Ask the Hippie, Vol. 2, Issue 3

Q. How can I become a vegetarian without getting sanctimonious or becoming totally obsessed with my diet?

A. This question stems from a conversation that’s been going for a couple of days over at Evan’s blog. (Rather than rehash the entire conversation, which is getting fairly long, I’ll just suggest that you click here to read it if you’re interested.)

In the course of the conversation, I mentioned that I was switching to a vegetarian diet, partly as a means of exercising a little discipline/dominion over what I eat (I’ve always had a terrible tendency to indulge any craving that crossed my mind, and it’s really gotten out of hand in the past couple of years) and partly because I have some serious questions about the ethical implications of the business and agricultural practices of the factory farms that produce most of the meat in the United States.

My decision to go vegetarian raised an interesting question: Can a person switch to a vegetarian diet without violating Jesus’ admonition to “Take no thought for … what ye shall eat”?

For me, the answer is an unequivocal yes, because I actually spend less time thinking about what I eat when I’m vegetarian. This has a lot to do with the fact that I eat out a lot, and most restaurants offer relatively few vegetarian options, so instead of trying to narrow down umpteen choices, I just sort of take whatever I can get and move on with my life.

For me, that kind of restriction puts food back into the proper perspective: It’s sustenance, not entertainment, nostalgia, or a cope mechanism for dealing with stress, disappointment, or any other emotional upheaval that ought to be healed through prayer and not covered up with calories.

(Please don’t misunderstand me: There’s great vegetarian food out there, and I don’t feel I’m missing out on anything when I eat it, nor do I feel that there’s anything wrong with enjoying a meal. But reducing the number of menu options from umpty-seven to three definitely reduces the amount of time I spend trying to figure out what I want to eat, which I find helpful in getting my mind off of food and onto something less material and more worthy of my attention.)

Of course, it helps that this is not my first dance. I’ve been on and off the veggie wagon a dozen times in the past 18 years, and I’m pretty aware of what’s in my food without reading a single label or asking a single question. For someone else, going vegetarian — even for a noble reason such as animal rights or conservation of resources — could be difficult to do without taking a whole lot of thought for what s/he is going to eat.

Difficult, I think, but not impossible.

My best advice to any new vegetarian is to take a cue from the military and “don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t pursue.”

In other words, exercise moderation. If the menu has an obvious vegetarian option, order it: veggie lover’s pizza instead of supreme, or bean burrito instead of chicken quesadilla. Don’t ask a lot of questions, and don’t beat yourself up if you find out later that they put a little ham in the collards or a little lard in the refried beans; just eat it, enjoy it, and make a mental note to order something different next time. It’s more fun to learn as you go than it is to get all stressed out about something as insignificant as what’s on your plate. (PETA would have you believe otherwise, but PETA also has a lot of people who sign up and then wash out immediately because they tried to do too much, too fast. I know, because I’m one of them.)

Don’t discuss your diet with people who are likely to be unsupportive, and never, ever use your diet as a fashion statement. If someone finds out you are a vegetarian and tries to draw you into an argument about it, find a way to end the conversation as quickly as possible, because this person is not interested in an intelligent discussion. He is just interested in pushing your buttons. Don’t let him. It’s a waste of time, energy, and thought. And never criticize someone else’s diet. You know the Golden Rule. Follow it.

I’m a big fan of “meat cheat” days. Allow yourself one day a month to cheat on your new diet. That way, if you’re at your grandma’s house and don’t want to hurt her feelings by telling her you can’t eat the roast beef, mashed potatoes drowned in beef gravy, green beans with bacon in them, and lard-crust apple pie she made especially for you because it was your favorite when you were a kid, you can just call a meat cheat, enjoy Grandma’s wonderful cooking, make her feel loved and appreciated, and still respect yourself in the morning. A cheat now and then helps ease cravings, avoids messy confrontations, and dramatically reduces any temptation you might feel to get sanctimonious about your eating habits.

The easiest way to switch from a meat-based diet to a plant-based diet is to cook at home more and eat out less. Get a good vegetarian cookbook (I highly recommend Mollie Katzen’s books — particularly The Moosewood Cookbook, which should be readily available at any library) and follow the recipes — no special thought required.

At restaurants, salads and baked potatoes are always good. Chinese restaurants offer dozens of vegetarian dishes (my favorite is lo mein), and most Mexican restaurants have refried beans and rice somewhere on the menu. Steakhouses often have a surprisingly big selection of vegetarian options (sauteed mushrooms, baked potatoes, cooked vegetables, and extensive salad offerings, among others). Appetizer menus are good places to find vegetarian stuff: fried dill pickles, mushrooms, green tomatoes, or corn fritters. I’ve made more than one meal out of a big plate of onion rings and a salad. Diners that serve breakfast all day are also great: In a pinch, you can just order pancakes for dinner.

As for fast-food places … there are extensive lists to be found online, but this should get you started:

Taco Bell: Bean burrito or refried beans, rice, and nachos; you can also get them to make a Mexican pizza without meat, which is terrific.
McDonald’s: Fruit and yogurt parfait or apple-walnut salad
Wendy’s: Baked potato and side salad
Sonic: Mozzarella sticks, cheddar bites, or cheese tater tots
Subway: Veggie patty (I like mine on wheat, with swiss cheese and extra mayo)
Quizno’s: They’ve got a killer vegetarian sandwich that involves fresh mushrooms and an Italian dressing; I forget the name of it, but it’s awesome.

If you’re thinking about going vegetarian, do it gradually, and cut yourself a lot of slack. I highly recommend the meat-cheat approach as a first step. It’s like using the Galloway method in a marathon: You build in a little break to walk for a minute every now and then, and it makes the whole run a lot easier.