Considering vegetarianism - hints, tips and thoughts?
July 25, 2014 2:42 PM   Subscribe

More and more, I've been thinking along the lines that eating meat doesn't fit at all with my ethics and value system - particularly non-violence. I'm thinking of quitting and becoming vegetarian - but to complicate matters, I really like meat (in moderation). Should I do it, and if so, what tips do people have? Snowflakes inside.

The more time I spend out and about, close to nature, the more I watch animals and birds and other creatures living their lives, the more I realise how intelligent and loving and conscious they are of their surroundings and the less willing I am to eat them! For example, I was watching a bird, just a wood-pigeon, in my garden yesterday collecting twigs, flying up into the woods to make its nest. I'm starting to realise that birds and animals are just like us, really - trying their best to provide for their family. I believe they can feel emotions and they're a lot more perceptive and intelligent than they let on.

I can't even watch violent scenes on TV or films, I don't process suffering at all well and find even the thought of pain and torture and death an intense trigger for me, I feel physically sick even thinking about people or creatures hurting. I'm totally against any form of conflict or violence, and so I feel like the world's worst hypocrite for eating meat. By definition, eating meat feels like a violent act to me. I grew up in a rural community, so I am not naive to the grisly facts behind meat production.

At present, I don't eat supermarket or processed or 'anonymous' meat that could be from anywhere. I only buy it from a local shop, where I know exactly which local farms it's come from and know it's been treated well during its life. It costs more, and I eat less of it, but that's OK. The problem is, I really do enjoy well-cooked, properly prepared meat! I like the taste and the texture and the smell - but I feel guilty after eating it. I'm fine with milk and eggs and products that are from animals, as long as they aren't hurt or harmed in that process. I'm also struggling a bit with wearing leather shoes, for the same reason.

So, I've come pretty close to a decision to stop eating meat. I think it would be a good contributor to my own personal peace-of-mind. But if I just cut meat out of my current diet, I'd be left with a few staple dishes - veg pasta and veg curry are nice, but more variety would be needed. I already cook meals from scratch at home most of the time, so I'm not learning to cook, but it would be different ingredients and different techniques to what I do now.

Should I do this - do I have a good enough reason, or am I just being pernickety? And if I do go through with it, what alternatives to meat do I have, bearing in mind I'm in a fairly traditional part of England and have access to just normal shops, not specialist ones locally. Is tofu, for instance, a good alternative to chicken (and where do you get it, because I've never seen it for sale!)? Are there other things I should be looking at, particularly to preserve my current balanced diet and avoid a lack of proteins or other things? What 'gotchas' should I be watching out for? I'd really love to hear your stories and tips and things. :)
posted by winterhill to Food & Drink (44 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
What if you try it for one month. That's enough time to see what it really feels like to eat that way every day. Try cooking, shopping, eating out and being a guest at a meal with a friend. See what snacks you like and foods you miss. Try the meat substitutes and try just eating more vegetable based foods. Then assess if that is something you want to do long-term. It's only a month, but by doing a month, you'll show yourself you are able to make that choice if you end up deciding to.
posted by latkes at 2:45 PM on July 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

My mom's been a vegetarian for 15 or so years, but recently started eating fish for health reasons. She had felt a lot of anxiety about adding back in fish. I told her "look, there are no vegetarian police, just eat what you want!" So seriously, do what you want. If you want to eat veg at home but allow yourself meat or fish outside the home when it's inconvenient to be totally veg, cool. Eat fish but not red meat? Good for you. You don't need to box yourself into a definition of "vegetarian."
posted by radioamy at 2:48 PM on July 25, 2014 [4 favorites]

The single best cookbook I own is How To Cook Everything Vegetarian. This is true even though my cooking and eating styles have changed repeatedly during the time that I've owned it. I'm not a vegetarian, but I used to eat like one, and even though I don't any more, if I had to get rid of every cookbook I own except one, I would choose this one.

I'm not a fan of meat substitutes. As far as I'm concerned, when keeping vegetarian or vegan, the best method is to re-think the plate. Instead of thinking of it as needing a meatlike entree as the centerpiece, read through some great cookbooks and find other centerpieces. Ultimately you'll very likely revise your thinking altogether.

Also: What you miss when you miss red meat is umami. Use red wine, soy sauce, aged cheese, mushrooms, and you'll get that umami goodness.

Also: portobello mushrooms are just like big ole steaks LOL
posted by janey47 at 2:50 PM on July 25, 2014 [7 favorites]

It sounds like you're ready to give it a try! I've been vegan, omni, veg, and am now omni again, although I don't cook meat at home. You can set your own rules.

For meat replacements: lentils, beans, milk, cheese, and eggs are fine to start with. I find I wind up eating less fat as a vegetarian, so be aware of that if you're hungry. If you're looking for more options gluten flour or whole wheat flour can be used to prepare seitan at home - it's high-protein, and tasty and chewy and satisfying.
posted by momus_window at 3:01 PM on July 25, 2014

I'm not a big fan of tofu, so beans, eggs, and dairy have been a big part of my diet. Fake meats are terrible.

Consider incorporating foods from other cuisines — traditional European food is very meat-heavy, but it's easy to make delicious vegetarian food that draws from mexican, chinese, indian, thai, and moroccan traditions (either authentic or adapted) if you can find the ingredients. Changing up your diet will help you avoid feeling feel like the meal is missing meat, since it's a whole new set of flavors and meal structure.

Personal fave: these tacos or these enchiladas with this side salad.
posted by you're a kitty! at 3:04 PM on July 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

But if I just cut meat out of my current diet, I'd be left with a few staple dishes - veg pasta and veg curry are nice, but more variety would be needed.

