How to become more vegetarian?
July 28, 2007 8:58 PM   Subscribe

I'm a big meat-eater and I respect that choice. But I'd like to see the path to a more vegetarian diet.

If I did decide to go veg, what would I need to know about how to do it? I know how to cook quite a number of vegetarian meals. But I've learned them here and there and wouldn't count on them to provide a complete diet. My question is more about nutrition and health. How do I make sure I'm feeding myself well?

I will probably keep SOME meat in my diet but I'd like to get it to a very low level, like once a week. For the purposes of this question, vegan and vegetarian are interchangeable. I am not going 100% either way, but want to go further toward both.
posted by scarabic to Food & Drink (20 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Here is how I've made the transition from unrepentant carnivore to "ethicurean"
- I ate at specialty vegetarian restaurants and at veg friend's houses to get examples of good dishes to cook. Friend's who had been vegetarian for a very long time and stayed healthy were the most useful.
- I also took some cooking classes
- I committed to eating only free-range meat from farmer's I had personally met. $$$ and true to economic theory, my consumption decreased a lot and the meat I do eat is good and healthier (more omega-3).
- I kept a food diary and used tools like to tally my nutrition totals
- I eat a varied diet, which keeps me by bases covered. The farmer's market is a treasure trove, because it's different every week and it gets me to try new things like thai eggplant and italian peppers.
posted by melissam at 9:18 PM on July 28, 2007

Any meal that combines beans and corn will pretty satisfyingly 'proteiney.' Make sure that you're not trying to subsist on vegetables alone. I'm vegetarian but not vegan, and I've found that many other countries make "ethnic" vegetarian food that's a lot better than anything America has to offer. Indian, Moroccan, and Mexican are personal favorites - there's no reason to eat plain tofu!
posted by you're a kitty! at 9:35 PM on July 28, 2007

Get used to tofu.

Sure, at first, it'll seem like crazy alien nutrition rubber, but you'll get used to it. Heck, I went to distrusting it to loving it. First, just put some into your more meaty meals--it's good for you and will allow you to cut down the amount of meat you put in. The tofu will suck up the meaty flavor, making it taste pretty good. Then you can just use it as a substitute it for more and more meat. It's worked pretty well for me.

Also, start making more stir-fries. Meat + veggies + a light sauce is absolutely delicious. And, the more stir-fries you make, the more you'll learn what sort of vegetables you like on their own and how much of them you need to feel full.
posted by Ms. Saint at 9:38 PM on July 28, 2007

I would suggest you start by picking up a few good vegetarian cookbooks. The ones by the Moosewood Collective are all pretty solid. The Enchanted Broccoli Forest is also a vegetarian standby (I've seen it in every single veggie house I've been in, so that's got to mean something.)

Lentils and beans are your friends. So is ethnic food (as noted on preview): Indian cooking is frequently vegetarian and utterly delicious. Julie Sahni's "Classic Indian Cooking" and "Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking" are completely amazing and I cannot recommend them highly enough.

(I'm at a similar place to you, for what it's worth; was a meat-eater for years and years but I'm moving away from it to, at most, occasional meat-eating. I do eat a lot of dairy and eggs. I will mention that I have, personally, noticed that when I eat meat regularly (every two or three days), my digestive tract is a happy place. When I do not eat meat at all, my digestive tract is a happy place. When I do not eat meat for a week and then eat meat, my digestive tract is very, very displeased with me. YMM, of course, V.)
posted by fuzzbean at 9:41 PM on July 28, 2007

I've made a conscious effort to eat more locally produced food. That means the produce I buy is often more expensive, because even here in California it's often cheaper to buy Mexican tomatoes or Chilean grapes. Spending more on flora means less of my budget is available for fauna, and when I focus on locally raised meats and fish, that makes them even more expensive and precious. So I buy and prepare less of them.

I also set myself a few goals with my weekly menu: first, a goal of fish once a week, which is something our family was woefully missing in our regular diet. Then a goal to restrict chicken/beef/pork based meals to twice a week, leaving four meat-free dinners.

The next goal I set for myself was one vegan dinner per week. That means less reliance on cheese and eggs as a protein source.

