10 Tips for Going Vegan (or Incorporating More Vegan Meals into Your Life)

January  7, 2016

It’s easy to be cynical about the idea of New Year’s resolutions, but there is a lot of undeniable and powerful energy surrounding the idea of change at this time of year. For many of us, that change starts in the kitchen.

Maybe it means resolving to cook at home more often, to keep a well-stocked freezer and pantry, to waste less, or to make slightly more wholesome choices. Maybe, for you, this is the year in which you’d like to give veganism (or vegetarianism) a try.

Whether you’re trying to dip your toes slowly into the world of plant-based eating, or you’re ready to make a total shift, it can be helpful to keep a few things in mind.

The makings of a perfect vegan meal. Photo by James Ransom

1) Take it easy.

Some people go vegan overnight, and they never look back. But for many others, a slow transition is more sustainable (and pleasurable) than a 180-degree turn. If the idea of going vegan feels daunting, start with a couple of small steps, like a Meatless Monday challenge at home, or switching one of your daily meals to a meatless and dairy-free option. (You’d be surprised at how easy it is to trade your turkey sandwich for hummus, tempeh bacon, and avocado).

Tempeh "bacon." Photo by James Ransom

2) Do your homework.

I’m quick to say that vegan food is just food. While there are a couple of secret weapon ingredients to have on your radar (nutritional yeast, I’m lookin’ at you), for the most part a healthy appetite for grains, beans, and produce is all you really need to get started.

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With that said, any dietary shift can be tricky, and veganism is no exception. So, before you get started, take just a little time to go over the basics of plant-based nutrition. Find a useful, all-in-one resource, like Brenda Davis and Vesanto Melina’s Becoming Vegan, or Ginny Messina and Jack Norris’ Vegan For Life. At some point, someone will ask you where you get your protein (or your iron, or your calcium), and while you could laugh the question off, it’s a lot more powerful to supply a quick, confident answer.

More: How to get lots of protein as a vegan.

Protein parade. Photo by James Ransom

3) Start with dishes you know and love.

Going vegan expanded my palate dramatically: I learned about all sorts of global cuisines, warmed up to my spice rack, and tried ingredients I’d never considered before. But my culinary repertoire was pretty meager when I made the switch. If you already have some culinary experience, don’t assume that you’ll need to acquire an entirely new bag of tricks to eat vegan or vegetarian.

In fact, one really useful place to start is by looking at some of your favorite dinner recipes and thinking about how you might adapt them to be meatless and/or dairy-free. It may be as simple as removing some cheese (or replacing it with cashew cheese). It may mean trading the central protein for beans, soy foods, or even a hearty vegetable, like mushrooms.

Vegan and gluten-free butternut squash gratin/ Photo by James Ransom

4) …But be adventurous, too.

Until I went vegan, I had never tried tempeh, soba noodles, kimchi, kabocha squash, nutritional yeast, millet, mulberries, or buckwheat…and the list goes on. Becoming vegan encouraged me to explore new ingredients, and it also introduced me to more global dishes.

A great many dietary traditions around the world are already plant-based, which means that vegans and vegetarians have many rich, exciting culinary traditions to draw upon. If you’re new to plant-based cooking, explore meatless dishes and recipes from other parts of the world (Indian, Ethiopian, and Middle Eastern dishes are some of my personal favorites). Dust off your spice rack and add new flavors to your food. Use your transition to plant-based eating as an excuse to try new grains, legumes, and vegetables.

Vegan palak "paneer," made with tofu cheese. Photo by James Ransom

5) Think creatively about adaptation.

A lot of folks assume that adapting a recipe to be vegan means replacing the meat or poultry with a faux meat, a block of tofu, or tempeh. That’s cool, but it can also be fun to think creatively and imaginatively about how to capture the essence of a traditional recipe without animal protein. No, lentil Bolognese isn’t really Bolognese, but it does capture the heartiness of the original; cashew banana yogurt is a far cry from dairy, but it does evoke the same, sweet creaminess.