Oddly, when I follow a vegetarian diet there seems to be more variety because vegetables become the main event. Soups, wonderful bean salads, hummus (I make mine with cucumber).... Global dishes can give inspiration: I am going to attempt a vegan pad thai this weekend, which I have never tried but the recipe reviews are solid, and I am going for ethiopian next week.

Good luck!
posted by mochapickle at 3:06 PM on July 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

i found that once i stopped eating meat for the most part, when i DID have it, i thought it was gross. like super gross. the texture, the stringyness, the gristle, the mouthfeel, etc. even the taste wasn't that good. you could be eating the most amazing grass-fed english beef, so ymmv, i don't know.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 3:08 PM on July 25, 2014

What if you try it for one month.

I like this idea. I tried it for a month ten years ago and haven't eaten meat since. Unless you have some sort of special need for protein, you won't need to worry about getting enough protein. You'll get enough.

Key protein sources for me: eggs, yogurt, nuts, milk, cheese, lentils, tofu. When I want to eat extra protein as part of a fitness regimen I make protein smoothies with whey powder.

I rarely, like on the order of five or six times in a decade, have had meat substitutes. This is just not something I find even remotely appetizing, but people have differing perspectives on this.

When I started my one month that turned into a decade of vegetarianism I started with the idea that I'd eat more vegetables. Sometimes I'd just buy vegetables and find recipes that needed them. I also found that I only really needed to find ideas for meals at dinner, and if I had left overs and occasionally ate meals out, I needed to only come up with 2-3 dinners a week, so the task wasn't as daunting as it initially seemed.
posted by MoonOrb at 3:10 PM on July 25, 2014

I've been going through this for awhile, too, for the same reasons. I've been struggling with whether to go fully vegetarian, but in the end I've decided that what's most realistic/practical for me (and my partner) is to cut down on animal products, not in a super-strict way but as a general principle. So for me that has meant:

- cutting out all red meat (100%)
- minimizing poultry and pork (probably have cut it by 80-90%, though my partner eats more)
- reducing dairy and eggs (dairy by about 50%, eggs by about 90%), and always trying to buy products that are certified humane; if I can't find a humane option, I ask myself if I really want or need it (the answer is usually no)
- aiming to split remaining protein sources evenly between seafood and vegetarian
posted by scody at 3:17 PM on July 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

You might want to avoid fake meat products while you try it out, or while you're still getting used to it if you want to stick with it. They probably won't taste quite right and will only make you miss real meat. Maybe try it a day at a time, see if you can extend a week, and go on. It's a little less intimidating than saying "Never again!" That may depend on how your mind works.
posted by dilettante at 3:23 PM on July 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think I'm a lot like you. I'm more ok with eating meat if I know an animal has been given a good life and treated well. I don't like that an animal would suffer to be my food. But... I also really like meat.

My approach is to cut back, and not cut it out entirely - but not keep meat in my regular food repertoire. I eat meat (poultry, seafood, beef) no more than 2x a month. The last time I had any meat was 3 weeks ago.

I've been doing this for years, and am fine health/nutrition/energy wise. I feel satiated when I can give in to occasional "cravings" but I don't miss it so much that I feel like I'm lacking, and I feel a lot less guilty for scaling back my consumption. Generally, I eat a lot of bean & vegetable based dishes. Hearty salads (with beans, nuts, root vegetables), various pasta things (warm, cold, saucy, or more salad-like), thick stew/soups, hearty grains like barley, curries, chilis, vegetarian sandwiches w/ funky spreads/marinades, etc. I like tofu, but not as a "meat substitute" - it's tasty on its own, and in its own ingredient category. I don't care too much for meat substitutes because there really isn't any likeness. But that also gives me an appreciation and respect for meals that are flavorful and delicious on their own, without trying to "fake it."

I'm an active person that exercises 6 days a week, and feel energized without supplements or ingesting protein shakes/bars/etc. Not a big dairy or egg fan either, but I seem to get plenty of protein and iron from mostly plant-based sources. YMMV, so it may be worthwhile to try it for a while, and at least spend time dappling in meatless meals, so you have a base of veggie skills to work with before going cold turkey (or you can do that too). Good luck!
posted by raztaj at 3:30 PM on July 25, 2014

Should I do this - do I have a good enough reason, or am I just being pernickety?

You are 100% allowed to choose exactly what you want to put into your body, for whatever reason. And it's not like you're doing something super-duper dietarily weird, like refusing to eat anything that's the color purple or something. Lots of people are vegetarian for lots of reasons.

As others have said, too, there are a lot of options along the spectrum from traditional diet to vegetarianism. I eat mainly vegetarian at home, but sometimes use small amounts of meat for flavoring (especially because the most flavor-rich meat products, like sausages and ham hocks, are inevitable byproducts of meat processing, and I like to think of using the bits that might otherwise go to waste). When I eat at someone's house, I don't even mention vegetarianism, and I just eat what the put in front of me, but when we have people over, I almost always cook meatless or low-meat. When I'm given the option at a catered lunch, I ask for the vegetarian option... but then I'm the one who, if they come up short on veg meals (as often happens!), can happily switch to meat. When I'm out to eat, I try to go for a vegetarian option, but not many restaurants around here have great vegetarian food, so instead of Yet Another Portabella Sandwich, I'll just say screw it, and eat meat. (I call myself "flexitarian.")

Most meat substitutes, I find pretty awful—and they're the kind of highly-processed foodstuff I try to avoid anyway. But tofu is great. I like it fried in stir-fries, frozen and crumbed so its texture is kind of like ground meat, and marinated and baked on salads or just by its own glorious self. It's worth seeking it out, though. I also like seitan and tempeh, though the heavily-flavored stuff can have the same problem as meat substitutes, being high in sodium and weirdly chemically tasting.

Probably 4 meals out of 5, though, we have beans as the main protein. Also, mushroom broth makes a great vegetarian soup base. Probably you can make delicious mushroom stock at home from fresh and/or dried mushrooms, but I just buy the stuff in a carton.