Even on a day where I am preparing meat or fish, I try not to think of it in the American context of "giant slab of protein, some stuff on the side". I try and let grains and vegetables be the focus of our meals, even if we're grilling steaks. I do a lot of Asian-inspired foods where meat is almost a flavoring, where a little bit can go a long way. It's funny how in a stir fry, one split chicken breast can feed the four of us where if I were just serving grilled chicken, we'd eat four between us.

For me it was not so much a matter of trying to avoid animal products arbitrarily or for health reasons, it was matter of eating more thoughtfully and with more respect for the environment and the seasons, and eating less meat and dairy is a natural byproduct of that effort. Doing this has had some real concrete benefits for our family: it's made me a more thoughtful shopper, it's kept me on the straight-and-narrow with regard to planning a menu and shopping from a list, it's kept me aware of what's in season and at its peak of quality, and it's forced me to extend my knowledge and interest in food preparation. It's been a really enjoyable experiment that is turning into a way of life for our family.

I don't find that it's that difficult to make sure that my family is getting enough of the right nutrients. There are so many wonderful beans and grains that contain what we need, and learning how to incorporate these into our meals has made our table a lot more interesting.

There was a recent thread about vegan cookbooks that you should scan through before hitting your local library or bookstore, and I'd also recommend Heidi Swanson's food blog 101 Cookbooks and her recently published cookbook Supernatural Cooking, which is a treasure trove of mostly vegetarian recipes, many of which focus on grains and ingredients that I, at least, didn't grow up eating and many of which I didn't even know about until I moved to the Bay Area.
posted by padraigin at 9:44 PM on July 28, 2007

Scarcity of protein in a vegetarian diet is a myth; what you should watch for is a scarcity of B vitamins like riboflavin and especially B12., suggested above, is a good site; you might also be interested in this page written for vegans which discusses the source of various vitamins and minerals to keep in mind in a veg*n diet.

As a vegetarian, I have little use for tofu, finding it generally squishy and unappealing. You may or may not ever get used to it; in the meantime you might try TVP (textured vegetable protein) for a ground beef substitute and seitan for a chunked chicken substitute (I've only ever used seitan in soups, but they've been uniformly great).

I like for recipes, both because visitors can rank them and because they can leave comments suggesting modifications to or caveats about the recipes.

Don't forget that your local library probably has vegetarian cookbooks for checkout; by using it I've avoided buying a couple of them that I knew I wouldn't want. And of course librarians are good at helping you find more information on topics you're interested in, if AskMe doesn't answer everything as well as you'd hope.
posted by Tuwa at 10:04 PM on July 28, 2007

I've been limiting my consumption of animal products for quite a while, and I have to say I still hate tofu and never cook it at home. I just don't like the texture and I don't think I ever will. That said, I really love tempeh, an Indonesian food made from fermented soybeans, with a more solid texture and richer flavor. I've also found that many of the meat substitutes on the market (Boca bugers, etc) are pretty damn good and work well as a source of protein in your diet.

Which is really all you need-- to find a good replacement in your diet for the things that meat gives you, notably protein, iron, and B vitamins. I really recommend taking a daily multi-vitamin, just to cover your b-vitamin bases. Take it with food; you'll absorb more. Good sources of iron include whole grains, fortified breakfast cereals, green leafy vegetables, and all sorts of beans. Protein is probably the easiest and most fun: nuts and nut butters and seeds, beans and lentils, soy products, whole grains, fresh fruits and veggies.

Most people try, at least a little bit, to eat a healthy and well-balanced diet. I've found that not eating meat doesn't change the calculations very much-- all it does is eliminate a few of the options from each category. Your basic healthy diet still consists of a base of complex carbohydrates, a decent portion of proteins, and a bit of unsaturated fat. The easiest way for most Westerners to get closer to healthfulness is to increase the amount of vegetables and fruits in our diet, whether we eat meat or not.

As far as recipes go, I adore Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, particularly for its helpful descriptions of how to select, prepare, and pair all sorts of wonderful vegetables. The basic premise of the book is that everyone can enjoy and benefit from a good vegetarian meal, even non-vegetarians. It also outlines the basics of making good bean- and grain-based dishes.
posted by bookish at 10:52 PM on July 28, 2007

You don't need that much protien. As long as you're vegetarian, not vegan, if you're getting enough food, you're getting enough protien. Most Americans get plenty of protien without even trying, which can be hard on your kidneys.

