Living as a Vegetarian
Don’t wait for a better world.
Start now to create a world of
harmony and peace. It is up
to you, and it always has been.
You may even find the solution
at the end of your fork.
Life happens constantly. It gets pretty routine – put on clothes, eat breakfast, brush teeth, perhaps do the same for children or elders, then off to work or stay home and take care of family matters. Lunch follows, with exercise and rest if we’re lucky, and more work. We scramble through traffic or amble across fields, back to dinner and an evening at home. While we may dream of lying on a beach in Goa, walking through the English countryside, or strolling down the avenues of Paris, we spend most of the time in our hometowns, following everyday habits. Do our ordinary lives change if we decide to be vegetarians? Let’s look at some practical aspects of everyday life and see how we manage them while keeping our commitment to a vegetarian diet.
It usually begins within a few minutes of rolling out of bed – the constant supply of drink and food we sip, gulp, chew, and swallow. Feeding our bodies, our emotions, or our cravings goes on all day and into the night. Often, we simply eat and drink too much for our own good, but perhaps that’s another book entirely. For now, let’s examine how we fill our plates and bowls with healthy vegetarian fare.
Many people say they never realized the amazing variety of foods available until they eliminated meat. Vegetarians are sometimes asked, “But what do you eat?” by those confused by our food choices or by a host who’s anxious about having us over for dinner. A little education and creativity can put that confusion and anxiety to rest. (A happy sidenote: The number of people who are uneasy with vegetarianism is decreasing every year. Across the world, our diets are becoming more accepted and respected.) Every geographic region is teeming with foods that don’t involve killing animals, though discovering those foods can be daunting for new vegetarians as well as non-vegetarians. So let’s combine a dollop of education with a pinch of creativity and see how we make this way of life easy and natural.
To stock our home with basic grains, beans, fruits, and veggies takes only a trip to any market. For ideas and inspiration, a beginning vegetarian can find a world full of recipes online or in hundreds of meat-free cookbooks. Vegetarian and vegan groups delight in publishing ways to make ordinary ingredients taste extraordinary. Add basic herbs and spices to kitchen shelves, and a constantly expanding variety of tastes is possible. The options multiply again when we consider moving beyond dairy products to a delicious variety of soy, coconut, pea, cashew, and almond milks and cheeses. In 2015, environmentalists and entrepreneurs Neil Renniger and Adam Lowry began selling ‘pea milk’, a creamy, high-protein dairy alternative made of split yellow peas.133 Currently (2017) sold under the brand name Ripple, this ‘milk’ is getting rave reviews for being tasty, nutritious, and eco-friendly.
New products are entering the world’s markets continually. Consider the Impossible Burger, a plant-based burger that replicates the taste, appearance, sizzle, texture, taste, and even the ‘bleeding’ (Oh, no!) of a beef pattie. This burger is made entirely from plants and without added hormones, antibiotics, or artificial ingredients. Its production “uses 95% less land, 74% less water, and creates 87% less greenhouse gas emissions than a meat burger.”134
Researchers and foodies are constantly coming up with innovative ways to create vegetarian options that have traditionally only been available to omnivores or ovo-lacto vegetarians. Ever heard of aquafaba? If not, check it out! It refers to the liquid left over after cooking beans such as chickpeas. Vegans striving to develop an eggless meringue collaborated online, and in March of 2015 decided to call their new product “aquafaba.”135 In addition to creating luscious meringues, aquafaba can be used in mayonnaise, butter, or cheese.
If we grew up thinking that rice, corn, oats, and lentils were the only grains or pulses available, we’re surprised to learn that quinoa, polenta, kamut, spelt, barley, millet, amaranth, and more are also on the shelves or in the bins of local stores. Include some of the many different nut butters and seeds; consider vinaigrettes of pear, peach, coconut, or fig; expand our list of vegetables and beans beyond those most commonly used, and we quickly see that having choices about what to eat is not the issue. Of course, we’re often most comfortable with familiar foods. Perhaps we can explore new ways to put them together – potato gnocchi with fresh herbs, grilled mushrooms over rice, or creamy coconut eggplant curry.
However, it’s sensible to ask how much time it takes to cook with all these delicious ingredients. We’re busy folks, or perhaps we just don’t like to cook, and even if we want to slow down and linger over meal preparation, carving out the time is often hard to do. Well and good if our grandmothers baked their own bread and made pies or soups from scratch, but we’ve just slammed the door on an eight-hour day and a snarled commute or crammed subway, and dinner needs to happen soon. Who can spend two hours cooking beans and chopping veggies or patting tortillas and blending salsas?
