3 quick tips for getting started as a vegan

March 10, 2010

Linda signed up to the newsletter this week, and she said that the very best tip I could give her would be “getting started” ideas for brand new vegans.  We’ve got a growing set of recipes and cooking tips on Eazy Vegan, so I’m not going to pick out some simple recipes.  Instead, here are three basic principles to keep in mind that I think can help new and experienced vegans alike:

Figure out your biggest problem

A complete overhaul of your diet is a massive change on a zillion levels of your life.  Your body may react differently, your social interactions may change, your finances might get into trouble if you stick to too many processed vegan foods, and other issues might erupt that’ll challenge your decision to go vegan.

Ask yourself, in a year’s time, if it all goes bad, what’s the most likely way you’ll finish this phrase: “yeah, I was vegan for a while but I had to stop because of…”

Fix that right now.

I don’t know what your hypothetical dealbreaker is, but it’s probably not unique.  If you’d like help brainstorming, feel free to get in touch, but work on the biggest challenge first.  Once that’s under control, repeat the exercise (nobody likes to admit this for some reason, but massive change is hard and usually presents multiple obstacles!)

If you try to fix everything at once, your brain’s going to be all over the place, and you probably won’t even realize what most of the problems are.  Fixing the biggest problem first will clear more room for you right away, and you’ll probably find that this fix will automatically fix a few other issues that you didn’t even know were related.

Ignore the fine print

In a perfect world we’d eat nothing but whole fruits and vegetables and everything would have an ingredients list of one.  Actually, scratch that, that’d be a pretty boring world.  I like the fact that there are a lot of items in the grocery store that some company has taken the time to prepare for me so I don’t have to, for instance, make my own tofu.

Lots of these items have weird ingredients in them that I can’t even spell, let alone recognize without practice.  You can burn up a lot of energy as a new vegan poring through each list, comparing each item to the entry in a list of food ingredients, and agonizing over simple mistakes you made just a few days before when you misread a label.

When you’re just starting out, focus on the easy 80%.  Consider the rest a transition process.  You’ll learn how to scan ingredients as you learn everything else (and the good news is that it’s getting easier and easier as products start to actually identify themselves as vegan.)

I’m not trying to tell you to ignore trace amounts of animal products, but you need to recognize that you probably don’t have a chemistry degree and this stuff can be hard to figure out, and animal ingredients hide in lots of places you don’t expect.  For example, every week I hear from a longtime vegan who just found out that beer is often filtered with fish guts (thankfully, it’s usually the same week they discovered Barnivore.)  Does that make them less vegan up to that point?  Personally, I don’t think so.

Focus on the big ingredients when you’re starting out.  Avoid bacon, for example.  Things like L-Cysteine will get sorted out later on in your journey.

Learn four recipes

OK, I said I wasn’t going to pick out recipes, and I’ll stick to that, mostly, but I want to call out a behaviour that I see in a lot of new vegans: they want to try absolutely everything, right away.

And this is exciting!  I remember when I decided to adopt a plant-based diet, and it was like a light went off in my head, and suddenly I had permission to explore entire aisles of the grocery store that I’d previously ignored.  I don’t know why, as an omnivore, I felt that I didn’t need to know what cous cous, falafels, millet, and, say, black eyed peas were, let alone how to use them, but there’s a tendency to think of a new vegan diet as “new everything” as opposed to “less of this stuff, more of this stuff.”

Unfortunately, this makes things a lot harder than it has to be when you’re starting out, and if something’s difficult, it’s more likely that you’ll give up.  Your body is going to be trying to get used to a new type of cuisine with different amounts of fat and fibre among other things, and if you change things up dramatically with every meal, you might have some difficulties there.  Your budget might suffer with the wider range of staple foods you’ll be buying to create each new meal (see our post on the three spices you need to get started for some help there.) And then there’s the matter of simply trying to remember everything!

Trying new things is something I always encourage, but if you’re just starting out, I recommend learning maybe four solid recipes that you can use as your home base.  Most people I know, omnivore or vegan, tend to eat pretty much the same stuff over a given period of time, so don’t worry about being in a rut.  I’d just hate for you to stop enjoying veganism simply because you can’t find the time, energy, and resources to keep the food supply moving into your belly.

I said I wouldn’t supply recipes, but here are some guidelines: learn a good bean dish, a good tofu dish (tofu scramble is super easy to figure out,) something as simple as a sandwich or wrap you can make for lunches, and finally some kind of cake or cookie recipe that’ll get you started with baking (it’s not as stereotypically vegan as my other suggestions, and you can take the desserts to work to win more people over!)

Think of these as your “home base” recipes.  You can try new things, but if you get the hang of four solid choices you’ll have something to fall back on when you’re having a rough day, or your body is craving something familiar.

What else?

These are three tips that popped into my head this morning, but there are a bunch more I could have gone with, so I’m turning it over to the other vegan readers: what one tip do you wish someone had told you when you were starting as a vegan?  Let us know in the comments so we all can learn!

Update: lots of great suggestion from fans over on the Facebook posting, check ’em out!

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Al_Nowatzki March 10, 2010 at 5:46 pm

I think the best thing you can do as a new vegan is to know WHY you are a vegan. Seek out blogs by vegan activists (I suggest Gary Francione as a starting point). Watch the horrible videos of animal exploitation (I suggest Earthlings). Buy books about animal rights and veganism (I suggest Introduction to Animal Rights by Gary Francione and Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism by Melanie Joy).

