8 Practical Tips for New Vegetarians

Vegan burger with bacon, cheese, lettuce and mayo held in hand at Alro's Food Truck in Austin

It’s big reveal time. I’m going to come clean.

I, Alicia, am a vegetarian. Well, pescatarian really, but I reserve seafood for trips to New England and seaside restaurants mostly.

However, and this is where things get tricky with terminology, I do eat meat on occasion. But what? Then I’m not a “real” vegetarian you say? (And let it be known, people do often feel the need to say this for some reason).

But I scoff at societies rules! I eat what I want when I want. Mostly, though, this started because I took a trip in 2008 to visit a friend in Prague and Budapest, at which point I had not eaten meat in about five years, and had a real tough time with the food scene. After coming home with not an ounce of goulash having passed my lips I decided that I would never again miss out on eating different foods while traveling.

And I never have since. Since being with Joe and making food the center of much of our travels, this has become even more prominant. Enter the mounds of mortadella I happily munched on throughout Italy and chorizo stuffed tacos in Austin.

My definition of what I eat and why changes by the day, but mostly, I eat vegetarian foods and don’t worry too much about it when I don’t, especially if I’m in a setting that I’m new to or, as is the case when my dad makes meatballs from time to time, I just want it.

Which all leads me to the point of this article! Eating vegetarian is much simpler than people let on. Yes, it’s an adjustment. Yes, your body, weight, and appetite might go through different phases while you adjust. But at the end of it all, you will just be eating food. Just like you always have. It’s really not all that complicated.

I do recognize, however, that it is not necessarily easy. Simple, yes. Easy, probably not at first. Personally, I wasn’t a huge meat eater anyway so it did not feel like much of a sacrifice. I know that’s not the case for everyone. It stands to logic that the amount of meat you used to eat will likely influence how challenging the process of going meat-free is for you.

For those of you who are just starting out as a vegetarian, trying it out for a New Years resolution, or are simply curious how to incorporate more meatless meals in your life, I’ve got some foolproof tips to get you started.

Tips for New Vegetarians

Pile of pink dragon fruit in a basket
It’s not as hard as you think

1. Eat what you always eat, just without the meat.

There is a common misconception that vegetarians eat only their namesake. No, I don’t eat only salad. Yes, I do eat a lot of vegetables, things like kale, bok choy, and other leafy greens. But I eat them in different and interesting ways and am always adjusting how and what I eat, the same way you likely are, or were, as a carnivore.

Nothing, and I mean NOTHING, gets my blood boiling like a restaurant saying it’s vegetarian-friendly only to serve up a grilled vegetable wrap. People have been cooking up portobello mushrooms in a balsamic glaze for 30 years and it still tastes like cardboard. For all you restaurant peeps out there: Stop. Doing. That. You’re better than that.

Moving on…

Look at what you’ve always eaten and simply adjust it to be vegetarian. Love chicken noodle soup? Try veggie noodle soup. If you bring sandwiches to work, try many of the hearty and more protein-filled options of leafy greens, avocado, tomato, sprouts, and cheese if you fancy. There are so many ways to do this.

This is the simplest and honestly the most important of them all. If you’re not missing anything then eating vegetarian won’t feel like a chore or hard task. Take what you eat, subtract the meat, and eat that.

Unless all you eat is meat and potatoes, in which case this whole vegetarian thing is probably going to be a bit more challenging for you, and you might want to seek out more authoritative help then my personal opinion.

2. Find vegetarian substitutions

Can’t give up the meatballs? Clearly, I can’t, and Lord knows I’ve tried…sort of. Regardless, it’s not an indulgence I make often–think once every year or two–and when I’m not eating the foolproof recipe crafted by my Grandmother, I opt for great vegetarian ones

There are plenty of fake meat options that are horribly processed but delightful when I’ve got a junk food craving. I’m particularly partial to fake sausages and chicken nuggets and have fallen deeply in love with the Beyond Meat products scientifically crafted to look, taste, and smell like their meat counterparts.

But these are rare for me too as I know how crappy they probably are for me. In general, these serve as an option for when I drank too many martinis the night before and/or when I just need a “turkey” sandwich, damnit. Otherwise, there are people making amazing, real food, vegetarian substitutes for food I love, like this chickpea recipe from Nutrition Stripped.

If you can’t be a vegetarian with a plate like this then throw in the towel, it’s not going to work

3. Try Eating “Combo” meals with lots of variety

For me, one strategy that works best to ensure I’m getting my fair share of nutrients while eating vegetarian has been to adopt the one-pot meal approach. These days, most of my meals are comprised of one plate or one bowl. I try to incorporate all fats, proteins, vegetables, whatever else into this one dish.

For example, a grain with veggies and cheese, beans, or eggs for protein. We love things like homemade fried rice, rice and beans, and soups. Often, we’ll throw an egg, avocado, or tofu on top to make it a bit heartier. Experiment and play around. You’ll be amazed at how filling these meals can be.

4. Get to Know How to Cook Vegetarian Proteins

This is the big one. I know tofu has been made fun of for, ya know, ever, but I’m here to make a case for it. Chefs may have yet to master the portobello but they’re doing great things on other vegetarian fronts, tofu being one of them. I see more and more of it popping up on menus and it’s often delicious.

