I’ve had two conversations just this week with women who want to eat healthier, one a stay-at-home mom and the other a college student. While they couldn’t be more different, both have recognized that their eating habits have not been optimal and they admit they don’t know where to start in changing their habits.
Guy became a vegetarian while we were in college, convinced by a professor that humans were created to be good stewards of the planet, and animals raised for slaughter were not receiving ethical treatment. Since then, of course, there’s been a movement toward better animal care, grass-fed beef and free-range chickens, and that’s great. However, we’re also slowly recognizing that raising animals for food takes a big toll on our planet.
And that’s not to mention methane emissions (animal farts!), or the vehicle emissions involved with shipping animals to slaughter and then meat to stores and restaurants.
I became a vegetarian by accident when, two years after we married, I ate a Cornish game hen at an event and felt sick to my stomach for days. I remember we’d been married two years because I couldn’t eat out on our second anniversary. I slowly lived into my new reality and eventually started reading and learning to cook, and now I “lean vegan,” cooking exclusively vegan and eating vegan out as much as possible.
However in those early years I was much like my confused friends, maybe worse because I didn’t realize how unhealthy our diet truly was. We thought eating veggie meant pasta and Caesar salad. Maybe veggie soup. Wash dishes and repeat. We had no idea…
Now we do, though, and I put effort into cooking and serving healthy, tasty meals to my family (both boys are great advertisements for a veggie lifestyle).
So where to start?
Focus on what you can have and not what you can’t.
It’s a mindset. You get to eat delicious plants, what a treat! Okay, at first this can be really hard (most change is hard, right?). You may not even like veggies, or at least you might not think you do. I didn’t. I laughed when people assumed I loved veggies.
You’ve probably been served, or cooked, bad veggies. Overcooked, bland, mushy, bleh. Who wants that? And you may very well be addicted to sugar and dairy (no kidding, both have addictive qualities. Doesn’t that bear out in your experience?).
The good news? You can kick your addictions and change your taste buds! One of the best pieces of advice I got from a pediatrician: it takes seventeen tastes over time to like a food that initially doesn’t taste good to you. Our younger son hated beans. We served him one bite regularly, until one day he griped at me that I hadn’t put enough beans on his serving of taco salad. He responded to my expression of surprise in equal measure: “What? I love beans!” And promptly helped himself to more.
None of my guys liked whole wheat pasta the first time we tried it so I started cutting in a small ratio of whole wheat to regular pasta each time I made it, gradually adding more whole wheat over time. We don’t even eat pasta all that often anymore (our veggie repertoire has vastly increased) but when we do, it’s all whole wheat and no one balks.
Same goes for me. I didn’t like sweet potatoes and now I do; they’re still a little sweet for me so I emphasize savory when I cook them, roasting them and serving them with Dijon mustard, for example. I wanted to cut dairy out of my coffee; at first I switched to almond milk and then, over time, I added less and less non-dairy milk to the cup and now I drink it black, no problem.
Make a plan.
Weekly menu planning may be the smartest way to go but I’m not that organized or disciplined. However, it might be exactly what you need to get started.
Because dairy and sugar are addictive, experts recommend going cold-turkey. Yes, you may experience unpleasant detox symptoms for a while – a week to a month – but you’ll be better off. But maybe no meat seems too daunting. So try Meatless Mondays. Or meatless before dinner. Or choose two to three easy meals you can repeat over a week. For example:
Oatmeal (even unsweetened quick oats will do) + chopped fruit and nuts with a little cinnamon; I’ve been known to throw in a little healthy trail mix. Depending on the add-ins, this meal can be different every time.
Smoothie two ways: coconut water and water + a handful of spinach + a couple of peels from fresh ginger + frozen mixed berries OR mango and pineapple. You can use just water if coconut water seems too hippy-dippy for you, and you can add more or less spinach as you acclimate your palate. If you really want to go nuts, add a squeeze of citrus and maybe even a dash of ground cayenne pepper to spice it up.
And there you go, three easy breakfasts or lunches that require only a few minutes in the kitchen and are oh-so-healthy.
Start lunch and dinner with a salad.
How to build a salad: greens (Romaine, spinach, kale, arugula, mixed greens), other veggies (tomatoes, shredded carrots, celery, cucumber, bell peppers, artichoke hearts, olives), fruits (maybe not on the same salad topped with extra veggies, but apples, peaches, nectarines, plums, watermelon are all great), legumes (beans and nuts), and grains (brown rice, quinoa, couscous, farro).
Garden salad: Greens + tomatoes, carrots, cuke, bell peppers, green beans + citrus vinaigrette
Taco salad: Greens + bell peppers, jicama, avocado + pinto, black and kidney beans + salsa as dressing
Mediterranean salad: Greens + bell pepper, red onion, olives, artichoke hearts, tomatoes + garbanzo or cannellini beans + red wine vinaigrette
The combinations are thankfully endless. It’s even better if you make your own salad dressing, but I understand if that feels like too much to start. For heaven’s sake, these days you can even buy a ready-to-go salad mix in a bag, complete with dressing and toppings. No excuses.
Make friends with beans.
My kitchen/pantry overflow with beans: cans of garbanzo, black, pinto, kidney, refried black or pinto, and cannellini beans; frozen edamame and green beans; dried lentils and bean blends. Beans taste good, satisfy, and are oh-so-versatile. You change the salad simply by changing the bean, or better yet, adding a combination.
Or chop some onion, carrots, and celery and sautee in a large soup pan; add veggie broth and beans; season to taste, and you’ve got a scrumptious veggie soup. Add some cooked whole wheat pasta and a dash of red wine and you’ve got minestrone.
Keep healthy snacks ready to go.
One of the biggest complaints I hear about eating plant-based is that it requires so much cooking. True confession: I have felt that way from time to time. On the other hand, I snack way less than I used to because the veggie meals I eat satisfy more than the processed foods I used to eat.
A couple of easy snack solutions. First, eat fruit. Seriously, in-season fruit makes for the easiest snacks. Secondly, cook in larger quantities so you have leftovers. I almost always make twice as much salad for dinner so we can quickly grab leftover salad for lunch at work. Finally, don’t forget to plan for snacks when you shop. Buy some hummus and veggies, pre-cut if that makes it more likely you’ll eat them. Whole wheat flat bread with hummus and sliced cucumber is delish, as is whole wheat toast with natural nut butter and sliced banana. Trail mix (without candy), a handful of nuts, you might even find a granola bar that works for you (although even the healthiest pre-packaged bars taste too sweet for me these days).
A friend or family member to support you in your desire to form healthy habits can make a big difference. I also follow healthy eating blogs and Facebook pages which give me new recipe ideas and encouragement to keep going. Some of my favorites: Oh She Glows (great recipes); and Forks Over Knives (if you can, watch the documentary) and UCDavis Integrative Medicine, both of which provide solid nutritional research from the medical community.
Healthy eating isn’t a diet, it’s a change of lifestyle. It will take time and you will be tempted to give up. I say I “lean vegan” because I don’t do it perfectly. I am a total sucker for good pizza (however, you can find vegan pizza if you look, and it can be pretty amazing). Take a baby step, and then another. Live into it at your own pace and watch your health improve.