My first day of being a vegan doesn’t get off to such a great start.
Having failed to think ahead and purchase soy-milk creamer, I rummage in the pantry for the nondairy powdered stuff. I’m about to dump some in my coffee when I think to check the label. There, halfway down the list of ingredients, is the bad news. Milk solids. For a millisecond I consider pretending that I didn’t notice; then I recognize it would be bad form to cheat the first 30 minutes out of the gate. I drink a cup of black coffee, with a little sugar, somewhat resentfully. This may be a very long week.
It didn’t seem like it when I’d gotten the bright idea that, for just seven days, I would go all-in vegan: I’d swear off any food made with animal products, including eggs, milk, cheese, even honey. After all, in the past couple of years, being a vegan has gone increasingly mainstream. One could even call it trendy.
About 2 percent of Americans say they’re vegan, a number that has nearly doubled since about 2000, according to surveys by the Vegetarian Resource Group. Oprah famously made her entire staff try a one-week vegan experiment a couple years ago. Food writer Mark Bittman had a bestseller last year with Vegan Before 6:00, his account of how eating vegan till dinnertime helped him lose weight and get healthier. In December, Beyonce and Jay-Z very publicly undertook a 22-day vegan trial, calling it a spiritual and physical cleanse.
Still. At the back of my mind, I kept thinking that, sure, it might be easy for celebrities, with personal chefs and unlimited funds at their disposal. Or for a food writer, whose job, after all, is to think all day about food.
But what about the average person? Say, a working mom, who didn’t want to subsist on weird protein-powder smoothies or fake cheese, who didn’t want to double her food budget, who also needed to feed a husband and son who weren’t fully on board with the program, and who didn’t want to spend hours shopping or cooking. And who wasn’t, frankly, too keen on giving up cheese.
These are the lessons I learned that week:
Day 1: Plan ahead
Everything I’d read about going vegan — consisting of content from a couple of websites and a few chapters of a book by Oprah’s vegan guru, Kathy Freston — has convinced me it won’t be that hard. Just plan ahead! Make a menu! Buy things you already like!
Yes, in theory, that sounds easy.
In my real life, however, V-Day arrives faster than expected, before I’ve actually done a full grocery run or figured out what to cook each day. My original breakfast plan was to mimic Jay-Z and Beyonce, who had trendy chia seed pudding for their first meal. But I forgot to make it the night before. So, new plan: Dig into a Chia Pod instead — ready-made “pudding” with blueberries, high-protein chia seeds and almond milk, and no added sugar. It’s not atrociously bad, but it also doesn’t resemble anything I would ever voluntarily eat. “Viscous” comes to mind. I eat a couple spoonfuls before deciding to give up and wait for lunch. If this is how Beyonce ate as a vegan, no wonder she reportedly lost weight.
Lunch has a rocky start, too. At Fort Worth’s new A F+B for an early lunch, I can’t get coffee because it doesn’t have soy creamer. The potato and parsnip soup that sounds delicious is made with cream. Almost all the desserts have either dairy or eggs, or both.
When I finally settle on a vegan-approved dish of barley, roasted squash, kale and granola, dressed with apple cider vinaigrette, it’s delicious. I don’t feel deprived at all. By dinner, having had a chance to go shopping and plot a rough menu for the rest of the week, the planning starts to pay off.
While my husband and son eat pork tenderloin and buttery mashed potatoes, I take a double serving of the steamed broccoli and eat a surprisingly tasty meat substitute, an apple-potato-and-sage “sausage” by a company called Field Roast that had gotten good online reviews. After dinner, I make the homemade chia seed pudding; it takes all of 90 seconds. Maybe this won’t be so hard after all.
Day 2: Eat what you know — but read the labels
My friend Gay Riley, a registered dietitian who has both vegan and non-vegan clients in her practice, netnutritionist.com, has given me simple advice: Stick with comfort foods that you already like, so you stay satisfied and you don’t end up as tempted to cheat.
Since I work mostly at home, I can cook between phone calls and deadlines. I roast butternut squash, a family favorite, for pasta or soup later in the week. I start a pot of curried lentils for dinner, using a trusted recipe that needs only a couple simple tweaks to be vegan.
And sure enough, her advice makes the day go much easier. At breakfast, the homemade chia seed pudding is vastly superior to the prepared version; it tastes like tapioca. Lunch — a cold couscous salad with olives, veggies and sunflower seeds, picked up at Central Market, where it had been helpfully labeled as vegan — is so good that I wished I’d bought a second helping. At dinner, the family doesn’t question the menu of lentils with warm Indian naan, and they don’t seem to notice I left the butter out. After dinner, I make granola, with rolled oats, pecans, dried fruit and maple syrup. It’s delicious. I am feeling very smug.
The day’s only disappointment? I’d been happy to read that dark chocolate is usually vegan, so I’d chosen it as a reward for making it through Day 2. The operative word is “usually.” Having learned the hard way that ostensibly vegan foods often have unacceptable ingredients — milk, honey, gelatin — I look at the label first. Ack. Milk fat. I eat a few grapes instead.
Day 3: Being a vegan is time-consuming
I think of myself as a competent cook, but let’s be honest — when I’m tired or busy, I’m just as likely as the next person to run through the drive-through or order pizza. Today, after a busy morning, I look up from the computer at 1:30, suddenly starving. On a non-vegan day, I might have made a turkey sandwich or hit Subway.
Instead, I force myself into the kitchen and sullenly grate ginger and slice produce for the ginger-soy slaw I’d planned. It’s good, but the kitchen is a wreck when I finish. I feel like I’m spending every spare minute cooking, yet I still haven’t made the homemade applesauce or banana bread I’d planned, and the roasted squash is still in the fridge, waiting to be turned into something edible. When do vegans find time to do all this?