Photo by James Ransom
Photo by James Ransom

6) Make your own dairy substitutes.

Many people are surprised by how easy it is to go meatless. Cheese, on the other hand, is a different story. I myself used to utter the same words I hear constantly from readers, friends, and nutrition clients: “I’d love to go vegan, but I can’t give up cheese.”

While I won’t pretend that giving up dairy is easy—it’s not, especially because it’s so ubiquitous in restaurant dishes—I will say that I had a much easier time living without it when I learned to make my own substitutes. Store-bought soy and almond cheeses weren’t cutting it (especially nine years ago, when the options were limited), and soy creamers and yogurts left me feeling equally flat. Making my first batch of cashew cheese—which authentically captured the tanginess and texture of goat cheese—was a revelation. Homemade nut milk let me create creamy porridge and muesli far more authentically than did store-bought, non-dairy milk.

Over time, I’ve experimented with tofu paneer, tofu feta, and cashew yogurt, and the list is growing. Homemade dairy substitutes are creative, fun, and cost-effective, and I think they’re a big step up from what you can find in the store.

Cashew cheese, will you marry me? Photo by James Ransom

7) Learn how to work wonders with tofu and tempeh.

While I’m the first to point out that vegan proteins extend far beyond soy foods—encompassing tons of different grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds—you really can’t beat tofu and tempeh for “meaty” texture and complete protein in meatless dishes. Both ingredients can be either memorable or mundane, depending on how you prepare them. I definitely recommend pressing tofu if you’re not already in the habit; it’ll create a firmer, more toothsome texture that most people prefer.

When preparing tempeh, be sure to use a boldly flavored marinade or sauce to help balance tempeh’s earthy taste, and if you find it bitter, you can steam it before marinating, too.

Stomach grumbling. Photo by James Ransom

8) Don’t turn your nose up at vegan products.

For the most part, I try to feature whole foods and homemade ingredients in my cooking. But in spite of the fact that I love to create my own dairy substitutes and I’d usually rather eat a scoop of lentils than a block of faux meat, I don’t eschew vegan products, and I think that keeping an open mind about them can really enrich the authenticity of your food.

This is especially important when you’re transitioning and vegan cooking still feels like a brave new world. Nine times out of ten, I’ll opt to use cashew cheese in a recipe rather than Daiya (a melty, commercial vegan cheese); coconut oil in place of Earth Balance (vegan butter); or grilled tofu in place of Beyond Chicken (grilled strips of soy and pea protein that taste shockingly like chicken).

But when I’m aiming for totally authentic, precise results, vegan substitute products can go a long way, and it’s comforting to know that they’re an option if I feel like taking a shortcut.

Vegan sugar cookies, made with Earth Balance. Photo by Linda Xiao

9) Make vegan food for everyone.

Fun fact: Soon after I became vegan, I became a raw foodist for several years. Which meant that in addition to challenging my mom’s traditional Greek palate with totally meatless and dairy-free food, I was also asking her to get behind raw kale salads and strange, exotic nut pâtés.

Over time, I learned to create vegan food with greater sensitivity to others’ tastes and traditions. I love a lot of really crunchy fare, from the aforementioned raw kale salad to tofu, sprouts, and grain bowls. And I know a lot of other folks who love these dishes, too. But sometimes being an ambassador of vegan food means knowing how to create dishes that feel familiar and appeal to a wide array of more conservative palates, like vegan lasagna, shepherd’s pie, or sloppy Joes.

And, if you’re trying to dispel the idea that all vegans eat is salad and prove that vegan food can be filling and hearty, then it’s all the more important to create dishes that evoke a sense of comfort.

Vegan lasagna with tofu ricotta and roasted vegetables. Photo by James Ransom

10) Find community.

Change feels a lot less daunting when you have company. If your family and friends aren’t exploring veganism along with you, then find community in other ways. Explore a vegan meetup or potluck in your community. Become a regular commenter on vegan food blogs. If you do have a friend who’s interested in plant-based cooking, invite him or her over for some recipe testing.

