"...Baby step onto the elevator... baby step into the elevator... I'm *in* the elevator. [doors close] AHHHHHHHHHHHH!"
~Bill Murray as Bob Willey, What About Bob?
Veganism 101: How to Go Vegan
Whether you are going to baby step into veganism or cannonball into it, I think the first thing you should do is locate some good vegan recipes to try and to familiarize yourself with the ingredients for recipes you are interested in. I'll be honest, some vegan cooking and baking utilizes ingredients you might not have been familiar with before. This doesn't mean these ingredients are subpar or weird, they are just different and often other cultures use them all the time. I've had the best time trying new foods since I've gone vegan, and I definitely eat a more varied diet than I ever did before. I've taught myself how to cook finally. This also means your pantry and refrigerator will be getting a slow makeover.
Common Vegan Ingredients
It took me a little time to adjust to vegan baking especially. I mean how was I supposed to replace four eggs in my family's carrot cake recipe? But I did it, and quite successfully I might add. And now I am as much of a pro as an amateur can be. I'm much too lazy to be a pro chef or baker...I like short-cuts and I'm far to keen on instant gratification. But I want to share my knowledge with you, so you don't have to go through as much trial and error. I'm going to save you time, energy, and sanity!
Converting to a Vegan Diet...10 Tips!
1. Buy yourself at least one kick-ass vegan cookbook. My favorite cookbooks are those from Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero. And their best overall cookbook with recipes from each category is Veganomicon (you will also see this book referred to as V-Con). Their Sweet Basil Pesto Tapenade and Lost Coconut Custard Pie are already favorites.
2. Make the recipe rounds online. There are many websites online that offer quality vegan recipes for free. The ones I use the most are these:
PostPunk Kitchen (Isa's website)
3. A lot of people find that it is easier to use meat, cheese, and dairy substitutes in the beginning. You know, like veggie burgers or soy cheese or almond milk. It's always a good idea to give those a try. But make sure you try a few brands and types, so you know which ones you like. Don't give up after just one try. Not all substitutes are created equal, and it is all about personal preference as to which ones you will like. Or, you could simply omit the non-vegan item from your dish if it is not a critical component and doesn't affect the composition of the meal much. For example, taking the milk out of a bowl of cereal and not replacing it would be a rather unsuccessful meal, but simply omitting the parmesan cheese from the top of spaghetti marinara would be a negligible change.
Overall, I find it is better to use an already veganized recipe than to modify a non-vegan recipe...especially if you are depending on the recipe to turn out well. If you are willing to risk failure and you are just practicing, then you should go for it. But if you are cooking to impress or if you are really needing a satisfying meal, I caution against it. This is especially true with baking where any ingredient changes can unbalance the composition of a food. Luckily, there are already hundreds of vegan recipes out there where someone did all the try-fail-succeed work for you. This advice is mostly for those who are inexperienced cooks or inexperienced with certain vegan ingredients.
4. Visit some of the vegan-friendly grocery stores and check out the prepackaged vegan items they have available. My favorite local places to shop for regular groceries are Whole Foods, Sprouts, and Fry's Marketplace (for Fry's it is very important you choose one of the Marketplace stores, the others are smaller and tend not to have very much in the natural foods section which is what you want). Each chain, and each location for that matter, has slightly different items available. Whole Foods seems to have the most comprehensive shopping for vegan items and they have fabulous produce. Anything you need but cannot find locally, you should be able to find at Pangea, an online vegan store.
Another one of my favorite places to shop is LeeLee's Oriental Supermarket. LeeLee's has imported foods from all over the world, and yet, they have pretty great prices. The trick with LeeLee's is reading labels and getting past the initially strong smell of fish, but it is one of the coolest cultural experiences you can have here in Phoenix. Most things are packaged in labels with foreign languages, but they are required to put the ingredients in English somewhere on the label, and even still it can be challenging to determine the ingredients. LeeLee's has a whole section of Asian vegetarian foods and great specialty produce. I get frozen masala dosa, veggie lumpias, sweet chili sauce, and Spanish wafer cookies there all the time. And I always try something I've never had before every time I visit. If you are looking for something hard to find or ethnic (especially Asian), give them a try. There are two locations in the Phoenix area, Peoria and Chandler, and one in Tucson.
5. Read, read, read ingredient labels. This is where you find out what you've been eating all along. It's an eye-opening experience! I also work at removing high fructose corn syrup from my foods...do you know how many things that is in?! And ingredients and recipes for packaged foods change all the time, so keep that in mind when shopping. To make it a little easier for you, PETA started a website that lists foods that are 'accidentally' vegan. It's fairly comprehensive and definitely helpful, especially when you might need to choose some mainstream products to satisfy other non-vegans who unnecessarily worry about what 'crazy' foods vegans eat. For example, the original Oreos are accidentally vegan.
