Vegan: Your First Three Weeks

Why not take a vegan diet for a test drive? Our 21-day guide makes it easy.

Once You’re Over the Hump it’s Smooth Sailing

If you’re thinking of trying out the vegan thing, you’ll be relieved to learn that sticking to the diet becomes easier with every passing week. In fact, by the time you make it to the three week mark, you will likely find that the lifestyle has become second nature and is nearly effortless to continue. So the point of this guide is to give you all the hand-holding you need to get through your first few weeks. After three weeks you of course still won’t know half the tips and tricks a vegan of ten years will know, but you’ll nevertheless be well past the tricky part and nicely equipped to stay vegan if that’s what you want to do.

So let’s start first with the most important piece of advice I can possibly offer: going vegan is not about cutting meat, milk, and eggs out of your diet—it’s about crowding them out. When you cut out animal-based foods the resultant experience entails sacrifice and deprivation. But when you crowd them out there’s no feeling of sacrifice at all, because you’re abandoning old foods in favor of new ones that taste better and are more satisfying. And every time you discover a new vegan food that you adore, the animal-based foods you grew up eating get pushed further to the margins.

When it comes to successfully transitioning to a vegan diet the name of the game is trying as many new foods as possible. You of course won’t love—or even like—everything you try. But every time you find something you enjoy it’ll displace some of the non-vegan foods you’re currently accustomed to eating. Trying as many new foods as possible means learning about all the vegan options that exist, both at groceries and at restaurants. And if you can get a few simple cooking skills under your belt while you’re at it, your meal options will expand beyond belief.

Shopping for Vegan Food

Going vegan will probably inspire you to do your grocery shopping in more places, since the best vegan food products are rarely found in typical supermarkets. That said, every supermarket will sell basic vegan staples like beans, rice, pasta, tomato sauce, and soymilk. Unfortunately, supermarkets typically sell the healthier organic versions of these products at full list price, making them significantly more expensive than most natural food stores. Supermarkets usually have good produce sections, although you can usually find better and fresher produce elsewhere. All that said, supermarkets are certainly more accommodating to vegans than they once were. Many supermarkets today have an array of vegan meats and cheeses, a natural foods aisle, or even an entire section of the store devoted to healthier foods.

A good natural food store generally beats a supermarket in every important respect. Just keep in mind that some purportedly “natural food stores” are really just vitamin shops, with exorbitant prices on the paltry selection of foods they sell. You can typically identify these stores in an instant because they’ll lack a produce section, and will have more aisles devoted to pills than to food.

But the best natural food stores are vegan heaven. They’ll carry all sorts of terrific vegan goodies that offer familiar flavors and absolute convenience: ice cream, mayo, frozen pizza, pot pies. Maybe the best thing about natural food stores is their bulk sections, where you can find everything from nuts to dried beans to granola to coffee—you’ll discover that you can save a fortune buying these items in bulk. The produce section will generally offer higher quality fruits and vegetables than what a supermarket sells—often with a serious effort to source locally and organic. Most natural foods stores have a large deli featuring plenty of vegan items. These delis are great for new vegans because they’ll let you discover a wealth of new foods. Any item you like tends to be something that can be quickly made at home, at minimal cost.

Don’t forget farmers’ markets. There’s no way to get fresher produce. On top of that, nearly 100 percent of your food dollar spent at a farmers’ market supports agriculture in your community. There’s probably at least one farmers’ market near you. The USDA maintains an extensive directory of these markets, and there’s another excellent directory maintained by LocalHarvest.org.

One variant of farmers’ markets involves subscribing to a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) box. Under this system, you’ll pay a fixed fee every week for a box containing a share of what your farmer grows. The farmer gets guaranteed income for the growing season and you get a steady supply of fruits and vegetables straight from the farm.

And finally, Amazon.com is a ridiculously convenient way to cheaply buy a variety of terrific vegan food items, many of which are unavailable locally. Check our vegan grocery page for a frequently-updated collection of our favorites.

Vegan Cooking Made Easy

One of the best ways to ease your transition to a vegan diet is to develop your cooking chops. It takes only an hour or two to acquire basic cooking skills that benefit you for the rest of your life. Tahini dressing is so easy to prepare, for instance, that there’s really no way to mess it up. Roasted vegetables are scarcely any harder, and you won’t believe how good they taste. And even a stir-fry is an incredibly simple affair.

One great thing about roasted vegetables and stir-fries is that you can continually experiment with new combinations, so even if you eat these foods every day you’ll never get sick of them. And with stir fries, you can change up the grains you serve them over, as well as the sauces you use as accompaniments. Peanut sauce is just as easy to make as tahini dressing, and it’ll change your life. Both are superb over stir-fried vegetables.