The Moosewood Restaurant cookbooks are a great vegetarian resource.
posted by BrashTech at 3:34 PM on July 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

A lot of people are down on fake meat and that's fine. But I really like a lot of it. It continues to improve in quality - when I was a 12 year old vegetarian over 25 years ago, the only option was Tofu Pups, but now there are tons of different sausages, burgers, grounds, strips, etc and I enjoy them in their own right. My partner who eats meat, and many former vegeterians or semi-vegetarians I know enjoy a variety of fake meat products. They're nice when you're in a hurry. They're not meat, but you may enjoy them on their own. Just something to explore.
posted by latkes at 3:45 PM on July 25, 2014 [5 favorites]

I have been a vegetarian for thirteen years, and I eased into it. I gave up red meat first, because I'd never liked it much so it was easy to give up. The last things I gave up were corned beef hash and chicken tacos (about a year after I started this process) and tuna fish (more than five years later). It's now been six years or so since I had any meat, and I don't miss it. Easing into it might make it easier for you.

I became a vegetarian for basically the same reasons as you: I am uncomfortable with being a participant in unnecessary violence. It is sort of persnickety and I have felt that really hard when traveling, especially to developing countries. I feel like a picky spoiled brat sometimes. But I keep reminding myself: I am lucky enough to have choices, and it's okay to make this choice, even if it isn't available to everyone. Reminding myself about the environmental impacts of meat helps a lot with the "spoiled brat" thing, too.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 3:47 PM on July 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

Also re: protein: I eat a lot of beans, lentils, and TEMPEH, which was a revelation as I am medium about most preparations of tofu. If you want any tempeh recipes hit me up. It has a much better texture than tofu and I find it to be a lot less work.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 3:48 PM on July 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

You can try to ease into it. Try out different meat substitutes (if that appeals to you). I don't restrict myself from eating meat when it's convenient, but I live with a vegan, and I enjoy certain fake-meat products, especially some of the Gardein brand. If you're into the whole veggie burger thing, try different brands - some are really good, some are bland and mushy.

Alternatively (or in addition), decrease your meat usage by transitioning to dishes that use meat as a secondary ingredient or seasoning, the way a lot of Chinese vegetable and tofu dishes use ground pork. Over the last few years, I've found myself first cooking mostly vegetables flavored with bacon or other meat, and now I end up cooking vegan without thinking (too hard) about it. Why bother with bacon when I can add smoked paprika?
posted by WasabiFlux at 4:08 PM on July 25, 2014

I am a confirmed meat eater who lives with a confirmed vegetarian. That makes me a vegetarian roughly 98% of the time. This is a situation that's been going on for more than 20 years. I eat meat when I go out (though not always, as vegetarianism becomes a hard habit to break with time) or when a friend serves it in her home (as I am reluctant to cause offense by not being grateful for what someone else puts in front of me).

You too can have a rule like that! Say: When I am in control of my own situation, I will eat as a vegan/vegetarian. When I am with others, I will gratefully accept what is offered to me.

That said, I love lots of fake meat products. We still eat chili dogs in our home, too, only using soy hot dogs and chili beans and cheese. We still eat sausage (and I cannot tell the difference between Morningstar Farms and non-vegetarian sausage, except in terms of greasiness and saltiness, which is a welcome change actually). We eat chorizo (Soyrizo is awesome!) and make tacos and adovada with Quorn. And who can tell the difference between a Quorn nugget and a regular chicken nugget? Anyway, you might give the meat subs a try as a transitional thing, or you might wait until you're craving meat and then try them.

But again, there are no rules except for those you impose on yourself.
posted by GoLikeHellMachine at 4:22 PM on July 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

This is exactly why I'm vegetarian. It's such a small sacrifice for me, and such a huge one for the animal. And we have so many choices. I went to see a dietician once, which was useful - the main tips were combining proteins (legumes and grains, basically) and thinking about B12 (but if you're having eggs that's not an issue). Iron has never been a problem for me.

My main gripe is that there's usually only one veggie option at restaurants (and sometimes none, if it's a fancy one!). But there are so many things to cook at home. I guess I eat more one-dish meals than my meat-eating friends (eg lasagne, curry, stir-fry as opposed to meat-and-veg). And people who think vegetarianism=tofu are just wrong.

My favourite everyday cookbook is this one, followed by this one, and this is a great veggie food blog.
posted by superfish at 4:23 PM on July 25, 2014

You've gotten good answers about the practical aspects of becoming vegetarian, so I want to address the ideology. The idea that you would be persnickety or picky or difficult if you stop eating meat to reduce the amount of violence in the world is completely insane. I don't mean you are insane, I mean that we live in a culture where we so think of violence as normal that efforts to try to reduce violence are belittled and mocked. And it's horrible that the particular violence of eating animals is so routine in our lives. I don't want to sound too much like a vegetarian extremist because I'm not, people eat meet for lots of reasons and that's fine. I just want to point out that your stated reason for wanting to be vegetarian - reducing violence - is a really good reason to become a vegetarian.
posted by medusa at 4:32 PM on July 25, 2014 [14 favorites]

As to where you can get meat substitutes. I've never had a big problem getting something in large and most small supermarkets anywhere in the UK. In the chillers and the frozen aisles there will be a section of vegetarian stuff. Quite often you'll find tofu there too!

I think a mistake that a lot of meat eaters make when they eat fake meat is that they expect it to be exactly like the meat equivalent. It's not, and it never will be. Better to like it (or not like it) for what it is.

There's several different varieties of fake meat products that are fairly common in the UK. Quorn is everywhere, I use the mince like beef mince and the cubes like chicken. Try all the different varieties of burgers and sausages and see which you like. Like WasabiFlux, I don't see the point of fake bacon, not when you can get smoked cheddar pretty easily and smoked paprika in the fancy food section of Sainsburys. But you may try it and feel otherwise.

