I’ve been flirting with veganism since I became a vegetarian for Lent last year.
I prepare a lot of vegan meals, but have never had more than two or three days in a row of only eating vegan foods. Convinced by health benefits and animal cruelty issues, my husband agreed to join me for one whole week of vegan meals, as long as I managed most of the shopping and cooking.
Of course, there were things I did not know about a vegan lifestyle, as well as things I assumed that turned out not to be true at all. As I navigate how I want my food choices to reflect my values and help me achieve my health goals, I thought the most instructive way to investigate would be to do it for real for seven days. Here is what I learned:
1. I was cooking all the time
On the penultimate day of Vegan Week, when I started making buckwheat-banana pancakes, I found myself not at all eager to get out the skillet and cooking utensils. I’d had several marathon cooking days during which I’d cooked for four or five hours at a time. Yes, this was partly for the dinner parties, but I realized that if I were to cook whole-foods, plant-based menus for anyone, I had to take the time to prep it all. Chopping, mixing, blending, washing, boiling, simmering, peeling—it all takes time. Lots of time.
Counting the additional trips to multiple grocery stores for special, hard-to-find ingredients (quinoa flakes?!), there were days I spent almost all my time on food procurement and preparation.
2. It was easier than I thought to go out, but it was still pretty difficult
We tried to keep our trips to restaurants minimal because we’d be tempted by non-vegan foods. We went out twice, once for a quick bite between events and once with friends for a bar’s trivia night, and I was somewhat prepared after reading up on vegan “fast-food” options. At Subway, we ordered the pretty delicious veggie patties on whole grain bread, loaded with vegetables. At Old Chicago, we asked for make-your-own pizzas with a variety of vegetable toppings and without cheese. These were also tasty. In both cases what we chose was the only option, and we had to take what they had to meet the vegan goal, without thought to our own taste preferences.
3. There is so much more variety in plant-based, whole-foods menus than I thought
Cooking at home was another story. I learned vegan food doesn’t limit flavors and textures, or even the number of courses for a dinner party, which was a good thing, because we hosted two during Vegan Week. Being forced to explore recipes and provide a variety of dishes for me, my husband and our guests caused me to try things I wouldn’t have in a normal routine, when I would fall back on salmon fillets and green peas for supper. Fried leeks are delicious! And the peanut soup, risotto with peas and greens, mushroom polenta and berry crumble were all well received.
4. Vegan means different things to different vegans
I thought that being vegan just meant no meat and no dairy, but many more things are considered animal products than I knew. This meant I had to make more decisions about what I was willing to eat than I anticipated. For example, one of my cookbooks uses maple syrup for any dish calling for sweeteners. Why not refined sugar? Sugar is a plant! Investigating, I learned vegans often don’t want to eat refined sugar because it is processed with bone char. They also don’t eat honey, because bees make it. After taking all this in, I opened another vegan cookbook for dessert ideas and found refined sugar in almost every recipe. During Vegan Week, I realized I faced ethical dilemmas every time I drew up a grocery list.
5. Other people are supportive and curious
For whatever reason, vegans don’t always have reputations as the most flexible people. I anticipated some push-back from others, especially when my food choices impacted them (which restaurants we could visit, what I served at our dinner parties), but people were generally—and genuinely—curious about how it was going for us, wanted tips or recipes, or gave me ideas from their own experiences. I wasn’t really interested in judging what other people ate, or recruiting anyone to veganism—perhaps that made it easier for them to accommodate us when we needed it.
6. I can keep going (the leftovers alone could sustain me for about four more days)
On the eighth day, I found myself eating vegan food again all day, until I got home late from a class, and whipped together some eggs out of convenience. I admit, I enjoy the ease with which you can quickly pull something together when you don’t have to make it all yourself (grocery-store sushi, for example). But I did notice that when I had the option and time to choose and make whatever I wanted, I selected vegan foods, and preferred plant-based meals to other possibilities.
7. I didn’t lose weight
Many people I know reflect back on a period of their own veganism with longing for “being the thinnest I ever was,” but both my husband and I gained weight. I gained a pound or two and he gained five. Normally, I try to stick to a low-calorie, low-sugar diet, but during Vegan Week, I didn’t want to restrict the food exploration, so I stopped watching portions and didn’t count calories. I also ate more sweets as a result of the dinner parties, complete with four-course meals and dessert. I understood before that veganism isn’t a diet, it’s a lifestyle, and I found out that vegan or not, I can’t eat as much as I want of anything and not gain weight.
I believe I will ultimately find myself more immersed in vegan cooking and meals as time goes on—though if I don’t adopt a lower-calorie version of last week’s diet, I certainly will be more of a vegan than ever!
Of course, everyone has his or her own diet goals, in terms of health and ethics, including the selection of non-GMO or cruelty-free products, weight-control, low/no cholesterol, unprocessed and gluten-free diets. This means I have to understand how my health, and ethical priorities and values manifest in the food I eat. Vegan Week has already provided a firm foundation for my continuing education.
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