Vegan Diet Basics: What You Need To Get Started

The gorgeous abundance of mid-summer fruit and vegetables can nudge even the most ardent carnivore toward trying a plant-based diet, if only for a week or two. The nutritional, environmental, and economic benefits of forgoing animal products on your plate are well established. For instance, one cup of cookedlentils costs 20 cents, contains zero saturated fat, is high in protein and fiber, and (along with other dried beans) it has the lowest carbon footprint of any source of quality protein. The tricky part is, that after you have eaten your lentils and tried out a couple of different salads and maybe a tofu dish, what do you actually eat all day, every day? Peanut butter or avocado on toast gets pretty tedious and can turn what can be a foodie adventure into a grind. For me, eating primarily for fuel instead of flavor feels depressing. Stocking your pantry, researchingnew recipes, and planning a few days ahead keeps things manageable and appealing and defends against a hungry 8 PM freak out and desperate order of sausage pizza with extra mozzarella.

Find Your Milk

Or fakin' bacon or soy yogurt—a palatable version of whatever staple that may have convinced you a plant-based diet would be impossible to stick with. When a vegan friend bought me an oat milk latte at the rustic bakery Hewn in Evanston, Illinois, it changed everything. My morning cafe au lait is so key to my wellbeing, I think about it lovingly right before I go to sleep at night. I've experimented with soy, almond, and coconut milk and they all resulted in—to my taste—a muddy brew to be gulped down as a joyless and utilitarian caffeine delivery system. Oat milk was a creamy, frothy revelation. It holds its own in a bowl of granola or alongside a chocolate chip cookie. My oat milk might be your cashew cheese, but seek out tasty substitutes for the foods you rely on every day.

Think Seasonally

I cook spicy, rich plant-based chillies, stews, and soups all fall and winter, sturdy dishes that don't require meat or butter to be satisfying. My vegan experiment, however, began during a July heat wave when my kitchen was already 85 degrees before even looking at the stove. Boiling water for a pasta or steaming vegetables felt like a punishment, let alone turning on the oven. After flipping through my collection of vegetarian cookbooks, I drew up a week-long meal plan of dishes like summer rolls with tahini sauce, black rice salad studded with raw snap peas, edamame and almonds, and seitan veggie burgers cooked on the grill alongside minted yellow zucchini and piled with kimchi. At night, when the temperature dropped, I pre-cooked vegetables, grains, and beans for future meals. It does take work and thinking ahead, but at 7 o'clock, making dinner is a quick assembly of prepped elements.

Hummus bowl with cherry tomatoesBrook Lark

Stock the Kitchen

Make sure to have all the basics such as olive oil, nuts and nut butters, grains, canned and dry beans, dairy substitutes, spices, vinegars, garlic, onions, and lemons and limes on hand. Buy some snack foods like olives, hummus, whole grain crackers, pickled vegetables, and dried fruit for when you get the munchies—which you likely will if you are accustomed to eating a lot of heavy protein. Stow a few frozen meals in case you don't have time to cook. Reward yourself by having some treats on hand like sorbet or dark chocolate. Buy some flexible fresh herbs such as basil, Italian parsley, and mint to brighten salads and bowls. If you are lucky enough to live near a farmer's market, let peak season produce be your inspiration—this is the moment to figure out what kohlrabi actually tastes like.

You might also consider adding a few supplements to your regime. If you are only trying a plant based diet for a week, it may not be worth the money. Longer than that, ask your doctor about taking B-12, iron, Calcium, Vitamin D, Omega-3, and Zinc. What you don't need to worry about is protein. If you are eating a variety of nuts, whole grains, soy, vegetables, and beans you'll be covered. The average American eats twice the amount of protein the body requires.

Assemble Your Recipes

My indispensable vegetarian cookbooks are: My New Roots, The Modern Vegetarian Kitchen, The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, and Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian. Each one has introduced me to new techniques, ingredients, and ways to design a beautiful, abundant plate that doesn't rely on the traditional American format of meat and a starch front and center with a boring vegetable side. If you don't want to invest in new cookbooks, there are innumerable blogs and websites devoted to plant-based eating. Here is a week of dinner ideas from sources that deliver consistently delicious results:


Easy Vegan Pesto from Minimalist Baker.

This recipe replaces parmesan with brewer's yeast. To a pesto lover this sounds revolting but, I promise you won't even notice the difference. Add a few handfuls of arugula to the food processor to make this a more balanced one dish meal.


Gojuchang Burger Deluxe from Cinnamon Snail.

Cinnamon snail is a beloved food truck in New York City that sells the most decadent vegan doughnuts and meals and draws endless lines at lunchtime. This burger contains a number of elements such as sautéed kimchi in sesame oil, homemade pickles, and gomashio. You can sub in store bought vegetable or bean patties, jarred pickles and kimchi—the point is to pile on the condiments. Serve with a side of homemade or frozen sweet potato fries and a simple green salad. Buy extra sweet potato for taco Thursday.


Amazing Vegetarian Paella from 101 Cookbooks.

This looks ambitious but is actually streamlined for weeknight cooking. Throw an impromptu dinner party or hoard the leftovers for lunches to get you through the rest of the work week.


Sweet Potato and Pinto Bean Tacos from Thug Kitchen.

The crude language can be a little tedious but the recipes are filling, easy, and tasty. Add your favorite gaucamole for a dollop of healthy fats.


Sautéed Sesame and Aubergine Noodle Bowl from Deliciously Ella.

Comforting, flexible, and fast. Another one bowl meal to eat in your lap watching a movie when you're bushed.


Summer Cobb Salad by My New Roots

A perfect hot summer night meal to use all those farmer's market vegetables you picked up earlier in the day. The eggs in the recipes are optional, but the coconut "bacon" is a must.


Sun-dried Tomato, Mushroom, and Spinach Tofu Quiche from Oh She Glows.

A cheese and egg-free miracle, suitable for brunch or supper. FYI, mimosas are naturally vegan.

Experimenting with new recipes is a pleasure, but a nourishing plant-based meal can be as quick and easy as soba noodles tossed with sesame oil and cubed smoked tofu and fresh vegetables. The whole point of trying a plant-based diet is to lower stress on the body and the environment. If it starts feeling like work, keep it simple and save the complicated techniques and ingredients for a day you have ample time and energy.

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