Fortunately, we have some sensible ways to simplify meal preparation. Perhaps the easiest is to make extra servings of food when we do have time and freeze leftovers for those busy nights when we just need to get a decent meal on the table before we start gnawing our arm. From lasagne to dal to soup, lots of foods freeze well and can be moved from the freezer to the refrigerator to thaw. Frozen foods also can be defrosted on the stove or in a microwave.
A new generation of pressure cookers has also made cooking much, much faster, especially if grains or beans are soaked in advance. Think of cooking lentils in 14 minutes instead of 45, garbanzo beans in 18 minutes instead of two hours. Buying pre-chopped vegetables, though they are more expensive and less nutritious than using fresh veggies, can be another time saver. For those who don’t want to cook, no matter how quickly the whole process can be taken care of, several purely vegetarian food companies make meals in cans, boxes, and frozen containers that are healthy and tasty. Spending lots of time in the kitchen creating meals doesn’t have to be anything other than a labour of love.
A business lunch with no vegetarian entrées, a neighbour who drops by with a meat casserole, a romantic dinner date with someone who doesn’t know you’re a vegetarian, a surprise birthday cake with eggs – oh, no! Being vegetarian in a world full of meat products can feel precarious. How do we avoid hurting or offending people who either don’t know about or don’t understand our diet choices?
The chapter in this book titled “The Web of Family and Society” reflects on the connection between food and relationships, focusing generally on families and close friends. Let’s enlarge those relationships and think about new friendships, casual acquaintances, colleagues and business associates, neighbours, and potential romantic partners. How can we mix with different kinds of people in different settings, keep away from social landmines around food, and maintain our values?
A solid place to start is with confidence and joy. We have chosen to be vegetarians out of compassion for animals, concern for our planet’s wellbeing and our own health, and/or a desire to avoid the consequences that come with participating in harming animals. These are all laudable reasons, a positive response to the carnage and ruin of meat production. We can move through life clearheaded and sure about our decision and feel happy and blessed to be vegetarians.
People have a right to their own choices. Whether or not we agree with those choices doesn’t change this.
We also know that people have a right to their own choices. Whether or not we agree with those choices doesn’t change this. Many people sincerely believe that eating animals is natural, healthy, and tasty. Genuinely respecting – rather than judging or criticizing – their right to these beliefs is important. After all, we’re asking them to respect ours, even though they may strongly disagree. Respect is a basic ingredient of harmonious relationships. This is true for every form of connection humans have with one another, and the connections between vegetarians and meat eaters are no exception.
From hip urban restaurants to small cafes on a dirt road, most folks know or have met at least a few vegetarians. Lots of people, even if they don’t want to be vegetarians, admire our principles. They’re often willing to accommodate us, and we can do our part by being relaxed and appreciative. Let’s have some fun! Embrace an adventure, make new friends, create bonds.
While living with confidence, respect, and an adventurous spirit, we can also remember a very practical technique to avoid detonating landmines: Tell people in advance and in clear terms what our diet restrictions are. Here’s what doesn’t work well: Showing up for dinner and then announcing that we can’t eat the fish. Telling a host at the last minute that we can’t eat pasta made with eggs. Grilling friends about ingredients in dishes as they’re being set on the table. Okay, better late than never, but it’s much more gracious and courteous to speak in advance.
Accepting an invitation for a meal needs to go hand-in-hand with an explanation, and maybe an offer to bring along a vegetarian dish. Though most people have vegetarian foods they enjoy serving, be ready to help the host. Have a few simple food suggestions to make if you’re asked “What can you eat?” Sometimes people are reassured when they hear that we eat many ordinary dishes – any vegetable, fruit, or grain without added ingredients derived from animals. We can ask what our host likes to cook or is thinking of serving and make easy, practical suggestions for turning a meat dish into a vegetarian one. Once our way of eating is accepted, we can lightly remind folks of the details – for example, that we don’t eat curries with fish sauce. Or maybe we need to gently inquire about specifics: Is there mayonnaise in the salad dressing?
