main interest in improving your health or losing a few pounds? If so, then maybe what you want is to eat a more (or fully) plant-based diet.
There is a difference between eating a “vegan diet” and becoming a vegan. Eating a vegan diet is all about food and choosing the best foods for optimal health, while becoming a vegan is about much more than food.
Veganism is a lifestyle that seeks to eliminate all animal products from every aspect of life including food, clothes, make-up, toiletries, furniture and more. The focus of a vegan lifestyle is not health, but compassion towards animals. Certainly, it’s a healthier way to live but if health is your only concern, then you will focus mostly on what you eat.
Many people start out switching to a plant-based diet for their health and later get more involved in other aspects of veganism when they learn about its other benefits to the animals and the planet.
The important thing is to do it in your own time. There is no rule that says you have to wake up tomorrow and be 100% vegan and animal product-free. That’s nearly impossible! Don’t let other people pressure you or rush you. Take time to learn and figure out the best transition plan for you!
So long as you know why you are exploring the vegan world, you will be less likely to put unrealistic goals or expectations on yourself. And then, you can put more energy into enjoying the experience.
Step 2: Educate Yourself
While you certainly learn a lot by living vegan, being prepared can make things a whole lot easier. You don’t have to study and take tests but you should know a bit about what you’re getting yourself into. Besides the differences between eating a plant-based diet and living a vegan lifestyle which I mentioned before, a quick Internet search can score you easy lists of what vegans do and do not eat.
I know it sounds like it should be easy, right? If it comes from an animal, don’t eat it. If it doesn’t come from an animal, go for it.
But animal products and by-products are hidden in so many things and under so many sneaky names, they get by the best of us. You read a label and look for milk, butter, cheese and honey. You don’t see those ingredients so you think you’re in the clear but look again.
Is there casein, lactose or whey? What about carmine, gelatin, or albumin? Those are all animal-based ingredients and not vegan. But fear not. You don’t need a biochemistry degree, just some good sources with some handy lists like this one from the Vegetarian Resource Group.
There are also apps you can purchase and download for your devices. Check out this list of 11 More Must-Have Vegan Apps from VegNews Magazine (the must-have vegan magazine).
The minute you tell anyone you’re even considering a vegan diet, they will ask you “Where will you get your protein?” Most people think all our protein comes from meat and all our calcium comes from dairy, along with believing dozens of other nutritional half-truths. You might think this yourself. I know I used to think this way.
You don’t have to become a dietician, but getting to know a little bit about nutrition can help you navigate the waters of both choosing what to eat and how to answer the questions you know you’re going to be asked.
One more bit of advice: find out where other vegans are near you. Joining a meet-up group or even chatting with some vegans online can provide a wealth of information and support.
Step 3: Explore Your Options
Maybe one of the biggest mistakes I made at the beginning was to not find out just how many non-animal food products exist in the world. In my pre-vegan days, vegetables meant peas, corn and potatoes. Maybe a salad. After I made an eggplant dish, I thought, “Now what?”
It wasn’t that there wasn’t food out there to eat, I just wasn’t aware of it. There are so many vegetables, fruits, grains and other foods to eat, I can go weeks without eating the same thing twice. It’s amazing how many foods there are to try!
And try you must. I used to swear I hated at least a dozen vegetables even though I hadn’t tried them or maybe I had tasted them once. Now, I have a rule that I’m not allowed to say I don’t like something unless I’ve tried it several times and prepared it in different ways.
Palates change or maybe you have only had Brussels sprouts boiled. Yuck! If you think you don’t like a vegetable, try it roasted or fried. Roasting brings out the rich nuttiness of vegetables and frying, well, frying just makes everything taste better, doesn’t it? And now, I will fight my husband for the last Brussels sprout.
Eating a plant-based diet doesn’t mean just piling a bunch of greens and vegetables on a plate and grazing through them. You can put as much care and preparation into making vegan dishes as you do any other dish.
Make a list of fruits, vegetables, grains and other foods you would like to try and think about how you would like them prepared. You might want to even take the time to write out a few meal plans for a week or two and then buy the ingredients you need to make those dishes. Having a plan definitely beats having a confused meltdown in the middle of the supermarket.
Step 4: Don’t Sacrifice, Substitute
Maybe the idea of eating all new foods is too overwhelming for you. That’s fine. You don’t have to. No one wants to give up their favorite foods.
It took me as long as it did to go vegan because I thought I couldn’t live without chicken. Then I had a hard time letting go of eggs. But I did it and not because I just learned to live without those foods but because I learned how to substitute for them.
There is a vegan substitute for almost everything and if there’s something missing, I can guarantee you someone is working hard to develop it. There are vegan meats, vegan chicken, vegan fish, vegan hot dogs and sausages, vegan milks, cheeses and ice creams, vegan butter, and even vegan eggs. That means you don’t have to experiment with all new recipes and foods. You can eat all your usual favorites, just in vegan versions.
Eating the foods you usually eat with just that one change can make it much easier to transition to plant-based eating. What most people come to find is that with the right textures and flavors, vegan food tastes pretty close to the original and many times, even better.
Step 5: Wine and Dine Yourself
If buying and preparing vegan food feels a bit too complicated, try eating out at a few vegan restaurants. Depending where you live, you might find you have several to choose from and you can try many different dishes cooked the way they are supposed to be cooked.
If you don’t have vegan restaurants near you, try vegan options at mainstream restaurants. Having veg options is becoming much more common these days. Supermarket salad and food bars tend to have lots of vegan options, as do ethnic eateries like Chinese, Thai, and Mexican.
Check out your supermarket for already prepared and frozen vegan foods too. There are many companies that make really delicious vegan meals and ingredients like Gardein, Field Roast, Beyond Meat, and Amy’s.
Share your new dining experiences with your friends and family, especially the doubters. You just might find a new favorite place for get-togethers.
Step 6: See One, Eat One, Do One
Once you’ve gotten a taste for some vegan fare or if you’re just really confident in the kitchen, try your hand at a few easy recipes yourself. Check out some popular vegan blogs (like mine: The “V” Word at http://thevword.net) and web sites for ideas and recipes you can make at home.
Being able to make your own delicious meals gives you a sense of control and limitlessness about how much food is available to you.
Step 7: Review
After a week or two, sit back with a green smoothie and look back over your experience. How did it go? Was it easy, was it hard? Was it something you could easily see yourself doing for a longer time? Or, was it something you can see yourself learning and enjoying as it gets easier?
How do you feel? Healthier? Lighter? Happier? Many people talk about not only feeling better physically but emotionally. They say their consciences feel lighter, they feel more at ease in the world and happier.
If it was difficult for you, can you pinpoint what was hard about it? Was it something that could be easier with more preparedness, more support, or more practice? And if so, is it something you want to invest your time and energy in?
If the answer is no, then maybe it’s just not the right time for you and that’s ok. You can always revisit veganism later. If the answer is yes, then it sounds like you are ready to dip your toes a bit deeper into the vegan water. Time to jump in and enjoy!
Author and chef Rhea Parsons writes The “V” Word, one of the most popular vegan blogs today. Her goal is to promote veganism, help save animals, and fill bellies with lots of delicious cruelty-free foods. Her specialty is making vegan versions of favorite, familiar dishes and sharing those recipes online with fellow vegans around the world.