Last week, for the first time ever, I didn’t pore over the week’s supermarket flyers with pleasure, planning the meals I’d make with the meat on sale.
Instead, I was at the bulk store buying quinoa, brown rice, lentils and nutritional yeast, and at the Big Carrot studying milk alternatives, from chickpea to oat.
After reading all the Year of the Vegan stories and predictions, and tasting some fine plant-based fare at Il Fornello, I decided to find out for myself what’s involved in going vegan at home by giving up meat, chicken, fish, milk, cheese, eggs and honey for a week.
According to registered dietitian and plant-based enthusiast Lauren McNeill, author of the Tasting to Thrive blog, that was my first mistake.
“Rather than focus on what you can’t eat, think of the variety you’re able to add in – beans, lentils, tofu, tempeh, new fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds – to make eating more exciting,” says McNeill, who switched from vegetarian to a completely plant-based diet in 2016 and is lovin’ it, as her Instagram account (tastingtothrive_rd) attests.
Though she doesn’t recommend the vegan crash course I had in mind, she does encourage her clients, in person and online, to start with small, manageable changes that motivate them to continue. “It’s a huge change and it can feel overwhelming,” she admits.
Before I began, we also had to clear up the name of my trial diet, vegan or plant-based? While both mean the same thing, she believes the term plant-based is “more approachable and more inclusive” than the word vegan, which involves eliminating animal products in all areas of your life, from food to clothing.
Embracing plant-based eating 100% turned out to be a lot of work, and often felt like learning a new language. McNeill assured me I wouldn’t be bored, and she was right. “Our bodies are amazing,” she says. “In the first few weeks you may miss the flavour and mouth-feel of meat, but you’ll get used to it because your taste buds change.”
I stopped by the Big Carrot for a tour with holistic nutritionist Yuki Yamasaki, who introduced me to the staggering array of vegan meat, cheese and dairy alternatives available, new options arriving daily. If you like processed food, you can easily fry up some veggie bacon with your scrambled tofu, slather toast with a non-dairy spread, top homemade pizza with Italian-flavoured veggie sausages and fake mozzarella shreds and slather sandwiches with Vegenaise. Just look for the vegan/vegétalien symbol. I bought a few items to try, then went home to make a big pot of red lentil soup with carrots, celery and a carton of vegetable broth, finishing with handfuls of pre-chopped kale from Harvest Fresh.
So, what alt-milk shall I pour on my All-Bran? Oatkay oat milk, the year’s hottest non-dairy alternative, smelled and tasted like a bowl of oatmeal, while Silk’s unsweetened cashew milk has a clean taste and creamy texture – I went through four litres and would buy it again. For lunch I made a tasty black bean-avocado salad from a box of Casbah Quinoa & Ancient Grains. At dinner I cooked up McNeill’s Instagram recipe for scrambled tofu with my new nutritional yeast flakes, which add protein and a cheesy flavour if you put your mind to it. Though pleased with my virtuous start to vegan eating, I soon realized I was STARVING. I felt completely hollow inside, like a car running on empty in desperate need of a fill-up, fast. In a panic I ransacked the fridge, grabbing peanut butter to spread on Mary’s crackers and hoovering the rest of the black bean salad I’d been saving for tomorrow’s lunch. At last I felt satisfied enough to head to bed.
I woke up thinking of ways to bulk up my meals. Feeding myself had become a serious all-day challenge, though I’m sure it gets easier over time. McNeill assured me it’s common to feel hungry when you give up meat and dairy. “Plant-based foods have less calories per volume than animal-based foods,” she says, “meaning we often have to eat more to feel full.” To stave off hunger, I made hummus and bought mixed nuts. I roasted sweet potato chunks, broccoli, cauliflower florets and canned chickpeas on cookie sheets and steamed a pot of quinoa so I’d have lots of nutrient-packed choices to throw together for meals. I sliced up a fat-rich avocado and ate half with a few drops of balsamic vinegar. While watching TV that night I munched on vegan Orville Redenbacher popcorn sprinkled with more nutritional yeast. I’ve got this!