I don't tend to use much fake meat nowadays, I've switched to using lots of beans and pulses in my cooking, but they are an acquired taste, so that might not be for you. I love them.

The one fake meat thing I still buy is Cauldron sausages. I think they are the best by a long way.

I've never really got to grips with cooking tofu for myself, but I do like it, so I just tend to eat it when I'm out.

Get a good vegetarian cook book. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's vegetable one is amazing, it changed how I cook, and I've been vegetarian for over 20 years and only ever learnt to cook vegetarian food. It's full of easy recipes with interesting flavours and combinations so you don't miss the meat. And he doesn't use fake meat, and he uses ingredients that are readily available in the UK. And he really sympathises with people who love meat, but can't bear to eat it any more.

There's a lot of American's in this thread with good suggestions, but talking about products and dishes that are pretty rare over here, if at all (Chillidogs! Seitan!).
posted by Helga-woo at 4:33 PM on July 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

And if I do go through with it, what alternatives to meat do I have, bearing in mind I'm in a fairly traditional part of England and have access to just normal shops, not specialist ones locally. Is tofu, for instance, a good alternative to chicken (and where do you get it, because I've never seen it for sale!)?

For tofu, ask at Tesco, etc. The Tesco where my grandad lives (which is a similar kind of place) thought they stocked it when I asked, only to figure out they'd stopped carrying it at some point. I think tempeh is probably too much to hope for. Your supermarket almost certainly stocks Quorn, which vaguely approximates chicken if you need transitional food.

My cooking has slowly migrated towards the South Asian over the years, mostly out of personal preference, though you should have all requisite ingredients fairly readily available. If you're worried about access to ingredients, there's a Delia Smith vegetarian cookbook which doesn't require anything remotely exotic (my copy is old enough that calling falafel 'falafel' was too exotic--they're 'chickpea cakes' or something). Vegetarianism is pretty well-entrenched in Britain at this point--you're right that you're probably working with a somewhat restricted array of ingredients/products compared to many places (London, the US), but things like the BBC Food website keep vegetarians in mind and in Britain I never really worry about finding something to eat, since, if all else fails, there's probably a cheese and tomato sandwich somewhere in the vicinity.

I was raised in the US by an English mother, which means a lot of American meat dishes just don't have, I don't know, cultural resonance for me. I stopped eating meat 12 years ago and really haven't been tempted. Unless you put me in the vicinity of sausage wrapped in pastry, so sometimes I find myself comically tempted in Britain or Canada. (Also, somewhat unrelated to your incipient vegetarianism, there's one place here in Minneapolis that has vegetarian shepherd's pie on the menu. It's like a siren calling to me and I have to repeatedly remind myself that I hated shepherd's pie as a child.)
posted by hoyland at 4:43 PM on July 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

Don't think about your cooking as replacing meat. So don't think oh, I would usually have a piece of chicken with this so I'm going to replace it with egg/tofu/cheese/whatever instead. Think of it as a whole meal, what will make you feel full and have a nice variety of food? (also becareful with the cheese, a lot of folks end up replacing their meat with cheese a lot and it's not super healthy.)

There are lots of meat substitutes out there that are good, but get to know your legumes. As long as you have a varied diet you will be fine.

A fantastic book is Becoming Vegetarian By Vesanto Melina
posted by sadtomato at 5:08 PM on July 25, 2014

I've been going between vegan, vegetarian and omnivorous for quite a while. It depends on my health needs, and how much I have to have the foresight to prep, and other logistical things like business travel or trying to find food in Buffalo, NY. Eating vegan isn't hard, but it is hard when you have forgotten to buy dark chocolate almonds or cans of garbanzo beans or the right bread and you have had no time to cook, etc. Generally, it requires some planning. Vegetarian is a lot easier.

I get a lot of questions about this, and that kind of weird sneer that people have when a vegetarian eats a burger, and my attitude about it is that I don't have to be pretentious about my eating habits and I don't have to label them or answer to anyone. They're not Girl Scout badges. I avoid animal products where possible and when I can't, or when my body feels like it really wants a hamburger, I just give it the hamburger. When I'm traveling and eating with twelve people in a fancy restaurant, I just order what I want to order.

I avoid animal products where I can because I don't want to contribute to the suffering in the world, and I'm fortunate enough to be a decent cook and have access to ingredients that help me do that. I can do that more and more as I get better at it and go for longer and longer periods between steaks. But I'd avoid the absolutes and look at it more as a continuum. Maybe sometime I'll look back and realize it's been five years since I've eaten meat -- I absolutely am having a harder and harder time with it -- but I don't want to let an absence of perfection stop me from doing what I can do, when I can do it. So if I were you I would just go ahead and explore.

Serious Eats' J. Kenji Alt has done great work on vegan experimentation. He does a vegan month once a year, and reading the archives of those experiences were very inspiring to me.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 5:30 PM on July 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Just like goodbyewaffles said, to me vegetarianism is all about choice. In the first world we have a pretty easy go of surviving healthily, eating good food, without eating meat. For me the the question at its root was - why should a thing have to die just for me to eat a meal? You should try it with the understanding that it's not wrong to go back.

If you feel guilty about the animals there are plenty of ways you could provide support to animals to balance it out - supporting your local shelter, setting up bird habitats and feeders, etc.

I like tofu ok, I just slice it, salt it a bit, and fry it and eat it on a toasted bun. Or cook chunks in other foods. You can eat it without noticing it for the most part if that's what you want to do.
posted by Naib at 6:11 PM on July 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

If having a conscience about eating animals equals being pernickety then pernick away. I stopped eating meat for the same reasons as you about 5 or 6 years ago and I genuinely don't miss it. It makes it easier to enjoy my love of animals and nature without the guilt.