Being easy to please, as long as vegetarian requirements are met, goes a long way towards helping people relax around food, whether the occasion for gathering is business or pleasure. Of course, we’d like to have a vast selection of veggie entrées laid out before us, but that desire isn’t generally satisfied at restaurants and homes in the West. Sometimes we get grouchy because everyone else has a dozen choices of foods while we have one or two. Long-time vegetarians have sage advice when resentment starts to creep up: Let it go. Yes, we can wish that people at the office would occasionally pick a restaurant with lots of veggie options or think to include eggless desserts in a holiday celebration. However, our desires and reality will sometimes knock against each other like tree limbs in a hurricane.
Instead of resentment, let’s try gratitude. We have wonderful reasons for staying away from the beef tacos or lamb risotto. Do we see only a salad or a tray of vegetables to eat? Great! We have healthy options!
Let’s pretend for a moment. The doors of an elevator have just opened, ready to take you up to an acting audition with a television studio you admire. As you stride into the elevator, you see that the only other person there is the studio’s Chief Executive, whom you recognize immediately. This is an unbelievable stroke of luck, a private moment with someone who would normally be way too busy to give you an interview. But you only have a minute to introduce yourself and spell out clearly what you do. A one-minute elevator pitch – that’s what you need. Many people develop concise, interesting explanations of their work, product, services, or organization based on this concept.
The same idea can come in handy when answering the constant question, “Why are you a vegetarian?” If living without meat is new to you, get ready; this inquiry is coming your way! A heartfelt, simple answer usually works well and is a chance to share the basis of our beliefs. This is also an opportunity to put another person at ease if we sense that’s needed. The questioner may be motivated by curiosity, a sincere desire to understand, or even scorn; he or she may respect vegetarians or think we’re foolish. Whatever the motivation, we can act positively rather than defensively. We can explain without over-explaining. Experience has taught us that with virtually every topic of discussion, if people are really interested, sooner or later, they’ll ask for more. There’s no need to sell vegetarianism to reluctant listeners. A short pitch can travel a long way, but only if the time is right.
So why are you a vegetarian? Really, this is a flattering question. Someone is showing interest in our lives, our thinking, our motivations. Everyone’s answer will be a bit unique but will also probably have some common elements. Here’s one possible ‘elevator pitch’:
I stopped eating red meat when I was twenty because I had heard so many awful things about the way cattle and pigs are treated and the hormones and antibiotics they’re fed. I mean, I’ve never owned a cow or a horse, but I grew up owning dogs and I have a cat, and I could see that animals have emotions and intelligence. I didn’t want to keep eating them.
Then I began to learn more about how chickens and other kinds of birds are raised on factory farms, and their lives seemed terrible, too. And I’d seen how fish struggle against dying. It didn’t feel right to contribute to such misery just because I used to like the way they tasted. I knew I didn’t need to eat animals to be healthy. In fact, I did some reading and found out that being a vegetarian has a ton of health benefits.So, to start with, not eating meat was mostly about the treatment of animals and my own health. Then I watched a couple of videos and read a book about the environmental effects of using so much of the Earth’s land and water to grow food for animals rather than food for people. And when I think about the connection between global climate change and animal industry, I’m more and more certain that becoming a vegetarian was one of the best choices I’ve ever made.
We usually walk into our doctor’s office or naturopathic clinic or acupuncturist’s reception room with an attitude of respect and expectation of help. What happens if that help comes with advice to take medicines or supplements that contain animal products? Perhaps someone suffering from joint pain – maybe a runner with knee problems or a person with osteoarthritis – is advised to take chondroitin sulphate, often made from shark cartilage or bovine sources. What if the recommended vitamins have “stearic acid” on the label or come in gelatin caps? How can we possibly even know the ingredients in the thousands of medicines available?
First of all, we can educate ourselves about the basics. There’s no need to worry about getting a medical degree, thank goodness, but knowing some common pitfalls for vegetarians in prescriptions, vitamins, and nutritional supplements can be a literal lifesaver (speaking for the animals).
Capsules containing gelatin are arguably the most common problem because gelatin is made from animals, typically the bones, hides, and skins of pigs and cattle.136 However, in recent years, vegetarian capsules have become an easy-to-find replacement for gelcaps. Today it’s possible to buy supplements with plant-based capsules on line or in health food stores. Look for “V-caps,” “veggie caps,” or “suitable for vegetarians” on the label.
Stearic acid is another ingredient vegetarians want to be aware of. Used to prevent caking during the manufacture of many vitamins, it can be from either animal or plant sources. Search the ingredients list to see if “vegetarian source” appears next to “stearic acid.”
