I have been following a vegetarian diet for over 10 years, so one of the questions I am frequently asked is, “How did you become a vegetarian?” I am certainly not an expert on diet and nutrition. Growing up eating traditional Midwest food, it was no easy task to transition to a vegetarian diet. But there are definitely steps you can take to make this an easier transition.
The key to becoming a vegetarian is to make slow changes to your diet. Understand your current eating habits, set attainable goals utilizing the “SMART Goals” approach, ask for support, and plan for maintenance time to ensure your habits have 100% changed. Slowly, your taste buds will start to change, you will learn new alternatives for your go-to meals, and every bite will become easier. Let’s look into some tips that can help you slowly change your diet and help you become a vegetarian.
What is the Vegetarian Diet?
A vegetarian diet means that an animal did not die for that meal to be made. The biggest category of food to avoid is meat. Vegetarians do not eat meat – no chicken, no beef, no pork, no fish (people who follow a vegetarian diet, but continue to eat seafood are called “pescatarians”), no lamb, etc. Vegetarians will eat products from animals, such as cow/goat milk, eggs, cheese, and honey. They are able to get these foods without killing an animal, so that is still included in their diet.
However there are other non-meat foods made with animal products that require the animal to die. Some vegetarians avoid meat and consider all other food fair game (no pun intended). This may be because they don’t expect animal products to be hiding in so many non-meat foods.
Non-Meat Foods with Animal Products:
There are a lot of foods that appear to be vegetarian, but they have animal product hiding inside. For example, gelatin is not vegetarian. Gelatin is typically made with animal hooves and bones. An animal dies for us to obtain that product, so it is not vegetarian. Gelatin is snuck into a lot of products (marshmallows, for example) so it is always best to double check that label. Don’t worry, there are now lots of vegetarian marshmallow brands that can be found in stores; check out the list from Delish.
Examples of Non-Meat Foods that are Not Vegetarian
Refried beans is another sneaky food. You innocently think you are buying a can of beans, but animal fat is hiding inside. Thankfully this one also has an easy fix – many refried bean brands now sell a “vegetarian” version that can be found right next to your usual refried bean can. Just make sure to check the label before purchasing
Parmesan cheese is also tricky (I recently learned about this one). Most versions are made with rennet, AKA – an enzyme from the stomach of a mammal. You can find vegetarian options (and even vegan versions), so make sure to double check the label.
I don’t want to dive off the deep end on this point (I’m a horrible swimmer), so for a more comprehensive list of animal byproducts used in food, check out Mlive’s “Ingredients to Watch Out for if You’re Vegetarian: Foods that Look Vegetarian-Friendly, but Aren’t.” For a list of non-meat foods that have hidden animal product, check out this page from Taste of Home’s “15 Surprising Foods That Aren’t Vegetarian.”
As the world leans more and more towards vegetarian and plant-based, there is more of a focus on vegetarian items. A lot of companies are making vegetarian friendly versions of your favorite foods. But to be safe, always double check your label.
I Often See the Word “Vegan” – What Do They Eat?
The vegan diet takes the vegetarian diet one step further. People who follow a vegan diet will not eat any part of an animal or any product from an animal. So they will not eat cow/goat milk, eggs, cheese, or honey. They also prefer to buy products (such as makeup and clothing) that are not made from ANY part of an animal or have done testing on an animal (you would not believe how many everyday products are made with the help from animals).
If you are interested in becoming vegan, it may be easier to start with a vegetarian diet. Once you have mastered that diet and worked new foods into your routine, it may be easier to continue transitioning to the next level.
Why Should I Become a Vegetarian?
First and foremost, I cannot stress this enough, I am not recommending that you become a vegetarian. I am not a doctor nor a registered dietician. You should speak to YOUR doctor and/or a registered dietician about if a vegetarian diet would be healthy, safe, and recommended for you. It is always best to speak to your doctor and/or registered dietician for two reasons: 1. They have advanced medical training to advise you. 2. They are giving you individualized advice that directly relates to your specific health (they are not mass-producing information, like what you see online).
Deciding to follow a vegetarian diet is a very personal decision (and it is a question you will be asked frequently so get ready to explain yourself to family, friends, and strangers). There are several reasons why someone may want to change to a vegetarian diet. The main categories tend to be: health benefits, animal rights, environmental, and public health.
What Worked for Me – How I Became A Vegetarian?:
When I decided to change my diet, I knew that it was going to be a big change to my current lifestyle and habits. My main goal was to become a vegetarian, but my diet at the time couldn’t have been further from it. I ate a traditional Midwest diet that included meat in my EVERY meal. I didn’t personally know any vegetarians, didn’t know what vegetarians ate (I only knew they didn’t eat meat), and didn’t know how to cook. Furthermore, I was surrounded by people who ate meat, and they all told me I shouldn’t become a vegetarian. So if I could change my diet and become a vegetarian, then you definitely can too!