Add in some sandwiches and you’ll really start seeing how easy it all is. Just like stir-fries, sandwiches are incredibly versatile—you can constantly change up the bread, the filling, and the spreads—giving you an unlimited variety of combinations. And if you get tired of bread, just swap in a whole grain tortilla and turn your sandwich into a wrap. Need more sandwich ideas? Check out the book, Vegan Sandwiches Save the Day!

Soups are right up there with sandwiches in terms of ease of preparation and possible varieties. There are all sorts of stocks you could use, from miso to vegetable to coconut milk. And you can likewise use a different assortment of veggies, spices, and herbs every time. Buy yourself a slow-cooker you’ll gain the ability to start all these soups in minutes, then go away for a few hours with no need to babysit your creation. When you return you’ll have something heavenly. There are a number of vegan soup cookbooks in print.

And finally, don’t forget what might be the easiest meal ever: fruit smoothies. All you need is a blender, frozen fruit, and vegan milk (soy, coconut, rice, or almond) and you’re all set. It takes less than two minutes to make a smoothie and less than one minute to clean up. And once again, you can continually vary the ingredients so you can have a smoothie every day without ever getting tired of it. Maybe almond milk and frozen raspberries today, coconut milk and frozen blueberries tomorrow, and soymilk and frozen peaches the day after. Also remember that smoothies are a great base for your daily dose of Omega 3s. Just dump a tablespoon of ground flax into your smoothie prior to blending and you’ll be getting essential alpha-linolenic acids.

I call stir-fries, roasted vegetables, soups, smoothies, and sandwiches “core foods” because they can all be prepared in minutes, in an unlimited number of ways. You can master the preparation of all these foods without purchasing a single cookbook. That said, if you want to take your cooking skills to the next level, there are hundreds of terrific vegan cookbooks in print. Start with one that’s intended for simple daily cooking, since these are the sorts of recipes you’ll probably make most often. A few great ones are, Quick-Fix Vegan, Everyday Happy Herbivore, and Nom Yourself. If you want to get a little fancier, two highly-regarded cookbooks are Healthy Happy Vegan Kitchen, and The Oh She Glows Cookbook.

Naturally, these cookbook recommendations only scratch the surface of what’s out there. We maintain a page at Vegan.com featuring all the best and latest vegan cookbooks.

Eating Out

Once upon a time, vegetarian restaurants were few and far between, and most of these restaurants smothered practically everything they served with cheese and eggs. Today most mid-sized towns have at least a few vegan-friendly restaurants. And there are hundreds of all-vegan restaurants around the world. The rapidly-expanding Veggie Grill and Native Foods Café chains each have more than twenty restaurants in the United States, and Loving Hut has more than thirty.

If there are no vegan restaurants near you, chances are you can still find a great vegan meal at a local restaurant. The easiest way to find vegan-friendly food in your area is to hit Yelp.com and type vegan into the searchbox. That’ll bring up reviews mentioning the vegan offerings of every restaurant near you.

By far the most vegan-friendly of all cuisines is Middle Eastern, but you’re also likely to find great vegan options at Italian, Ethiopian, Mexican and Indian restaurants. All of these cuisines may include hidden animal ingredients, so be sure to check out the preceding links to learn of the pitfalls and possibilities.

Vegan Nutrition

No matter where you buy most your groceries, keep in mind that most people—vegans and meat-eaters alike—don’t eat nearly enough fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Go out of your way to emphasize dark green leafy vegetables, which calorie-for-calorie are perhaps the most nutrient-rich foods you can possibly eat.

If you don’t tend to include enough fruits and vegetables in your diet, here’s a life-changing grocery shopping habit to cultivate: before you approach the cash register, look into your cart and check to ensure that it contains a substantial amount of produce. If you’ve fallen short steer your cart back to the produce section and buy some more! After all, it’s impossible to eat enough fruits and vegetables if you don’t buy them in the first place.

Some vegans operate under the wrongheaded assumption that, merely by being vegan, they’re exempt from having to think about nutrition. While there’s a grain of truth here, in that vegetables are generally packed with nutrients, it’s still quite possible to develop a deficiency on a vegan diet. In fact, even if you fill your diet with healthy foods, you can still fall short on key nutrients. It’s extraordinarily important, for instance, that vegans either take a B-12 supplement several times a week, or eat a substantial amount of B-12 fortified foods. And there are numerous other ways to trip up. Nutrients like calcium, zinc, iron, and iodine are all worth paying attention to. Our vitamins page has links to supplements that are of special interest to vegans.

The best book to read on the topic of vegan nutrition is Vegan for Life, by Jack Norris RD and Ginny Messina RD, MPH. Jack also maintains an outstanding website on vegan nutrition, and Ginny blogs regularly on the topic.

Books and Movies

One of the keys to steamrolling through your first few weeks as a vegan is to give yourself regular reminders of why you’ve decided to make this change. The more passion you feel for your new lifestyle the easier it will be. Books and movies can go a long way toward cranking up your level of enthusiasm.

