Let’s start by saying I should now identify as a “pescetarian” and not (fully) vegetarian, and those who know me know how much I despise that label. (And labels, in general.)
The night before I wrote the first post on my first blog as a dietitian I happened to sit down and watch Food Inc. I have vivid memories of both the scenes and emotions in that movie, and thinking that I could never look at a chicken breast on my plate in the same way — i.e. find it appetizing. Real talk: I never found it that appetizing to begin with. Add this educational food documentary’s take on the “Big Ag” practices in meat-packing factories and farms, and you’re left with one brand new vegetarian.
I was baffled. I had been a certified registered dietitian for all of six months, an educated nutrition expert for a mere two years, but an omnivore for a full 23 years. Honestly, I misunderstood vegetarians. Now where do I start? What do I cook?! How do I cook it?
Until now, I hadn’t given much credit or attention to this process of change. Now, I coach and develop classes in this exact predicament: I’m ready, even if quite unexpectedly, to change something but I don’t know where to start. That tipping point can be sneaky, backhanding you with a slap of reality and an immediate desire to take action. But rarely does it come with a handbook and step-by-step approach. Your mind is like “Let’s DO this!” and your logic is like “OKAY BUT HOW?!”
To understand how other people might learn to change and develop new habits, why not think about how I learned to be a vegetarian?
I started pretty simply: I ate pizza topped with various vegetables at least twice per week (maybe four on average…). I bought new vegetables that I previously hadn’t cooked at home (see: eggplant, brussel sprouts, winter squash, etc), and looked up recipes or turned to food blogs for inspiration, but recipes aren’t really my thing. I made stir-fry mixes, soups, quinoa bowls, spaghetti squash bowls, and a lot of pizza. I made egg sandwiches, relied heavily on greek yogurt, made a lot of bean “burgers”, and ate more organic cheese in that first year of vegetarianism than I had in my 23 years of life combined.
What I remember most about that first year is realizing how easy it was to leave meat (or poultry or fish) out of a meal and fill up my plate with a variety of vegetables instead. I remember being so surprised by how many foods I had ignored for 23 years, and how tasty they are. (Thanks, adult palate!) I remember feeling energized by a fresh approach to food. I remember discovering FALAFEL and whoa you guys, that may have been the best day of year one.
But I also remember being SO frustrated when eating out at restaurants and desperately scanning the menu for animal-product-free options. I remember cooking trying tofu a few times and thinking “you have GOT to be kidding me…”. (Tempeh was a new staple.) I remember struggling in social and family situations where my new “diet” didn’t quite fit the mold. I remember having to learn to check restaurant menus before committing, because otherwise I might be stuck with hummus and pita bread for dinner, yet again.
My reasons for sticking with it have varied over the years, as I’ve reintroduced fish and become pretty lenient with animal by-products. I don’t care about potential “cross-contamination” and have had a freezer full of one-eighth of a cow because my husband buys beef from a local farmer. I still stand by my choice because meat isn’t appetizing to me, Big Ag hasn’t changed much, and it’s making a small dent in the environmental issues of raising billions of animals for food. At this point I can’t say I feel as strongly about it as I did in that first year, but it’s my lifestyle nonetheless. I taught myself a lot, relied on the internet for basic how-to’s (e.g. tofu), and eventually figured out what worked best for me. And that’s the best any of us can do. It’s not easy to change ingrained food habits, but when the time and motivations are right, it’s worth trying.
If you want to try out something new and stop eating meat for one month, join this class with me. We start on Monday (February 1) by learning together and going through the basics so you aren’t left with a soggy tasteless tofu block or endless pizza leftovers. Give it one month and take away what works for you.