By April Hamilton, M.P.H., R.D.
My girlfriends and I were having lunch recently, chatting about our husbands and families, when we got into a conversation about vegetarianism. My friends faced a challenge: they knew a vegetarian diet is beneficial for optimal health, is great for the environment, and can add years to your life; but how could they make the transition to a vegetarian diet smooth and painless for their families?
As we chatted I shared practical suggestions I’ve learned from personal and professional experience, a few tips to make the process easier:
1. Get support.
First things first: if you are attempting the transition to a vegetarian diet, it is best to have a support group. Why go it alone? Recruit your friends, family, or coworkers to help keep you faithful. It’s much easier to stick to the transition if you have people supporting you. Although your family might not like the idea of switching from a meat-lover’s pizza to a veggie-lover’s, do your best to gain their support. Reassure them that a vegetarian diet isn’t just salads and vegetables, but a wide variety of foods that are full of flavor. Once you have recruited a few people, you’ll be able to offer each other encouragement, share recipes, and try new foods together.
2. Transition slowly.
The majority of the time, change doesn’t happen overnight. It’s easy to get discouraged and burned out if you try to change too much too quickly. Often the people who try to go it all at once end up quitting because they think it is too hard.
Begin with eating a vegetarian meal Monday, Wednesday, and Friday; and then work up from there. Two to three vegetarian weeknight dinners is a great place to start and, as you will discover, is usually not a drastic change. Week by week, as you feel comfortable, you can increase the frequency of vegetarian meals, and in no time you will be eating vegetarian meals every day of the week. No one ever said you have to do it all at once.
3. Get the staples.
Stocking your pantry with staple items is a must for making a smooth transition. Begin with a variety of beans and legumes. Canned or dried beans (garbanzo, kidney, black, pinto) make a hearty main or side dish for any vegetarian meal. Bulgur wheat, quinoa, brown rice, oats, barley, and whole-grain pasta are also convenient, healthy, and hearty must-haves.
Your spice cabinet is also extremely important and will add the flair your taste buds need. Who wants boring food? Cumin, coriander, chili powder, curry powder, and turmeric are just a few of the spices that can add flavor to your food. Experiment a little, and the people at your dinner table will be fascinated with an array of exciting dishes that are colorful and flavorful.
In the refrigerator keep a supply of the fruits and vegetables your family likes. As part of the transition, look up new ways to cook those favorites, beyond the usual boiling and frying.
If you keep items that are essential to a vegetarian diet on hand, then it will be much more convenient to prepare meals in a flash.
4. Go shopping—for cookbooks.
Treat yourself to a few great vegetarian cookbooks. Having the same food every meal will become mundane for your family, so make it fun and experiment with new foods and recipes. Order a few books from the Internet or ask for recommendations at your local bookstore. If you have vegetarian friends, they will probably be glad to share a few suggestions—and a few recipes of their own—as well.
5. Make a plan.
Meal planning is one of the most important aspects of transitioning to a vegetarian diet. It’s important to plan ahead, because when you don’t know what to make, you’ll end up not making anything at all, preparing your go-to meat dish, or just eating out. It may not feel natural at first but schedule a time, perhaps on a Sunday afternoon, to sit down and figure out your meals for the week. Get out the cookbooks, recipes, and magazines and plan four to five weeknight meals. Go grocery shopping that day, and you’ll be set for a week of scrumptious vegetarian meals.
6. Explore your local farmer’s market.
If you are looking for the freshest in-season produce, head to your local farmer’s market. Since there is no packing and shipping involved, the produce at local markets is able to stay on the vine longer and fully mature before being sold. In contrast, supermarket produce can be picked weeks before it ever ends up on the produce aisle.
Another bonus: most farmers willingly disclose what pesticides and fertilizers they use, so you can know exactly how your food was grown. You will enjoy your food more if it is fresh and harvested at its peak.
7. Be creative.
Being a vegetarian should not be drab. There are more resources available to vegetarians than ever before—so use them! Keep it interesting and exciting by trying new fruits and vegetables, cooking flavorful recipes, and remembering that variety is key.