Studies show that failure to stick with a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle is often attributed to feeling “different” or isolated. Food is all about community and sharing, so do your best to share this lifestyle with people you care about—even if they’re not making the change along with you.

Feeling less daunted? Here are 10 recipes to get you started:

Do you think you could be vegan for a week? How about a month? Tell us in the comments!

Order now

The Food52 Vegan Cookbook is here! With this book from Gena Hamshaw, anyone can learn how to eat more plants (and along the way, how to cook with and love cashew cheese, tofu, and nutritional yeast).

Order now

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Lucia Peniston
    Lucia Peniston
  • bellw67
  • Sammy
  • Sarah
  • foodpornveganstyle
Gena is a registered dietitian, recipe developer, and food blogger. She's the author of three cookbooks, including Power Plates (2017) and Food52 Vegan (2015). She enjoys cooking vegetables, making bread, and challenging herself with vegan baking projects.


Lucia P. February 2, 2017
hi. isn't tofu bad for you... soy and soy related products harmful especially autoimmune diseases affected by soy like hypothyroidism. Is miso just as bad ? thank you.
bellw67 January 26, 2017
I meant stuffing 'was' vegan not wasn't.
bellw67 January 26, 2017
I have been cooking some vegan meals for about two years now. My son's significant other is vegan with some allergies as well. At first I found it very daunting until, like the article says, adapt some of your recipes. I have substituted soy, coconut, almond milk for dairy, found vegan mayo and margarine, use tvp (great stuff), made veggie burgs, meatballs etc. The odd time I will find a roadblock, but I usually find a way. I don't really care for tofu unless it's mixed in something like pudding or a sauce. Nooch is the best ever for vegan Parm. My last two Christmas meals for the whole family have been totally vegan except for ham, turkey & gravy for the non-vegans. Tofurky was popular, everyone wanted to try it and no one knew that the mashed potatoes didn't have milk and butter or that the stuffing wasn't vegan. I have found a whole new world of veggies, beans and quinoa and hubs and I eat a lot of if not vegan, vegetarian meals now.
Sammy January 25, 2017
I've been juicing for 10 days and think I may try vegetarian food for a while. Are the books you mentioned for beginners? Also, I don't think I like many of the usual vegetarian foods. Do you have a good soba noodle dish to recommend?
Sarah January 8, 2016
I could go vegan (from vegetarian for 25+ years) EXCEPT that I love coffee and I've never found anything that tastes as good as milk or cream from cows. Please advise.
VegSince1988 January 8, 2016
I use a combination of flavored non-dairy creamers plus vanilla soy milk in my coffee. That's worked out very well for this former milk-loving, coffee drinker!
Ttrockwood January 22, 2016
At home i use Califa's almond creamer from the fridge
Or trader joe's soy creamer.
Most coffee shops now offer soy milk, almond milk, and or coconut milk- i like it much more heated so i ask they add the hot nondairy milk (adding cold nondairy milk to hot coffee sometimes it will seperate too)
foodpornveganstyle January 8, 2016
great article Gena, all the best in New Year! :)
VegSince1988 January 7, 2016
Nice article. I've been vegetarian, then vegan, since 1988. I went 'cold turkey' so to speak, and never looked back. Today we're lucky to have a plethora of wonderful, delicious vegan/vegetarian products available to make life easier--and to make transitioning easier for those who really LIKE the taste of meat, but don't want to participate in the cruelty of the meat industry. I will never, ever eat the flesh of a sentient being again, but I LOVE faux meat products, such as bacon, BBQ riblets, hot dogs, crumbles (that replace ground meat), etc. It was very different back in 1988!
GsR January 7, 2016
I tried tempe, it tasted like gasoline soaked straw. What am I missing? It was even worse than tofu.
creamtea January 7, 2016
It is bitter and it bites back when uncooked, so I understand your distaste. Tempe is better cooked. I have a wonderful recipe from Madhur Jaffrey that involves first frying matchsticks until crisp, then tossing in a spice paste of ginger, garlic and spices for a crunchy, spicy snack. It's all in how you prepare it.