Many people ask me how I decided to become a vegetarian. Most people think it is a decision you just make one day and BOOM – you immediately stop craving any meat products. While many people might have done it that way, such was not my case. From the moment I started to get close to a vegetarian lifestyle to the moment I decided to seriously try to be a vegetarian took me nearly 4 years.
First, when my mom decided to go veggie, I decided not to eat meat products at home. I didn’t want my mom to feel inhibited in her own kitchen. I thought I ate out often enough to be able to “hack” eating only vegetarian food at home. After doing that, I noticed that I started craving meat less and less when I was ordering out in restaurants.
When I moved out of my mom’s house, I decided that my kitchen would remain vegetarian so she would not feel uncomfortable when visiting me. I also decided at some point in between to stop buying canned goods, to stop drinking regular carbonated drinks, to stop buying foods with artificial coloring or chemical ingredients I can’t pronounce. I started buying foods made with whole grains, as well as fresher and more authentic choices. I decided to take some cooking classes to help me shift the way I looked at foods and to get to know new ingredients options.
So, to help the ones that might be considering becoming vegetarian but do not know where to start or consider it too daunting of a project… I say to all of you – START SMALL. Break it down into smaller steps and you’ll be more likely to be successful. Here are some ideas you can implement yourself:
Decide to stop eating your least favorite meat product first. For most people it’s red meat, for others it’s seafood. Whatever it is for you, it’ll be easier to leave what you like the least. Little by little, you might decide then to stop eating some other meat product, and another, and another, and another…
Consciously decide not to eat meat several days a week. Start with 2 days. Hey, you’ll still have 5 other days to eat “whatever”. You’ll start seeing the difference in how you feel those days. Maybe you’ll like the recipes and choices you have those days so much, that you’ll unconsciously increase those days little by little.
Decide to eliminate from your pantry canned goods, foods with chemical preservatives, artificial ingredients or animal additives. I started buying evaporated milk in cartons, tomato sauces, roasted red peppers and olives in glass jars. Frozen vegetables and fruits substituted the canned variety. I started buying whole grain rice, 100% whole wheat bread or 100% whole grain cereals. Sodas were out of my diet. Whenever I wanted something carbonated, I would have a Perrier or San Pellegrino with lime. I stopped buying foods whose list of ingredients were larger than the actual product and if I just could not pronounce something in the list I would just put it back. Off-limits ingredients now are gelatin, carmine coloring, eggs, rennet, which are all animal-based ingredients. Always go with the simpler ingredient lists… even going down to buying products with no ingredient list at all. Which takes us to our next point…
Start planning your meals with a larger quantity of fresh products – more fruits and vegetables. Make that lasagna filled with mixed vegetables or spinach instead of ground meat. Include more fruits in your breakfast – like fruit salads or fruit smoothies. Always include a salad with at least 3-4 ingredients as a side dish. Eat fresh fruits as snacks during the day.
Redefine your dinner plate – look at the rice, the pasta or a casserole as the main part of your dish. Think of that vegetable rice or spinach and mushroom risotto as the main dish. To me, a macaroni and cheese or vegetable lasagna with a side salad and plantains is a round meal. Pastelones or casseroles containing potatoes, sweet potatoes, rice, and a variety of vegetables and vegetable proteins eaten with a nice salad is a complete meal.
Experiment cooking with ingredients that are new to you. To me it was getting to know sun-dried tomatoes, the different varieties of mushrooms (button, Portobello, cremini, shitake, porcini, enoki, trumpets, etc.), the different varieties of lettuces (Romaine, Boston bib, arugula, frisee, mesclun greens, endive, radicchio, etc.), sugar snap peas, leeks, artichokes, polenta, tofu, textured soy protein, quinoa, kelp, umemboshi paste, agar agar, brown rice syrup, agave nectar, rice pastas, panko breadcrumbs, among others.
Take some vegetarian cooking classes and visit vegetarian websites or blogs (wink, wink) for recipe ideas. It’s a good thing you’re already reading this. That means you’ve already found my vegetarian blog. Learn how to make new recipes… but also see that making onion soup with vegetable stock will taste just as good as your traditional recipe, if not better. Mofongos can be made just as good without the pork rinds. Even a bacalaito can be made without the salted cod fish (bacalao) and taste great, because most of the flavor comes from another place and not from the animal products.
I hope these ideas will help you see that living a vegetarian lifestyle is not as daunting as you may have thought. Even if going vegetarian is not the thing for you, integrating some of these ideas into your lifestyle will definitely have you eating better and more healthful. Try it… you’ll not regret it.