For many new vegans nothing is a greater motivator than learning about factory farming. In any case, everyone ought to be well-informed about the systematic cruelties practiced by animal agribusiness. Two great books on the subject are Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer and Bleating Hearts by Mark Hawthorne. Eating Animals is a beautifully written and relatively non-traumatizing read given its focus on meat production and factory farms. Bleating Hearts is a more thorough investigation of animal cruelty, not just on factory farms, but in every domain where humans raise or confine animals for profit (laboratories, circuses, zoos, puppy mills, and so forth.)

Alternately, if you’re especially interested the health benefits of becoming vegan, some inspiring books include:

Books like these are not only incredibly encouraging for people in the midst of moving to a plant-strong diet, they can provide valuable information when it comes to making the switch in as healthful manner as possible.

I hope this article is offering you some vital information, but you’ll get a lot more out of reading a book-length introduction to vegan living. This article was distilled from my book, The Ultimate Vegan Guide. Probably the most comprehensive book on the topic is Kristy Turner’s But I Could Never Go Vegan!. In addition to loads of great advice, Turner’s book features 125 recipes, and there is gorgeous full-color photography throughout. Two other popular introductions to veganism are Main Street Vegan and How to Be Vegan. Any of these books will give you a level of familiarity with being vegan that would take years to achieve on your own.

If there’s one component of vegan living that really benefits from book-length guides, it’s vegan advocacy. There are all sorts of techniques and possibilities for protecting animals that aren’t at all obvious. Two of the best introductory titles include Striking at the Roots, and The Animal Activist’s Handbook. After you’ve read one of these books and you’re ready for a more advanced text, the book to read is Nick Cooney’s Change of Heart.

Movies are likewise an essential part of learning about food politics and vegan-oriented issues. The right films can acquaint you with factory farming to a degree that no book can convey. For this sort of thing the three films to watch are “Earthlings,” “The Ghosts In Our Machine,” and “The Cove.” These films are admittedly deeply troubling to watch, but witnessing them is almost guaranteed to increase your level of commitment to your diet and to becoming a more effective advocate.

If you’re more in the mood for a gentler introduction to the benefits of plant-based living you’ll enjoy films like “Vegucated,” “May I Be Frank,” and “Fast Food Nation.”

Moving Beyond Diet

As you settle into following a vegan diet, you may decide to expand your commitment beyond food to include all your shopping choices. That mostly means paying extra attention when you shop for cosmetics and clothing.

Many cosmetics contain animal ingredients, and most brands are also tested on animals. Check out our guide to animal ingredients, so you can know the most common components of cosmetics that are sourced from animals. It’s easy to find cosmetics that carry labels indicating that they were produced without animal testing. These brands are often found in natural food stores. You can also check our cosmetics guide and bath and beauty page for vegan, cruelty-free brands available for purchase from Amazon.com.

Leather, woolsilk and down are fairly easy to avoid. Just follow the preceding links to learn about the cruelties associated with these products, and how they can be replaced with vegan alternatives. Beyond shoes and clothing, leather is also frequently used to make furniture and car seats, but there’s no shortage of cars and couches that shun leather in favor of cloth upholstery.

Final Thoughts

Remember that the whole point of moving towards a vegan diet is not to be the world’s most perfect vegan for a week or a month—it’s to making a lasting and satisfying lifelong change. So if you slip up and consume animal products, whether accidentally or deliberately, don’t beat yourself up over it—and certainly don’t use the transgression as an excuse to ditch your vegan lifestyle entirely. There might be a lesson you can take away, perhaps that a given food contains animal products, or perhaps that there’s a terrific vegan alternative you can eat next time instead of the item you just consumed. So don’t focus on being perfect—just keep making steady progress.

Remember that most vegans eat a vastly more diverse and interesting diet than do omnivores. Anyone who has been vegan for more than a few years often cringes when reminiscing over the limited variety of the foods they ate before switching their diets.

Let’s now recap the main advice from this article, since if you adhere to these points you’ll not only have a very easy few weeks on a vegan diet, you’ll also be ideally positioned to embrace it as a permanent lifestyle.

  • Try new foods at every opportunity.
  • Get ahold of Vegan for Life and read up on nutrition.
  • Develop your cooking skills, and learn how to make stir-fries, soups, sandwiches, smoothies, and salads.
  • Pick up a couple simple everyday cookbooks like Quick-Fix Vegan and Short-Cut Vegan.
  • Take your B-12!
  • Don’t be a perfectionist. Everybody slips once in a while, especially in the beginning, and a momentary lapse is no reason to call everything off.
  • Watch a few movies.

That’s it. You can do this, and it’ll be easier and more fulfilling than you’ve ever imagined!