The Vegan Experience

The Vegan Experience: Top 10 Tips For a First-Time Vegan

Note: For the 32 days between February 1st and March 4th, I'm adopting a completely vegan lifestyle. Every weekday I'll be updating my progress with a diary entry and a recipe. For past posts, check here!

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[Doodle: Robyn Lee]

Last year, I decided to go vegan for an entire month, chronicling my thoughts, challenges, health, and weight the entire time. I thought it'd be a fun exercise, that perhaps I'd gain some insight into my own diet and into the lives of those who live, well, a little differently than the rest of us.

I never expected it to become one of the most popular features of the year. Heck, the most popular recipe I developed last year was for Vegan Burgers That Don't Suck (It's true, they don't!).

So by overwhelming demand (mostly by my wife, myself, and a few very vocal readers), I'm doing it all again this year, developing 28 brand new recipes, learning from my mistakes, and surely making a few more in the process. Not only that, but this year I'm bringing a few other folks along for the ride. My wife is planning on going 100% vegan for the month, and maintaining a 100% vegetarian lifestyle for the entire year that follows. Serious Eats National Managing Editor Erin Zimmer is going vegan for the month as well, a tough decision knowing how much she loves eggs and yogurt! Heck, even avowed Serious Eats Overlord Ed Levine, an avowed meat lover and former vegan-scoff-at'er will be joining us for a full week this time 'round.

I've got a lot of experiences planned this time around, and I'll be going out of my way to place myself in as many typical and unusual situations where veganism may affect my choices as possible. Cooking vegan food for a house full of 20 friends for an entire weekend (will they complain?). Heading out for dinner with a meat-loving New York chef. Dining out everywhere from fast food establishments to meat-heavy fancy-pants restaurants to dedicated vegan joints of all price ranges and levels of hippiedom.

Devising fast, filling, healthy, and delicious recipes that can be prepared with minimal ingredients and fuss so that anyone can choose to eat less meat, regardless of the time they have to commit to it. It's going to be a wild month, and I'd love to hear your thoughts and opinions, regardless of whether you're a vegan, thinking of going vegan, or would rather eat a vegan than become one.

If you've ever had an inclination to go vegan or just test out the waters, I hope that a few of my thoughts and recipes here will help you do that. To get you started, I've compiled all 23 essays and 28 recipes in one easy-to-navigate spot. Once again, I'll be documenting every step of the process as I go, so stay tuned for more recipes and updates!

The Top 10 Tips For A First-Time Vegan

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OK, OK, people like lists, so here are the top ten tips I came up with during last year's Vegan Experience. Things I wish I would've known before starting. These are in no particular order, some are practical, others are philosophical, but I think all are useful. Ready?

  1. Start with an open mind. There's no surer way to guarantee failure than to go into it with a bad attitude. Unfortunately, this is not something that's easy for many folks to do. If you think that going vegan is going to be a punishment or that you won't last, then it will be, and you won't. I hope that this whole series of articles has helped at least a few people realize that it doesn't have to be that way.
  2. If cooking at home, give yourself extra time to cook, particularly at the beginning. For most people, designing meals 100% around vegetables is going to be a completely foreign concept, and one that requires planning and extra time in the kitchen, even for a seasoned pro.
  3. Take a look at your pantry. Is it full of meat-based condiments, dried pasta, rice, potatoes, and the like? If so, you're not going to have a fun time trying to cook. Make sure your pantry stays stocked with plenty of beans and whole grains, hearty leafy grains like kale, spinach, and collards, and other vegan-friendly sauces.
  4. Avoid convenience foods. I've yet to taste a vegan convenience product that I've liked. If all you subsist on as a vegan is poor frozen pizza, frozen vegan burritos, veggie burger patties and ready-made meals, you will not be a happy eater. Regular frozen foods are bad enough. Vegan ones are simply abysmal.
  5. Take a walk down the produce section. Going vegan is the perfect excuse to load up on all kinds of vegetables that you never regularly ate before. I call it diversity through restriction. As a meat eater, I often found myself resorting to the easy options--the steak or the burger--avoiding the often more interesting vegetable-based options. As a vegan, my diet has become much more diverse, and as such, more enjoyable.
  6. Do not be embarrassed. There has been the occasional moment when I felt I needed to explain myself, to rationalize to others why I'm doing what I'm doing. "Oh, it's just a writing project," or "just wanted to know the enemy, you know? Heh heh..." and I never felt good doing it. On the other hand, when I come right out and say, "it's something I've always wanted to try, because I tend to agree with a lot of vegan philosophy," I end up getting a lot more respect, an interesting discussion out of it, and the potential to actually impact another person. That makes it worth it to me.
  7. If you're going on a road trip, pack food with you. In fact, have snacks and emergency rations available to you at all times. It's not that you'll get hungrier as a vegan (at least, I didn't), it's just that on the off-chance that you do end up missing lunch or forgetting it at home, your options as a vegan on the road or in unfamiliar territory are not good. Some fresh fruit, a good salad, or even trail mix can be a life saver in those situations.
  8. So you messed up. Don't sweat it. Again, the key to being a successful vegan is to live the lifestyle as much as is reasonably possible. There may be some who disagree with me on this, but if you've just realized that you accidentally ate some butter or that the curry you just tasted had fish sauce in it, don't kill yourself. Stuck on the road with no prospect of vegan food for the next couple days? Well don't starve yourself, just do the best you can. The moment any diet stops being fun is the moment you begin to think it might not be worth it. That said...
  9. Stay strong. The first few days might be tough, but once you get into the swing of things, it becomes easier and easier. It's at the point for me now that even when I think about what to cook for dinner for me and my wife tonight, meat doesn't even enter my mind. (And I don't miss it).
  10. Don't judge others. So you disagree with someone else's lifestyle choice. So what? You're not perfect either. The best way to help people and win them over is to teach by action, no lecturing. Bring some vegan food over or treat them to a vegan meal. If you want to make the change and keep your friends while you're at it, you have to realize that not everybody is at the same place in their life, and not everybody has the same value system as yours.

Read More About Vegan Month 2012

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All of My Vegan Recipes from Vegan Month 2012

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About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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