I try not to make it a secret on this blog that, though I call myself drunk, frugal, and vegan, I do actually still sometimes consume animal products (I’m also occasionally sober and frivolous with money). But, in a recent discussion with the man who buys half my groceries, we wondered when the last time meat was actually cooked from scratch in our apartment, and neither of us could remember. We just don’t buy meat anymore – it’s too expensive, goes bad quickly, and kind of a pain to cook (no one ever gets sick from an undercooked carrot; an underwashed, maybe). Plus, you know, all that moral shiz, blahblahblah (list of ethical reasons can be found here. Reasons 4, 5, and 6 are ones you may not have heard, and huge reasons why I limit animal products).
The thing I’ve noticed is that I’m actually a lot better at cooking now that I don’t cook meat. I understand spices better. I chop and cook vegetables in the right order, so that they’re all perfectly cooked in the same pan (even though they take different times to soften). I understand flavor combinations better. I’m better at substitutions in recipes. I take more risks in my cooking. And, I’m a lot better at making a quick meal of vegetables taste really good.
And, sure, a lot (maybe all) of these things are simply inevitable results of more practice in the kitchen, but I cooked for myself for many years before I ever even considered veganism an option (indeed, when I still scoffed at the simple idea of it). But all of those meals were boring. A chicken thigh (cause who can afford breast?), seasoned with salt, pepper, maybe cayenne; with a side salad; and some mashed potatoes or rice. BORING.
But still, I am not a vegan. Certainly, I have days when I just don’t care about global warming, or animal welfare, or world hunger, or my own health. I just want a dang Surfing California burrito cause they taste good and fahck everyone else. And when I go out to eat, I often don’t insist that they take the cheese out of the only vegetarian option, because I’m lazy and hate having complicated orders. And I certainly am not going to turn down a meal someone graciously cooked for me for any reason (unless it has arsenic in it).
So, that said, becoming completely vegan isn’t necessarily something that happens in one day. For a lot of people, me included, it’s a process. It’s HARD to give up the food you’ve been eating your entire life. It’s hard to give up your comfort foods and to not give in to cravings. Over time, as your diet changes, so do your cravings, but unless you are very determined (and if you are, more power to you!), it takes a long time to permanently change your diet, regardless of the diet you had/are changing to. I don’t ever want to become one of those holier-than-thou vegans who is always in your face about your diet (though, in fairness, I’ve always gotten more judgement from meat-eaters than vegetarians). I think every little bit of effort towards trying to eat less meat is great. I think Meatless Mondays are great. I love weekday veg. Every meal counts.
So if you are trying to move to a more plant-based diet, then I commend you! I think it’s a great move and want to give you some thoughts/suggestions for giving up meat from my own experience.
- Firstly, I prefer thinking of it as “plant-based diet” rather than “vegan”. Why? Vegan doesn’t say anything about what you are eating, just about what you’re not eating. Eating nothing but noodles and oreos isn’t particularly healthy. But plant-based, that is the diet that humans really were meant to eat. Plus, there is much less negative stigma attached to “plant-based” than “vegan”.
- Don’t eat store-bought, imitation meat and cheese. Just don’t. So often it’s suggested to people new to veganism to slowly ease their way into it by eating things like tofurkey and soy cheese. I disagree. I think eating stuff like that would make me run back to meat way more quickly. Most processed, fake meats are GROSS. They don’t taste like the real thing and absolutely don’t taste good. And, while sure, they’re probably lower in calories and saturated fat than what they’re replacing, that doesn’t make them healthy. Processed crap is processed crap, no matter its ethics.
- On that note, you’ll see on this blog that I do make my own fake meat or fake cheeses. I call it meat and cheese for accessibility. They taste similar and are playing a similar role in the dish, but they don’t taste exactly the same. Mushrooms marinated in liquid smoke and soy sauce tastes like mushrooms marinated in liquid smoke and soy sauce. But that’s okay, because mushrooms are delicious! And they’re also delicious when marinated in salty, smoky goodness. Is it trying to mimic the umami flavor we crave from meat? Yes, if you need it too. But it’s still delicious just for what it actually is.
- You don’t really have to do an entire meal plan overhaul, just take out meat and add more veggies in dishes you make anyway, like pasta. A pretty common meal in our house is pasta with veggies. Here’s what you do, saute up a bunch of vegetables- whatever you have on hand or is cheap that week. We use things like onions, garlic, white button mushrooms, zucchini, eggplant, broccoli, even carrots. (Carrots are actually great in pasta sauce!). Dump in a can or two of rinsed beans (we tend to use white beans in pasta) and a jar of tomato sauce, and let it all simmer together for the time it takes to boil your choice of pasta. Voila, easy dinner! I haven’t craved meatballs in a long time.
- Make these staples in your pantry: cashews, flax seed, nutritional yeast, brown rice, beans. And cumin, garlic powder, red pepper flakes, and a black pepper grinder. And onions and garlic. And eat more squash and sweet potatoes. Just cause all those things are yum.
- I actually find that I eat fewer regular garden salads when all the rest of my food is vegetables. Hate salad? Become vegan!
- Remember, fruits and veggies have fewer calories than their meat counterparts. More than a couple people have told me that they just can never feel full when they don’t eat meat. Well, of course not if your portion size is the same. An 8oz steak has 20 times the calories of an 8oz cauliflower steak. So. EAT MORE. Eat lots and lots and lots and lots. And eat often. I mean, they’re only vegetables.