Because we can’t possibly keep up with the multitude of substances in changing medications, communicating with our health care providers is crucial. They need to know any parameters we have for prescriptions or supplements. Giving and receiving specific information is important. Providers may not have answers immediately, but such information is possible to find. We depend on our chiropractors, doctors, homeopaths, nutritionists, and acupuncturists to help us, and asking them to research ingredients – or give us information so that we can do such research – can be a routine part of a medical appointment.
The good news is that being vegetarian is becoming more and more common. It’s very possible that our boss and co-workers are vegetarian or know other vegetarians. Still, we can sometimes feel unsure how to do business over food without the fact that we’re vegetarians overshadowing all else. We naturally want to please our bosses, and we want to fit in with our colleagues.
Again, people who have grown up as vegetarians or have been vegetarians for many years have good advice. They say repeatedly that we can maintain our values while we do business. No one guarantees that we’ll never have an awkward moment, but those pass. Sometimes nobody even notices that we’re simply eating a baked potato and salad. If they do, we can plainly state the facts: “I’m a vegetarian, so I’m happy to stick to this.” Those of us who have been vegetarians for decades generally find that others respect our commitment when we say, “I’ve been a vegetarian for blank years, and this food really agrees with me.” And then we can turn the conversation back to the other person and ask, “Have you found something you like on the menu?” Questions like this pleasantly tilt the topic in another direction.
So we see that, with social skills and a little practice, we can participate in meals over business. But what about those times we’re expected to pick up the check for a meat-eating client or associate? How do we handle that?
Each person needs to find his or her own answers here, but as we search for those answers let’s be honest with ourselves. When we buy meat for others, we take on a portion of the responsibility for an animal’s death. We become part of the chain of meat production. When we choose to purchase meat or meat products in our role as a spouse, caregiver, parent, or employee, we pay a price that extends beyond the cash laid out, and we may simply accept that fact as part of living in the world.
Buying, cooking, and serving meat to our families is often seen as a duty that many vegetarians choose to fulfil. However, doing so for business reasons is, in some minds, less justifiable. Others say that insisting on purely vegetarian business meals isn’t practical. Perhaps a person starting out in a new career is required to entertain an important client. If the company is paying for the meal, the moral dilemma evaporates. But what if the employee is expected to pick up the tab and believes the client would be offended if meat were not an option?
Many variations of this scenario exist. We each have to weigh the circumstances and make decisions we feel are appropriate. At times, we may come to the conclusion that we have a duty to our employer, just as we have to our family. If we find our hearts are heavy with that duty, we may be able to take steps to change our situation.
Babies wailing to be fed. Toddlers grouchy with hunger. Pre-teens raiding the kitchen for an after-school snack. Teens devouring everything in the fridge – practically eating the refrigerator itself. Our children must be fed, and we respond to the primal pull to satisfy their hunger. Parents want to have healthy, happy children and to give them the best they can. They also want to pass on values, to see their children develop integrity and ideals.
Fortunately, these desires fit naturally into life as a vegetarian. Because we believe deeply that our food choices are best for ourselves and our world, we want to raise children who make the same choices. How can we help our children be happy with a plant and dairy-based diet when so much of the world around them dines on flesh? Babies and small children eat what we put in front of them, but what about older kids? What about school lunches and birthday parties and spending the night at a friend’s house? What happens if our extended families aren’t vegetarian? How can we control what our teenager eats outside the home? (Short answer here: We can’t.)
Wouldn’t answering these questions be easier if we just had a rulebook? One that told us the really right, completely-correct-all-the-time thing to do? Maybe, but we know that’s not the way life is. In reality, we have to figure out what works for our unique children, our unique family in our time and place.
However, we’re not alone with our questions or struggles; we have a support group in the form of millions of other vegetarians who have raised children. In addition, we know that children learn by watching what their parents do. Walking the talk speaks more loudly than any lecture. From toddlers to teens, children are observing the people around them, learning continually from what they do more than what they say. Because parents have a primary role – one hopefully infused with love, respect, and discipline – they have a powerful impact on a child’s way of seeing the world and their place in it. Academic studies confirm what we know from life experiences – parents are role models, whether positively or negatively, for their children. If the parents are vegetarian, they have a headstart in raising kids who will be, too.
