Gone Vegan

Lindsay Hutton discovers the politics and pragmatics behind a meat and dairy-free diet.

To the lifelong omnivore, the first vegan grocery shop is a bit of a perplexing outing. It would sort of be like me in hardware store – I wouldn’t know what to buy, what’s “good” or where to start. 

Most of the nuts and bolts of a healthy vegan diet are a snap, but getting a grip on the basics requires a bit of guidance. My mother, though a fairly knowledgeable dame when it comes to food and nutrition, needed some help to get her going. This is where I come in. 

First off, as with any “lifestyle”, there’s a ton of food products available to vegans that, while they may be rather fancy and convenient are entirely unnecessary. Sure, having a $12 vegan pizza in the freezer is nice to have when you don’t feel like cooking, but don’t go bananas and buy all the pre-made vegan products grocery store.  They can add up – fast. 

So, whether you’re thinking of taking the plunge into veganism or are just looking to minimize your intake of animal flesh and secretions, here are some tips to get you going. 

The LabelsHere’s a good guide online about finding hidden animal ingredients in food. However, in the past year, what you’ll notice with a lot of packaged foods is a bold-faced statement at the end of the ingredients listing, usually something along the lines of: This product contains nuts and dairy. Handy for vegans, but mostly an initiative to address those with food allergies or faith-based aversions to particular additives. 

The Basics – Obviously, load up on a variety of vegetables. Remember that the brighter, deeper coloured veggies tend to have the most nutritional content.  Make sure you grab some broccoli and/or kale for calcium. The key here is variety – don’t buy a lot of one vegetable, but smaller amounts of several. For example, a handful of green beans, a couple of beets, a good-sized floret of broccoli. If, within a few days you feel you’ve bought too much, wash them, chop them up, and put them in the freezer. Most stay worth ingesting for about two weeks. 

Carbohydrates - The vegan version of the Canadian food guide suggests 6-11 helpings of carbs a day. So your vegan diet isn’t too bulky, a lot of grains can also work well in your diet as a protein source. For example, quinoa, a grain not unlike couscous in texture after cooked. Obviously keeping most of your carbs whole grain is important, but don’t feel bad about having a package of white pasta in your cart. Fresh pastas and a lot of specialty breads tend to contain dairy, but many tortillas, sliced breads and boxed/bagged pastas are vegan. Obviously, plain rice and other grains aren’t a problem, either. 

Proteins - Most questions I field from omnivores revolve around protein – am I getting enough, isn’t soy just hideous!!?? – that sort of thing. Again, the key here is variety: A block of tofu to marinate for stir-fry’s and sandwiches. Some dry red lentils and tinned beans to throw into pasta sauces, rice, and soups. A few bags of nuts from the bulk area to put in salads or eat as a snack. A couple of boxes of enriched non-dairy milks (I suggest almond or hemp milk). A box of veggie burgers. If you can afford it, some soy-based meat alternatives, like veggie “ground round” or “deli” slices are great – especially if you’re fond of meaty textures.  Get 2-3 solid servings of protein per day. 

Snacks - Unfortunately, a lot of the tasty, unhealthy stuff we crave tends to not be vegan. A lot of chips, cookies, crackers, cakes and ice creams available at most grocery stores are a no-no. However, take a look at this list of vegan junk food and treat yourself to something incredibly bad for you a couple of times a week. This isn’t a “diet” – it’s about making changes. 

Tastemakers. A diet void of animal fats can take your palate some getting used to. Here’s a few items worth building up in your cupboard. 

Vegetarian stock cubes – McCormick’s and Harvest Sun make wonderful vegetarian “chicken” and “beef” flavoured stocks that are terrific to add to rice, pasta sauces, soups – essentially anything savoury that uses water as an ingredient or cooking base. 

Vegenaise – A vegan “mayonnaise”, this stuff has a great taste and texture that’s wonderful on sandwiches and in salad dressings. 

Nutritional yeast – Usually found in the bulk section, this is a flaky substance rather resembling goldfish food. Its flavour is comparable to Parmesan cheese, and works well as a topping for salads and pastas, and also adds a bit of depth to things like homemade “meatloaf” and veggie burgers. 

Hummous – An essential. Put it on everything for a protein boost – especially handy as a veggie dip. Most big grocers carry it in a range of flavours, from spicy to roasted red pepper – I even saw a raspberry hummous the other day. 

Finally, don’t get too overwhelmed. Likely the best lesson gleaned from working more vegan meals into your diet is that they tend to encourage a bit more thought about the food we eat. So, prepare yourself to be the priss other shoppers navigate around as you’re reading the label on that box of crackers!