Becoming a vegetarian isn’t like starting a diet. It is a transition to a new lifestyle and, like any life change, it can take some time for things to settle in and feel right. Giving up meat isn’t always easy and a gradual transition can help to make more lasting changes than trying to pull the plug overnight.
My recommendation would be to make small substitutions and gradual adjustments every few days or weeks, whatever your personal pace allows. Also, don’t focus on the few foods you’re giving up. Instead, focus on the abundance of amazing new foods you didn’t know you would love.
On that note, let’s talk about a few easy ways to transition away from meat and toward a plant-based diet… or just add some more veg meals to your week.
In this article
- Transition with vegetarian meats
- Healthier meat-like dishes
- Using beans in place of meat or chicken
- Vegetarian cooking classes
Transition with vegetarian meats
Vegetarian meats are often referred to as “fake meats” because they mimic the texture and (to some degree) the taste of real meat… without harming animals. For example,tempeh and seitan are commonly used to imitate beef, chicken, pork, turkey, duck, fish, crab, and shrimp.
Fake meats are relatively high in protein and can help to satisfy cravings and smooth the transition to a vegetarian diet. However, I don’t love them as a primary source of protein for a few reasons:
- Most fake meats are processed with preservatives, dyes, and emulsifiers. This is particularly the case for the fake meats you find in the supermarket.
- Seitan (pronounced saay-tan, not satan!) is wheat gluten, so it is not suitable for those with gluten sensitivities… and that population seems to be growing pretty rapidly.
- Tempeh is made from fermented soy and nearly all soy in the US is genetically modified. With that in mind, be sure to buy organic or “verified GMO-free” tempeh.
- Some fake meats contain eggs and dairy, so be sure to read the label if you’re going full vegan.
And by the way, regular ol’ tempeh — that has not been heavily processed to look and taste like fake meats — is actually quite nutritious. It has a firm texture, a nutty flavor, and you’ll often find it added to salads, as a tempeh ruben, or just mixed with rice and veggies.
Healthier meat-like dishes
When you’re in the mood for a burger, try one made from beans, quinoa, mushrooms, and/or veggies. They’re not difficult to make yourself, but for a quick fix, you’ll find them pre-made in the freezer section at the grocery store.
Like the fake meats, store-bought veggie burgers often contain artificial flavoring and preservatives, so you’ll want to wean yourself from them after a while and consider them an occasional snack. When you’re ready, there are a ton of fabulous recipes online to make healthy versions of these burgers yourself.
If you’re dreaming of meat because you crave a heartier meal, I’d recommend barley stew. Barley is a protein-rich winter grain with a chewy texture and rich flavor that satisfies.
Alternatively, grill a portabella mushroom, which is known for having a meat-like flavor and texture and makes a great “steak” without unhealthy additives. I find that a good bean chili also makes for a hearty, satisfying meal.
You can also find healthier meat (and seafood) alternatives made from nuts, seeds, coconut, and other simple ingredients. For example, coconut bacon is a popular — and oh so delicious — side at many vegetarian and vegan restaurants. You can also make (or order) foods such as “mock tuna” from sunflower seeds and almonds. Or “not pate” from a base of chopped walnuts.
Using beans in place of meat or chicken
While they may not taste like meat on their own, beans are an easy substitute for dishes that mix meats with vegetables or grains. For example, try adding your favorite beans to a pasta sauce or lasagna, instead of chopped meat.
In addition, it’s easy to substitute beans for chicken in soups, stews, and casseroles. And use beans instead of meat for tacos and burritos. They also make a delicious breakfast side, in place of bacon or sausage.
Also, lentils, black beans, kidney beans, and chickpeas (as a scrumptious falafel) all make excellent burgers when you’re ready to start cooking them yourself.
Vegetarian cooking classes
When I was first transitioning to a vegetarian diet, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I was eating meat twice a day and didn’t know any other way to live. So I went online and found a few vegetarian cooking classes to get me started. It was a smart move.
I learned to love foods I never knew existed (hello kabocha!) and new cooking methods that made my life easier (blanching!). I also learned all sorts of helpful tips and tricks in the kitchen, had a ton of fun and made new friends.
Most of all, the cooking classes gave me the building blocks and the confidence I needed to try new foods and new recipes on my own. It could not have been a more valuable experience and I highly recommend it.