Newby Vegan Nightmare–What’s for Dinner?

One of the first questions converts to veganism ask is “What can I eat?” This is just the beginning of a series of questions that then inundate the convert. “Am I going to be eating nothing but salads for the rest of my life?” “How am I going to feed my family?” “Will I ever be able to feed them foods that they’ll love again?” It is no exaggeration to say that this is every new vegan’s nightmare. The fear is made even worse for someone on a Whole Foods Plant Based (WFPB) diet, which seems to limit our options even more severely.

The best way to tackle this question is to realize that, chances are, like most people, you have a very limited repertoire of dishes that you make week after week. The average person has about three breakfasts that they eat on a regular basis, no more than half a dozen lunches and about nine standard dinners. If this is not true for you, then you probably have more resources than the average person for creating new menus. Pat yourself on the back.

If you’re like most people, though, you learned from your mother to plan meals around animal products—meat, dairy and eggs. You will undoubtedly face more than a moment of panic as you consider the losses you will have to face. For me it was a quiet mourning for the milk in my breakfast cereal, the eggs in my french toast, the greek yoghurt with my fruit, and creamy sauces in my casseroles. And ice cream—Oh my, how I mourned for my ice cream! Trust me, you will not be deprived of these things. There are delicious vegan alternatives to all of these, and many more things you may not have considered yet.

Later on in this process, long after you have become something of an expert in planning healthy meals, you will see the same kind of hopeless confusion on the faces of friends and acquaintances when you tell them you no longer eat meat or dairy. They’ll look at you with a forlorn expression and ask, “Then what do you eat?” Like all of us, they are focused on the hole that will be left when meat and dairy are excluded, instead of upon the bounty of foods that are actually available.

The simplest first step toward planning WFPB meals is to think in terms of substitution. What can you substitute for the slab of meat whose absence would seem to leave a big hole on your plate? The US Department of Agriculture offers a website called My Plate which claims to offer help. Yet, not only does it present Dairy as a necessary “food group”—Oh, the lies our government will tell for the sake of big business—but what do we make of the section labeled Protein? The meat industry has tried to make us believe that meat is the only; or, if not that, then at least the best source of protein. This too is a lie, you can read more about vegetables and protein in my previous entries The Protein Question–Part One and The Protein Question–Part Two.

The US Department of Agriculture does offer an alternative to meat. It says that “beans, peas, or soy products” are good sources of protein. What they don’t tell you is that all whole plant foods, even fruits, have protein in them in sufficient quantities to keep a human healthy. If you are eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds, then you are getting more than enough protein in your diet. There is no need to set aside a section of your plate for Protein.

Dr. Michael Greger offers some advice about planning meals in his video on transitioning to a vegan diet and on his website. One important point that he makes is how critical B12 supplementation is in a plant based diet. Vitamin D is another nutrient that most people need to supplement. Take a multivitamin daily that contains sufficient quantities of vitamins B12 and D. For Omega 3 fatty acids, Dr. Greger recommends ground flax seed, and maybe a dietary supplement of algal DHA like this. Everything else that the body needs can be derived from the whole foods that you will eat, in much more abundant supplies than meat eaters generally get and including a great many that they are lacking.

Dr. Greger suggests that the best way to transition to a vegan diet is to try to create a new set of nine standard recipes. Begin with three vegan dishes that you might already be familiar with, like bean burritos, lentil soup or a vegetable rich marinara sauce over noodles. Then go through your standard recipes and try substitutions for the animal products in at least three of your recipes. For me this meant learning to make lentil loaf instead of meatloaf, substituting chickpeas for the meat in our favorite curry dish, and making black bean and rice burgers for our burger night.

You may find that in your quest for meat substitutes you are led to sampling various faux meats, and faux dairy products. See this site for examples of what is available. These are certainly handy in a crunch, and some are rather tasty, but they are not WFPB friendly. These faux products are, at best, a stop gap measure until you learn to prepare healthier foods. They are too full of oils, preservatives and extracts to truly heal your body.

The next step that the WFPB newbie will stumble upon while searching for meat substitutes are the east asian staples tofu, tempeh and seitan. Tofu and tempeh are made from soy beans, and seitan is a meat-like substance made from vital wheat gluten (definitely not for the gluten intolerant!). These work wonderfully as meat substitutes in many familiar dishes, but many WFPB doctors recommend that these be used only occasionally, or as garnishes to your veggie rich dishes, not as a regular part of your diet.

Soy curls are another popular meat substitute for the modern vegan, also obviously made from soy. They have an uncanny resemblance to pork or chicken meat and make a delectable sandwich which my family calls “Pulled Soy Curls” (see a sample recipe here). They are also delicious in sweet and sour sauce (see sample recipe here). They are made from whole soy beans, so may qualify for whole food, but are too new for any of the WFPB doctors to have commented upon in their writing. Since the jury is still out on these, we should also use them sparingly on a WFPB diet.

For the last three meals, explore the many, many recipes available for free on the internet to find something new and delicious. Try searching the internet using the keywords “Vegan Recipes”, then narrow your search by adding a word(s) for types of dishes that you enjoy (curry, enchilada, stir fry, lasagna, soup, casserole, etc.), or the ingredients that you love (mushroom, squash, potato, oats, brown rice, black beans, etc.). You will find many more than three recipes that you want to try.

The wonderful thing about vegan food is that you can taste test all through the preparation process, even before cooking. There are no dangers from salmonella or campylobacter from uncooked vegetables, grains or legumes! This makes it easy to adjust the seasoning as you prepare the recipe. Because of this marvelous benefit, I have not tried a single WFPB recipe that was inedible. Everything I’ve made was good enough that my family finished what was on their plates, even if they weren’t interested in adding it to our standard repertoire.

The process of transitioning to a whole foods plant based diet is an adventure. Along the way, you will need to learn new skills and options like substituting flax eggs in your baking, using blended fruit (or even starchy vegetables) to add moisture, using vegetable broth instead of oil to sauté, and using dried fruit (like dates) to sweeten a sauce. Once you overcome your initial fear of the unknown, the process will became pleasant. You’ll discover new favorites—from undiscovered ingredients to whole new cuisines—all along the way. And who doesn’t love discovering new favorites?

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