Since I had a lot stacked against me on this goal, I offered myself a lot of grace. I didn’t expect myself to wake up the next day and successfully follow a vegetarian diet. Instead I decided to break it down into manageable steps. My overall goal was to become a vegetarian, but I set several micro goals within this to help ease this transition. I only took each step when I knew I was 100% committed to succeeding (another important part of this was the timeline, but I’ll explain that part in a minute).
My Steps to Becoming A Vegetarian
For each of my “steps” or “micro-goals,” I cut out a category of meat. I considered categories of meat to be beef, pork, bacon (yes, I made that a separate category from pork), and poultry (I already did not eat seafood so I didn’t have to factor that in). Each time I cut out a category, I planned which foods I was going to miss the most in that category and had one last celebratory “goodbye” meal. Not only did I say goodbye to the meal, but I also planned what I would eat in its place.
For example, I remember sitting in the McDonald’s drive-through, ordering my last double cheeseburger, and deciding which chicken sandwich I would order in it’s place during my next McDonald’s trip (feel free to judge). If I didn’t have that plan in place, I easily would have returned to my habit of ordering a double cheeseburger the next time I was at McDonald’s. After all, McDonald’s is usually an emotional/stress food for me. This meant the next time I would eat at McDonald’s I would be running late and faced with 15 projects on my horizon. That is not the time to trust yourself to make a brand new decision that follows your new goal. But since I developed the plan when I was calm and not stressed, I was able to be successful at my goal.
Learning to Replace Meat
When I stopped eating a category of meat, sometimes I substituted it with a different category of meat I was still eating, but I also challenged myself to substitute it with a vegetarian food. If I had not done this, 100% of my meals would have included poultry (the last meat category I cut out), and it would have been a difficult transition. When you are used to eating meat at every meal, it is a huge adjustment to eat a meal without meat (“This is nice, but where is the meat?” is a common question I’m asked when cooking for my Midwest meat-eating family).
Sometimes I would eat a chicken sandwich instead of a beef burger, but I also challenged myself to eat portobello burgers and veggie burgers. I got used to eating some meals without meat, but I did not force myself to make every meal meat-free. I actually noticed I ended up feeling better when I did eat a vegetarian meal, so it motivated me to continue.
A Realistic Timeline
One of the most important parts of goal making is setting a realistic timeline. This timeline was important for so many reasons, but one of the most important reasons was that it prevented me from rushing to the next step. When I have a goal, I usually want it accomplished now. I try to take on extra steps as soon as possible because I’m so eager to accomplish that goal. But then I quickly burn out and am not able to sustain.
So for each step, when I cut out a category of meat, I gave myself AT LEAST ONE YEAR to incorporate this change into my life. This means that I would not tackle another “step” until I had been successful at my current one for an entire year (yes, 365 days). This meant that if I extended my timeline, I was ok with that – I just did not let myself shorten the timeline.
How to Become A Vegetarian
The key to becoming a vegetarian is to make slow changes to your diet. Most people fail at becoming a vegetarian because they put too much pressure on themselves at the beginning. Doing a complete 180 on a lifestyle habit rarely works. Understand your current eating habits, set attainable micro goals utilizing SMART goal setting, plan for maintenance time to ensure your habits have 100% changed, and get support. Slowly work up towards a vegetarian diet. Your diet, habits, and favorite foods will slowly change, and every meal will become easier.
Your path towards becoming a vegetarian will look something like this…
Step #1 to Become A Vegetarian – Understand Your Current Eating Habits
Analyze your current diet. The more you know your current eating habits, the better you will be able to control changing them.
- Why do you want to become a vegetarian/change your eating habits?
- On a scale of 1-10, how motivated are you to eat less meat? Why? Why aren’t you 1-2 points lower? What would help you move 1-2 points higher?
- How do you feel when you eat meat?
- What category of meat is your favorite?
- What is your favorite meat food?
- How do you feel about eating a vegetarian meal? (If the answer is “horrible,” that is ok! Just make sure you schedule yourself an extra long timeline when making changes.)
- What do you eat when you are running late?
- Are you an emotional eater? What do you find yourself eating when you are stressed/bored/happy/sad/etc?
- How much meat do you eat now?
- What do you like to eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner?
- What do you like to eat as a snack?
- Do you know what foods have hidden animal products?
