People choose to "go veg" for myriad reasons related to health, animal welfare and sustainability -- but a vegetarian lifestyle poses challenges. Once you give up meat, you may realize how few options you have at restaurants or how much you miss a freshly grilled hamburger. While you need to get used to meeting your nutritional requirements with a new diet, you also need to learn how to make enjoyable, satisfying meals without meat.
Consider your nutritional needs. The American Dietetic Association proclaims vegetarian diets healthy if the vegetarian consumes a variety of plant-based foods. However, vegetarians need to pay attention to protein, omega-3 fatty acids, iron and zinc -- nutrients that come from meat in the typical American diet. Lots of plant sources, such as beans, legumes, soy, nuts and whole grains, provide protein; many of these plant-based foods are also high in omega-3 fatty acids, iron and zinc. If you're also avoiding eggs and dairy, you'll need to make sure you're getting enough iodine, calcium and vitamins D and B-12 as well.
Identify your favorite plant-based foods. Don't force yourself to eat lima beans when you prefer pinto beans. While you should consume a variety of plant-based foods -- including fruits and vegetables -- making a list of all the plant-based foods you enjoy can help you choose recipes you're likely to make on a regular basis. You can also experiment with new cooking methods, seasonings and ingredients in preparing your trusty favorites.
Explore meat substitutes. Don't throw out your old recipes -- faux "meats" like textured vegetable protein, tempeh and mycoprotein let you continue to enjoy dishes like chili con carne and barbecue chicken without the meat.
Obtain a vegetarian cookbook or subscribe to one of the myriad print or online vegetarian recipe resources, and then pledge to try one new recipe each week. Exploring new recipes introduces you to new ingredients, as well as new ways to prepare old favorites. Easing into new foods and recipes keeps you from becoming overwhelmed when planning your meals for the week.
Identify restaurants and carryout establishments with vegetarian options for the nights when you're not in the mood to cook. Many restaurants -- especially ethnic restaurants -- offer one or more vegetarian options. If you end up at a restaurant with nothing but meat on the menu, ask the server for suggestions. Often, the cook can prepare a pasta dish without the meat or throw together a fresh vegetable stir-fry.
Decide how strict you want to be with food ingredients and learn to read labels. Some processed foods contain ingredients that come from animal sources. Vegetarians differ in their willingness to consume these ingredients. While chicken stock and beef tallow are obviously from animal sources, gelatin, keratin and lipaseare harder to identify as nonvegetarian. When dining out, check that soups and sauces don't contain meat-based stocks or flavorings.
- To get more recipe ideas, host a vegetarian potluck and invite your vegetarian and meat-eating friends to bring a vegetarian dish to share. Make sure to plan ahead of time who plans to bring main courses, side dishes and desserts.
- Visit your local farmers market to discover fruits and veggies you may not have tried. Vendors are also often willing to share favorite recipes to go with the foods they sell.
First published in 2000, Dawn Walls-Thumma has served as an editor for "Bartleby" and "Antithesis Common" literary magazines. Walls-Thumma writes about education, gardening and sustainable living. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in psychology and writing from University of Maryland and is a graduate student in humanities at American Public University.
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