If you've decided to give vegetarianism a try, check out my 11 top tips for new vegetarians, and help make the transition to meatfree eating as seamless as possible!
January is always a good time for a fresh start - a time to refocus and think about your life goals. For a lot of people, that might mean finally giving up meat and becoming a vegetarian. Sometimes it can seem like a bit of a big step, and not everyone finds it easy - if you're used to eating 'meat and two veg' type meals, it does involve a bit of a mental shift.
So if that's you, hopefully these tips for new vegetarians will help you out! Welcome to the green side!
To compile this guide to vegetarianism for beginners, I took to my private Facebook group (Easy Vegetarian Dinners - come and join!) to ask for top tips from some of our more experienced vegetarians. Here's what we came up with!
1. Don't feel pressured to label yourself
There are so many different dietary labels out there - vegan, plant-based, pescatarian, omnivore, vegetarian (not to mention lacto / ovo / lacto-ovo vegetarian!)... but you really don't need to label yourself if you'd prefer not to. I'm certainly not going to police your diet, and nobody else should either.
Just because vegetarians generally continue eat both dairy and eggs, you're more than welcome to give up one or other of those too, if you want to. You can eat a mostly plant-based diet, but still eat honey if you like. If you want to eat 99% vegetarian, with the occasional piece of fish, nobody has the right to tell you not to.
As long as you're comfortable with what you're eating, that's all that matters.
(and if you're not comfortable with what you're eating, there's no better time to make a change than right now!)
2. Make changes at your own pace
The 'all or nothing' attitude can sometimes actually get in the way of making any progress at all - even if you're not ready to start eating 100% vegetarian all in one go, that doesn't mean you can't start taking small steps towards reducing your meat consumption.
There are all sorts of different ways you can start to make changes:
- implement Meatless Monday, where you start with just one vegetarian day each week
- give up one meat at a time - perhaps start by just avoiding red meat, but still eating chicken and fish, then moving onto the next meat when you're ready
- eat vegetarian Monday to Friday, but still have meat at the weekends
- make sure you eat vegetarian breakfasts and lunches, but still have a piece of meat at dinnertime
- decide there will be certain meals you'll always make veggie, but not others (e.g. you love vegetarian pizza, but still want to eat chicken curry)
However you choose to start reducing your meat intake, make sure you're doing it at your own pace. Your vegetarian diet is far more likely to stick if you're feeling comfortable with the changes, rather than feeling forced to have a total diet upheaval in one go.
3. Start with what you already eat
Keeping a few of these familiar dishes on your menu can help you to feel like not so much has changed.
Plus, there will be many more meals in your current diet that can easily be made vegetarian with just a few simple changes. Don't feel that you suddenly need to be eating exotic meals filled with bizarre vegetarian ingredients - it's perfectly possible to make a great vegetarian curry, vegetarian burgers, vegetarian meatballs, etc. without too much effort.
Familiar foods, made veggie.
4. Don't be afraid of using meat substitutes
When thinking about how to change your current meaty favourites into vegetarian versions, don't be afraid of using meat substitutes, like I often do in my vegetarian 'beef' stew.
There are all sorts of vegetarian products available that imitate meat - vegetarian beef-style mince, chicken-style pieces, burgers, meatballs, nuggets... sometimes all it takes is a straightforward swap, and you can enjoy the meat free version of your favourite dinner with no extra effort at all.
If you're not keen on the first meat substitute you try, don't let it put you off trying other kinds - some brands and products are better than others. Some don't actually taste much like meat at all, and are simply designed to be cooked in the same way, whereas others are scarily realistic. So keep trying until you find one that works for you!
I don't really want to comment on which brands are most meat-like, as it's been twenty years since I ate meat, and I'm not really qualified to say!
5. That said, meat substitutes aren't for everybody
While meat substitutes can work really well to ease you into vegetarianism with meals you're already familiar with, they don't work for everybody. If you're an ardent steak lover who's choosing to become vegetarian for environmental or health reasons, chances are a vegetarian imitation steak is just going to leave you disappointed.
Luckily, there are a million other kinds of vegetarian proteins, so you certainly don't need to eat processed meat substitutes if you'd prefer not to.
