Back to Basics: Making the Vegan Transition

You’ve flirted with veganism, but have never been able to fully commit. You want to try it out, but you’re not sure where to start. What if you eat cheese accidentally? What if you have a team lunch at a steakhouse and you don’t want things to get too awkward? What if you can’t achieve vegan perfection?!

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Chill out and take a deep breath. I’m here for you. Something I’m passionate about is supporting people who want to become plant-based, and to that end, I’m writing up a series of “back to basics” posts. If you’ve been considering going vegan but aren’t sure where to begin, I’ve got your back. Read on for five tips on how to go vegan, and please email me (girlinthegarden@gmail.com) if you want to chat further. And if you’re one of my fellow long-time vegheads, rock on.

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Today, let’s talk about transitioning to a vegan diet and lifestyle. These five guidelines are not the end-all, be-all, of course, but I think they’ll help just about anyone who wants to go veg. Try them out and let me know what you think.

  1. Come up with a plan that fits you.
  2. Be prepared.
  3. Don’t sweat the small stuff.
  4. Ask for help.
  5. Know why you’re making the change.

Come up with a plan that fits you.

No two people live their lives the exact same way, and no two people will have the same exact motivations and methods when they transition to veganism. If you’re the type of person who makes decisions in a split second and dives straight in, you might do just fine ditching animal products in a single leap and becoming vegan overnight. And that’s awesome. Go you! If you know you’re that kind of person, your transition might involve less planning and more doing.

On the other hand, you might be a diehard planner. If schedules and research and preparation are an essential part of your life, you might transition to vegan slowly. And that’s awesome too. Go you! If you fit somewhere in this category, planning will obviously be a larger part of your transition.

Personally, I need to ease myself into big life changes. I didn’t become vegan overnight; I spent the better part of a year being vegan in practice but not in name. I needed to show myself I could do it before applying the label and making it official. To be honest, I didn’t want to fail or make a mistake (perfectionist much?). If this sounds familiar, here are some ideas for easing into your transition.

  • Try the “vegan before six” option (or something similar) for a while. Show yourself that you can do it while allowing yourself an out in case you get stressed.
  • Eat vegan on your own, but not necessarily with others. If you go out to a restaurant and your salad is topped with cheese, it’s cool. Don’t broadcast your change to the world until you’re comfortable doing so (not that you ever need to “broadcast” it at all!).
  • Host vegan dinner parties (without necessarily drawing attention to the fact that they’re vegan) to show yourself and others that it’s not so bad being vegan in a crowd. Drink some wine, chat with your friends, and show yourself that your life won’t change all that much just because you aren’t serving a (dairy-based) cheese plate anymore.
  • Cut out animal products by category. Ditch the dairy, then eggs, then honey.
A backpack with food spilling out of it: Five Larabars, one Halo candy bar, one apple, a bag of coconut-covered date rolls, and a container of homemade trail mix. There's also a reusable cloth hand towel with a flower and the word "SUSTAIN" printed on it. All items are labeled in the photograph.

Always be snackin’.

Be prepared.

Even if you’re the dive-right-in sort of person, do some research as you go. Read up on vegan nutrition. Browse your favorite recipe site for plant-based options. Subscribe to blogs that have lots of recipes that look appealing and doable.

Jumping into vegan cooking doesn’t have to be overwhelming, especially if you put a little forethought into the transition. Think about how you like to cook now, and then research how to make it vegan. If you’re the type of person who gets tired after work and wants no-fuss dinner options, make yourself a Google doc or a few Pinterest boards or a bookmark folder (or even a hard-copy binder!) with meals you know you could handle. If you have non-vegan standard meals or staples you feel totally comfortable cooking, look up vegan versions of them (e.g. bean burritos instead of beef burritos, pizza without cheese, spaghetti and non-meatballs). The way you cook doesn’t have to undergo a huge shift once you’re vegan — only the ingredients need change.

Preparation is also key when you can’t plan in advance. Road trips, days out with friends, work lunches with suspect catering… lots of opportunities might leave you wondering when (and what!) you’re going to eat next. And if you, like me, tend to find yourself suddenly hungry and suddenly very, very irritable, you’ll want to keep yourself stocked with travel-friendly vegan snacks. Clif bars, Lara bars, trail mix, and any purse- or glove box-friendly snack will do the trick.