What parents don’t have is a guarantee. Sooner or later, the child who happily eats purely vegetarian meals will realize that many other people eat animals. How will he or she respond? Families who have been vegetarians for generations know that the reactions are as varied as the children themselves. Some will be appalled, even to tears; some will want to try eating animals, too. What can we do about that?
Sorry, but this question doesn’t have an answer in any rulebook either. We are called to do our best, to consider both our family’s needs and our child’s needs, to consider the age and temperament of the child, to be patient and kind and loving in our response to a request that might be unnerving and inconceivable. As the Lebanese-American poet Kahlil Gibran wrote in his book The Prophet:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters
of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you,
yet they belong not to you.137
A happy baby is one of life’s great delights. Little toes kicking the air, tiny fists flailing, and a huge toothless grin – those things make up a sweet picture in any culture. Helping our infants thrive emotionally and physically is a primary responsibility that parents take very seriously, beginning with what to feed the baby. Parents and health experts have both solid experience and science to support the idea that breastmilk, in most cases, is absolutely the best food for babies. Many paediatricians recommend that babies drink only mother’s milk for at least six months, with continued breastfeeding as solid foods are gradually introduced. The La Leche League, a well-respected international organization that provides support and education regarding breastfeeding, recommends “continuation of breastfeeding for one year or longer as mutually desired by mother and infant.”138
When a baby begins to reach for solid foods, parents might wonder if some of those foods need to be meats. Perhaps family members are putting on pressure, sincerely worried that the little one won’t develop well without animal products. Maybe the doctor isn’t supportive of vegetarianism. It’s natural for parents to ask what’s really best for their child. Mom and Dad, Amma and Baba, Mama and Papa – by whatever names, parents everywhere want the greatest good for their children. If these parents are new to a plant-based diet or are the first people in their circle of friends and family to be vegetarians, they could have concerns.
This book asserts that babies, young children, teens, adults, and seniors can be healthy in all phases of life while remaining vegetarians. But no one has to take the word of one small book. Libraries and the digital world are full of both physical and virtual shelves with information about healthy diets for children. Examine information from reputable sources such as The China Study or the Vegetarian Resource Group. Talk to your homeopath, paediatrician, midwife, and other vegetarian parents. Look around the world and see that millions of healthy adults were raised as vegetarian children in homes where generation after generation of families ate plant-and-dairy-based diets.
No matter how young or old we are, we want to feel like we belong, like we’re part of a tribe, even a small one. Children especially don’t want to be left out, to be seen as odd. So how does fitting in socially work for a young vegetarian?
We want to feel like we belong, like we’re part of a tribe, even a small one.
The good news is that saying “no” to meat is becoming more common around the world. Whether we live in India, which has had a huge vegetarian population for thousands of years, Asia, Europe, or the Americas, being a vegetarian kid is not so unusual. In fact, being a vegetarian is sometimes seen as ‘cool’, especially among older children and teens. Young people are generally aware of what’s happening to their planet, and they often respect peers who have made a choice to make a difference. Of course, there are some places where the idea of not eating meat is inconceivable – (Really? Never?) – but the numbers of these are dwindling.
Whether or not a child is the lone vegetarian on her soccer team or in his classroom or club, some general guidelines can help them participate in the food celebrations that come naturally when people of any age are working or playing together. First, we need to know who our children are studying, playing, or hanging out with. Explaining our child’s diet restrictions to teachers, coaches, and other parents is easier if we already have a connection, even a small one. In any case, especially with really young children, parents can be active in helping them feel comfortable as other kids reach for hamburgers, biryani with mutton or chicken, and eggy desserts. We can’t reasonably expect other adults to monitor the situation, but we can provide attractive alternatives for our children to make their choice of vegetarian foods easier.
For example, before a birthday party, have a chat with the host and explain that, because your child doesn’t eat eggs, you’d like to send her to the party with cookies to eat when other kids are having cake. Then pack up a few of your kid’s favourites, the one she reaches for every time. Have a simple conversation with your child about the cake/cookies choice – the younger the child, the simpler the conversation – hand her the treats, give a hug, and off she goes to make her own life in a big world.
The same approach works for classroom or group celebrations. In addition, volunteering to bring food makes the occasion even easier for your child, just like it does when we attend a gathering of adults. Bake or buy tasty, healthy – well, maybe an occasional bag of tortilla chips or packet of biscuits can slip in – treats that everyone will enjoy, and odds are that no one will even notice that your child is eating only the vegetarian goodies. If they do notice, better odds are that they’ll respect those choices.