There is great advice already in the thread about where to find vegetarian recipes, so just because I haven't seen them mentioned yet I recommend to you Linda McCartney's sausages. They are gorgeous, and while I agree that there are differing schools of thought about fake meat, and it's better not to think of "replacing meat" but "eating vegetarian", sometimes you just want sausage and mash. You can get them in any of the normal supermarket chains. Also I posted this AskMe about pies and there are some great recipes, especially onlyconnect's mushroom pie. Good luck!
posted by billiebee at 6:36 PM on July 25, 2014

In Buddhism, we try to learn how to have compassion, one of the ways is to not eat animals (among other reasons we don't eat animals, but this is the one small part we shall discuss.) It is difficult to change something that you have done your whole life, whether you are 5 or 15 or 50.

I suggest you try to give yourself a schedule. If you are not interested in Buddhism, you can still try the Buddhist vegetarian schedules. There are several you can choose from. You can consciously eat vegetarian on the full and new moons (so twice every 29-30 days,) or you can do the various different schedules where the ranges of days to eat vegetarian can be ten days a month. It requires a bit of mindfulness because the days are according to the lunar calendar rather than the Arabic calendar, but it is good training. You can soon decide to eat full vegetarian if you feel that it is what you want to do.

I have eaten many "fake meat" items that I found were fantastic, but you may or may not like that. I would look at the cook books and a diet plan to make sure you are getting enough good stuff (and not just lettuce) while eating vegetarian. Also, you may want to take a vitamin supplement.

Enjoy! Feel free to mail me if you would like additional help!
posted by Yellow at 7:07 PM on July 25, 2014

do I have a good enough reason, or am I just being pernickety?

Persnickety is when you "don't eat meat," but actually eat chicken (because you don't dislike that) or bacon or whatever. And are avoiding "meat" (but not really) for some sort of "oh, I'm a vegetarian to avoid those gross organ meats, but oh sure, some ham would be lovely" reason. Not eating meat because of an ethical objection to humans killing other animals is not "persnickety."

(And hey, there's nothing wrong with not eating certain foods because they're "gross" or something; just please, don't call yourself a vegetarian then.)

Tofu can substitute for chicken, sort of. Texturally they're pretty different, although I do make tofu fingers that are really pretty identical to the homemade chicken fingers I used to make years ago as an omnivore: but it requires pressing the tofu (it comes in a big block floating in water and has approximately the consistency of savory jello/gelatin/jelly), dry frying the tofu (to get more of the water out), then slicing and battering and pan frying. At the end, totally close enough to chicken fingers for me. (Yeah, I pretty much only miss fried chicken; I never really liked most other meat.) But in most chicken things, the tofu would just feel weird or inadequate to me because of the texture. (I like tofu just fine in things it was meant to be in, curry or whatever.)

Instead, maybe start off with cuisine that was always intended to be vegetarian (lots of Asian recipes, or some pastas etc.), because for someone who *likes* meat, the substitutes, well, aren't that good. They are mostly "okay if you've covered them with the flavorful sauce" kinds of substitutes. The only fake meat thing my omni partner will eat is Morningstar Farm crumbles + Manwich sloppy joe sauce (this is probably not really meaningful in the UK!), because you cannot taste anything other than the sauce -- she won't eat the fake hot dogs or Quorn nuggets or anything. I didn't really like most meat things (except fried chicken; for instance, I hate bacon and would never have eaten it anyway), so the substitutes are mostly okay for me if I really want a certain meat-thing.

So sure, give it a try. Doesn't have to be forever. Try to find things you already like that are vegetarian or try some new foods that were always intended to be vegetarian. You probably won't be super-thrilled with the fake-meat options. I don't think most long-term vegetarians eat them very often.

And you never have to eat tofu if you don't want, but if you don't mind the time it takes to prepare properly (I mind, usually), it's really quite good, because it doesn't taste like much of anything and so it can be just little hunks of whatever sauce-y flavor-y thing you've prepared it with.
posted by lysimache at 7:15 PM on July 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've been vegetarian for a long, long time, and don't miss meat in my diet. At all. Some tips:

Go to whole foods or a health food shop and buy dried beans in bulk. They are cheap and make up the bulk of my diet. Cook up a big pot on the weekend, then freeze them in bags. I always have chickpeas, kidney beans or black beans and a white bean (soya or haricot) in the freezer ready to throw into whatever I'm cooking. The Indian section of the supermarket will have them pretty cheap in big bags too, but buying them from the bulk bins is cheapest. They last forever. Throw white beans into pasta, use kidney or black beans for Mexican and chickpeas for curries (Moroccan or Indian). Falafel salad is another favourite - buy the bag of falafel mix from the Jewish food section and they take 20 minutes to make, have with salad and olives and new potatoes and hummous.

The tofu available in the supermarkets in the UK is soft tofu. It needs pressing to extract some of the water to make it good. Put it in a sieve with a weight on the block for at least half an hour, then you can slice it or cube it and fry it up for stir fries or as tofu chips.

I'm not a huge fan of quorn, it is very fart-inducing. Soya mince, chicken bits etc are better. Sainsbury's and Asda have the best variety, but Tesco is OK too. Linda McCartney sausages are the best of the veg sausages, and are often 3 for 2. I prefer not to eat fake meat 'shit in a box' but I have a preschooler and a busy job so we have it a couple of times a week because it's easy.

Lentils are good too, keep a bag of red lentils for dhal or soup and green lentils to cook with vegetables.

Build up your herbs and spices. These are essential for good vege cooking. Buy the bags from the Indian section and they are much cheaper than the bottles. If you have room, small pots of fresh basil, thyme, coriander and parsley are easy to keep in the kitchen and like £2 from the supermarket.