For example, the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for all adults is 0.37 grams of protein per pound of body weight, or about 15 percent of your daily calories. For someone weighing 150 lbs, that works out to about 55 grams a day, which could equal 1 yogurt, 1 slice of cheese, 1 cup of milk, 2 tablespoons of peanut butter, and a serving of beans. Not to mention you get a gram here and there from bread and vegetables.

The notion that you need a "complete protien" at every meal is outdated.
posted by Violet Hour at 10:53 PM on July 28, 2007

I'm about where you are, scarabic, and I've found that Heidi Swanson's Cook 1.0 book has been fantastic for getting my brain thinking about how I can do more with veggies.
posted by lilithim at 11:58 PM on July 28, 2007

Keep in mind, too, that not all tofu is equal. Some (silken tofu) is often used in soups, or as a yogurt substitute; others, especially the tofu you can get in the big unmarked bins at co-ops and health-food stores, can be almost chewey and has a gentle (and, if you ask me, delicious) flavor that you won't find in the grocery store stuff.

I personally hate tempeh, but then I've only had it in a cafeteria setting, so maybe I'm missing out. Oh, and look into falafel - it's sort of limited in its uses, but boy is it yummy.
posted by you're a kitty! at 1:48 AM on July 29, 2007

Scarcity of protein in a vegetarian diet is a myth

Seconded. Worry about iron. A little green leafy takes care of that pretty well, though.

As a vegetarian, I have little use for tofu, finding it generally squishy and unappealing


I've never eaten meat, and I've lived through advice for egg excess, "protein combining" theories, and, now, the mainstreaming of soy industrial byproducts. It's silly. I have come into contact with actual dieticians a couple of times, and the only concern ever raised is the iron. (I do eat egg and dairy; vegan diets are another story.)

There's just no need to overthink it. I just finished a little plate of homemade lasagna. Pasta, spinach, mushrooms, ricotta, mozza, tomato sauce. I'm healthy and well-fed off stuff like that. I pick up vegetarian cookbooks primarily to snark; best, I find, to just go with cookbooks you like, and learn to adapt recipes -- mushrooms, and to a lesser extent eggplants & zucchini, work well in place of meat and are not blecchy soy. I realise that doesn't quite address your "How do I make sure I'm feeding myself well?" -- but I don't think it's much to worry about. One's taste buds complain if veering off into deficiencies, which is why nobody lasts on a 'vegetarian' diet that ends up all salad or all cheese pizza.
posted by kmennie at 2:39 AM on July 29, 2007

B12 (mushrooms) - and Vitamin K.

I was a vegetarian for 5 years and one day had a haemorhage in my throat - the immediate diagnosis (pre tests) was leukaemia (my GP told me this after the tests came back). Turned out that I was Vitamin K deficient.

Basically, look for books that offer both proper food combining and balancing charts. Most people don't properly food combine; carnivores tend to get away with it more easily, but tend to get fat as a result of ignoring it (proteins and starches, for instance).

Tuning into the components of what you eat should be a critical part of making the conscious move to becoming a vegetarian.
posted by strawberryviagra at 5:49 AM on July 29, 2007

Check out Great site with weekly recipes complete with shopping lists.
posted by TorontoSandy at 6:41 AM on July 29, 2007

One gradual step is to treat meat as seasoning - just small quantities as an ingredient rather than as a course in its self.

This is the traditional role in much of Africa and Asia where a typical dinner is a vegetable stew with a small quantity of meat served with a starch such as rice. Actually the stew is seasoning for the large quantity of rice and the meat is seasoning for the stew.

A typical American dish is beans flavored with a small bit of smoked pork. Or you might consider sandwiches that contain only one thin slice of meat.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 11:31 AM on July 29, 2007

If you need a vegetarian cookbook with plenty of dietary info, I'd recommend Laurel's Kitchen, which has a big appendix in the back with articles, tables, and charts, so the recipes aren't bogged down with nutritional details. the recipes themselves feature fresh vegetables and whole grains, and tend to be fairly straightforward. They are a bit dairy-heavy, but she also provides some balanced menus, something many people have trouble imagining for themselves.