Many Asian countries have been using it for years. As such, restaurants serving up most types of Asian cuisine in the U.S. are the best places to try it if you’re new. The way people describe tofu seems to be the same way they describe chicken: it tastes like what you cook it in.

Granted, there are limitations to this comparison, but hopefully, you get the point. It is great for soaking up sauces and marinades, holds up well in frying and baking, and is a really high protein, low-calorie food source.

We’re also big on tempeh, though I don’t get that out much. We’ve even been able to replicate one of our favorite dishes from Thailand, spicy sauteed pork with Thai basil, with tempeh. It is often used as a ground beef substitute, crumbling well for tacos or bolognese. The smoky tempeh bacon is a favorite of ours too, which I love throwing on a TLT–tempeh, lettuce, tomato–sandwich for lunches.

5. You’re Probably Already Eating Some Vegetarian Meals

Many of us are eating, and–gasp–enjoying vegetarian meals without even realizing it. Unless you’re like my grandmother who adds ground beef or chicken to just about everything to “flavor it”, you are probably already eating at least some meals vegetarian.

Think about your week. Had toast or oatmeal for breakfast? BOOM, vegetarian meal. How about a Greek salad for lunch? Pasta for dinner? You’re crushing it.

You see my point, I think. Eating vegetarian only feels restrictive if you let it. If you have a healthy and balanced diet already, it’s probably not that different from what you’re already doing.

Naples Pizza on plate on table Close up
Plain pizza is, and always has been, vegetarian

6. How to Order at Restaurants

I think you’ll find that you can apply these rules in most settings. When we eat out, I almost always order normal food and either ask them not to put the meat in which they are almost always happy to do.

I love steakhouses because almost every side on the menu is vegetarian, the combination of which make up some of my most cherished foods. If you’re telling me you don’t want a meal of potatoes au gratin, macaroni and cheese, and some veggies cooked in a healthy amount of butter and salt, you’re lying to yourself.

We are no longer stuck with ordering sides, however. Vegetarian restaurants are getting more and more hype these days. We stumbled across one in Cork, Ireland, that had been around for over 20 years and ended up being the best meal we had in the country. Paradiso

Also, some types of cuisines simply tend to be more vegetarian than others. A lot of Indian food served in the US is great for this, as is Mexican. Note, I don’t mean to stereotype food cultures here, this does not necessarily apply when you travel to these countries, that’s another question entirely.

7. When eating at someone else’s house, don’t be afraid to contribute a vegetarian dish

This is one I am just starting learning after more than a decade of eating this way–quick learner, I know. I’ll save you the painfully awkward moments that come from people either not knowing you were a vegetarian until you arrive and can’t eat anything or them weirdly, albeit probably unintentionally, shaming you with comments about how hard it was to think of something to make.

When you are eating somewhere else, bring a dish with you. You can own it and say you wanted to be sure you had something to eat without putting the pressure on them, which people tend to find very considerate. Or if you’re not comfortable getting into it, simply say you didn’t want to show up empty-handed. The easiest way to make sure you have something to eat is to be the one who makes sure you have something to eat.

Noodles in styrofoam container with fried egg vegetable and hot sauce
So vegetarian and yet, so satisfying

8. When traveling, find ways to communicate that are a vegetarian

You don’t need to take a page out of my book and eat meat when you travel. At times it has made me really ill, like when I wolfed down a giant plate of BBQ in Texas after not having meat in my body for a year. Usually, though, I stick to a mostly vegetarian diet and take advantage of Joe’s carnivorism to taste bites instead of eating whole meals of meat.

If you want to ensure you stick to your vegetarian diet while you are traveling as well, the easiest thing to do is to learn the word “vegetarian” in that language if it is different than your own. A simple pointing, saying the word vegetarian, and smiling hopefully at whoever is serving you can go a long way. There are mistakes and misunderstandings, but mostly this has been all I need to find vegetarian food.

There are also countless websites and blogs dedicated to just this topic. Many popular destinations have vegetarian guides galore written about them. It’s not hard to find places to eat on the internet unless you’re a bit more off the beaten path and if you are, ask the locals. They’re often more than happy to help.

If you’re really worried about it, opt for places that you know will have options for you. Though in my experience there is almost always a way to find vegetarian food if you’re thoughtful and creative with your search. There are often so many places to eat vegetarian or vegan when you’re traveling, like these vegan ones in Boston.

You’re on your way

That’s it! These tips for new vegetarians are a surefire way to get you started on the path towards greener pastures–see what I did there.

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Holding burger text over lay 8 practical tips for new vegetarians

Alicia is a freelance writer, bartender, and the MLT wife! She loves running, beaches, and tiny animals.

1 Comment

  1. Corallie E Moorhead
    January 26, 2019 / 8:48 PM

    Liked your post on vegetarian eating. I find I tend to crave what I’m eating. So, when I eat meat—it’s more meat that I want. Home-made cookies? Yep, same thing—midnight raids to the freezer for those yummies. When I eat salads and veggies—they become my go-to dish. And lately, I can’t get enough fresh fruit salad. Healthy eating—for the planet as well as our digestive systems—is a good, mindful habit to develop.

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