10 Tips for Starting a Plant-Based Diet

Starting a plant-based diet is easy ... with a little help. Lidante/Shutterstock

The benefits of a plant-based diet are many ­– from increased energy and better heart health to helping combat climate change (the reason why the Norwegian army went vegan!) and saving money. Not to mention the peace of mind that comes with no longer eating cute cows and smart pigs. After a lifetime of eating meat, the concept may seem daunting, but fear not! Whether you want to start with baby steps or go cold turkey (or cold Tofurkey, as the case may be), the following tips will help you ease your way into the world of plant-based eating.

1. Consider style and frequency

Some people decide right then and there that they will never eat a morsel of meat again; some people select to slip into it slowly. Some may want to go with a more extreme raw vegan diet, some may want to be more moderate and use a flexitarian approach. It's a good idea to consider your goals and start from there. If you want to start slowly, you can start by giving up meat one day or more a week (as in Meatless Mondays) or during certain times of the day (as in "vegan before 6" which allows for animal products at dinner only). For a great rundown of the various styles and approaches, read Vegetarian Spectrum: A Rainbow of Terms That Mean "Eating Green" to see which eating style resonates with you.

2. Don’t fall into the refined carb trap

It happens to the best of us; we go vegetarian and replace that meat-shaped hole in our diet with easy and naughtily seductive refined carbs: bagels, chips, giant pretzels, vegan junk food, you name it. They will not make you feel better; they will make you feel worse. Make sure to have healthy snacks around, and start your endeavor with a thoughtful menu plan so that you don't end up hungry and reaching for the carbs. Also, study up on whole grains and how versatile they can be; being a vegetarian doesn't have to mean blah brown rice and whole wheat products that taste like soggy cardboard.

3. Experiment with vegetarian versions of your favorite meals

vegan tacos
Tacos are a great way to try variations on a theme. voyagevixen2 [CC BY-ND 2.0]/Flickr

Making a vegetarian version of a steak dinner may not be your best option here, but think of your other favorite foods and then experiment with replacing the meat with a plant-based alternative.

While using fake meat products probably shouldn’t be your go-to swap (they are often highly processed), they may help you wean yourself off real meat; just check ingredient labels and go for the most-natural, least-processed options. What may surprise you, however, is how well plant-based ingredients can stand in for meat. For tacos and burritos, try grilled portobello mushrooms or seitan (wheat gluten); for pasta dishes toss in chickpeas and homemade croutons for a punch of protein and texture; for soups use hearty, chewy grains like barley and add smoked sea salt or smoked tempeh for a meaty edge.

4. Invest in some cookbooks

While it might seem that the Internet’s plethora of food blogs have made cookbooks obsolete, nothing could be further from the truth. Cookbooks provide something that the Internet can’t (like context) and having a few good ones will improve the pleasure of your tasks at hand. Browsing the vegetarian section at a bookstore will allow you to thumb through potential allies in your endeavor and introduce you to the wide variety of styles out there. If you're eager and want to go ahead and order a cookbook online, you can’t go wrong with these:

"Super Natural Cooking: Five Delicious Ways to Incorporate Whole and Natural Foods into Your Cooking" by Heidi Swanson: The vegetable genius behind the popular 101 Cookbooks blog, Swanson offers creative takes on the basics and she does it with an unflinching allegiance to wholesome eating, but without sacrificing pleasure. And it’s a copiously illustrated and utterly gorgeous book to behold!

"How to Cook Everything Vegetarian: Simple Meatless Recipes for Great Food" by Mark Bittman: Bittman, whose “vegan before 6” idea we mentioned before, is a longtime New York Times food writer and super-smart food politics thinker. His recipes are fantastic because they are exceedingly approachable; they are realistic, not fussy, and always delicious.

"The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone" by Deborah Madison: While any of Madison’s nine cookbooks are worth their weight in truffles, the latest from the former Alice Waters alum (and founder of legendary vegetarian restaurant, Greens) is a great resource. A revision of her award-winning 1997 edition, the new version includes new and updated recipes by Madison, lovingly known as the “Julia Child of vegetarian cooking.”

"Raw Food/Real World: 100 Recipes to Get the Glow" by Matthew Kenney and Sarma Melngailis: If you're adventurous and looking to incorporate raw vegan food into your life, this non-cooking cookbook may be your saving grace. Many of the recipes are pretty labor-intensive, but that’s what happens when you’re making luscious, satisfying, amazing meals out of raw vegetables. (Among other recipes, both the white corn tamales and pumpkin tart are so convincing, surely there is some kind of wizardry at hand.)

5. Eat out, call it research

Eating out might be a luxury for some of us, but when embarking on a new eating plan, it can be a helpful resource. Learning how the pros handle vegetarian cuisine can be inspiring. From high-end plant-based restaurants and hippie vegan cafes to your local Chipotle and Whole Foods salad bar, you can get a great sense of the wonderful range of flavors and possibilities that can be made without animal-based ingredients. (It’s also nice to show the love to businesses that don’t support factory farming.) And of course, it goes without saying; if you have friends who are vegetarian and good cooks, invite yourself over for a meal. Chances are likely they’ll be delighted to support you in your endeavor.

6. Discover the surprising flexibility of fruits and vegetables

Avocado pasta
Who needs carbonara when you can have linguine with a smoky avocado sauce?. Kelly Rossiter/TreeHugger

Fruits and vegetables don't have to be boring! On the contrary, not only can they be enjoyed for all of their inherent flavors, but they are masters of disguise and can be used in so many more ways. For example, avocado can be tucked into pasta, beets do magical things to chocolate cake, and zucchini hides beautifully in chocolate chip cookies; often times adding their moisture and texture to take the place of butter and eggs. See 10 luscious desserts with hidden vegetables and 10 deliciously radical avocado recipes, from soup to cheesecake for recipes and ideas.

7. Explore all of the wonderful plant-based ingredients

Learn from vegans and vegetarians who have spent their lives honing their shopping skills. Really and truly, a vegan grocery list is a great place to start, see: Top 50 staples for a meat-free diet.

8. Know your nutrients

As long as you're eating a well-rounded, healthy diet with a great variety of whole grains, legume, seeds, fruits and vegetables, you most likely won’t run into any nutrient deficiencies. (The problem comes when your plant-based diet is built around French fries and pancakes: see number 2.) But these tips will help.

9. Prepare your talking points

Although vegans and vegetarians are no longer seen as Birkenstock-sporting, sprout-munching weirdos, you will undoubtedly come across people who think that you're a cult-joining fool. If you want to have a discussion about it (you may choose not to), having a little intellectual back-up can't hurt. If your decision is health-based, have some study statistics on hand; if your new diet is ethics-based, have some factory farm facts in your pocket. Nobody wants to be preached to, but having a bit of ammo to defend yourself against the naysayers can come in handy.

10. Don’t suffer through bad vegan desserts

Vegan s'mores
Even s'mores can be made without the gelatin typically found in marshmallows. Heather Katsoulis [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Flickr

And last but clearly not least, don’t forget to indulge! It used to be that vegan diets and especially desserts meant bland mushy things, but the amount of energy applied to developing seriously scrumptious recipes in the last few decades is nothing short of tremendous. You can make just about any luscious non-vegetarian dessert into an equally luscious plant-based one; and you should! Consider these for starters: