Friday, August 19, 2011

Follow Your Values, But Don't Be a Martyr: How to Move Toward Fresh and Healthy in Baby Steps

Six months ago when I started this blog (and quickly lost steam), I wanted to transform all of my cooking and eating habits at once. My diet had already been established as vegan, but I was eating tons of junk food and I was almost always too lazy to cook. I would only occasionally buy fresh produce, but it would sit in the fridge or on the counter and stare at me for weeks until it was just too rotten to use.

In hindsight, I realize that one of the reasons I made so little improvement is that I wanted to do everything. I had my mind made up that I wouldn't be satisfied until my diet was 100% pure vegan, whole foods, organic, carbon-neutral, low-calorie, and delicious. What was I thinking?! I have since made very slow, minor improvements and am very pleased with myself--but not complacent. I know that I have a lot to learn and improve, but now it has become an adventure.

Before I say anything else, I just want to say that I was also going through a depression. Just in case this resonates with anyone else, I want to mention it. For a while, I didn't care at all about what I ate or how healthy I was. This can be dangerous for anyone, but especially for a vegan. I won't go into the details, but luckily I got snapped out of it one day when I saw how terrible I looked on top of how hopeless I felt. I went to the doctor and it turned out I had a big Vitamin D deficiency. I've been taking a supplement and trying to get more sunlight (I'm quite the indoor person). I have been feeling much better. I don't doubt that the deficiency was at least a partial contributor to my low spirits.

By the way, I just want to give a shout-out to Marisa of Vegan at Heart, who not only took the time to read a gigantic rant about how much I hated my life at the time, but also gave me sage advice and was kind enough to follow up too.

Anyway, enough with this talk of my troubles. I want to talk about how I got over my perfectionism and have been slowly incorporating vegetables into my diet. I've had to compromise on some preferences, but I've been healthier. More importantly, now that I've given myself permission not to do everything, I've actually been doing a lot more. Here are the main things I've learned about staying healthy and eating fresher:

1.) Eat fortified foods, especially soy milk (or other nondairy milk) and nutritional yeast. If you don't, you will almost certainly need to take supplements. It would be very foolish to avoid both, because many deficiencies (even minor ones) have no symptoms but can lead to irreversible, long-term damage. Many nutrients are absorbed better through food, and I personally find fortified foods simpler than supplements.

2.) Don't buy fresh if you're not ready for it. If you have ever bought a week's worth of fresh produce and had it rot away like I have, you shouldn't be buying fresh produce. If that's the only produce you buy, you're setting yourself up for failure. Buy frozen. Frozen vegetables tend to hold their flavor and nutrients (unlike canned), and they last a very long time. That gives you leeway to work out the courage and motivation to use them. When you learn to cook with produce regularly, you can gradually buy less frozen and more fresh (if you like).

3.) Make simple recipes the bulk of your to-make list. I don't know about everyone else, but my expectations of myself are far too high. Even though I have no experience in complicated cooking and very little experience in simple cooking, I expect to be able to do anything. I imagine myself waking up tomorrow and baking a four-course breakfast that is so good it will turn my entire family vegan. But I know homemade pancakes are a more appropriate challenge for my skill level. Recently, when I look through food blogs and websites, I have only been bookmarking the ones I think I can make. Of course, sometimes I save a really good-looking but insanely difficult recipe. But I know that it's going to remain a dream for a while. Expecting too much of yourself can really sap your motivation to do even small things, when those expectations are not met and you disappoint yourself.

4.) PLAN AHEAD. This should probably be higher up on the list. It is of the utmost importance that you plan your meals before you make them. Ideally, you should have everything planned out before you go shopping. But you can also make plans based on what you already have in your house. Design (or look up) some healthy, tasty recipes, and make your list. Then follow it. This way, you won't waste money (and sabotage yourself) by snacking all day or eating only frozen dinners because you can never figure out what to make. Planning can be annoying, but find five minutes of emptiness in your day and use it to plan. That's really all you need!

5.) Don't avoid processed or packaged foods if you are trying to achieve other food goals at the same time. I tried to give up processed and packaged foods when I wasn't even used to eating vegetables regularly. I failed miserably. Allow yourself to eat packaged hot and cold cereals, boxed foods, and jars of sauces and condiments. Don't rely on these items completely, but give yourself a break if you can't cook everything all the time. It's better to eat healthy foods that may not be 100% fresh, than to give up on your whole plan because the giant leap is too difficult to take. You can always wean yourself off processed foods later, when you're ready.

6.) Incorporate vegetables into your favorite foods, then gradually make the vegetables central. Even when I was doing almost no cooking, I loved making pizza from premade dough and quesadillas from packaged tortillas. I started out with Daiya cheese as the topping and a little bit of greens for garnish. Now I eat everything with kale, mushrooms, peppers, and whatever vegetables I find. I still like the Daiya, but only in small amounts now. It's also easy to do this with pasta dishes, and one day maybe you can replace the pasta with spaghetti squash or shredded zucchini if you're ready! Finally, this works well with mock meat sandwiches and burgers. You can top them with more and more vegetables, and eventually make it your goal to replace the fake meat with even more vegetables (or a fresh vegetable patty). Using mushrooms instead of fake meat works in most cases, and remember that tofu and tempeh are the least processed and healthiest foods commonly used as meat analogues.

Well, that's just my own experience so far and I'm still learning. I'm not sure how common my struggles are, but I thought I'd put it out there just in case. Even if most vegans don't have these issues, maybe it would help someone who has been struggling to make the transition to being vegan. Not everyone leaps head first into a new diet with no regard for their health like I did!


  1. Thanks for the tips! This is so helpful!!!!! I am a busy mom in a household of starving young men and have many of the same challenges. :-)

  2. I'm really glad it helped you :) Yeah, I only have to cook for other people occasionally. I can only imagine how hard it must be every day!

  3. What a great post! How easy is it to buy a weeks worth of fresh fruit and vegetables with the intention of eating healthy, and before you know it the food has gone off and you have wasted valuable money and food.

    It is very important to plan ahead, both from the point of view of eating healthy vegan food, but also from the budgeting point too.

    Once again, excellent post!


  4. Thank you for the comment, Jamie! It's true. And so many people have stressed the importance of planning, but it took a lot of waste before I listened.

  5. Thank you this was right on target for me.

  6. Thanks for sharing your struggle and how you overcame it. I think many, many people make the same mistake you did (trying to do it all at once) and that includes myself! Keep up the good work - you can do it!


  7. :) I'm really glad you guys enjoyed it, and thanks for the support!

  8. I'm glad I found your blog (Thanks, Marisa!) It's a relief to know I'm so very not alone in the experience of buying tons of fresh veggies only to have most of them go bad before they get used. I've recently learned to tone back on the amount I buy (one can only watch so many veggies go bad before enough is enough, right?) as I'd rather have to go back to the store than toss them again. This post is terrific, I bet more people relate to it than you may have first imagined.
    Keep up the good life, you're inspiring!

  9. Aw, thank you so much. It's great that so many people can relate, although it would be better if we were all relating around how easy life is!