We get a veg box each week from Abel and Cole. I started getting this many years ago because I was sick of buying the same veges, and making the same meals, all the time. The veg box gives you seasonal variety, usually English, and it's cheaper than buying the same amount of organic veg from the supermarket. This ensures variety for us, as I rarely buy veg in addition to what's in the box. Their eggs are also amazing, although not cheap, as is the yoghurt.

Learn to make a couple of signature dishes. I have a sundried tomato pesto and cream pasta sauce that is the bomb, with veges and tagliatelle or fettuccine, and it takes about 20 minutes. Good lasagne is another showstopper, but not quick. Choose something you really like and perfect it so you can pull it out whenever necessary without having to think too hard about it.

Mushrooms are amazing. I love mushrooms. Cheese is also your friend - fried haloumi with salad and olives and new potatoes, or mozzarella baked with vege meatballs and tomato/ vege sauce. Always have cheddar and parmesan on hand. Tortilla with potatoes, eggs, herbs and grated veges, topped with cheese and stuck under the grill for 10 minutes is another quick and easy favourite.

If ever i'm stuck for what to eat, I google what I have in the fridge and cupboard and see what comes up. You get some interesting ideas that way.

Good luck! Try it for a while and see how you go, and most importantly don't beat yourself up if you want some meat one day. It doesn't have to be all or nothing.
posted by goo at 7:22 PM on July 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

If you're into the whole veggie burger thing

I'm not a vegetarian, but I *looooove* a good veggie burger. They're also really cheap and easy and fun to make.

Here's a good one, but once you've made a few mix & matching is easy and enjoyable.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 7:50 PM on July 25, 2014

Oh, and a huge +1 to the bulk dried beans. Much better texture than canned, and if you miss the convenience of canned, just keep some portioned-out soaked & pre-cooked beans in your freezer.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 7:51 PM on July 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

If your usual markets don't stock tofu when you ask, try a health food store like Holland & Barrett which might be nearby.

Tofu and tempeh are more interesting when you marinade the heck out of them. For example with soy sauce, ginger, toasted sesame oil, and pineapple.
posted by sebastienbailard at 7:55 PM on July 25, 2014

I've been mostly vegetarian for the past 10 months. Your reasons for becoming one are just as valid as anyone's. One of the more interesting things about the change is how it influences everyone around you.

If you're just starting out, I would advise you to not make it a big thing - have a short and reasonable one-sentence answer to anyone who asks why you're not eating [thing you used to eat], and move on with another topic. When you're suddenly the minority, and you've made a change for "moral" reasons, it can get quite easy to get on your soapbox and go on a rant.

But most people aren't *that* interested in your decision, and your speech can come off as impolite and judgmental. It's also a good way to make being a "vegetarian" as part of your identity, which makes it tougher if you have to switch back.

Just be a vegetarian - don't try to convert anyone. People have a very weird relationship with food.
posted by meowzilla at 7:56 PM on July 25, 2014

I haven't eaten red meat in 24 years. Have been vegetarian for almost 2 decades, mostly for the same reasons you describe. One of the real advantages of being vegetarian is, when I'm with people who are not - it makes them stop and think, if only for a second or two - there is another way. I am never "in your face" about it, although meat eaters often are quite rude. Be prepared for that.

The longer I was a veg, the easier it got. I did give it up by degrees - red meat first. Then chicken. Then fish/seafood.

When our daughter gave up meat (she was 8 or 9), I asked her pediatrician if it was okay. The answer was, if she eats eggs, she'll be fine. She does. She is.

There is a surprising amount of animal/insect-based additives in our food. Some pasta sauces have meat broth in them. Most restaurant soups are beef or chicken broth, even if the soup is vegetable. Marshmallows have gelatin in them (although marshmallow fluff does not). A lot of capsules (pills, vitamins) are made with gelatin. It's totally up to you if you care about that.

Even if you can't give up meat completely, every meatless meal you eat matters.
posted by clarkstonian at 8:00 PM on July 25, 2014

The compelling moral arguments in favor of going vegetarian are well covered in Peter Singer's Animal Liberation.

I won't try to do justice to the moral issues here. Let me just convey my own life experience with this.

When I was 10 years old, I suddenly decided to completely give up meat cold turkey (or, I should say, cold Tofurky). Since then, I've always stayed vegetarian — not eating meat, but eating dairy and eggs, which is more precisely known as ovo-lacto vegetarian.

I'm 33 now. I intend to stay a vegetarian for the rest of my life. I remember what meat tastes like, and I still have plenty of occasions to smell meat (I live in New York City). I liked the taste of meat back when I did eat it, and I'm sure I'd like it if I were to eat it now. I don't have any medical need to avoid meat.

I simply have no interest in doing so, because that's not what I do anymore. I don't have to keep doing every fun thing I once did. Your sensual pleasure isn't the only thing that matters in your life. Your legal right to do whatever the heck you want isn't the only thing that matters either. Yes we can eat whatever we want without fear of being jailed or ostracized. But it's precisely because I do have the physical ability and legal right to eat whatever I want, that I feel the obligation to be a little more sensitive than doing whatever I feel like without regard to whether I'm harming any other creatures — who are powerless next to me but who also have some level of consciousness like me.

Of course it is possible to be healthy as a vegetarian. It's also possible to be unhealthy as a vegetarian. If going vegetarian causes you to eat more vegetables, fruits, and nuts, and to be more conscious of nutrition overall, you could be healthier. On the other hand, the vegetarian who makes up for the lack of meat with cheese sandwiches, pasta, crackers, chips, and desserts might not be so healthy. If being a vegetarian leads you to eat more salads, that could make you healthier — but if your salads are just iceberg lettuce and lots of ranch dressing, that might not be so great. It's OK to eat any of those things; you just have to use moderation and be aware that vegetarianism isn't a panacea.

