I was sitting in my office yesterday, typing away at some e-mails, when a student stopped by. She wasn't there to complain about a grade, or ask about our upcoming paper project, but to ask about becoming...a vegetarian.
I was floored, but pleased. In the eight years I've taught here, I think I've only encountered two vegetarian students. I've had a few handful of curious ones--especially a couple male athletes here and there who, looking to drop a few pounds and get in shape, mistakenly think vegetarianism equals some type of wacky weight-loss program. Of course, if you're doing it right you won't be losing dramatic amounts of weight and, if you do it wrong, you might actually gain some.
This student was looking for a lifestyle change, plain and simple. She grew up on her grandmother's heavy Southern cooking--fried chicken, collard greens steeped in bacon fat, homemade butter biscuits, huge pies at every meal. I hadn't eaten lunch yet when she stopped by and, as I told her when she described Sunday dinners at her childhood home, that all sounded pretty good to me (well, except for the chicken and the bacon fat). But I could see why she felt she needed to make a change, when she described her family's eating habits. Too many of her relatives struggle with their weight, and too many have already died early deaths from obesity-related health issues.
She wasn't--surprisingly--worried so much about initially giving up meat as she was about sticking with it. She wanted some easy advice for how to make her new lifestyle change work, and stick.
"Well, I can give you advice on THAT," I told her because once up on a time, fourteen years ago, I was in her same shoes--giving up meat, and embarking on a lifestyle change that I wasn't sure would stick. Would I feel like a failure? A vegetarian wannabe who couldn't make it work? Would my body rebel? Would I make myself sick?
Here's some of the advice I threw her way:
--Do some soul-searching about why you're giving up meat in the first place. If you don't understand why, then it will be more difficult to stick with it. Whether you're going meatless for ethical reasons, or health reasons, or because you want a lifestyle change, be sure you've thought about the reasons why you're making the choice, and stick with them. If you have kids and make the decision as a family, make sure your kids understand why, too--they are more likely to feel proud of the choice if they clearly understand and are invested in the reasons it was made.
--Be sure you understand what being a vegetarian really is, and how far you're willing to take it. Will you eat seafood? Fish? Milk? Cheese? Eggs? While we do eat cheese at our house, we don't eat fish, and I don't eat seafood. Scott won't do eggs. Research alternatives to any of these foods, if you feel it will become a problem down the road.
--Give up meat gradually. While the cold turkey approach might work for some, it's better to weed out types of meat first. I gave up red meat a full year before I gave up chicken. For some reason I had a harder time weaning myself off chicken (I did love a good chicken tender in my college days), but I think it was easier in the long run because by that point I was already eating a mostly vegetarian diet.
--Forgive yourself if you slip up. No one is judging you--giving up meat is your choice, and your choice alone. I "fell off the wagon" a few times before I actually gave up chicken for good and became a complete vegetarian. In fact, my kids love the story I tell of the time I raided my parents' fridge in the middle of the night and gobbled up a leftover chicken breast.
--Buy yourself some cookbooks, or scour the internet for recipes. Remember, just because a recipe isn't vegetarian, doesn't mean you can't make it meatless! I have found some delicious recipes for traditional meat dishes, and just substituted veggie crumbles, beans, or mushrooms for the meat. Yet I remember in the earlier days of going meatless feeling intimidated by meat recipes, and seeking out only those on vegetarian recipe sites.
--Find a eating buddy. College cafeterias (and workplace cafeterias and restaurants, even) are difficult places to be when you're a vegetarian. It helps to eat with a friend who is committed--if not to trying a vegetarian diet--to eating healthy and trying new things. I do think part of the reason my going completely meatless "stuck" so well so quickly was because I met my husband, who also by happy coincidence, happened to be a new vegetarian, too. Together we learned about healthy eating, tried new recipes, and kept each other strong when temptations struck!
Over time your body will adjust to your new, healthier diet, and you won't even think about the taste of meat, or what you used to make with it, or how often you ate it. My student looked doubtful (but hopeful) when I told her this. Yet what I appreciate the most about the fourteen years I've been a vegetarian is that it has made me more hyper-aware of good, healthy tastes and textures and natural, fresh ingredients (right, SPC?!). And even if you can't commit to an entirely meat-free diet, cutting back on meat consumption and seeking out more healthy alternatives and ingredients, will still do your body (and mind) a world of good.