So, how do I become vegan?

Some tips for a newbie vegan

I’ve heard from many people motivated to become vegan by animal welfare issues. Health and the environment are other reasons to discuss, but this week, about halfway through my month chronicling my vegan ways, I’m going to turn to some practicalities.

Just how hard is it to become a vegan? If you’re new to it, where do you start? I’ve gotten some advice from readers, and I’ve reached out to a few people.

My friend and neighbor, Sarah Newman, tried being a vegan many years ago while training for a triathlon. It didn’t stick then, but now she is a healthy vegan and offered me some tips.

She says cooking vegan motivates her creativity. An example? Truffles made with ground Medjool dates, nut butter, cacao powder and nibs, salt and cinnamon. Mix ingredients, roll into balls, and refrigerate.

Yes, the good news is that chocolate can be vegan. Just read the label.

The first step is to shop for foods you can use in vegan recipes. Try new fruits and vegetables, unfamiliar grains. Or, if the idea of cooking makes you want to run to In-N-Out, try vegan burgers and other foods from the store’s freezer section. But remember, vegan does not equal healthful; French fries are vegan.

Another way to start to change, if you’re not ready for full-on veganism, is the Meatless Monday idea. It’s a campaign that’s been going for years, and has grown to include institutions such as the San Diego and Los Angeles unified school districts. The campaign recalls those from the World Wars when patriotic Americans were asked to cut back on meat by 15%, which is roughly one day a week.

Another path is to find a website or an online community for support and ideas, said Diana Rice, a dietitian and spokeswoman for the Monday Campaigns. Meatlessmonday.com has vegetarian and vegan recipes, including some that children can cook, she said.

Jennie Cook, a Los Angeles caterer, told me about a couple of blogs that have vegan recipes, including some of hers: Ohsheglows.com and maplespice.com.

For a family, try meals that are a bit do-it-yourself, such as tacos or burgers – perhaps some vegan, some not – or two stir fries, one with chicken, one with tofu.

“As you get comfortable, find new ingredients. Reach out, try new things,” said Kristy Turner, whose new book speaks to anyone who might be uncertain of the terrain. “But I Could Never Go Vegan” has 125 recipes, with ingredients such as jackfruit -- which can be found canned in supermarkets and has a bland taste on its own, and can be used instead of shredded meat -- or cheese made from nuts.

“The way I see it, cheese is a thing in its own right. It’s not necessarily connected to dairy. You can make cheese from nut milk, just the way that you make it from dairy milk. It’s just cultured, it’s the same sort of thing,” Turner, a former restaurant fromagier, said in an interview on Wednesday.

Other examples: bacon made from tempeh or black beans, tacos with mushrooms rather than meat.

Some tips from Turner, who has been vegan for 3 1/2 years: Try to make a vegan version of a familiar dish. And don’t beat yourself up if you slip and eat cheese.

“It’s not about perfection. It’s about compassion for yourself and the planet and for animals. Trying to be the best you can be. You don’t have to be perfect,” she said.

People who are going vegan for good, or even for a few weeks, should make sure they’re getting their nutritional needs met for such things as iron and vitamin B12, which Americans typically get from animal foods, Rice said. If you don’t feel well, you are less likely to maintain the diet, she said.

She also suggested not relying too much on processed foods, even vegan ones. “Vegan bars are fine in moderation, but don’t make it the basis of your diet,” she said.

When going to friends’ homes, offer to bring a dish, Turner said. “I never expect anything of anyone. I don’t expect people to cater to me. When they do, it’s such a blessing.”

Rice suggests bringing a “naturally” vegan dish, like a salad, rather than a vegan “meatloaf.” People might be less inclined to turn up their noses.

I had dinner on Monday night with friends, worried that the host, my friend Judy Rudzki, would be insulted if I didn’t eat what she cooked, but I was reluctant to ask her to make anything with me particularly in mind. The culinary gods were in my corner, however. There was hummus, and a vegan lentil and squash soup that was fabulous. I did as well over the weekend, when we went to Sacramento for a family bar mitzvah and the buffet table included a green salad and a lovely casserole of quinoa, greens and chickpeas.

Can I do it? Follow my progress @mmacvean and "like" Los Angeles Times Science & Health on Facebook.

 

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