I Can't Believe It's Vegan!!
I'm also providing a list of animal ingredients. Manufacturer's do a pretty good job of disguising animal products in our foods simply because there are too many different names and types of ingredients to track. Think your non-dairy creamer is vegan? Think again. A great many of the non-dairy creamers and non-dairy cheeses actually have milk ingredients in them. Look at the ingredients and take note of the brands that are legit vegan products. Don't let it overwhelm you, just do the best you can. It always helps to check the allergy warnings where they will list dairy, eggs, seafood, and shellfish as ingredients. And lately some products are starting to carry labels that say "vegan", have a "V" symbol, or a certified stamp of veganism. A lot of foreign foods will say "Suitable for Vegetarians", but keep in mind that does not necessarily mean suitable for vegans.
And I'll be sharing some of the best vegan products out there on a regular basis to help you out.
Animal Ingredients List
Ok, before you start freaking out about that huge list of animal ingredients, quick go read this article. This is a very important read, so do not just scroll past it!
6. Go to a vegan or vegan-friendly restaurant for proof that delicious vegan food is completely possible, and oh so desirable! Most restaurants can make you something vegan, but they may or may not be equipped for that (ie. lacking imagination and even vegetables).
Vegan and Vegetarian Restaurants in the Phoenix Metro Area
For more Arizona dining tips:
7. Don't give up if you fall off the wagon. Be patient if you are a little inconsistent at first. Recognize the foods you crave and enjoy the most and try to find good substitutes for those before your cravings get out of control. For example, I went vegan during the month of Easter and I was suddenly devastated I wouldn't be eating any Reese's Peanut Butter Eggs. My sister felt my pain and knew my weakness for them, so she made me homemade vegan peanut butter cups. They were delicious! Once I knew it was possible to satisfy my Reese's craving with a cruelty-free vegan peanut butter cup, I never worried about missing any foods ever again. Every food I have ever loved, I have been able to veganize successfully. We all have those foods we love, and we needn't lose them. It's just a matter of changing ingredients slightly, and sometimes just having to make them ourselves. I'm the laziest person ever, just ask my family...and still I find it worth every bit of effort to follow a vegan diet.
8. Network with other vegetarians and vegans. There is nothing better than talking to others who understand the lifestyle. I have learned so much from other vegans online; recipes, product tips, relationship advice, etc. There are so many forums and websites online that are great for this. And most cities have meet-up groups for vegetarians and vegans. These groups usually go out to eat together or have potlucks, a perfect chance for you to try new foods and to find moral support. Meet real life vegans. You'll see we are not all the hippies or freaks that the stereotypes suggest. We're normal every day people.
Vegetarian Society of Phoenix (Open to all vegetarians, vegans, veg-friendly, and veg-curious.)
Phoenix Vegan Meet-up Group (Everyone is welcome with open arms; regardless of where they are on the path to a Vegan diet.)
AzVegan.com (Calendar and Info Source)
AZVegan Facebook Group (Open)
9. Invest in a magazine subscription to VegNews Magazine. VegNews has great articles, reviews of new products, recipes, and basically addresses all of the issues that come with a vegan lifestyle in an omnivore world. They also send out regular email blasts with new recipes to try.
10. Eat a healthy, balanced, and varied diet. This is very important. It's easy to get the nutrients you need if you pay attention to this. Too many people try a vegetarian diet and ignore eating right and balancing food groups, and then find themselves not feeling well and believing vegetarianism isn't good. It's not the vegetarianism itself that is the problem, in fact, the vegan diet is one of the best and healthiest diets one can follow. But it's just as easy to eat junk food or unhealthfully on a vegan diet, and that, like an unhealthy omnivore diet can cause you problems.
Here are a couple of vegan food pyramids for your reference.
Still vegans have some specific nutrients that will likely need supplementation, particularly Vitamin B12, and some that you need to watch, Omega 3s, Calcium, and Vitamin D. But if you consume that varied diet like I said, and you supplement whatever you might be lacking, you don't have to worry much. There are vegan vitamins that are available and prevent/resolve many issues. Check out the below websites so you know what you need based on your particular diet.
Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine
The Protein Myth
Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine: Vegetarian Starter Kit
Compassion Over Killing: Vegetarian Starter Guide
Go Veg: Vegetarian Starter Kit
Friends of Animals: Vegan Starter Guide
More Advice on Going Vegan:
How to Go Vegan - From the authors of Skinny Bitch
How to Go Vegetarian or Vegan - from About.Com
Guide to Cruelty-Free Eating - from Vegan Outreach
Making the Transition - from VegCooking.com
How to Go Vegan - PETA