Once you have a firm grasp of the arguments FOR veganism and AGAINST speciesism, then not being vegan will be harder than being vegan.

As far as food goes, always read the ingredients. Even if something is marked vegan, read the ingredients. This will remind you of all the stuff that IS vegan and will also help you in your own cooking (knowing what kind of spices go in what kind of food and all).

Also, do an ingredient check of your regulars every once in a while. I used to buy these great little frozen diced potatoes that I'd make skillet dishes with and one day I looked at the ingredients and BAM: Casein. Casein! On diced potatoes! It didn't used to be there, but some time between 2002 and 2009, they changed the ingredients on me.

jasondoucette March 10, 2010 at 9:55 pm

Great suggestions, thanks! I don't think I've been burned on an ingredients change yet, but it's something I wonder about (and check) from time to time.

jackbennett March 10, 2010 at 10:37 pm

Great advice. For myself, my first “vegan experiment” went off the rails because it was also an extremely low fat, minimal junk food diet and it just became too much.

During my second attempt, I took the tip of “Figure out your biggest problem” and decided that I would not count fat grams or calories, and instead just prioritize the vegan diet. As a result, I wound up reducing my weight by 45 lbs and was able to continue the vegan diet until now (almost 1.5 years).

jasondoucette March 10, 2010 at 11:33 pm

Thanks Jack, I think “it just became too much” has been the epitaph for far too many vegan attempts, and you've just reminded me of something I'll be talking about later this week, so thanks and stay tuned!

brian March 23, 2010 at 7:57 pm

For me I've often taken the approach, if I don't know what's in it I don't put it in my mouth. Every single time I've gone against this principle I've been burned. If this means I don't eat, then I don't eat. But that hasn't happened much. I tell my two vegan children, “Forage, there's usually always something to eat”. I also tell them to ALWAYS pocket something when you go out to eat, either to a restaurant or someone's house. A small jar of nuts or a vegan health bar will usually be enough to tide you over until you get home.

Erin December 13, 2011 at 8:47 pm

my name is erin. i have been a vegetarian for 6 years and i want to try to be vegan if anyone has any suggestions about making the transition please send me a an email @ liveandletdieax@aim.com

Jerry Critter December 25, 2011 at 3:31 pm

Just keep doingwhat you are doing and cut out the dairy

mARY August 4, 2012 at 11:28 pm

id just like to add someone said to remember why you are a vegan yes i abhor the way animals are treated and was my original reason back in 2003 but now that ive learned more there is an even bigger reason i now have two beautiful children whom i not only want to instill good values in but also i want to grow up as healthy as possible animal foods are just not good for you if you havent already check out forks over knives its a documentary on the link between cancer and animal foods

jenine January 14, 2013 at 10:21 am

Erin- read up on how dairy products and eggs are processed. You may have done this when you cut out meat. The dairy industry is quite possibly more appalling.

Hello there January 21, 2013 at 9:02 pm

Do you lose a lot of weight being a vegan?

Ross January 1, 2014 at 9:39 am

Hey need some help folks. Been basically a vegetarian for 10 years, little bit of fish and some red meat maybe once every 4-6 weeks. Since March we both went cold turkey 100% Vegan with about 80% raw. My wife is doing excellent. Unfortunately for me just in the past few weeks I’ve become very low in energy and am nervous I might need some essential fats/oils/more dense nutritional foods to make it. Anyone experience this. Yes we both excercise everyday and we eat lots of food. At least we think we do! Thanks for your help. Worried. Ross.

Lee April 4, 2014 at 8:04 am

I went vegan a week ago (originally vegetarian), and I’m already suffering from lack of energy. The positive news is how light I feel. I’m drinking about 2 litres of water a day, with one of those litres being the first thing I do before breakfast. I’m eating muesli, bean salads, falafels, various greens, sweet potato etc., but I’m finding I want to sleep at lunchtime. When the evening arrives, I get shivers and shakes and pass out for 10+ hours. Somethings obviously not right. However, I’m sticking with it, whatever happens.

Lee April 4, 2014 at 8:05 am

Also, I have been advised to expect similar issues as part of my bodies natural detox. Is this right?

Mark December 31, 2014 at 4:35 pm

Thanks for all the advice everyone. I have been a carnivore all my life, but recent years have been punctuated with a heavy conscious. My means of coping was to (I suppose) practicing something similar to Orwellian ‘double-think’ whilst having a plan, sometime in ‘the future’ to go vegan. In my mind there has never been any question of a vegetarian diet and not a vegan one; human beings really are appalling to other species on our collective home, and we, as a species should be ashamed of ourselves.

I went vegan a week ago (Christmas eve in fact, the house was stuffed full of the usual Christmas foodstuff and my conscience finally won its fight). Today, a week later, I have been feeling weak and possibly a little depressed – and I found myself here.

I realised 3 important things – firstly, that I could relate to many of the pitfalls and cautions mentioned, secondly, I’m not alone, and finally (and probably most importantly), I was hungry!

I’ve solved the hunger issue now (by quickly making one of my old favourites, which so happened to tick all the vegan boxes) and I’m very thankful for finding my way here.

Thank you very much for getting me through a tight spot.

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