Probably one of the most perplexing thoughts a person has when they transition to vegetarianism or veganism is keeping their diet filled with a variety of fun, diverse, and nutrient-dense foods. It can sometimes feel like you’re cutting many options out since you’re no longer consuming meat, and it may seem you’re losing even more options if you’ve also decided to cut dairy and eggs from your diet as well. With a little creativity, planning, and forethought, you might be surprised how much variety you can achieve with your new vegetarian diet – perhaps even more than your meat-eating days!
The good news folks..you’re only limited by your imagination. It’s important to incorporate a wide variety of whole grains, legumes, vegetables and fruits in different meals, including seeds and nuts. Variety is the spice of life, and it will help ensure your meat free diet is nutrient-dense, interesting, and fun! Aim for variety, even when you serve favorite entrees over and over again, by serving different side dishes, snacks and desserts. Food burn out is a real thing, but you will quickly realize that in time, your knowledge around food preparation and ingredients will explode. It will get easier.
Try to keep your frame of mind centered around the following:
- There are some simple substitutions you can experiment with and use as substitutions in your favorite meat recipes. Tempeh, which is cultured soybeans with a chewy texture; tofu (freezing and then thawing gives tofu a meaty texture; the tofu will turn slightly off white in color); and wheat gluten or seitan (made from wheat and has the texture of meat; available in health food or asian food stores) are all great items to start with.
- Milk and other dairy products can also be easily replaced with vegan friendly items. Try soy milk, soy margarine, and soy yogurts, which can be found in health food or asian food stores.
- A good way to introduce beans to the diet is to use them instead of meat in favorite dishes, like casseroles and chili. Because of their many health benefits, beans should be eaten often. Some great examples are chickpeas, split peas, haricot, lentils (red, green or brown), and kidney beans.
- Many nuts and seeds are available both in and out of the shell, whole, halved, sliced, chopped, raw, or roasted. Cashews, peanuts, walnuts, almonds are some easy-to-find favorites. Sunflower and sesame seeds are excellent choices for spicing up salads and other vegetable dishes. Include them in your next stir fry or salad!
- Plan meals often around your favorite vegetable. For example, a baked potato can be a hearty entree. Some nights we have a baked potato bar, with a ton of toppings. Our favorites are sauteed mushrooms, broccoli, sour cream, cheese, (all can be vegan) vegetarian bacon bits (yes, did you know the famous brand contains 0% bacon, and is vegetarian!) and vegetarian chik’n strips by Morning Star Farms. You can also keep it simple… serve it with baked beans, tomato sauce, or a few tablespoons of salsa. I definitely did that as a poor college kid!
- Some nights, simple is best. Nothing beats a quick meal of sauteed vegetables and pasta.
- Try new foods often. This is a really important one, but is probably the hardest. I recommend experimenting with a variety of grains such as quinoa, couscous, bulgur, barley, and wheat berries. Try fruits and vegetables that are popular in different countries, such as bok choy. You’ll never know what will be your next new favorite!
- Accentuate the positive. Focus more on healthy foods that fit into a vegetarian plan, instead of foods to avoid. Be sure that you’re building your menu on a strong plant food base. Make them the core of your diet.
- Try not to stress about protein. So, how much protein do you actually need? A good general rule to determine your daily protein intake, is to multiply your weight in pounds by 0.36. You’ll find that as long as calories are sufficient, and your diet is varied, vegetarians often easily meet protein needs. Grains, beans, vegetables, and nuts all provide protein that you’ll tap into every week.
So get in the kitchen and let your creativity lead the way! You’ll probably be pleasantly surprised just how much more variety your diet will have as a result. Do you have any secrets to creating variety in your diet? I’d love to know!