Step #2 to Become A Vegetarian – Set Attainable Micro Goals Using SMART Goal Setting
You have probably heard of SMART goal setting before. This approach was developed by George Doran in 1981. They recommend that your goal is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. I usually pay attention to 2-3 parts of that and yada, yada, yada the rest. However, if you truly want to become a vegetarian, I recommend paying attention to each part. I’ve broken down some good questions to ask yourself to help you develop a successful plan and SMART goals (A quick thank you to Smartsheet’s How to Write SMART Goals for helping understanding SMART goal planning; check out their site for more information).
We are going to break this step into two parts (sorry for sneaking in extra work). Part A: Set your overarching goal and the micro-steps. Part B. Define each micro-step. For each part A and B, you should use SMART goal setting to make sure you are setting yourself up for success. I view SMART goal planning as packing your backpack. You wouldn’t climb up a mountain without a well planned backpack, so don’t embark on this journey without a well planned backpack (yes, I know how cheesy that sounds). First I’ll explain Parts A and B, then I’ll explain SMART goal setting.
Part A: Set Your Overall Goal and the Micro-Steps.
Your “overarching” goal is your main, long-game goal. So your overarching goal is “to become a vegetarian” (but you can certainly use this same plan if your long-game goal is to become vegan, pescatarian, etc). Reflect on your current eating habits from Step #1 and break your goal down into several micro-goals. I recommend setting your micro goals to be different categories of meat. Examples of micro-goals include: beef, chicken, fish, shellfish, pork, lunchmeat, lamb, etc. Hint – give yourself an easy win. Make sure your first category is the one you will miss the least.
Part B: How to Succeed with your Micro-Steps.
Once you have each of your micro-goals or steps, use SMART goal setting again to dive in deep and develop a plan to tackle each one. You can prepare for each micro goal in the beginning, but make sure you re-evaluate at each step of the process. As your taste buds and habits change, so will the answers to these questions.
Let’s break it down SMART Goal Planning…
The Specific step of SMART goal setting is focused on the 5 Ws: who, what, why, when, and where. Smartsheet recommends to view this as a mission statement for your goal. An example of a specific goal:
Part A Specific Goal: I will change my eating habits, learn new vegetarian foods, and cut meat and animal products out of my diet in order to improve _______________ (health, environment, animal rights, etc) over the next ________ (2 years, 4 years, 8 years).
Part B Specific Goal: I will change my eating habits, learn new vegetarian foods, and cut ___________ (beef, turkey, shrimp, etc) out of my diet in order to improve _______________ (health, environment, animal rights, etc) over the next ________ (6 months, 12 months, 18 months, etc).
The Measure step of SMART goal setting is focused on the metric you will use to determine if you met your goal. When it comes to changing your diet, the best way to determine if you met your goal is your own personal rating.
You are the best judge of yourself (duh), so ask yourself! I like to use a 1-10 scale because it helps you see and label your progress. When you get ready to start your goal, ask yourself how comfortable you are cutting ______ out of your diet (1 being “not at all comfortable” and 10 being “easy – barely have to think about this.”). At the beginning of the goal, you will probably be a number 1-5. After all, you are challenging yourself to make this change. If you were already comfortable, it wouldn’t be a challenge.
When you get to the end of your maintenance period, ask yourself again. Hopefully your number is now a 9 or a 10. If not, don’t fret! Just allow yourself more time in the maintenance period before you move on to your next micro-goal.
The Attainable step of SMART goal setting is focused on how you are going to achieve this goal. This one is a biggie. This is where you are going to map out the details to best prepare yourself to accomplish your goal.
Reflect back to Step 1 Understanding Your Current Eating Habits. Use these questions to help guide you. Think about your challenges and strengths and set a plan for how you are going to overcome this.
Challenges for me are: ______________________, ___________________, and ___________________________ (family gatherings, feeling stressed, going out to eat, favorite restaurant, cooking, etc). I will do ____________ and ____________ to help make it easier (call my support, pick out my meal before I go, bring my favorite food within my new diet, etc).
Quick personal story – my biggest challenge was my dad’s homemade fried chicken. It is delicious! This was definitely the hardest food for me to quit. In the beginning, I honestly tried to avoid their house when I knew they were eating it. I asked my parents to make something else when I visited. That obviously wasn’t a long term, realistic plan. So I started bringing over fake “chicken” when I knew they were going to be having fried chicken. This worked for me! They supported me by making delicious vegetarian sides (hello, mashed potatoes) and everything slowly got easier.
Replacing foods (this is a big one, you will probably want to have 5-10 different answers to this):
I will eat ____________ instead of _______________.
New vegetarian foods I want to try:
I will learn how to make: _____________________________________ (eggplant, tofu, vegetarian lasagna, portobello burgers, jackfruit)
I will eat at _____________ restaurant and try ordering _____________.
