Before turning vegetarian in 2013 after some unintentional eye contact with a chicken, I couldn’t imagine not eating meat at least twice a week. And I definitely couldn’t imagine not ordering meat while eating out. Years later, even with a few hiccups along the way, I think I’m doing pretty well. So here are a few things I’ve learned that might help you too. They’re all common sense, of course, but sometimes it helps to have things written down.
#1. Be clear and honest with yourself
Being clear about why you want to stop eating meat helps in staying focused, because deciding to do this is the easy bit, but sticking to it is hard. Knowing why exactly you’re doing it gives you some ‘mind-over-matter’ type ammunition with which to fight your cravings. Being honest with yourself will also help you figure out how best to go about it. After all, no one knows you better than you.
In my case, I knew I wanted to stop eating meat because I didn’t want any more animals to die because of a lifestyle choice I was making. That helped me keep my head in the game.
#2. Decide on your approach
Once you’ve figured out exactly why you’re cutting meat out of your menu, you can figure out which approach works best for you: giving it up gradually, or all at once. Chances are, you’ve tried to stop doing something else before now, so you probably know which one of these methods will work for you. Me, I’ve never been able to give anything up gradually because the temptation to stay at the same level is just too much. It’s always been all or nothing, and I figured that was the best way to go here too.
Changing how you eat
#3. Try different cuisines
Obviously, not having meat on the table means a significant change in how you eat. But the good news is that turning vegetarian doesn’t have to mean eating salad all the time. Every kind of cuisine has some interesting meat-free dishes that you can add to your regular menu. For example, if you’re a fan of Italian, there’s the very satisfying mushroom risotto or the simple pasta aglio olio. I discovered semmelknoedel (bread dumplings in a sauce) and reibekuchen (potato pancakes) in Germany. French cuisine has the amazing ratatouille (aubergine and mixed vegetable stew). And south- and east- Asian food (read Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese etc.) has vegetarian options galore. This might mean doing some research and going out to eat in places you never would have before, but it’s worth it.
I’ve found that, wherever I go, there are always options. They may not always be the options I expect, but sometimes that’s a good thing.
#4. Learn to cook a new awesome meat-free dish every week or two
If meat currently forms a large part of what you usually eat, getting rid of it will leave a big hole that needs filling. You can fill that empty space by finding meat-free dishes that you love eating, and learning how to cook them. That way, you’ll gradually build up a repertoire of dishes that you enjoy, you won’t miss meat so much, and you won’t get bored by constantly having to eat the same few dishes at home. If you want some inspiration, check out chef Yotam Ottolenghi’s inventive recipes.
Over the years, my wife and I have experimented with cooking lots of different things from different parts of the world, ranging from South Indian, Tibetan and Chinese to Middle Eastern, German, Italian and French. We’ve figured out some favourites that we cook every so often, when we get bored with the routine.
#5. Find hearty alternatives to meat
Note that I didn’t use the word ‘substitute’ because I don’t think you can really substitute meat with anything else (devotees of tofurkey might disagree). Instead, find alternatives that are just as hearty and fulfilling, but probably in a different way. Cheese, eggs and paneer make decent alternatives (though, admittedly, not if you’re concerned about the ethical treatment of animals), as do aubergines, lentils, kidney beans, mushrooms and raw banana. Be sure not to overdo it, though, and keep your meal balanced. Just because it’s vegetarian doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthy in large quantities.
#6. Experiment with substitutes in traditionally meat-centric recipes
It’s probably natural to take a meat dish that you love and then try and make it without the meat (or at least substitute the meat with something else). In my experience, this doesn’t usually work very well because the meat contributes a lot to the flavour and the technique used. The only really successful substitution I’ve come across is using unripe jackfruit in a curry instead of mutton, probably because of the fruit’s own intense flavour and texture.
But don’t let that stop you from experimenting, because you never know what you can come up with. My biggest surprise came when I replaced the chicken in the Indo-Chinese chicken 65 with unripe banana. It didn’t taste the same, but it was a completely different kind of awesome!
Staying the course
#7. Deal ruthlessly with cravings
If you’re a complete carnivore like I was, you’ll probably experience some serious withdrawal symptoms for a while after giving up meat. If you want to keep at it, you’ll need to find ways to fight the constant urge to dash around the corner to the closest burger (or, in my case, kabab) joint. Like I said before, it helps to keep reminding yourself about why you took the decision in the first place.
And just like an alcoholic, it would probably help if you stayed away from meaty sights, sounds and smells for a while. When I first decided to stop eating meat, we used to live down the road from a kabab shop, and the smell would drive me crazy! I’m not suggesting you move to a new place if you’re in a similar situation, but it would definitely help.
What I’ve found, though, is that even six years down the line, I still have some intense cravings once in a while. But then I imagine what that piece of meat must have looked like when it was still on the animal, and my cravings usually go away pretty quickly!
#8. Do some research before travelling
Eating meat-free is sometimes challenging when you’re travelling, because you don’t have all your usual support mechanisms around you. So, it might be a good idea to do some research on the culture and cuisine of the place you’re visiting beforehand, so that you know what to look for and where. Like I said, every cuisine has its own meat-free dishes; it’s just that they’re sometimes hard to find. And spending your whole trip eating French fries and salad is sure to make your resolve waver.
On a recent trip to Germany, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t have a problem—especially because vegetarianism is becoming quite popular there. But after two weeks of eating salad and semmelknoedel, I inevitably fell off the wagon. In hindsight, if I had done more research, I would have known where to look for more asparagus, spinach, sauerkraut and reibekuchen.
#9. Remember to keep it healthy
Just because you’re not eating meat doesn’t necessarily mean you’re eating healthier. You can overdose on sweet or fatty foods (or both) while still being vegetarian, but that doesn’t mean it’s better for you. You still need to watch what you eat as much as before—and maybe even more, because you might get lulled into a false sense of security.
I sometimes feel the urge to binge on chocolate, probably to take my mind off my craving for something else. While I do let myself go sometimes, I need to constantly remind myself to make up for it with healthier eats later.
#10. Forgive yourself—but not too much
Like I wrote right at the beginning, turning vegetarian is hard for people who really like eating meat. If you’re not one of those, then you’re lucky and shouldn’t have too much of a problem. But almost inevitably, there will be times when you can’t take it anymore, and just have to have a bite of that lamb lasagne or fried chicken. The important thing, though, is to pick yourself up afterwards and start again. Because the easiest way to give up is to despair and tell yourself that you can’t do it. Again, every little bit matters, so even if you hit a few obstacles along the way, the important thing is to keep going.
That’s not to say that you should forgive yourself so easily that it becomes a habit. A certain mild level of guilt is useful in making sure you don’t slowly slip back into your old ways. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t give up if it becomes unbearable. I’m saying do the best you possibly can, and don’t worry too much about the occasional slips along the way.
Do you have a tip or trick that has helped you deal with turning vegetarian? Let me know. I could always use some help!