I realize that it must seem utterly impossible to many people that there is life without consuming animal products: no scrambled eggs in the morning, no chicken salad for lunch, no panna cotta for dessert! But really, the concept of exchanging these animal by-products for whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes is actually very simple. In theory, that is. I'm as weak as the next person when it comes to Coldstone ice cream or even a greasy, crunchy corn dog :) But our family is working on making these indulgences just that: indulgences, not everyday fare. I've been thinking of some tips to throw out there to any of you who'd like to eat more vegetarian/vegan but don't know where to start. So here they are!
1. Don't become a "junk" vegetarian. I had a friend who claimed to be vegetarian but all she ate was diet coke and Doritos. Just because you eliminate meat does NOT make you a healthy eater. You might save a few cows and actually lose a few pounds...but then you'd go bald and your vital organs would shut down. Instead, begin replacing some animal products with fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes. You'll feel just as full after a meal, without the meat-induced heaviness.
2. Other than plain eggs for breakfast, we have not missed eggs one bit. There are a myriad of ways to replace them in baked goods (including plain old egg substitute; a powdery combination of starches and leavening agents you can buy in most health food stores), and my new breakfast favorite is a french toast soaked in a banana custard instead of eggs. A word of warning: when baking with baking powder, don't overmix the batter and try not to taste it (esp. cake and pancake batter). It can taste metallic-y which really freaked me out the first couple of times. This disappears after cooking.
Just think...now you don't have to worry about the listeria and salmonella from raw eggs in cake batter or cookie dough! (like that ever stopped us from tasting it before :)
3. Legumes are no longer a side dish...let them take center stage! American have an obsession with protein. We're constantly worried we're not getting enough when in reality, with most of us aiming for 30% protein in our diet, we're often getting too much. The World Health Organization recommends that protein make up roughly 10% of a person's diet. High protein diets have been linked to heart disease, cancer and a host of other maladies. Well, diets high in animal proteins, that is. Contrary to popular belief, lots of plant products contain protein, mainly nuts and legumes. Your burrito doesn't need chicken AND refried beans! I have always been a fan of beans and now I'm finding even more fantastic ways of incorporating them into my diet. My latest obsession is hummus. I used to think it was the most disgusting thing in the world...probably because I only tried the plain kind. My new favorite cookbook (Eat, Drink and Be Vegan) has a plethora of outstanding hummus recipes. Not only does the author use them as a dip but she spreads them on sandwiches and wraps and uses them as a pizza sauce. Ingenious!!
4. Invest in a good blender and/or food processor. In the past I used my blender maybe once every couple of weeks for a smoothie or salsa. Now I use it practically every day: hummus, aiolis, smoothies, sauces, dressings, you name it. You will invest more prep time in your cooking as a vegetarian but the defrosting/cooking time you previously spent on meat will disappear. People also bring up the cost of buying nuts, avocados and oils and the fat content of these foods. The costs are actually just about the same as what someone might spend on meat and the fat is all the good kind! In previous years there's been an obsession with low-fat and low-cal everything. That's good if it gets you to weed out the donuts and butter in your life but not when you cut out essential fats. Remember, your body needs fat to function and to cushion organs...it's an excess of fat that creates the muffin top :) The calories you avoid by eliminating animal products will allow you plenty of leeway when it comes to the healthy stuff.
5. If you want to eat out, plan ahead of time. Quick, think of the closest restaurant or fast food joint with healthy options. Drawing a blank? That's cause there aren't any. Ok, I exaggerate, but in all seriousness, most of it is way worse than we realize. I've begun swearing off any place with a drive-thru since they never have many (if any) vegan options and healthy food takes time to prepare. Instead, I've stashed a couple of healthy(er) restaurant take out menus in my glove box for those days when there is just no time. Some of my favorites are Rubios Mexican Grill, Pita Jungle, Pasand Indian Food and Chipotle/Qdoba. You sometimes have to get creative (ordering a burrito without meat or sour cream, for example) but it's worth it.
6. DO. NOT. GO. HUNGRY. Once those hunger pangs set in, you're just short step away from consuming a dozen Krispy Kremes. Or is that just me??? Find some outstanding healthy(er) dessert recipes and let yourself indulge. Some of my favorite natural sweeteners are agave nectar (in my opinion, the best of them all), pure maple syrup, brown rice syrup, etc.
7. Make a weekly menu. If you're as bad of an improvisational cook as I am this will save your rear time and time again. There is nothing as despairing as seeing 4:30 roll around with not a clue of what's for dinner. Whiny children, afternoon slumps and no food in sight; it's enough to induce meltdowns in my house... and I don't mean from the kids. I always keep some super speedy dinners up my sleeve (with appropriate ingredients in the pantry) for those days when I'm out of groceries and options. For example: spaghetti marinara, vegan pancakes, tostadas, taco soup, rice with any kind of sauce (Trader Joes has the most amazing bottled Thai curries!).
8. Watch out for soy. It's very easy to replace all your meat and dairy products with soy substitues (soy cream cheese, soy cheese substitutes, tofu-based bacon, deli slices, you name it. yes, I agree, most of that sounds disgusting) but it's not a good idea. Remember, moderation in all things. There's still quite a bit of controversy about soy out there. Apparently it has enzymes that can fool the estrogen receptors in your body making it think that there's an abundance of hormones. Until that gets all figured out, I try to limit myself to one or two servings of soy a day and even less for my kids.
9. Don't give up! So you had a weekend with girlfriends where you feasted on caramel brownies and Ben & Jerry's?? (oh wait, that was me again). So what? Falling off the bandwagon is less important than getting back on. Remember, healthy eating should be about cultivating a diet that you LOVE. Not one that will prevent heart attacks but makes you barf. Case in point? Ever since my mom made me gag down squash in my youth, I have detested it. Butternut, acorn, sweet potatoes, you name it. I can hardly stand to taste the baby food I give my infant. But I know that it's good for me so I've been on a quest to find a delicious way to prepare it. I'm still looking but I've already found one way that makes butternut squash so delectable I can eat the whole thing (peel and slice it into rounds, sprinkle with salt and rosemary, bake at 400 for about 30 min. SO good!). Anyway, the point is, I'm not gonna make myself eat something I hate. I'm going to eat whole, plant-based foods that come from this delicious planet we live on and I'm gonna love it!
Especially when that food is coconut milk made into cookie dough ice cream....