- Basically, you can still eat delicious food. The food will often be MORE delicious and more interesting. Your food will still be nutritious, and if you eat vegetables instead of processed crud, likely your meals will become more even more nutritious than your previous meals.
Vegan Loaded Fries
So, I bought a bunch and made a cashew-habanero sauce that was delicious. Which, of course, led me to want to make more to smother fries with (because what else do you do with a good sauce?). So, I was going to make vegan loaded fries. And I was going to blog about it. And then I decided to compare it, nutritionally, to traditional loaded fries. I made a big ol’ spreadsheet and, well, here it is.
Fries: Cut up potatoes into fry shape. Soak them in water for about 30 minutes (this releases water so that they’re crisper when baked). Dry well by squeezing potatoes in a towel. Toss in oil and spices. Bake at 400F for a while until they’re nice and crisp.
Cashew-Habanero Sauce: Boil cashews for about 15 minutes (or soak overnight). Drain cashews, and blend with everything else until smooth.
Guacamole: Mash everything up together. I usually dice tomatoes and stir in after everything else is nicely mashed.
Bean stuff: Saute onions. Throw in mushrooms to soften. And tomatoes. And garlic and spices. Mix in beans. Heck, go crazy and throw some sliced bell peppers in there! (Just make sure you do it at the end, so the peppers stay crisp!)
So, as you can see, instead of half a cup of cheese and half a cup of sour cream, the vegan fries have 1 cup of cashew sauce. And, instead of half a cup of chicken and half a cup of beef, there’s one cup of beans. Which might lead you to believe that the meat eaters loaded fries are more interesting (more stuff), but remember, the beans also have mushrooms, onions, spices, etc, while the meat is just meat. And, I’ll just come right out and say it, cashew sauce tastes better than sour cream. Both meals have fries and guacamole (I mean, who doesn’t like guac?!).
I did a bunch of comparisons that I don’t really remember, but most important is the last one, where I pretended that you ate loaded fries for every meal (don’t do this. Or do. Whatever, your life), until you reached 2000 calories, and compared the nutrients calorie for calorie. For the three main nutrients (carbohydrates, protein, and fat), I decided that the closer the meal was to the daily recommended amount, the better. For the rest, I just said more was better, which isn’t really true, but my understanding is, for vitamins and minerals, it’s hard for average people to eat enough for it to be a problem unless they’re taking supplements. (But I dunno, I’m not an expert, do your own research, gawd!)
The big three (aka the energy providing nutrients)
- Carbohydrates. Stop hating on carbs, people. There are good carbs and bad carbs, just like there are good fats and bad fats, (and, indeed, good protein and bad protein). We need carbs! If you run or are trying to to build muscle, good carbs actually help you. Pasta and white bread are bad carbs. Vegetables are good carbs. Look above. The meal is basically completely potatoes- and you still don’t get up to the recommended amount of carbohydrates for the day.
- Protein. In the same light, stop worshiping protein. Seriously, it’s annoying. Pretty much every renowned nutritionist and even the CDC, say that Americans on average are eating way too much protein. And, despite what protein powder manufacturers and the meat industry want you to believe, it’s not good for you to eat too much protein. Seriously, just google “too much protein”. It could lead to kidney disease or prostate cancer, and has been linked to an increased chance of diabetes. But, most readily, it can actually cause you to gain weight, rather than lose it (just like eating too many carbohydrates or too much fat is known to).
- Fat. Fat also isn’t necessarily good or bad for you, just like carbohydrates and protein are not necessarily good or bad for you. Everything in moderation. Everything in a good balance. And you’ll be fine. That said, you still shouldn’t eat too much fat (just like the other two), and when you eat meat and dairy, you automatically will be eating more fat than vegetables (which are basically fat-free). Vegans get healthy fats from fruits (avocados, coconut, olives) and nuts/seeds.
- Fiber. Fiber is all the rage these days. It’s being added to everything, from candy bars to cereal. But fiber is not a hard thing to eat enough of. It’s really not. You don’t need to get Special K, you just need to eat vegetables.
- Potassium, Vitamin C, and A. These things are good for you. Don’t bother taking them in pill form when you can get them in the natural, whole form so easily.
- Iron. Are you surprised to see that there’s actually more iron in the vegan option than in the one with meat? I was. But actually, per calorie, a lot of plant sources have more iron in them than even beef (such as, leefy greens and beans!). Plus, vegetables have more vitamin C than meat, and vitamin C has been shown to help the body absorb iron. So, basically, win/win. (It’s a myth that vegetarians have more anemia than meat eaters. Anyone can have a nutrient deficient diet if they are not making healthy choices).
- Calcium. Leaving this for last, because it was the only nutrient that I bolded on the non-veg side. I bolded it for non-veg, because technically the dairy has more calcium, and if all sources of calcium are equal, the dairy would be better. However, there is a lot of research that suggests that cow milk actually impedes on our body’s ability to absorb the calcium. Countries with higher dairy consumption actually have higher incidence of osteoporosis. And it’s not just vegans who think milk is bad for you; even meat-loving, paleo-dieters often cut milk out as their calcium source for this very reason. Better to go with kale and broccoli to strengthen those bones.
And that’s it for this lengthy return to blogging entry! Next up! Pad Thai. Maybe. If I get around to it. We’ll see. I might be back within 6 months.