I decided to make a Bolognese sauce with Italian-spiced ground “beef” from Vancouver stalwart Yves Veggie Cuisine. For good measure, I studded the tomato sauce with carrots, mushrooms and roasted red peppers, spooning it all over high-protein penne. Filling, yes! I also made vegetable soup with cooked white beans. With no ham hock or bacon to flavour it, however, the broth was completely bland. Then I sliced up and added a Spanish-flavoured wheat gluten sausage from Gusta. Though I found the spongy texture depressing, the smoked paprika infused the broth deliciously. Barley mushroom risotto, a carton of mushroom broth replacing chicken stock, also sustained me for several meals. The new multi-cookers make cooking grains fast and easy.
Without cow’s milk, my daily Broadview Espresso latte had to change. Almond milk foamed nicely but tasted like toasted cardboard. Soy milk was a surprise winner, foaming well though the smell can be off-putting. Coconut milk was sickly sweet. I brought my own cashew milk one day but it barely foamed. Then I discovered Pacific Foods’ new Barista series of non-dairy milks at the Restaurants Canada show, guaranteed to foam in an espresso machine. The oat flavour is particularly delicious.
Neighbours invited me over for a chicken dinner but I couldn’t do it, determined to stick to my vegan guns. Instead, I pan-fried a Big Mountain Foods veggie patty. Bulked up with split peas and pea fibre, each pre-fab disc provides 12 grams of protein plus 20% of our daily iron. Despite the pasty texture I enjoyed the flavour and was grateful for the nutrients spelled out on the box.
While I wasn’t missing meat, my cat sure did. Every night as I prepared dinner he appeared in the kitchen, glanced at his kibble, sniffed the air and meowed loudly.
Today I powered up breakfast with Overnight Muesli from online Quebec delivery company Live Holos. crammed with super foods like goji berries, maca powder, chia seeds and fermented, sprouted brown rice protein powder. You shake a packet with alt-milk in the tight-fitting jar, refrigerate overnight and top with fruit or whatever you like. It kept me satisfied ’til lunch.
By now, visiting the supermarket had lost its charm. After strolling through the produce section to pick up veg and fruit, I’d bypass the meat and fish counters, take a wide berth around the cheese section, stay far away from the bakery (all those egg-rich cakes and pastries!) and cast a cursory glance over the dairy section just to check for new vegan-friendly substitutes. Daiya’s Greek Yogurt Alternative sounded promising but I couldn’t get over the moussy texture and heavy coconut/lemon taste. Riviera’s new coconut milk Vegan Delight proved a tastier choice. McNeill likes Daiya’s mozzarella shreds and the Chao plant cheeses.
Though I rarely buy dessert, I do like to bake. Without eggs, however (fear not, there are now vegan substitutes!), my favourite recipes were useless. This has created a huge market for expensive vegan squares, cookies, bars, even “cheez”cake. Of those I’ve tried, some were super sweet while others had a crumbly, desert-dry texture. I rather liked my homemade chocolate-sweet potato brownies, however, and Martha Stewart’s lemon squares were surprisingly edible; coconut oil moistens the whole wheat flour crust while lemon juice and silken tofu provide the filling. I used the leftover tofu in a blueberry-banana smoothie, feeling pretty pleased with myself, but nearly gagged after tasting the deep purple concoction. For a natural sweet fix, McNeill recommends dipping pitted dates in peanut butter. And we both agree the most delicious dessert, for carnivores and vegans alike, is Salted Caramel Cluster cashew “ice cream” by So Delicious.
My experiment ended the day a friend bought a pound of medium ground beef and cooked me a juicy burger. It was Real Food heaven, and cost a fraction of the pea, soy and wheat processed-meat alternatives out there, which filled me up but gave me no pleasure. Non-dairy alternatives can also be incredibly expensive and many rely on ingredients like palm oil, which is bad for the environment, and various gums to stick them together.
On the upside, I’m now eating more vegetables and grains than ever and I’ve rediscovered lentils, Canadian-grown and extremely economical. I’m also eating less meat.
