A Beginner’s Guide to Eating a More Plant-Based Diet

I hear from a lot of people aspiring to eat a more plant-based diet. In this article, I thought I’d round up some resources in response to the frequently asked questions and challenges that I often hear around going vegan.

Why eat plant-based?

I’m not in the business of convincing people to do anything they don’t want to do, my assumption is that if you are reading this then you already have some interest in it.

There are so many valid reasons to eat more plants, including health, environmental impact, and animal welfare. Personally, I went plant-based for animal welfare and environmental reasons (darn those food documentaries…) and found out later on that it was all the rage in the health world. Bonus! 🙂

I’ll leave it to the experts to share all that research with you. Here are some resources to find out more about the benefits of a plant-based diet.

Confession: as you can see from my blog and instagram, I do eat eggs. Because my main issue is with the meat, dairy, and egg industries with regard to animal welfare and environmental impact, I don’t have any objections to locally sourced eggs, aka backyard chickens. 🙂 

What if I just eat one vegan meal per day? That helps the planet, right?

YES! Absolutely. You don’t have to go 100% vegan to make a huge positive impact on the planet. Making the switch overnight is overwhelming and daunting for most people, and can set you up for a feeling of failure and disappointment when you find yourself falling back on old habits.

Did you know that eating just ONE plant-based meal per day saves the same amount of carbon emissions as driving from LA to New York? (Source)

Now that’s something to feel good about. So just start small. Swap cheese for avocado, switch to vegan butter and yogurt (there are lots of excellent brands these days), and slowly start swapping in plant-based options that sound doable and equally delicious to YOU.

Two approaches to going plant-based:

(Spoiler: One of them doesn’t work very well)

Perhaps the most sage advice I have to offer when it comes to plant-based eating is about the approach that you take. In my experience, there are 2 main approaches.

Approach #1:

Try to replace the meals you used to love with plant-based substitutes and be disappointed that it doesn’t taste like the “real thing”

Approach #2:

Learn to make new, different, and delicious kinds of meals with plant-based ingredients, explore new flavor profiles and spices, and venture into types of cuisine that already lend themselves to plant-based eating.

And while I do enjoy the occasional almond milk ricotta and field roast sausages, personally, I have had far greater success with Approach #2.

To drive that point home, which of the following do you think is a more satisfying emotional experience that would allow you to transition successfully to plant-based eating long term?  

“Wow, I’ve never tried these spices before, this vegetable chickpea curry is delicious!”

or…

“Wow, these vegan, soy chicken wings are terrible.”

My best advice is to have an attitude of “out with the old and in with the new.” Work on letting go of those foods that are hard to substitute. It’s ok to mourn them. They were good. But there are other good things out there waiting for you too.

That said, there are also many food-experiences and concepts that you really don’t have to let go of to eat plant-based. For example, you might think that you might enjoy a plant-based summer barbeque less because it won’t involve hot dogs or hamburgers. But think about corn roasted in its husks over the grill with a little sunflower oil and salt. Or portobello mushrooms marinated in BBQ sauce and seared over a campfire. Or veggie skewers with grill marks and delicious, charred flavors. Enjoy a black bean burger instead of a hamburger. The experience really isn’t that different.

So as you move forward in your plant-based adventure, I encourage you to branch out and explore the new, otherwise you will feel disappointed and restricted. Replace and substitute where it already makes sense to do so, and let go of the other stuff. Let it be a fun new exploration of new directions rather than a loss. And if you want to try fake meats and cheeses, go ahead, there are some good ones. But try to think of them as their own thing, rather than substitutes. For example, learn to love tempeh as it’s own thing, not as a meat substitute.

Focus on learning to make delicious vegan food that you genuinely love and look forward to. Nobody keeps up with something they don’t enjoy.

What about protein?

When people go plant-based they often worry about getting enough protein, but the reality is that the standard meat-based American diet contains way more protein than anyone needs. In the nutrition world, there’s virtually no argument. It’s really easy to meet your protein needs with only plants. And if you’re not convinced, just ask the plant-based body-builders and athletes out there.

But don’t take my word for it, here’s a nice summary of the current science on plant-based nutrition and protein, to help you ease any concerns you may have.

Below is my list of go-to plant-based proteins:

Recipes Loaded With Plant Protein:

But I’m too busy to do tons of food prep!

Then how do you currently feed yourself? What are your go-to meals when you have zero time or energy to cook? There are healthy, plant-based choices for meals like that too.

Changing your eating habits isn’t about willpower, and it doesn’t happen in your most inspired, energetic moments. It’s about shifting those moments when you are tired, lazy, not in the mood to cook, or on-the-go living your life. You’ll need to gradually develop a new repertoire of easy, go-to meals for those moments, so that you’re not falling back on old bad habits when your willpower is low.

That’s exactly why I created my Inner Circle program, to help you build this kind of a repertoire. You’ll build confidence and new habits one meal, and one week at a time. You can also check out my 4 week Vegan Boot Camp for a fun challenge. 🙂

Help! What do I eat for breakfast?

