Thursday, October 30, 2008

Easy Tips for Vegetarian Beginners

Happy Vegetarian Awareness Month: Easy tips for vegetarian beginners
by Tricia Woolfenden
The Grand Rapids Press
October 24, 2008 07:04AM

Every once in a while, someone will ask me for advice on how -- or why -- to become a vegetarian. While there are no cut-and-dry formulas for adopting an entirely new lifestyle, I have picked up a few tried-and-true strategies from my 13 or so years of being mostly meat free (I dabbled with turkey for a few years. The relationship didn't last).

A colleague recently asked for advice on gradually cutting meat from her diet, and I typed up a list of my favorite tips and observations. In honor of Vegetarian Awareness Month, here they are:

Start slowly... -- Give up red meat for a week, see how that goes. Next, phase out chicken and turkey, and so on.

...Or not -- If you're someone who likes to jump in with both feet, by all means, quit eating meat, cold turkey. You probably won't have any negative physical repercussions as you would from quitting most addictions. Just keep telling yourself; "Those bacon cheeseburger withdrawal shakes are a figment of my imagination."

Read about it -- Use the Internet to dig up useful information about the vegetarian lifestyle, easy recipes and local support groups. Check the local library for vegetarian cookbooks. And check out Vegetarian Times, a magazine filled with beautiful food photography and mouth-watering recipes.

Stop obsessing about protein -- Americans are overly fearful of not getting enough protein in their diets. The truth is, most people who eat a healthy diet -- one that includes legumes, whole grains, fruits, nuts and veggies -- have plenty of protein. I haven't eaten a steak in nearly 15 years, and I can play roller derby for hours at a time. Trust me -- and the American Heart Association -- if you make wise choices, you'll meet your daily requirements.

Morningstar Farms for the win -- What did I do before Morningstar came into my life? The brand of frozen meat alternatives makes the tastiest veggie patty on the market (mmmm, Spicy Black Bean Burger) and is super affordable. Its fake chicken strips cook in less than five minutes on the stove, and go great in salads and wraps. The meat crumbles are done in less than a minute, and add bulk and flavor to pasta sauce. And the fake chicken fingers and patties are tasty and low in fat.

Peanut butter is a failsafe -- Cheap, no prep and portable. Carry a peanut butter and jelly (or banana, apple, whatever) sandwich for car trips, long days at the office or when you'll be out running errands for hours. Stick with the all-natural brands, like the kind from Koeze, to avoid extra sugar. There's a lot of fat in PB, but also a lot of protein and nutrients.

Stock your kitchen -- Always have these things on-hand; canned beans, refried black beans, vegetable stock, canned veggies (corn, peas, asparagus), frozen vegetables, salsa, tofu, frozen meat alternatives, whole wheat pasta, hummous, low-fat tortillas, soy sauce, nuts, peanut butter, lentils, brown rice and oatmeal. Invest in a good cutting board and a wok.

Ignore negativity -- Our culture tends to be a bit food obsessed. People want to know what you're eating, or not eating, and why. I can't tell you how many times friends, family and strangers have pestered me about my eating habits. Most of it comes from curiosity or good-natured ribbing, but occasionally, I'll encounter someone who seems out-and-out offended that I don't eat bacon. The best way to counter this; be polite, but stand your ground. You don't have to justify your lifestyle, just like they don't have to justify theirs.

When asked why I don't eat meat, I follow the standard; "I don't like the taste." If that doesn't work; "It's for my health." If they're still pushing for an "answer," smile sweetly and say, "Do you really want to know? Cause I can tell you a lot of reasons that will put you off that $20 steak you just ordered, but I'd prefer to just enjoy my cucumber roll."

Don't use cheese as a meat substitute -- I've only recently come to recognize how much I relied upon cheese as a source for protein and flavor in every meal. When I discovered my cholesterol levels were a bit elevated for someone at my age and weight, I cut down significantly. Instead of a slice of cheddar on your afternoon sandwich, try a slice of avocado, which is packed with the good kind of fat and cholesterol.

Dining out -- Most restaurants will have at least one meatfree option. If you don't see something you want, ask nicely for any vegetarian options that may be available. When all else fails, kill 'em with kindness. I'll guarantee you won't be the first person to make such a request.

Feel free to share your vegetarian tips through email or in the comments section below. Email Tricia Woolfenden at

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