Traveling can also set new vegans into a panic, but with a little prep work you’ll be able to keep yourself nourished anywhere on the globe. I have some tips for travel snacks, along with eating guides for a few airports. And if you haven’t checked out HappyCow, hie thee hence without delay! HappyCow is the best resource for finding vegan-friendly eateries all around the world.

Don’t sweat the small stuff.

Despite that perfectionism I mentioned, I am a big believer in personal forgiveness (theoretically, at least — in practice, it can be difficult to apply!). If you accidentally slip up, it’s okay. It happens to everyone. Just because you accidentally ate bread made with margarine that contains a tiny amount of casein or whey doesn’t mean the rest of your commitment is worthless or somehow negated. Nope. That’s not how it works. Even if you consciously eat something you know is suspect, you don’t have to beat yourself up. Live, learn, and move the heck on. Mistakes happen.

Ask for help.

Yes, the vegan community sometimes gets a bad rap. But in my anecdotal experience, nearly every vegan I know is warm, caring, empathetic (duh?), and willing to help. If you’re struggling during your transition or you just have questions, reach out! The Post Punk Kitchen forums are a great place to start. I also love the Reddit Vegans Facebook page; it’s one of the most inclusive, welcoming groups I’ve seen.

Pig at Poplar Spring animal sanctuary

A sweet piggie at Poplar Spring animal sanctuary.

Know why you’re making the change.

Obviously you should know why you’re choosing to go vegan before you commit to it. But I’d argue that it’s just as important — if not more important — to continually remind yourself why you’re doing it and to stay up to date with what’s going on the vegan world. Once you see that first slaughterhouse video, you might be tempted to avoid so much as scrolling past a similar video in the future. But if your resolve starts to flag or you’re getting frustrated that you can’t eat the pancakes at your favorite brunch spot, you might need a kick in the pants to remind you why you made the choice to stop eating animals.

Even if your commitment never wanes, it’s still instructive to keep yourself educated. Follow some of your favorite vegan or animal welfare organizations on Facebook, or scour your library for books about the ethics and practice of veganism. You will get into conversations about your choice to eschew animal products, and it can be useful to have a wealth of arguments and knowledge ready for those discussions.

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So — what do you think? Are these tips helpful? Are you ready to go vegan? Let me know, and remember that you can always ask for help or reassurance if you need it. My email address is in the second paragraph, and I’m always happy to talk.

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My Vegan Inspiration: Auntie Jae

VeganMoFo 2015 banner

Day 18: Honor a human or non-human animal who inspires your veganism.

Truthfully, every non-human animal I meet reinforces my veganism. From the dogs who come to work with me to the rescued animals I meet at every sanctuary I visit, every animal reminds me that we are all alike and all equally deserving of compassion, respect, and humane treatment.

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From left to right: 1. Our little adopted Luna, a tiny mutt with megaesophagus. She’s often aloof and enigmatic, and she requires special care, but when she deigns to give us a lick or a nuzzle, our hearts just melt. 2. Rescued piggies at Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary. You can’t not smile when you see how much they enjoy wallowing. 3. My Moria, the sweetest girl in the world.

On the human front, so many people buoy my spirits and keep me going. Steven is, by far, my #1 supporter and my #1 champion. My parents, who are vegan and mostly vegan, make me proud every day. My compassionate friends are forever enthusiastic about vegan food and cute animals and saving the world. There’s a lot of inspiration in my life.

But today I’m thinking especially of my Auntie Jae. She was the first family member to go vegan, years ago, in an effort to address a few health problems. I think she was the first vegan I ever knew! She’d bounced around from diet to diet, but nothing stuck — except veganism. It’s a far cry from Atkins, but veganism has one big difference from all those fad diets: its base in ethics. As my aunt says, once you learn about the horrors of factory farming and what goes on behind closed doors, you can’t go back. And even if you become vegan for health reasons, the ethics behind it keep you going.

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My smart, compassionate, lovely aunt.

