The original plan was to just go vegan for a week, two tops. But that’s quite difficult when you’ve just interviewed TV chef James Martin about his new book on butter, and then gone and filled your fridge with the yellow stuff.
While one in four of us has reduced our animal product consumption since the start of the pandemic, I fear I’ve instantly hit the main stumbling block people face with veganism – it seems so absolute, so inflexible: no animal products. At all. Vitamin B12 supplements are mandatory. And while the reasons for going vegan are things we all – omnivores and carnivores alike – should pay attention to, they can feel totally overwhelming. Climate change and animal cruelty are colossal, seemingly insurmountable problems, enough to have you giving up, reaching for a cup of tea and a chocolate biscuit, or, let’s be honest, a burger.
And so, with my fridge full of butter, I realise that to go vegan from a standing start (ahem, cold turkey), is not going to be sustainable or entirely affordable – and surely moving towards a more planet-friendly diet that is sustainable makes more sense than stocking up on vegie sausages for a week and then going straight back to bacon.
To that end, I enlist my vegan colleague Prudence, to act as my guide, guru and plant-based mentor. To ask (probably annoying) questions, and hopefully persuade her to ship me some of her homemade kefir.
Avoiding meat substitutes
Fortunately, she sanctions my first decision, which is to not go out and buy a load of meat substitutes. In my time I’ve had fake-chicken nuggets (genuinely can’t tell the difference) and Linda McCartney’s shredded hoisin duck is very realistic, but my processed food intake is pretty much limited to Sainsbury’s haddock fish cakes (so good), pork and apple sausages, and biscuits (preferably dark chocolate digestives, which I’m sad to report are not the kind of biscuit that turns out to be accidentally vegan).
Vegan product packaging doesn’t tend to bring much joy, often featuring more chemicals than recognisable ingredients, and my guru keeps processed vegan stuff to a minimum herself, so instead I plan to focus on actual plants and vegetables.
Making all the plans
Talking of making plans, I wasn’t prepared for the sheer amount of organisation required for eating vegan. Prudence is so brilliantly organised she lives by a two-week meal planner – which is ideal for cutting costs and for never having to rustle dinner up out of nothing. She shares her planner with me and it’s got everything on there from chickpea curry to mapo tofu and pearl barley risotto. She also tells me to “find your local Chinese shop and get their tofu – it’s a completely different world to the gross supermarket tofu and absolutely delicious”.
Dinnertime proves a doddle. A lot of the meals I already have in rotation are vegan by chance, like Anna Jones’ turmeric cauliflower with lemons and coriander, and Pippa Middlehurst’s store cupboard noodles with gochujang that use up every scrap of veg in the fridge. This challenge also proves an excellent excuse to raid Meera Sodha’s vegan recipes – her cauliflower korma is ridiculously good, and her roast eggplant with satay sauce is exceptional. I’m worried I’ll never cook eggplant another way again.
Breakfast too – if like me, you don’t mind repetitively eating the same thing every morning to save time – is straightforward. I swap my usual yoghurt, banana and granola for granary toast with peanut butter and banana, and when the bananas run out, toast with peanut butter and raspberry jam. Easy-peasy.
Lunch is an issue
What proves to be my downfall is lunch. Weekday lunches are already a pain. Generally, I survive on cheese and cucumber bagels with a packet of chips – identical to a school packed lunch. Sometimes the cucumber is swapped for tomatoes. Thrilling, no, but a predictable lunch means I can devote more brain power to thinking about dinner.
I’m not really sure how you do lunch without cheese, and even my guru admits “vegan cheese is the devil”. Instead, she tells me sensible people make double dinner the night before, to ensure leftovers for lunch the next day – her extra tip being having it “with something a bit different, like a different grain”. For example, eggplant with biang biang noodles for dinner, followed by eggplant with couscous for lunch.
This is excellent advice for life, but requires an entire rewiring of my brain. I only ever manage this if I’ve roasted a chicken, which promises days of leftover chicken sandwiches, chicken noodles and, my personal favourite, chicken pie. Chicken pie, however, is not vegan-friendly.
The other key problem area proves to be snacks. Usually, if it’s not biscuits, it’s cake – home-baked, but still mostly sugar spun air that doesn’t keep you going, sadly.
Apparently, nuts are the answer, both my guru and Gino D’Acampo (can you tell how heavily my diet is swayed by the chefs I interview?) swear by them. Mr D’Acampo has boxes of nuts to hand wherever he goes, and my guru orders them in bulk off the internet. Clever, because as I swiftly realise, buying packets of nuts is an expensive business – but then I remember how incredible cashews are, even plain ones. This might be a snacking option I actually keep up, perhaps accompanied by a square or three of vegan chocolate.
Some might say it was highly convenient, but the alternative to not going fully plant-based overnight would’ve been chucking out milk, yoghurt and chicken pie leftovers (yes, I did eat the pie), and the waste involved in that would’ve felt much worse to me than eating those up and then making different choices on the next food shop.
Admittedly, I am unlikely to become wholly vegan, but this experience has made me look at how I eat and shop, and especially how I snack. I’ve got work to do on generating leftovers for lunch, but the small tweaks (like swapping English breakfast tea with milk for fennel or green tea) are infinitely sustainable, and trying more Meera Sodha recipes will only improve anyone’s life.
Having a non-judgemental vegan coach on hand makes me feel less like I’m flailing, and more like this way of eating is doable. It also helps eliminate the ‘us vs them’ feeling that can muddy the plant-based argument – after all, working together is the only way we’re ever going to solve animal welfare and climate issues. We might as well start with dinner.
Are you vegan? What do you think you’d miss the most if you were to go vegan? Please let us know in the comments section below.
– With PA
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