Becoming Plant Based: Confessions of a Former Carnivore

How many times have you heard it: cutting out meat, or even animal products altogether, will help you lose weight, or give you more energy, or save the ozone layer or whatever?  I have been surrounded by testimonials and avid fans of a plant-based diet for years, and I was sure I’d never even consider it. Yet, when quarantining with my meat-loving Mediterranean family finally ended, I found myself back in my Oakland apartment and considering a switch. My body had actually started to feel weighed down and tired from four months of hearty, meat-based meals, and, heck, I had nothing else to do anyway.

With the help of my roommates, I’ve been exploring plant-based options for about a month now… and it hasn’t always been easy. At first, it was a little rough on my appetite, my kitchen and my wallet. But now, I can share with you some of the tips and tricks that can help you make a sustainable and economical transition to a diet of plant-based options!

  1. 1. Start Small

    If you're really trying to make long-lasting changes, quitting animal products cold turkey (haha, get it?) is not the way to go. Start by incorporating plant-based products into your diet little by little. Hauling a trunk full of produce home from Trader Joe’s on the first go just guarantees that you’ll be hungry and frustrated, you’ll waste your money and your groceries will go bad. Start by being more mindful of where you could incorporate plant-based alternatives into your normal diet. Swap a chicken taco for just rice, beans and the fixin’s, or maybe replace a small kitchen staple, like milk, with a plant-based alternative.

  2. 2. Learn to Cook 

    Roased Veg

    While microwavable, single-serve vegan meals are amazing for busy girls on the go, having one for every meal can seriously hurt your budget. For the most wallet-friendly option, you're going to have to learn to cook your meals, start to finish, for yourself. I’m not saying you have to become Gordon Ramsay. Just learn different methods for preparing the veggies you choose and work from there. Roast, steam, sautee — whatever floats your boat! 

    And, for the love of god, SEASON your food. I don’t care if you just use a dash of salt. All of the leafy greens that get a bad rap for being bland and bitter can suddenly become bursting with flavor with a little lemon or lime juice, salt and pepper. If you really want to get creative, you can use seasoning and dressing to make new veggie ingredients taste like old comfort foods — like buffalo cauliflower or teriyaki mushrooms! When you can DIY, you don’t have to rely on expensive prepackaged meals to sustain you!

  3. 3. Know What You Like

    If peas have made you want to yak since you were two years old, maybe don’t run out and buy 40 cans of peas. Pick a few meals with ingredients that you are excited to try and willing to cook — personally, I chose plant-based versions of old standbys: stir fry veggies and noodles, sweet potato and black bean tacos, vegan burritos, things like that. Pick a few snacks that you know you’ll actually reach for when you get hungry. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself reaching for the bacon the second your stomach growls. Dips like tzatziki or hummus with chips or carrots are great, inexpensive ways to get used to veggie-based snacking. Having a rotating menu of staples helps to ensure you won’t overbuy or purchase ingredients that you won’t need. Once you get good at cooking your faves, you can experiment with foods and recipes a little farther outside your comfort zone. 

  4. 4. Know Your Stores 

    a grocery store produce wall

    It is true that buying all fresh produce can get a little pricey, but I have a few tips up my sleeve to increase the value of your food, and it hasn’t really bent my budget by more than about $10. Trader Joes has great plant-based options for a fair price, but isn’t always accessible. For a bit pricier but more locally-sourced produce, Groceria Merante on Bates is a great small business to support. Any grains you can buy in bulk — rice, quinoa, couscous — are a great and long-lasting way to have nutritious bases on hand. Buying in bulk gives you more value and quantity for your dollar than ready-made, single-serve packages. 

    Buying frozen or canned veggies, fruits and beans is a relatively cheaper option that also lasts much longer, and therefore gives you more bang for your buck. I know it's not the same — but we’re college students trying to make some healthy changes, not professional chefs competing in Guy's Grocery Games here. But for the produce you can’t or don’t want to eat frozen, research how long these food items stay good, and meal plan in advance so that you don’t waste food or money. See if you can make multiple recipes with the same ingredients! 

  5. 5. Focus on Nutrition 

    One of the biggest mistakes I’ve heard among plant-based beginners is that they replace the void that meat once filled with copious amounts of pasta. While I would never condemn the choice to eat pasta, it is called going PLANT based for a reason. Replacing meat with starches can make you feel sluggish, and is also a great way to guarantee that you never get the nutrients you need. By incorporating the right plants into your diet, you can still supplement the protein that meat would’ve given you, and get more vitamins and minerals as an added bonus. You can still have pastas and rice — just make sure they're not the star of the show!

  6. 6. You Don’t Have to Be Perfect 

    person doing heart hand sign

    I personally am still not 100% plant-based, and I'm honestly not sure I ever will be. I still eat cheese and shrimp with some of my meals, and I enjoy the occasional Chick’n sandwich as much as the next girl. However, just because you can’t go 100% plant based doesn’t mean you should settle for 0! I would say at this point, a little over half of my daily meals are completely animal-product free —something I never thought I could bring myself to do, let alone enjoy. I feel so much healthier and more energetic, and I feel like I’m making a permanent investment in my long-term health. The moral of the story is, no matter what anyone says, you don’t have to become the ideal vegan. You just have to want to start!