If you’re an eggs & bacon or morning pastry kind of person, there might be some growing pains involved with embracing plant-based breakfasts. Breakfast used to be my least favorite meal of the day, and now it’s my absolute favorite. I seriously go to bed every night almost giddy about my morning oatmeal. Give it time, and focus on building a new repertoire, some quick and easy, some more indulgent. Check out all my delicious breakfast recipes here.

But plant-based foods are so expensive!

Um… have you ever looked at the price of meat? Or fancy cheeses? Yeah, plant-based food is expensive if you shop at fancy expensive stores for $15/jar nut butters and fresh raspberries and ridiculously overpriced chia seeds, but it’s very possible and easy to eat within a reasonable grocery budget if you shop smart. Here are some great tips on plant-based grocery shopping on a budget.

How do I eat at restaurants?

You go into a restaurant, look at the menu, and order a meal. 😆

When I was first asked this question I had to stop and think about it. I eat out so often that I had a hard time figuring out why this is difficult for people. But then I realized that the restaurants I eat at now are different than the restaurants I used to eat at before I went plant-based. In the same way that your meals at home will shift, your meals out will shift too. Don’t worry about it, there’s so much out there. Here are some tips:

First, some types of cuisine lend themselves better to plant-based eating than others, and when I shifted my eating, some restaurants I used to like fell out of favor for other ones that cater more to vegans. Cities are generally way better at supporting plant-based eaters than rural areas are.

If you don’t know about Happy Cow, it’s the vegetarian/vegan Yelp. We use the app whenever we are on the road or in a new area, and it always helps us find all the gems.

But, you don’t have to only go to restaurants that advertise themselves as plant-based on Happy Cow to get a plant-powered meal. Even at the meatiest places like steakhouses and seafood restaurants I can always find some kind of salad or veggie dish. Salad bars and buffets are great too.

Many ethnic cuisines like Indian, Thai, Mexican, Chinese, Middle-Eastern, and Japanese food have some delicious meals that are already plant-based. We go out for Thai a lot and get curries, stir fries, or soups with tofu. Indian food often has a lot of plant-based curries and lentil dishes. It’s easy to get a plant-based burrito or fajita salad by leaving out the parts you don’t want. Beans, rice, veggies, avocado, salsa, and you’ve got a solid meal. Our Middle-Eastern restaurant go-to’s are hummus, tabbouleh, eggplant dishes, and falafel. We go to our local sushi place all the time and get edamame, cabbage salad, tofu, and avocado rolls.

So, in short, you can pretty much find a good plant-based meal anywhere except for pizza places and greasy diners. (Yeah I know, mourn those and move on, they never made you feel good anyway.)

Just start by asking the server what their vegetarian and vegan options are, if they don’t have them marked on their menu (which is becoming more and more common). Almost always, if a place doesn’t advertise anything explicitly as vegan, they are willing to modify something to meet your needs. In this day and age of dietary restrictions, it doesn’t phase chefs or servers at all. It’s their job to make you the food that you want. Don’t waste any energy feeling bad about making them “go to any trouble.” That’s literally their job. That’s what you are paying for when you buy a restaurant meal. Some of our favorite places to eat don’t advertise explicitly to plant-based eaters, but they have some kind of secret vegan dish that they make special for us that we keep coming back for.

Don’t be afraid to ask servers for their recommendations. Eating out can be great “research” – a great way to introduce yourself to new flavor profiles before learning to cook with them.

The plant-based world is expanding fast. Seriously, the vegan restaurant situation in our city has blown up in the past few years. Maybe soon, these tips won’t even be useful because being vegan and having a hard time eating at restaurants won’t even be a thing. We don’t even think twice about it, in fact, we are trying to reign in our restaurant habits, because living in the middle of one of the vegan-friendliest cities in the country, we really struggle to stick to our aspirational food budget!

What are your experiences and challenges with plant-based eating? Share in the comments below!

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3 Comments

  1. Katie, you’re a true answer to prayer. 2 days before your post, I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, and was wondering how I could ever manage to shift over into a plant-based diet (which would greatly reduce inflammation). Coming from a meat-and-potatoes background, Bright Line Eating has been a challenge (even though I can eat meat with it); the thought of becoming plant-based seems impossible. But you have posted so many PRACTICAL ideas that I now know I can start HERE and NOW. Thank you!

  2. Great post, thank you for providing all this wonderful information.

  3. Katie, thank you so much for this “Beginner’s Guide to Plant-Based Eating”. I just started the FMTV 10 day WFPB challenge on the 11th of this month and am loving it. When I saw this come across in my email I was thrilled to have the info you sent to help me continue on my new way of eating journey! Since following BLE this just seemed a natural progression to me. I know exactly what you mean when you said “dang those food documentaries”! Ignorance is bliss, at least it was for me! It is funny how things come to us just when they are meant to!

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