My aunt is one of my biggest fans. She’s an enthusiastic supporter of my blog and always likes to hint about a future cookbook, which is flattering and charming. When we get together (which is rare, because I’m in Maryland and she’s in Colorado), we chat about veganism and food and politics and all those topics that help you really get to know how someone else thinks and feels and believes. We’re very much on the same wavelength where it matters. I like to think it’s because she babysat me when I was an infant and my mom was wrapping up her last year of teaching — like she passed on her progressive values to my tiny self!

So here’s to you, Auntie Jae! Thank you for showing me that veganism is both simple and incredibly important. I can’t wait to share a meal with you soon!

When Vegans Get Sick: A Thought or Two (or Three)

Three weeks in and already I’m giving 2013 the side-eye. I’m still pretty optimistic about the year as a whole (I’ve got Plans, you see), but so far it’s brought S and I a hefty share of unpleasantries. First there was my New Year’s Eve case of suspected food poisoning, which, although it didn’t technically happen in 2013, practically did. I say “suspected food poisoning” because, lo and behold, poor S came down with very similar symptoms barely a week later, leading me to think we actually each had a case of fast-moving norovirus.

Then, the very next weekend, S bent his permanent retainer (the kind some orthodontists install behind your bottom teeth) while crunching a roasted sriracha pea. This happened mere hours before a vegan friend cooked us dinner. S was worried that his tooth discomfort would ruin the evening, but his appetite was unaffected and his mouth didn’t hurt as much as he feared. He got the retainer removed a few days later.

Then, a week or two later, we got flu shots* and I experienced some unpleasant side effects. I woke up in the middle night with an unstoppable case of the chills – I was shivering and quivering all over, my teeth were a-chattering, and no amount of blankets or snuggles could make it stop. In the morning the chills were gone, but I was feeling off. I ended up coming home sick because I ached all over and my head felt all stuffy and generally bad.

Thennn, this past Saturday, S experienced a terrible back spasm while moving a heavy clothing rack. He could barely stand up, his face went pale, and he thought he might vomit or pass out. He hobbled out of the store, painfully arranged himself prone on the back seat of my car (he couldn’t sit!), and we went straight to urgent care, where he was prescribed a muscle relaxant and painkillers. Three days later, he’s finally feeling [mostly] better.

And that’s been our 2013 so far! I don’t write all this to complain, though – there are folks with much worse and more pressing medical issues out there. Instead, I want to offer a gentle reminder that being vegan does not mean you will never get sick. It doesn’t mean that you will be wholly resistant to disease, a strapping superhero with an immune system of steel. That’s a pesky notion that worms its way into one too many “all about being vegan” books for my liking. (Christina Pirello, I’m looking at you.) The idea that veganism is a panacea, a cure-all for whatever ails ya, is dishonest and dangerous. How many books and articles have you read that promise glowing skin, radiant health, and instant weight loss once you drop the dairy? Too many. Sure, some folks might experience one or two or even all of those as side effects of going vegan. But just as many – if not more! – people won’t experience those wildly obvious external changes. I’m uncomfortable with promoting veganism as a solution to a menagerie of unruly health issues.

I suspect that part of the problem is the vegan community’s reluctance to admit defeat. How many times have you read a blog post that starts with something like, “I rarely get sick, but I have a cold!” or “I haven’t been sick in aaaaages, but now I’m hit with the flu.” I’ve certainly been guilty of it. Maybe what we say is true. Maybe some vegans do have stronger immune systems – I’m certainly not doubting that it’s possible. But I think we often like to present ourselves as, perhaps, stronger and healthier than we are. Maybe it’s a reactionary instinct to the nay-sayers who think that vegans are, as a rule, sickly and weak. Maybe it’s just because everybody else is doing it, so we don’t want to appear less than our vegan counterparts. Either way, I find it worrisome. If I’m a new vegan, and I don’t immediately experience clear skin and boundless energy, and I still experience allergies and colds and general sickness, mightn’t I feel like I’m doing something wrong? Or that I’ve been duped by the spunky, oh-so-radiant vegans who told me going vegan would take care of all my woes? I’d rather we be honest and admit our weaknesses instead of setting up the unreal expectation that we’ll never get sick and we’ll all be beautiful and glowing and we’ll all be our ideal weights and able to run marathons with no practice. Y’all, that’s just not how it works.