Two years ago, when I was 31, I had a nutritional screening for the first time. After more than 20 years of being an ovo-lacto vegetarian, I had very high levels of protein, zinc, iron, and B vitamins (including vitamin B12) — all the nutrients people had spent decades asking me how I could possibly get enough of when I'm a vegetarian. I have very high "good" cholesterol and very low "bad" cholesterol, low blood pressure, and a BMI on the low side of average. I did have one nutritional deficiency: vitamin D, which is very common. You wouldn't want to eat a generally deficient diet and try to compensate by taking multivitamins. But I'm OK with taking vitamin D supplements to deal with that specific concern.

And I don't eat tofu or fake meat every day. I like tofu and some fake meats. But you don't need to love them to be a vegetarian.

I do regularly sprinkle nutritional yeast on any food where parmesan cheese would be appropriate, which probably explains why I have good levels of B vitamins. I eat tempeh and quinoa, though I don't obsessively eat them every day. When I used to cook more often, I'd regularly use quinoa, which is as easy as rice to cook and use. Lately I haven't been having as much quinoa, but I often put marinated tempeh strips on sandwiches (I buy them at Whole Foods — I don't know what's available to you in England).

OP, you don't mention your gender, but I believe you're a man, and thus need to be particularly concerned about protein, whereas women need to be particularly concerned about iron. Iron is tricky, since certain foods and beverages inhibit absorption of iron (coffee, wheat), while other foods promote absorption (tomatoes, oranges). You might want to read this article or Google for more information about this. Unfortunately, spinach turns out to be a less good source of iron than many people think. Spinach is still very healthy in other ways, but having a spinach omelette with coffee for breakfast is not a good plan for getting enough iron.

Of course, all men and women, whether they're vegetarians or not, should carefully analyze whether their diet is as healthy and nutritious as it should be — this isn't some extraordinary challenge that only vegetarians have to worry about.

In the past year, I have made one exception: I've started eating oysters, mussels, and clams — bivalves. Why? Well, their anatomy is very rudimentary. What's most important to me is that they don't have brains or central nervous systems. And they haven't been trapped by people in cramped cages; nature has trapped them in their shells. My concern for animals is based on the fact that they're sentient, they're conscious, they can feel pain, they can suffer. These concerns largely evaporate when it comes to things that don't have brains, even though they technically fall under the biological category of "animal." I was influenced by two articles by people who are otherwise vegans (unlike me) who have made a similar exception: this Slate article made the case for eating oysters, and another article — full disclosure, by a friend of mine, Diana Fleischman — made the case for eating oysters and mussels.

Oysters and mussels aren't often thought of as health food, but they have protein, iron, calcium, vitamin B12, and copper. (Copper is important because it prevents aneurysms, and most of the richest sources of copper are meat. There are also plenty of vegetarian sources, but it's something for vegetarians to be concerned about. I've seen a close family member go through surgery for an aneurysm, and it's something I hope to avoid. I know oysters are very high in copper — I'm not sure about mussels.) I should note that I made this change after I got the nutritional screening, so I was already high in protein, iron, etc. without eating any seafood.

While I know I have a particular amount of access to vegetarian-friendly foods since I live in NYC, I'm confident you can be a healthy vegetarian, or at least a vegetarian with reasonable exceptions, if you want to.
posted by John Cohen at 11:33 PM on July 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seconding tempeh, if you can find it. I find it not only tasty but easy on the stomach. Seitan is also absolutely delicious and has a great texture, plus you can make it from bread flour, if you are patient; for some reason I can't digest it worth a damn but you might be luckier.

However, you can absolutely go vegetarian without recourse to any of these things: instead of meat you can get all the protein you need from a balance of nuts/seeds, beans, and grains (at least 2 out of 3, though you don't have to combine them in every meal).

Personally I cook vegetarian almost exclusively (and was in a vegetarian co-op for a few years), but I allow myself to indulge in whatever when I eat out. That kind of flexitarianism might be an option for you too, either at first or indefinitely.

A couple of quick words of advice: when I went from an omnivorous diet to a mostly-veg diet, I also started eating a lot more whole grains. On balance this is a good thing but the change in the amount of fiber you get can have... consequences. So ramping up is generally a good idea: you may want to pick either whole grains or beans to add to any given meal for the first month or so, for instance. (On a related note sunchokes/Jerusalem artichokes are the vegetable of Satan in this regard. And always rinse beans from the can quite well before you eat them.)

Recipe books I've used somewhat recently are Veganomicon, How To Cook Everything Vegetarian, and the Moosewood cookbook. Between the three of those you should have some good starting options.
posted by en forme de poire at 11:51 PM on July 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

A lot of vegetarians like meat! You do sort of stop craving/missing it after a while, although I still love Slim Jims (possibly the lowest quality meat available in the US!)

Anyway, I second the Bittman book.

Another way to go about it, besides just doing a month at a time, would be to do one meal at a time (so breakfast always vegetarian, then lunch always vegetarian, then dinner).

For a long time I at vegetarian at work (80% of my meals) and had meat at dinner with my then-husband because he didn't want to cut it out and he did the cooking. It worked pretty well and I think that's worlds better than eating meat all the time.

That said, it can be easier to avoid if you avoid it completely.

Do your best :)
posted by the young rope-rider at 5:58 AM on July 26, 2014

Try making seitan! It's a cheap and easy vegetarian protein source. It's basically protein bread made from vital wheat gluten. It's a nice alternative to tofu and seitan.
posted by reddot at 6:00 AM on July 26, 2014

Also, the purpose of meat substitutes in my diet isn't to substitute for the taste/texture of meat--I'm a pretty big person, tall, with an active job, and they're a really efficient source of protein. By efficient, I mean in terms of cooking and in terms of the sheer amount of food I need to eat. So if you want to experiment with them, I wouldn't discourage you at all! I would lower your expectations of their similarity to meat significantly--like I said, they don't really substitute for the taste/texture even when they're really tasty in their own right.
posted by the young rope-rider at 6:02 AM on July 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

There's always the option of just eating less meat. You could decide to learn a lot of yummy vegetarian recipes, or decide to use meat as more of a garnish and less of a main feature, or try to eat meat thoughtfully as an occasional really special treat rather than a day to day thing.