While diet choices are intensely personal, I’ve decided that eating all foods, in moderation, with no restrictions, makes me happiest. In our rush to be trendy and adopt a plant-based diet, let’s not forget the joy of a perfectly seared burger or an intensely flavourful piece of hand-crafted local cheese.
BOOST YOUR PLANT LIFE
Protein: The first question everyone asks McNeill is: How will I get enough protein on a plant-based diet? “You actually need to eat much less than many people think,” she replies. At .8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight a day, a 150-lb (68 kg) person requires 54 grams of protein daily. “For most people, a diet including beans, lentils, soy products like tofu, tempeh and edamame, nuts and seeds makes this easy to reach,” she said.
Soak it: Serious vegans often soak grains, beans, nuts and seeds for up to 24 hours before using to ensure their body absorbs maximum nutrients. “You might get a little more iron and protein from your food,” she says, “but it’s not necessary, though pre-soaking does cut down on cooking time.”
No combo: McNeill says the idea that you need to combine beans and whole grains at every meal to make a complete protein is passé. But you do need to include beans and grains at some point during the day, perhaps in different meals, as part of a varied diet. Your body will combine them on its own.
Supplement: As Vitamin B12 is not found in plant-based foods, be sure to take a 1,000 mcg tablet at least two or three times a week. Our bodies absorb the sublingual (under the tongue) type best. She also recommends most Canadians, vegan or not, take 1,000 units of vitamin D2 or D3 a day.
Checkup: To be sure your new diet is working for you, McNeill advises getting bloodwork done regularly and checking with a registered dietitian or physician when taking supplements.
Prep for Success
Before you begin a plant-based diet, “set yourself up for success,” says McNeill.
- Stock up on your favourite fruits and vegetables. Whip up a bowl of hummus, roast canned, drained chickpeas and cook up a pot of brown rice or quinoa.
- Prepare a big pot of soup or meatless chili on the weekend using inexpensive dried or canned beans and lentils . Portion and freeze.
- Steam whole grains like brown rice or quinoa as a base for delicious, nutritious grain bowls for lunch. A rice or multi-cooker makes this step super easy. Freeze extra in individual portions.
- Choose a few easy vegan recipes like chili or stew and keep the ingredients on hand so you can easily throw them together any day of the week.
- If you’re feeling hungry more often, try increasing portion sizes at meals and incorporating more snacks.
- Include more fats like nuts, seeds, nut butters and avocado, which help you feel full longer.
- “Veganize” favourite recipes whenever you can.
- Different cooking methods keep veggies exciting. Try roasting cauliflower, sweet potatoes and brussels sprouts, pan-fry sweet peppers, steam carrots and throw spinach in a smoothie.
- Take shortcuts. Frozen fruit and veg can be just as nutritious and more economical than fresh, while canned beans and lentils and boxes of rice and grain mixes speed up meals.
- Follow the rainbow. The more colourful the vegetable, the more nutrients it contains. Think kale, spinach, sweet potatoes, frozen edamame, purple cabbage and tomatoes.
- Spice up meals to add flavour and variety. Raid the bulk store for garlic powder, smoked paprika, cumin seeds, coriander and more.
- Take a tour. Many supermarkets have hired dietitians who’d probably be delighted to give you a tour of healthy vegan choices.
My Vegan Pantry
- Beans: canned, frozen or cooked from raw. Portion and freeze extra.
- Lentils: red and green
- Alt-milk: Cashew, almond, soy, oat
- Spreads: Peanut butter, almond butter (try it!), Earth Balance, WayFare or Becel vegan margarine.
- Nutritional yeast
- Tofu, soft to extra firm depending on the recipe
- Grains: quinoa, brown rice, millet, buckwheat, whole wheat pasta, Ancient Grains mix
- Greens: eg. bags of fresh or frozen spinach and chopped kale, spinach, arugula, collards, bok choy
- Vegetables: sweet potatoes, carrots, red peppers, cherry tomatoes, onions, garlic, brussels sprouts, broccoli, frozen edamame, mushrooms, peas and corn
- Fruit: avocado, oranges, apples, bananas, blueberries, lemons
- Vegetable broth: homemade, cubes or Tetra Pak carton
- Condiments: tahini, Sriracha, Dijon mustard, meatless pasta sauce
- Nuts: almonds, walnuts, cashews, peanuts
- Seeds: flax, sesame, sunflower, pumpkin, hemp, chia
- Oil: olive, canola, specialty (eg. avocado)
- Bulk store spices: smoked paprika, cumin, chili powder, etc.
