So you’re interested in eating healthier and maybe even beginning to add more plant-based meals to your table? Congratulations! Not only is incorporating more plant-based foods into your diet healthier for you and your family, it’s also much better for our planet. Did you know that in their 2006 report, the United Nations stated that raising animals for food generates more greenhouse gasses than all the cars and trucks in the world combined? Or, that it takes about 2,500 gallons of water to produce just one pound of beef in the North America? Crazy, right?!
I initially became interested in eating this way after learning about some of the preventative health benefits of a plant-based diet. At first, it seemed too good to be true that simply eating a diet made up primarily of real foods could prevent many of the diseases of affluence that we see today, such as many instances of heart disease, certain types of cancer, many cases of diabetes & obesity… but the more I read, the more convinced I became that we had nothing to loose eating this way. Even if it wasn’t the cure-all, eating more fruits and veggies certainly wasn’t going to hurt us!
When we first made the switch, I was pretty overwhelmed because while I had always been fairly health conscious, dinner had always looked like a starch (usually pasta, rice or potato), a large cut of meat, and a serving of veggies. I was a really picky eater as a kid and so I was just beginning to branch out of my bland comfort zone. I’m pretty sure that there were more than a few nights that we just ate a baked potato with a plate full of veggies because I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to make! But thanks to Pinterest, some great vegan cookbooks, a few trusty blogs and some willingness to experiment, we were eating better than ever before in no time. Over the years, my taste buds really have changed. It’s amazing that when I walk in the door from work starving now, a salad sounds really delicious because that’s what my body craves these days. If we’re out of greens in the house or on vacation where we’re not eating as well as we do at home, I start to miss spinach more than I ever knew possible! We’re still far from perfect, but I’ve listed some of the tips and tricks that we’ve found helpful on our plant-based journey in order to make it easier for others who’d like to do the same.
1.) It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Now I know that I’ll catch some flack for this from my friends in the vegan community, but I really believe that it’s much better to do something rather than nothing. So if you want to start out trying “Meatless Mondays” for a while, by all means, start there! Or switch your weekday lunches over to giant salads, packed to the brim with raw and cooked veggies. Or switch breakfast over to a green juice or fruit smoothie. Or if you really don’t think you can live without cheese- don’t! Just be selective about when you have it and regard it more as of a treat than a staple. When you start paying attention, you’ll realize that here in the USA, restaurants put cheese on EVERYTHING! Pretty soon, one change will become the new normal and you can pick another change when you’re ready to tackle it.
2.) Plan ahead. Take 15 minutes anywhere you’ve got them and make a meal plan. I like to plan while we’re all in the car and my husband is driving. I usually bring along a cookbook or two and use Pinterest to fill in the gaps. Bonus- I’ve got the whole family right there so that I can ask for their help deciding what sounds good for the week!
After going to thestore, try prepping your fridge. It’s much easier to put a healthy meal together if your veggies are already washed, chopped, some are roasted, and you’ve got a healthy whole grain (like brown rice, quinoa, or barley) cooked and ready to go. If my lunches aren’t leftovers, they’re usually a bowl or a salad made from prepped ingredients. I like to mix it up a bit each week, but I typically have a container of mixed greens and one of spinach, raw veggies like shredded carrots, cucumbers, snap peas, scallions, broccoli, peppers, and some rinsed canned beans ready to go. I also roast more veggies than I need for each meal so that I always have leftovers in the fridge (I love mixing cooked and raw veggies in my salads and bowls!).
My whole family appreciates it when I have a salad bar ready to go in the fridge. The kids snack on more veggies and they’re ready to go in their lunches, it makes it easier for my husband to choose veggies over chips to dip his hummus in, and I can assign one of the boys to make our big dinner salad each night because everything is already cut up and ready to go!
3.) Educate yourself. I make it a point to read books about healthy eating and watch food documentaries whenever I feel my motivation running low. I have found all of Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s books informative, helpful and inspiring, as well as “The China Study” and “Whole” by Dr. Colin T. Campbell. “Blue Zones” by Dan Buettner is less scientific but really interesting because it focused on what different populations who live the longest around the world eat (I’ll give you a hint, there wasn’t a ton of meat, cheese or milk in those diets!). And if you’re a runner or endurance athlete, “Born to Run” was one of my favorite books to read, although a plant-based diet is more of a side note in that one. The documentaries “Food Matters”, “Hungry for Change”, “Cowspiracy”, and especially “Forks Over Knives” are also all very interesting and keep their focus on the science and health benefits of following a plant-based diet, along with the environmental impact of the SAD (standard American diet). While the ethics of eating animals didn’t initially affect my decision to take them off my plate, it did eventually catch up with me after doing so well without eating them. However, I still don’t recommend documentaries that focus on the ethical component of eating animals because, well, they are usually very graphic and disturbing to watch and at least for me, that wasn’t a necessary step in wanting to go plant-based.
I’d also highly recommend investing in a few plant-based cookbooks. Many local libraries, mine included, carry a pretty decent selection and are a good place to start if you’d like to try before you buy. If you like a cookbook that’s been in print for a while, try buying it used on Amazon. I’ve found some really great deals that way! I’m planning on adding a media resources tab soon which will include cookbook reviews, as well as potentially starting a book club if I can generate enough interest. I’d love to hear your suggestions for books and docs as well!
4.) Make it Fun! Like I mentioned, I was pretty overwhelmed in the beginning. We certainly didn’t love every meal I ever made but I kept seeking out new recipes to try that looked promising and over time became a much better cook. Get the kids involved, get your spouse involved, invite a friend over, put some good tunes on and connect with your food! Try making some of your favorite dishes without the meat and dairy, like lasagna with lots of veggies and a tofu ricotta or cashew cream sauce, or skip the cheese and meat the next time you order pizza! Dominoes knows our veggie pizza with extra veggies, extra sauce, and no cheese order well 😉 Each week, try to pick a new vegetable or a new fruit to try to keep it interesting… you’ll be amazed at the variety out there! Try cooking an Indian or Thai dish; there is so much flavor in those sauces that I’m pretty sure you could put chopped up pencils in a curry and it would still be delicious! My point is, many people are afraid that they’ll be doomed to a life of iceberg lettuce salads or that they’ll have to give up all their favorite foods, but that’s simply not true unless you make it so. It doesn’t take much digging to find a vegan recipe for just about anything and who knows, you might even like it better! I should note that just because something is labeled “vegan”, doesn’t mean it’s healthy; especially when it comes to processed foods but it can a good place to start if you want to re-create a favorite dish. Once you’ve read up a bit on the difference between plant-based, whole foods and vegan, it will be easier to tweak any recipe to make it healthier.
I LOVE the way we eat now and wouldn’t change it for anything. I feel better physically and mentally, it’s much easier for me to manage my weight, and I know that I’m giving my body (and my family’s bodies) a much better chance of avoiding heart disease, cancer, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. Best of luck to you, where ever you are on your journey and please let me know if I can help in any way!