I’m musing on this topic in part thanks to our series of recent health unpleasantries and in part thanks to Sayward’s recent post on a similar topic. Her health journey was scary and serious and eye-opening, and she writes about it and its implications in much more depth than my rambling last couple paragraphs. But her points and my points are aligned, I think, and though I could say more (indeed, have been thinking of more for months and months!), I’ll stop myself. This is already a photo-less, word-heavy post, and that just ain’t my thang.

I’m curious, though – do you feel compelled to present yourself as extra-healthy just because you’re vegan? Do you notice the vegan-as-panacea myth in vegan circles and literature?

*A note on the flu shot: No, it’s not vegan – it’s incubated in chicken eggs. I didn’t plan to get it, but I’ll be working in a hospital next month and it’s required for all staff and visitors. Veganism is about doing the best we can with the options we have, and as a vegan alternative to the shot doesn’t exist yet, I’m okay with having a non-vegan vaccination if it means protecting the health of folks with already compromised immune systems. For more thoughts on the intersection of veganism and vaccinations, check out Gena’s fabulously comprehensive and thoughtful post on the topic.

Queen of Apologies No More: From Restroom Run-ins to Rhapsodizing on Veganism, All in One Fell Post!

Sometimes the most mundane, silly experience can inspire serious self-reflection.

A few days ago, I had a fairly awkward restroom encounter. I was exiting, my coworker was entering, the door opened suddenly – it was all very surprising, and I let out an involuntary, “Oh my goodness!” and raised my hand to my throat; apparently when I’m startled I revert to Jane Austen-esque behavior. My coworker, equally startled, visibly jumped a bit and then started laughing and apologizing profusely.

“I always scare people like that with the door! I’m sorry!” “No, it’s okay, I’m sorry!” I said, also laughing. After we’d each said our repeated sorries, we went our separate ways, and I started thinking about those apologies.

What is it that makes us so quick to apologize in situations like that? Sure, I was sorry that my coworker was surprised at the door when she just wanted to use the restroom in peace, and I’m sure she was sorry that she nearly needed to bring out the smelling salts for my startled self, but were either of us sorry for attempting to enter / exit the restroom, respectively? Of course not! Our timing was just a little unfortunate, but neither of us could have helped that. Yet the sorries flowed as if we carried rivers of regret for our awkward meeting.

I used to pour forth gratuitous, nearly involuntary apologies like I was some overactive geyser of guilt. If Apologia Unecessaria were a country, I was the queen, showering my subjects with useless sorries from on high. I knew that the impact of an apology is fairly limited if it’s the 50th one you’ve said in a day, yet I had to consciously stop myself from saying sorry. And this need to show my penitence made its insidious, ingratiating way from my insecure little self into the kitchen and the dining room.

“Sorry for being a pest!” “Sorry for making you go out of your way to cook me something!” ”Sorry for making us choose a restaurant that doesn’t serve your typical American food!”

Not wanting to seem like I was purposely creating trouble for people with my veganism (and previously my vegetarianism), my gut reflex was, for the longest time, to apologize, apologize, apologize, and then thank, thank, thank. After all, who was I to force people to adapt their cooking styles?  Was my personal eating pleasure worth making others go out of their way to accommodate me? My instinct – that insidious, insecure instinct – used to say no. My dietary restrictions are voluntary; it’s not like I’ll go into anaphylactic shock if I eat a scoop of ice cream or chomp on some cheese. I’m sorry for making things difficult! I’d say.

These days? I am not sorry anymore. I am proud of my dietary choices. Going vegan was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I harbor absolutely no regret for kicking dairy and eggs to the curb once and for all. In so many ways, I feel happier, healthier, and cleaner of conscience now than I ever, ever have in the past. I feel more complete.

And the sorries? They’ve stopped (although the thanks continue). When my friends bake with Earth Balance instead of butter, when my co-workers experiment with vegan alternatives instead of making egg-laden quick breads, when my family chooses to eat at a vegetarian restaurant while visiting me, I know these actions are their choices. They do so because they want to be inclusive, to share the simple act of eating with me, not because they’re begrudgingly bound and beholden to appease the girl who doesn’t do dairy or eat eggs. They’re cooking from the heart, and each cruelty-free bite of their food tastes so much the better for that simple reason.