Beans, chickpeas, lentils, tofu, eggs, cheese, nuts, seeds - they're all great vegetarian forms of protein that you'll learn to love in their own right.
6. Be prepared with a well-stocked pantry
Over the years, we all develop our own arsenal of quick weeknight meals - the kind of thing you make after a long day at work, and you don't want to actually use any brain power.
If you're used to rustling up something meaty, it might require a bit more effort to come up with a quick vegetarian meal, so if you don't want to end up reverting back (or just eating beans on toast every single time), it's important to have plenty of vegetarian ingredients on hand.
I shared a post not long ago about how to stock a vegetarian pantry. It details everything you'll need to keep in your cupboards - all those simple base ingredients that will mean there's always something quick and easy you can rustle up without too much thought.
If you look in your cupboards and see that they're full of tasty foods that you can eat, you'll put a lot less thought towards those things you can't eat.
7. Cook with recipes, at least to begin with
Until you get used to vegetarian cooking, it's probably worth cooking with a recipe, at least some of the time. Without the added flavour and juices of meat, you may find you need to put more thought into how you'll get plenty of flavour into your vegetarian cooking.
It can definitely be done! Vegetarian food can be just as irresistible as the meaty food you're used to, but you might need to give it a little more consideration than usual - for example using fresh herbs, plenty of spice, a wide variety of veggies, etc.
That's why it can be useful to have a recipe in front of you for inspiration - have a browse through my huge collection of vegetarian recipes, and see what inspires you! Even if you don't follow the recipe exactly (I love it when people make my recipes their own!), it might just spark some ideas about how to make a tasty vegetarian meal.
Once you get more used to vegetarian cooking, of course, you can be more independent.
8. Try to experiment!
Although my recipes on Easy Cheesy Vegetarian are full of everyday ingredients that can easily be found in most supermarkets, there is probably the odd ingredient that's less familiar to meat-eaters - a lot of omnivores don't eat much tofu, for example, and may not be as familiar with edamame or paneer.
That's why it's so great to experiment in the kitchen - get excited about the new world of vegetarian food in front of you! Focus on the positive - there are so many amazing foods out there that you may not have ever experienced before.
If you enjoy cooking, a great challenge is to try one new recipe every week, especially if it contains a new-to-you ingredient.
9. Reframe your thinking
For a lot of 'meat and two veg' eaters, meat forms the centre of every meal - that's the thing you decide on first, then you figure out the side dishes to go alongside it.
While some vegetarian meals can certainly have this structure (my carrot and white bean cutlets are great in a roast dinner type meal, instead of meat!), most vegetarian meals are a little different. If you browse through all my vegetarian dinner recipes, very few take this form - so rather than choosing a main dish and then choosing sides, it's better to think of a vegetarian meal in its entirety.
10. Beware hidden ingredients
If you're deciding to make the move to a vegetarian diet gradually, you might not initially worry about 'hidden' ingredients in foods that may seem vegetarian at first glance.
But if you do decide to be stricter about your vegetarianism, beware! It's always worth checking the labels on your food to make sure it's really veggie-friendly, at least until you get more familiar with your new diet.
A few examples:
- gelatine in gummy sweets, marshmallows and jelly
- animal rennet in some cheeses (including 'real' parmesan cheese - veggie versions are easy to find!)
- animal suet in some traditional puddings and dumplings (luckily most are vegetarian now, so you don't need to give up your favourite suet dumplings!)
- animal-derived flavourings, e.g. in higher quality packets of crisps (chips)
As mentioned before, it's up to you where you draw the line when it comes to your vegetarianism, so you may decide that you're okay with eating 'hidden' animal products, but it's worth being aware either way.
11. Go easy on yourself
If you do find yourself having a slip up, don't beat yourself up about it. When I first became a vegetarian at around 10 years old, I think I lasted about a week before being tempted by my Grandma's pigs in blankets. Luckily, when I tried again soon afterwards, it stuck, and I've now been veggie for about two decades!
So if you do get tempted once in a while, and eat something you would usually avoid, it's really not the end of the world. As with anything - just get back on track the next day.
Be kind to yourself!
Veteran vegetarians, help me out - what would you add to this list? What are your top tips for new vegetarians?