Barb Craft, a vegan cooking instructor in Fort Worth, is sympathetic. Her suggestions are common-sense: Cook in batches, freeze servings for later, choose dishes that you don’t mind eating twice or that can be made into a different dish the next day. I follow her advice that night, saving half the squash for later and using the rest in a throw-together pasta dish with onions, mushrooms and pumpkin seeds. Still, by the time I’ve cleaned up and stored the leftovers, it’s 8:30 and I lack the motivation to get ahead for tomorrow.
Baby steps, Craft counsels. Do what you can; don’t beat yourself up. I take her advice. Instead of making applesauce, I pop a beer. As far as I know, all beer is vegan.
Day 4: Don’t get hungry
I really, really want a cookie. Like, mug-a-grandma levels of wanting a cookie. But we don’t have anything even resembling a vegan cookie in the house, and I certainly don’t have time to bake one. (Although I do find time to Google whether Tootsie Rolls, which we do have, are vegan. In case you are wondering, they are not.) So I try to fix my cravings with a tangerine and, when that doesn’t work, a piece of whole-grain toast with almond butter. It’s no cookie, but it satisfies me enough to let me get back to work.
Little rewards like that are key to making any dietary change, but they’re especially important when it comes to making a big change like going vegan, Riley notes. She suggests eating frequently. Without the heaviness of meat and dairy, she says, new vegans might get hungry faster. To avoid cheating, give yourself permission to grab healthy snacks between meals.
Day 5: Enlist a friend for moral support
My family has abandoned me. Taking one look at the thrown-together dinner I’d planned — leftover veggie sausages, rice and vegetables — my husband offers to make a turkey panini and french fries for himself and the boy. Afterward, they break into a new box of Girl Scout cookies. I look at the label. Defeated by milk solids again. I eat another tangerine.
Afterward, feeling sorry for myself, and remembering that Oprah’s vegan challenge had emphasized building a support system, I text my friend Cathy. After hearing me blather on about the idea, she’d decided to go vegan for the week, too, probably in solidarity but possibly just to shut me up. We exchange notes about lunch (a handful of walnuts and an apple for her) and commiserate about our families. (Her husband wasn’t even willing to give it a try.) After trading a couple of recipes, I feel re-committed. Two more days. I can do this.
Day 6: Don’t trust the menu
The waiter looks at me, unhappily. No, he isn’t sure which dishes are vegan. Of course, he can ask whether there’s stock in the curry. Certainly, he’ll find out about the dressing on that kale salad.
I know I’m turning into a waiter’s nightmare, that customer who asks a million questions and is never quite satisfied. But I’ve learned I can’t take the menu’s word for it. Restaurants are much more accommodating to vegans and vegetarians than they used to be, but Cindy Hader, a founding member of the Fort Worth Vegetarian Society, had explained that vegans, especially, must navigate menus carefully. Too often, dairy or meat sneaks into dishes that “look” as if they ought to be purely vegan, and the kitchen can’t always just take those ingredients out.
Sure enough, when the waiter at this Asian restaurant reports back, my choices have dwindled to steamed edamame and french fries. Everything else contains some sort of animal product, even if it’s just a bit of butter on the roasted veggies. I cave and order a stir-fry with tofu, bok choy and mushrooms, and figure that the little bit of beef stock in the sauce doesn’t constitute a full-blown falling off the wagon.
I remember Craft’s wise words: “You’re not going to Hades if you eat a hamburger. Think of this as a process.”
Day 7: Ethnic dishes are your friend; learn to step out of your comfort zone
It’s a Saturday, so I have time to cook again. First, a banana-bread recipe my yoga teacher had sworn by; I’d been dubious about any baked good calling for soy milk and no eggs, but it’s fantastic, possibly the moistest, most banana-y bread I’ve ever baked.
Next, I start dinner, a multipart recipe by one of the queens of vegan cooking, Isa Chandra Moskowitz, who gained followers with her website, Post Punk Kitchen. Her recipes tend to be somewhat complicated but also sound delicious. The veggie enchilada recipe I select has multiple steps, including making a cashew cream and a homemade enchilda sauce and roasting potatoes. It’s hearty and good, but it takes almost all afternoon and dirties half the pans we own. I may never make it again, but it does make me think how easy it would be to slowly convert some favorite recipes to vegetarian or vegan. Italian, Mexican, Thai, Chinese, Middle Eastern; all these cuisines are full of dishes in which the meat wouldn’t even be missed.
Day 8: One day at a time
The deal was a week. Today I return to the world of cheeseburgers and ice cream.
But I find myself putting soy creamer in my coffee and eating a big bowl of fruit. There are leftover veggie enchiladas for lunch. The big meaty breakfast I thought I’d make this morning, for some reason, does not appeal — something Riley told me might happen, especially the longer I kept vegan. Also, I actually feel better, more energetic, possibly lighter. The scale reports I’ve lost 2 pounds.
The true test comes tonight, when I order pizza for my son and his friend. I absolutely planned on having a piece or two, but when it arrives, with a thick layer of cheese shining with grease, I just can’t do it. While they dig in, I make a quick tofu scramble with leftover vegetables. I’m already thinking about how to make it through another vegan week. There’s a black-bean-and-quinoa recipe I want to try; I have an idea on how to make my favorite Thai curry completely vegan.
A meal at a time, a day at a time; I’ve learned it’s possible not only to give up meat and cheese, but to enjoy it.
But I’m not gonna lie. I’ve still got my eye on that box of Thin Mints.