When I first gave up meat over a decade ago, my knowledge of vegetarianism was pretty limited. I didn’t know any real life vegetarians (Lisa Simpson and Phoebe Buffay were the extent of available role models) and any online community was non-existent.
Blogging was still in its infancy (most people posted personal journals or fan fiction), chefs didn’t have their own websites, YouTube didn’t exist, and “social media” meant pouring over a copy of Smash Hits with your friends; this was pre-MySpace, let alone Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest or Instagram. Ancient times.
And so, I learnt as I went along. My journey was not without its hurdles but over the years I’ve not only expanded on my knowledge of vegetarianism but also my reasons for following a meat-free diet and lifestyle.
Given what I wish I knew from the start, here are my top bits of advice for vegetarian newbies:
1. Learn to Cook
One of the best things I ever did was learn to cook. Yes, there may be plenty of meat alternatives available (soy sausages, bean burgers, quorn mince) and they’re great every now and again but a healthy, well-balanced diet they do not make.
My mum and auntie were both instrumental in me learning my way around a kitchen but I don’t think I really got the cooking thing down pat until I left home and had to fend for myself with pretty limited resources; a couple of basic cookbooks, a few pantry staples, and whatever I could afford to stock my fridge with that week.
I experimented constantly. I filled a notebook with successful dishes or flavour combinations. I had my mum photocopy or email my favourite childhood recipes from her collection. I tore out recipes from magazines (okay, I still do that)…
Nowadays, with literally millions of recipes online created by everyone from home cooks to celebrity chefs, you’ll soon find what works for you.
You don’t need to become a whizz in the kitchen but being able to whip up a few quick, fresh dishes really makes a difference.
2. Get Used to Questions and Criticism
It’s human nature to question things and when it comes to revealing that you’re a vegetarian, it’s pretty common that a slew of questions will follow. Of course, some people are just asking out of genuine curiosity but there will always be those who question you to try to get a rise or start an argument. Some of my favourites include:
- Do you eat fish? (No. That would make me a pescetarian.)
- Don’t you get sick of salad? (No. I don’t live on salad.)
- Isn’t that what cows are here for? (No.)
- What if you were stuck on a desert island? (Never going to happen. Still no.)
- But where do you get your protein? (Tofu, pulses, quinoa, nuts, seeds, leafy greens…)
Though I’ve never been preachy about my dietary choices, along with the questions there’s always those who will get combative when they hear the word “vegetarian”.
Unfortunately, this can come from both ends of the spectrum – from hard-core carnivores to hard-core vegans. Whether this aggression is to you personally or online in videos, comments or articles, just ignore it. These people are not worth your time or energy.
3. Know Your Ingredients
Being vegetarian goes further than just cutting out meat. There are so many different animal ingredients that sneak their way into all sorts of food and drink products.
The most common culprits are probably gelatin, isinglass, rennet and carmine, though the list is extensive. So extensive in fact, that writing this post led me to create a whole new one dedicated to sneaky animal ingredients in food.
You will learn to check labels, ask the right questions when eating out, and let friends and family know what you don’t eat if they’re cooking for you.
4. Plan Ahead
There are going to be times when being vegetarian is a little tricky; you can’t assume there will always be food options available to you.
Check restaurant menus online or call ahead to find out if they offer veggie-friendly dishes. The same goes for work events, dinner parties, weddings etc; let people know in advance to avoid awkward situations or an empty stomach.
I’ve learnt that simple snacks can be a saviour; I’ve been to music festivals where the only thing I could eat were lemonade ice blocks, caught a 16-hour flight where the airline missed off my dietary requirements, and attended a work picnic where omnivores dug into the few veggie sandwiches and dipped sausages into the hummus…
Now I always carry snack bars on flights, add dried or fresh fruit to my day pack for events, and take my own hummus to picnics.
5. Define Your Reasons for Yourself
Everyone has their own reasons for choosing a vegetarian diet. Your motivations may relate to animal rights, health, religion, taste, the environment, or all of the above! Whatever your reasons, decide them for yourself and don’t worry if they match up with those around you. You do you.
Your reasons may evolve over time as mine did. For me, going vegetarian began with not wanting to eat dead animals. However, the longer I stuck at it and the more I learnt about the meat industry as a whole, the further my beliefs strengthened and my reasons for staying vegetarian are vast and varied.
6. Decide if it’s a Diet or Lifestyle Change
Decide what being a vegetarian means to you. Does it simply mean giving up meat? Or does it involve more than just food? There’s no right or wrong answer and for me it was a gradual process.
Most vegetarians won’t wear leather or suede as they still involve the slaughter of animals. You may also want to avoid feathers, silk, and wool. Don’t even get me started on the horror that is fur…
Is it important to you that your beauty products aren’t tested on animals? What are your thoughts on horse racing? The Running of the Bulls? Animals in theme parks? Zoos?
It’s entirely your choice where you draw your line but it’s worth thinking beyond food if your reasons for becoming a vegetarian are mainly ethical ones.
7. Get Involved
Over the past decade or so, both blogging and social media have exploded. You can now get connected to an entire community of like-minded people with just a few clicks or taps.
Get online and check veggie blogs, join Facebook groups, and follow foodies on social media. If you don’t know any other vegetarians, the online community not only makes you feel less isolated but it’s a great place to gain knowledge and insight.
Offline, look out for events in your community. Foodie events are more common than you may realise, with vegetarian and vegan food festivals happening throughout the year in most major cities. They’re great places to meet new people, try new products, and learn new cooking skills.
8. Learn from Your Mistakes
Finally, be kind to yourself and don’t sweat the small stuff. Any big lifestyle change is going to be a learning experience.
So maybe you had some sweets then realised there was gelatine in them, ate vegetable soup made with chicken stock, or were oblivious to the fact that your makeup contained crushed beetles? Guilty on all charges.
Instead of feeling like you’ve failed, use those mistakes as learning experiences so you’ll know better next time. Check ingredients more carefully and be specific or ask questions when ordering something in a restaurant – not everyone has the same definition of “vegetarian”!
Is there anything I’ve missed? Let me know your best tips in the comments!