I will ask ___________ and _________ to support me by ______________ (calling me to check in on my goal, helping me cook new recipes, going out to eat with me, listening to me talk about the delicious new food I’m eating).
The Relevant step of SMART goal planning is focused on making sure the goal is important for you. Changing your diet is probably important to you…otherwise I’m not sure why you would still be reading this. You answered some of these questions in Step 1 Understanding Your Current Eating Habits. But ask yourself again – why do you want to eat less meat? Does this goal align with your other goals? Are you realistically able to achieve this goal?
Another personal story – when I was setting my micro-goals, I did schedule a “time out” because it didn’t align 100% with my other goals. When I studied abroad, I was not able to focus on changing my diet. For me, it was more important to focus on the culture and language of the new country. Once I accomplished my study abroad goal, I regrouped and refocused on my next micro-goal towards eating less meat.
When you are deciding if, how, and why you want to eat less meat, make sure you factor in other goals and events. Step back and look at the big picture. Make sure that becoming a vegetarian aligns with all of your goals and is relevant to you.
The Time-Bound step of SMART goal setting is focused on the timeline. Setting a realistic timeline and target is going to help you stay focused on the goal. But it is also going to help ensure that you don’t rush your goal and set yourself up for failure. People often fail at their goals because they expect themselves to change too quickly. What is the rush? You are setting a lifetime goal – you have the rest of your life to eat this way. Allow yourself the grace to achieve it in a sustainable and healthy fashion.
According to Healthline, it takes between 18 and 254 days for a habit to change; the average is 66 days. Changing your diet is a big habit to change, so I recommend airing on the side of extra time. My timeline to achieve each micro-goal was 365 days. I planned for it to be an “action” of learning new foods and changing habits for 6 months. I also planned “maintenance” for 6 months. Maintenance is when you continue to practice these habits, no longer feel as challenged by them, and am continuing to ingrain them before moving to another step.
I will learn new foods and eating habits for _______ months (years). Then I will continue to maintain this new diet for ______ months (years).
Step #3 to Become A Vegetarian- Maintenance
I’ve talked about this a handful of times already so I will keep this section brief. A lot of people fail at their goals because they try to jump to the finish line. Food is a big part of life. We eat at least 3 times per day (if you are like me, that number might be 4-5). If you are serious about wanting to change your diet, do not take this process lightly. It is very important to schedule yourself “maintenance” time before you move on to the next micro-goal. This idea comes from the Prochaska and DiClemente’s Stages of Change Theory; check out the Social Work Podcast for more information.
The Stages of Change Theory recommends that you maintain your behavior for at least 6 months. During this time, you should be feeling successful with this new behavior. Your new lifestyle and diet should start feeling easy.
If you are still actively facing challenges and learning to new go-to meals, then you are still in the “action” portion. It’s good to be in the action portion – don’t rush out of it! Prochaska and DiClemente recommend 6 months for action stage too and 6 months for the maintenance stage. But if you want extra time in these stages, take it! Once you are 100% ready, then you can start packing your backpack for your next micro-goal.
Step #4 to Become A Vegetarian – Support with Meals
Changing your diet and becoming a vegetarian is a very big goal so make sure you ask for lots of support. Your friends, family, and coworkers will certainly notice your diet change, so enlist them and ask for extra support. That doesn’t mean they need to change their diets, and you don’t have to become the person who talks non-stop about your diet. Cheering someone on and supporting them is something we do with all other goals, so why not this one?
Cookbooks are like little friends sitting in your kitchen just waiting to cheer you on to victory. Get your hands on a couple cookbooks that are easily within your skillset (if you buy advanced cookbooks, you will have pompous cheerleaders in your kitchen and nobody wants that). That way you have a friendly reminder hanging out in your house providing inspiration at a flick of a page. Check out Lu’s recommendations on Five Great Cookbooks for Delicious Plant-Based Baking.
I became a vegetarian before food blogs were popular (I’m old). So I struggled to find easy to make vegetarian recipes that resembled meals I ate growing up. Now there are a million different food blogs and recipe books so hopefully everyone can find one that speaks to their home foods. If you are from the midwest or just love midwest food, then definitely stay tuned to ifyougiveagirlanoven.com for delicious recipes and tasty treats!
Just Like I End Most Nights…Let’s Wrap Up with Dessert
Way to go, you just took major steps towards becoming a vegetarian. To celebrate, we recommend you try Lu’s Small Batch Vanilla Cupcakes with Creamy Strawberry Frosting (All Vegan). These cupcakes are soft, moist, flavorful, and fluffy, and they are topped with smooth and creamy strawberry frosting. I wish we could just toss one out of the screen to you. But then again, baking is half the fun!
Happy Cooking (and good luck with your goals)!