I’m A Casual Vegan (And So Can You!) Part Three: Food


Veganizing your wardrobe? Surprisingly easy.

Making your bathroom more animal-friendly? Not quite as painless, but on a scale of one to ten (one being “I could do this in my sleep” and ten being “I would rather be submerged in a ball pit at Chuck E. Cheese and forced to watch Ghost Dad“), it’s about a three.

Welcome to the next step, the pinnacle, the boss level: veganizing your diet. This is where things get real. (Kidding. I just like to sound like a douchebag sometimes.)

vegan food (via Wikimedia)FOOD

There are at least three problems with changing your diet, three things that make it more difficult than the other topics I’ve covered:

A. Food isn’t something you can just give up. Leather shoes? Send ’em to the thrift shop and buy a pair made of canvas or nylon. Cologne that’s been tested on animals? Toss it in the trash. If you really need it, there are hundreds of cruelty-free options to choose from. But there’s no skipping out on food — at least, not for long.

B. Animal-based food is cheap, easy, and plentiful. If you have time to plan and choose your meals, that’s one thing. But when you’re hungry and in a hurry, rushing to class or a meeting or a flight, your choices are severely limited. You’re either having that sausage biscuit from Mickey D’s, or you’re going to have to re-train your body to subsist on coffee alone. I’ve tried that last one. I don’t recommend it.

C. Food fulfills deeply personal desires. You may love a particular wool sweater, but you own others. You can find substitutes. However, when you’re depressed or stressed or starving, chances are, you crave a very particular sort of food. For me, it’s mac and cheese, for other people, it’s a hamburger or cheesecake. We have a long history with these dishes — they’re often the ones we grew up with — and altering our deep-seated feelings about them doesn’t happen overnight.

So, shifting to a vegan diet involves some retraining. It’s like exercising or calling your parents more often or giving up Facebook: going vegan takes a bit of work, a bit of time, and the creation of new habits.

That said, there are a few ways to smooth the process and set yourself up for success:

1. Shop in bulk. In my experience, this is probably the most important thing that a budding vegan can do. When I have lapses, when I waver from a vegan diet, it’s usually because I don’t have any other easy options — and in my life, easy is key. A little planning  helps a lot.

Identify the things you like to eat — the vegetables, the breads, the cereals, whatever — and buy as much of them as you can when you go to the grocery store. I know it’s not especially earth-friendly or mom-and-pop friendly to say this, but Costco is my savior: I can snag a couple of weeks’ worth of celery and lettuce and other stuff in one stop because it’s all packaged for bulk. That way, I’m more likely to have it nearby when I get hungry and less likely to settle for what’s at hand — like, say, a ham sammich.

2. Eat at home more often. Unless you have great vegan restaurants in your neighborhood, dining out can spell trouble. I live in New Orleans, and while there are a couple of places that offer vegan-ish options, they’re still relatively rare. I could ask the waiter to make a particular pasta dish or salad without cheese, but (a) I worked in restaurants, and I don’t want to be “that guy”, and (b) “special-order” dishes are almost always terrible. Eat in, and you can stick to your guns — and you’re likely to have a tastier meal, too. To ensure that…

3. Invest in a good cookbook. There are countless vegan cookbooks on the shelves these days. (A quick search on Amazon turns up over 3,500.) Personally, I love anything by Isa Chandra Moskowitz, especially her books on sweets. Like her YouTube videos, Moskowitz’s recipes tend to be simple and no-nonsense, and even in my inexperienced hands, the food turns out great.

That said, if I were being shipped off to a veggie-filled island, and I could only take one cookbook with me, it would have to be Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. It’s written for accomplished home cooks and newbies alike, and it’s as comprehensive a guide to meat-free food as I’ve found. From simple appetizers to entrees to preserves — you name it, it’s in there. As the title suggests, Bittman includes numerous recipes that use dairy and eggs, but (a) he explains how to veganize almost any dish, and (b) the recipes that are already vegan and require no adaptation are clearly marked. It’s like Living Vegan For Dummies, but a billion times better. And you won’t be embarrassed to have it on your bookshelf.

4. Savor eating seasonally. Carnivores will remind you that wild animals are hunted only during certain times of the year, so in theory, meat — or at least game — can be eaten seasonally. But that’s nothing compared to the way that fruits and vegetables grow, ripen, and fade. One of the things I enjoy most about being vegan (or vegan-ish) is how it’s made me aware of those shifts, and in turn, I look forward to my meals changing from month to month — sometimes week to week. For better or worse, I am now the sort of person who gets excited by the thought of ripening tomatoes. A little weird, but I can live with it.

5. Fake meat? Maybe. Today, there are many vegetarian and vegan products that mimic the taste and texture of meat. During your transition to veganism, you might want to try them — they may satisfy a particular craving or mouthfeel that you’re missing. (Assuming they’re not actually meat, of course.)

To me, however, fake meat kinda misses the point. For most vegans and vegetarians I know, there has come a moment when they haven’t even wanted the illusion of eating flesh. When I chew fake meat, there’s a part of me — a tiny part at the back of my head — that remembers, “Oh, this is what it’s like to eat the flesh of another animal.” At first, it nauseates me a little, but doing it again and again and again inures me to that, making a lapse more likely.

I guess it’s kind of like the Catholic idea that thinking about a sin is the same as committing it. Then again, I think that idea is complete crap, so what do I know?

label with allergens6. Read your labels. On their lists of ingredients, food manufacturers in the U.S. are required to indicate potential allergens. Many of the labels in my pantry have allergens printed in boldface, then recap those allergens beneath the full list of ingredients. If you see milk or eggs called out, obviously you know you’re not having a vegan meal.

FYI, honey is tough. It’s not a conventional allergen, so it can be hidden among the ingredients. Plus it shows up everywhere, especially in bread. FWIW, rye is usually your safest bet.


…what about the “casual” part? Isn’t that the whole point — that being vegan doesn’t mean you have to become the unpleasant, screechy, preachy person that many of us picture when we imagine the stereotypical vegan?

Absolutely. At least, I think so.

Where food is concerned, being a “casual vegan” means reconciling our need for friendship and human interaction with compassionate consumption. Sure, you stand a better chance of eating 100% vegan if you do your cooking at home, but who wants to be a hermit? (Apart from hermits, that is.) By all means, go out, have fun, be the social animal that our species has spent tens of thousands of years becoming.

When you do, though, don’t focus solely on yourself and your needs. Be mindful of your companions, and be prepared to compromise. In restaurants, at special events, and at dinner parties, keep the dickishness to a minimum. Harassing a waiter — or worse, a host — ruins the mood for all involved. There won’t always be a vegan option for you to eat, but chances are, there’ll be something vegetarian. Worst-case scenario, you may have to go pescatarian for an hour or two. That’s okay.

No one is perfect, no philosophy is perfect. Do the best you can as often as you can, and you’ll still be doing more than most people on Planet Earth to make the world a kinder, gentler place.

Next, the final bit: medicine, transportation, and other trouble spots.

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