You state that you don't need the recipes so much as the nutritional data, but perhaps the most accessible place to find the data is in a well-researched vegetarian cookbook.

I'll echo what others have said about protein needs: if you're over thirty, you probably grew up hearing that vegetarian diets required tedious matching of complementary proteins. If you read the updated Diet for a Small Planet, you'll see that this model --- careful protein complementarity --- is now outdated. Most non-vegans are getting plenty of protein without worrying too much about complementarity. (I'm not suggesting vegans are protein-poor, just that I haven't done that reading, because it doesn't apply to my household.)

Someone upthread recommended Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, a lovely cookbook that just happens to be sitting three feet from me at the moment. It's sometimes described as the vegetarian Joy of Cooking, which seems about right.

Feel free to email me now or later if you want to chat about menus or recipes. I love to cook and to talk about cooking, and I'm compiling a vegetarian cookbook (for use by friends and family, and perhaps to send out to publishers someday). If you're interesting in being a recipe tester, let me know!

Good luck!
posted by Elsa at 12:13 PM on July 29, 2007

Honestly, the best way to start cooking vegetarian is to just do it. There are plenty of cookbook recommendations here, and every vegetarian cookbook I've seen has information about nutrition and health. Find some recipes, try 'em out, if they work, look for more. You don't HAVE to enjoy tofu or tempeh or whatever else, just try things! Buy produce at the farmer's market and figure out what to do with it.

If you're still worried about nutrition, use common sense. Eat your fruits and veggies, eat whole grains, get some non-meat-based protein in there. (Did you read that Michael Pollan article in the NYTimes? The ideas in there seemed to promote your goal.) I started out as a cheese and bread junk food vegetarian, and eventually became more balanced as I figured out that grilled cheese sandwiches are not the answer to everything. (Eggplant burgers on the other hand....yum.) Now I'm not vegetarian, but I basically never cook meat. After a while, you will probably get used to this. It can take some time, but pretty soon your recipe core will be much bigger and you'll know how to experiment...have fun!
posted by jetskiaccidents at 2:17 PM on July 29, 2007

A vegetarian diet can absolutely meet all your needs, but you should educate yourself as you go. Be aware that many strict vegetarians experience some vitamin deficiencies (as mentioned above) and symptoms of anemia after about three years of the diet. I'd strongly recommend you undertake some thorough study of nutrition so you can assess for yourself if you are getting the nutrients you need before you develop a health problem.
posted by Riverine at 4:45 PM on July 29, 2007

-Start by adapting the dishes you normally make , like chili ,lasagne, stir frys etc to use less and less meat and more alternatives like beans, lentils, cheese, nuts, tofu , textured Veg Protein. You will get to the point where you dont think meat is automatically a part of every meal.
-Go to farmers markets for tastier produce. or grow your own.
-when starting, the "sundays at moosewood" cookbook was my bible.
-try to like like beans, lentils more
-Tofu is best fresh but it may be difficult to find this
posted by canoehead at 7:01 PM on July 29, 2007

I was coming here to say what MonkeySaltedNuts said- start treating meat as a condiment. I find farmers markets to be very inspiring- how can you not want to cook exciting things like squash blossoms? Deborah Madison's book mentioned above, and also Madhur Jaffrey's World of the East Vegetarian Cookbook have both been very useful. Nutrition wise, B12 and Iron seem to be more of an issue than protein. Protein is pretty easy to come by even in vegan diets.

I say phooey to most fake meat. It's not necessarily good for you, and there are much yummier things to eat. Tempeh and tofu are worth learning to cook properly- they have special qualities all their own.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:21 PM on July 29, 2007

How do I make sure I'm feeding myself well?

How did you know you were feeding yourself well on a meat diet? It's a semi-serious question. It's easy enough to track nutrient intake through a site like, which I'm positive you've seen linked off and on around here. The only nutrients which you would need to supplement with vegetarian diet are Vitamin B12, and with a vegan diet, Vitamin D.

I know you were asking about nutrition info more than recipes, but...I can't resist the urge to link to this site which has incredible photographs and recipes on a regular basis. Love, love, love it.
posted by digitalis at 11:24 AM on July 30, 2007

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