You could also take a minute before eating a meaty meal to have a mental moment of acknowledgement and thanks to the animal.

It is not as if being even 100% vegetarian can 100% negate our fundamental entanglement with the animal world and the immense effect we have on it. It's all incremental improvement.
posted by emilyw at 7:10 AM on July 26, 2014

You could also take a minute before eating a meaty meal to have a mental moment of acknowledgement and thanks to the animal.

This reminded me of something, namely that not everyone will get it if you say you're vegetarian. I've got "vegetable" soup in a restaurant that had chicken in it, a margherita pizza that the chef put chicken on "as a free extra", and there was the time I was staying at a friend's and her mother was cooking. She said "I believe you're vegetarian?" I said yes but honestly don't go to any trouble. She said no its fine, went and made dinner, and then when she called us all in she said "Ok, billiebee, for you I have chicken." (Which was what everyone else was getting, so to this day I can't really get her thought process there.) My friend was mortified but I thought "the chicken is already dead, and this person has kindly made me a meal, so her feelings are more important." I decided that to throw it out would be more disrespectful to the animal than to eat it with gratitude. So be prepared to compromise sometimes. It's all helping.
posted by billiebee at 11:21 AM on July 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

I've got "vegetable" soup in a restaurant that had chicken in it

I've also ordered a "mushroom burger" only to realize once it was served to me that it wasn't a veggie burger, just meat with mushrooms added. However, it's rare to find chunks of meat in something that was billed as a "vegetable ___," since the meat usually gets advertised as the main selling point. The bigger concern is stock (broth) made with meat (usually chicken), which can show up in any kind of soup. I avoid ordering soup in restaurants that don't clearly list the ingredients, since I don't like bothering the waitstaff about this. Or you could just decide to be a vegetarian except for the occasional stock.
posted by John Cohen at 1:05 PM on July 26, 2014

It sounds like you care about animal suffering a lot. That is a legitimate reason to want to consume fewer animal products. You might want to consider vegan arguments re: milk and eggs, because actually the way they are currently produced requires a lot of animal deaths (male chicks and calves as well as cows and chickens that have aged out of milk/egg production) as well as distress and pain. Conversely, oysters and mussels, as noted above, don't really have a nervous system like most animals and it's difficult to see how eating them is wrong. If you care about animals, it probably makes more sense to eat mussels than to drink milk.

There are loads of vegetarian/vegan things to eat that don't require special ingredients. A good way to construct a plate of food is:
Half vegetables
A quarter starch - pasta, quinoa, potatoes, sweet potatoes, etc.
A quarter good-quality protein - Beans (tinned pulses are cheap and easy and good for you), lentils, tofu (flavoured or marinaded), mussels, nuts, pine nuts, seitan, etc.

Beans/pulses can count as a starch too (ie can take up half the plate), just try to eat some sort of grain at at least one meal on the same day. It's an amino acid thing.

I highly recommend making your own cashew yoghurt because it is delicious.

If you have difficulty getting hold of tofu or seitan there are a million and one online vegetarian/vegan shops to check out. You might want to do so anyway as they have some exciting brands that can be fun to try. It is a good idea however to remember that for some reason vegetarians and vegans often put up with eating truly vile things. If you come across one of these things, just don't eat it again and put it from your mind. It is not necessary. There is enough choice out there for you not to eat anything you don't enjoy.

Tofu comes in so many textures! I like firmer ones, so I think Taifun tofu is the best available in the UK. It comes in loads of flavours. Cauldron's plain tofu is also pretty nice. I don't think they do flavoured well, but others disagree.

Quorn is not something I personally enjoy, also bear in mind it contains eggs in case you decide to avoid eggs. So do Linda McCartney sausages.

Read 101 cookbooks a lot. It is full of great recipes, but also will make you feel less like you're missing out and more like you're opening a door behind which is a room of deliciousness and joy.
posted by Acheman at 2:18 AM on July 27, 2014

You've gotten really great advice above, so I'm just going to add the two things I wish someone had told me when I became vegetarian:

1. Unenameled cast iron cookware will add iron to foods, particularly acidic foods like tomato sauces. They are extremely cheap if you get them from a camping/outdoor store - my frying pan was $13.

2. Nutritional yeast, also known as savory yeast or nooch. It's 50% protein by weight and it adds an amazing flavour to savory dishes like curry or pasta sauce. I avoided it for a long time because it sounded like one of those fringe things that vegans swear tastes good but actually taste like socks, but it's seriously good. My husband still eats red meat, but he would eat nooch with a spoon if I let him. You'll need to get it from a health food store, but it keeps and ships well so you can get it online if there's no local stockist.
posted by PercyByssheShelley at 2:31 AM on July 27, 2014

I applaud your decision. Turned vegetarian after I saw the horrific ways animals are killed. Also found out that human digestive system is geared and similiar to the herbivores. What really freaked me out were the toxins taken in from today's meat.

There are tons of good veg dishes that you can prepare. Buy a pressure cooker if you want to eat lentils, it is such a great time saver plus you can cook double in it. What I mean by that is, you can cook 2 dishes at the same time very quickly. I have inserts which I got from Asia. I usually put lentils (+water) in one and stack the other with rice (+water). Women in India have been using pressure cookers for ages and today you can get the inserts in any store there. You can cook vegetables also (potatoes, taro, beans, you name it) and it is done really fast. For soups buy a slow cooker. Done. Indian cooking is great for recipes as quite a large population there is vegetarian.
posted by jellyjam at 10:43 PM on August 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

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