Many people become vegetarian overnight, while others make the change gradually. Do what works best for you.
1. Begin by “vegging up” meals you already eat, like spaghetti with tomato sauce, soups, and salads, and by replacing the meat in favorite recipes, like lasagna, stir-fries, and chili, with beans or textured vegetable protein (TVP). Replace the beef in burritos with beans or grilled veggies. Bake stuffed peppers filled with rice pilaf or couscous (a type of quick-cooking pasta). Top baked potatoes with margarine, soy “bacon bits,” or salsa. Use crumbled tofu instead of ricotta cheese in manicotti and lasagna. Use crumbled veggie burgers instead of ground beef.
2. Check natural-food stores for instant soups and main-dish convenience items, as well as regular supermarkets. Many canned soup flavors that you’re probably already used to are vegetarian, like black bean, minestrone, tomato, and vegetable. Flavored rice mixes can be made into an entrée just by adding a can of beans. Experiment with vegetarian baked beans and refried beans (don’t forget to check for lard!) and different kinds of pasta. Order pizza without the cheese but loaded with vegetable toppings, like peppers, mushrooms, or even artichokes!
3. Try meat impostors—veggie burgers, "ham," "hot dogs," and "turkey" made out of soy and other meatless ingredients. They taste close enough to the real thing to fool any die-hard carnivore, although you might want to try several different brands before you decide which one is your favorite.
4. Visit your local healthfood stores to find the best variety of vegetarian foods. Don’t be shy—you’ll find row after row of wonderful products that you never knew existed: microwave entrées with pasta and sauces, imitation-meat products that can be used in your favorite recipes or on their own, and soy-based “cheeses,” “mayonnaise,” “sour cream,” and “milk.”
5. Explore the many vegetarian foods that have been popular in other countries for many years, like hummus (a tangy spread made from chickpeas), vegetable curries, falafel (a spicy mix of beans that can be made into patties and ”meatballs”), tempeh (a popular, high-protein meat substitute), seitan (a flavorful food made from wheat that can be sliced, marinated, cubed, fried, or baked), and a host of other vegetarian items. You’ll even find desserts, cookies, candies, and snacks that satisfy your sweet tooth without the fat and cholesterol found in animal products.
6. Make a habit of reading labels to make sure you’re buying products that are healthy and humane. Crackers may contain lard (pig fat), rice mixes may contain chicken fat, and other products include animal ingredients you’ll want to avoid, like gelatin (from animal skin, hooves, and bones). You’ll soon learn which brands are “safe,” and checking labels will become second nature.
Try these easy substitutes!
Instead of …
Butter: Sauté in water, wine, or vegetable broth, use lemon as a dressing, and cook with vegetable margarines and oils.
Ice Cream: Try frozen desserts like Tofutti, Soy Delicious, fruit sorbets, and ices. You’ll never want to go back to the cholesterol and fat of ice cream.
Milk: Try chocolate, vanilla, and plain soy milk, rice milk, and almond milk. Excellent for cooking, on cereal, in coffee and hot chocolate—use them any way you’d use milk. Available in lowfat varieties, too.
Hamburger: There are a wide variety of vegetarian hamburgers. For “hamburger meat” as an ingredient, substitute crumbled veggie burgers in recipes for chili, “meat loaf,” and tacos.
Cheese: Check health food stores for soy cheese, which is great on pizza and sandwiches, as well as in sauces. You can also make a great creamy “cheese” sauce using nutritional yeast flakes.
Eggs: Use commercial egg replacers (made mainly from potato starch) in baked goods. For breakfast, scramble tofu with onions, mushrooms, mustard, turmeric, and soy sauce.
Jello: Look for agar-agar (made without boiling cows’ hooves and pigs’ skin), or try Hain’s Super Fruits, a vegan gelatin that comes in four fruit flavors.
You’ll find a wide range of vegan cookbooks at your local bookstore or library. There are books for people who don’t like to spend more than 10 minutes preparing dinner, and there are books for gourmet chefs.