My heart has been opened by veganism. I’ve made a conscious effort in the past few years to shed my cynicism and my defensive sarcasm. I am trying, truly, to let my compassion and empathy overpower the walls I’ve built up over the years. So how could I ever, ever be sorry for something so life-altering?

Especially when being vegan is so satisfying, not only to the heart but to the tummy. Being vegan has given me the chance to slowly work past my aversion to combining the sweet and the savory with foods like this shockingly delicious Curried Couscous Salad with Dried Sweet Cranberries.

Using the Hot Curry powder from Penzeys takes this dish to new levels of awesome.

And it’s let me play with presentation to make sweet little Cucumber Tea Sandwiches for a garden tea party with dear friends.

Garnished with watercress for good measure.

And it’s given me the courage to experiment, to take an inspiring Maple Hemp Granola Bar recipe and tweak it to make my own granola bars for camping, and then eat the crumbly leftovers with soy yogurt for a simple, delicious Sunday breakfast.

Perfection in a bowl?

Nope, I am not sorry for being vegan. Not one eensy-weensy, teeny-tiny little bit. So there.

A Match Made in Heaven, Just Like Milk and Honey (You make the gobi, he’ll make the money!)

This past Sunday afternoon, I received a text message that both pleased and worried me. A friend from work said she was making curry for dinner and wanted to know if my roommate and I would join her, her boyfriend, another work friend, and the latter friend’s son. As pleased as I was to receive a dinner invitation, I was also a little apprehensive. My friend knows I’m vegan, but even so, visions of chicken-laden curries and awkwardness swam through my mind. After a mild bit of panic, I texted her back to accept the offer and to ask if I should bring a vegan option (followed by a smily face, of course). Not five seconds later, my cell phone rang. My friend was calling to tell me that she was making two coconut milk-based curries, one with chicken and one with mushrooms and other veggies.

“No vegan option necessary,” she reassured me.

The cockles of my heart, they were warmed. Full of gratitude and happiness, I knew I couldn’t arrive at the dinner party empty-handed. I had to bring something, an edible expression of my gratefulness for my friend’s considerate and kind behavior. I briefly considered making some sort of Indian-inspired dip and bringing that with some veggies, but I quickly abandoned that possibility in favor of the most timeless, impress-the-omnis, food item in existence. Obviously, I’m talking about vegan cupcakes.

An innocent and unassuming cuppiecake, say you?

Not just any cupcakes, though. This batch packed a secret punch, something invisible to the eye. That little cupper up there isn’t just your average chocolate-coconut delicacy. Nope, lurking inside this sweet fellow is a surprising blend of flavors.

Lurking in the chocolaty shadows - garam masala!

Yes ma’am, I found a recipe for Garam Masala Chocolate Coconut Cupcakes that helped me create some slammin’ cupcakes. They were perfectly moist, and the garam masala spices added a touch of flavor complexity that complemented the chocolate and coconut surprisingly well. They were the perfect opportunity to showcase the fantastic garam masala I picked up at Penzey’s (which, by the way, is an AMAZING store!). This garam masala features coriander, black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, charnushka, caraway, cloves, ginger, and nutmeg, a truly killer combination.

And my friends agreed. The cupcakes were a big hit at the dinner party, the perfect follow-up to the yummy curry my friend made for us. Great success!

Truly, though, I feel so lucky. I’ve met some really wonderful people since moving to Madison. My roommate spontaneously decided to make me a vegan birthday cake when I turned 23 a few weeks ago; she whipped up a Cookies ‘n’ Cream cake that was decadent beyond belief. And my work friends are quite inquisitive about my veganism, in the best way possible. The friend who made the curry is interested in sustainable agriculture and local foods, so we relate well on that level. All in all, things are good here. Who would’ve guessed my move to America’s Dairyland would’ve only made me feel more comfortable and happy in my newish vegan skin?! Life – it never fails to surprise me. :)

(P.S. I swear the title of this post is not completely random and misogynistic. Anybody get the reference?)