There are tricks to being a successful vegetarian! Once I figured out a few things, cooking meatless meals on a daily basis became less daunting.
Over the past few months, my family and I have cut meat almost entirely out of our diet. We have gone from eating meat 5 or 6 nights a week, with frequent bacon-laden breakfasts, to having it once a week at supper. When we do eat it, the portions are smaller and not so central to the meal.
At first, it felt like a huge struggle to prepare meatless meals. I dreaded meal prep because I didn’t know how to do it. The future felt daunting and intimidating: how could we possibly continue along this path with every meal feeling like a battle? Then I grasped something: Three major shifts had to occur before vegetarian cooking started to feel more normal. Once those happened, everything became much easier for me.
1) I needed new cookbooks.
I cook from cookbooks, not from the Internet. Sounds old-fashioned, I know, but I like to flip through cookbooks for fun and select recipes to try. I write in my cookbooks, keeping notes and checking off recipes I’ve made, which makes it easy to go back and recreate ones I’ve loved. All of my old cookbooks, however, focus on meat. Some have vegetarian sections, but they’re written like little afterthoughts – short and uninspiring.
The library was my greatest help in this area, as were recommendations by more experienced vegetarian and vegan friends. I’ve checked out nearly every meatless cookbook in the library by now, and I’ve liked some more than others, which helps me decide which to buy. (See the slideshow I made of 8 new cookbooks for vegetarian or vegan cuisine.)
Having those vegetarian and vegan cookbooks in my kitchen makes a world of difference. Suddenly I have a much broader selection of options, many of which are mouthwateringly delicious with fabulous photography. No longer do I run out of ideas. (My newest favourite is "Isa Does It: Amazingly Easy, Wildly Delicious Vegan Recipes for Every Day of the Week" by Isa Chandra Moskowitz. It actually does meet all of those descriptors. More on that in a post yet-to-come!)
2) Meal-planning is crucial.
I’ve long been an advocate of meal-planning to reduce food waste and make one’s life more organized, but it’s really important when you stop eating meat. You see, meat makes it easy to build a meal: you grill, roast, or fry, add some rice or pasta, a vegetable side, and ta-da! you’re done.
It’s not so easy with vegetarian food, although maybe that’s because I’m not so experienced. Now I have to make sure I’m presoaking chickpeas, beans, grains, cashews, etc. in order to prepare the meal on time. The actual recipes tend to take longer, too, which means I have to start earlier in the evening if I want dinner on the table at the right time for my family.
One of the biggest challenges has been re-establishing a foundation of well-loved basic recipes. Suddenly my go-to list has been erased and I’m starting from scratch. I can’t count on baked honey-curry chicken, kima with rice, or beef chili to get dinner on the table fast. Now I’m having to make chana masala, vegetarian stir-fries and pad thai, lentil soups, and bean-filled burritos to keep my family fed on busy nights. It’s not that much harder; it’s just an adjustment.
3) The pantry and fridge have to be stocked properly.
I’ve had to rethink the way I shop, to some extent. There are all the alternative protein sources that now must be kept on hand – tofu, tempeh, seitan, lentils, beans, chickpeas, paneer, veggie ground round, and nuts. I use far more fresh herbs to add powerful flavors, such as basil, mint, cilantro, and dill, as well as more flavorful sauces and spices. Both of those collections have expanded considerably in recent months.
I keep plenty of carbohydrate options on hand, too – tortillas, buckwheat soba noodles, rice stick noodles, sweet potatoes, couscous, quinoa. There always have to be a few cans of full-fat coconut milk in the pantry for smoothies and curries, as well as nut butters, tahini, and white miso. While all of these are items that I used to buy, I notice my family goes through them (especially vegetables) at a much faster rate now, perhaps to compensate for the lack of meat.
I learn more every day, which helps me to feel more confident and excited about this new cooking style.
If you are vegetarian or vegan, what are the most helpful tips you’ve learned along the way?