- Bread: whole-grain bread, pita, pasta, crackers
- Fermented foods: kimchi, cashew “cheese”
Lauren’s Power Grain Bowl
With loads of fibre and vitamins (even the tahini is a source of healthy fats, calcium, protein and iron), this satisfying meal is delicious any time of day. Use whatever vegetables you have on hand and cook a double batch of rice to use for other recipes.
1 cup brown rice
1 large sweet potato, peeled and cubed
1 medium beet, diced (peeled or unpeeled)
1 head broccoli or 2 cups frozen florets
19 oz (540 mL) can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp paprika
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup kale or other dark greens *
1/3 cup well-stirred tahini
Juice of 1 lemon
1 tbsp. maple syrup or other sweetener
* If using kale, massage with 1 tbsp lemon juice to soften.
Preheat oven to 450F. Line a large rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.
In a small pot, bring rice and 2 cups water to a boil. Cover, reduce heat to a simmer and cook about 35 minutes, until tender. Remove from heat and let sit 5 minutes, covered. Fluff and divide among two or three bowls.
Chop broccoli into bite-size florets. Peel and slice the stem. Place in a medium bowl with chickpeas, sweet potato, broccoli and beet and toss with garlic powder, paprika and salt. (I also add olive oil.) Transfer to baking sheet in a single layer and roast 25 minutes, stirring once, until vegetables are tender.
Meanwhile, whisk together the tahini, lemon juice and maple syrup. Thin to desired consistency with a few spoonfuls of water. Arrange roasted veggies, chickpeas and kale, if using, over rice. Drizzle with tahini sauce. Makes 2 to 3 servings.
Cynthia’s Red Lentil Soup
This tasty and nutritious soup kept me satisfied for several days. It also freezes well.
2 tbsp. olive oil
2 carrots, diced
1 medium onion, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp grated fresh ginger
1 ½ tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp salt, or to taste
¼ tsp cayenne pepper
900 mL carton vegetable stock
14 oz (398 mL) can crushed tomatoes, with juice
1 ½ cups red lentils, rinsed, drained
2 cups fresh or frozen chopped kale leaves
Garnish: Juice of 1 lemon
Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Cook carrots, onion, celery and garlic until they begin to soften, 5 minutes. Stir in lentils, cumin, turmeric, salt and cayenne. Cook 1 minute, stirring, until fragrant.
Add broth, tomatoes and 2 cups (500 mL) water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low. Cover and cook 20 minutes, or until lentils are very tender. Add kale and cook just until wilted. Stir in lemon juice and serve. Makes 6 servings.
Sweet Potato Chocolate Brownies
Look, no eggs! When it comes to vegan sweets, chocolate is always a winner. This “earthy” dessert or snack comes from the American Sweet Potato Marketing Institute.
1 cup peanut or almond butter
1 medium sweet potato, steamed, peeled, puréed (¾ cup)
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
½ cup all-purpose or gluten-free flour
½ cup mini chocolate chips
2/3 cup granulated sugar
½ cup cocoa powder
1½ tsp baking soda
1/8 tsp salt
Preheat oven to 325ºF . Line an 8-inch (22 cm) pan with parchment paper or spray with nonstick cooking spray.
In a saucepan on low heat, gently heat nut butter until it’s easy to stir. Pour into A large bowl and whisk in sweet potato purée and vanilla.
In a separate bowl, whisk flour, chocolate chips, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt.
Add dry ingredients to sweet potato mixture and stir to combine. Smooth batter evenly into the prepared pan. Bake on centre oven rack for 20 minutes. Brownies will look a little underdone but will firm up as they cool. Once cool, cut into 12 to 16 squares. Store extra in an airtight container up to three days.
Originally published in the Toronto Star April 17, 2019