The Care and Feeding of Your New Vegan
Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love teaching my friends about the joys of non-dairy creamer
Short of an end to global suffering and a decent eggless angel food cake, all I want is to help other people become vegan too. This is a common vegan dream, but what do you do when it actually happens? I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, as a good friend has just seen the plant-based light.
My friend and coworker, let’s call him Joel (because that’s his name), texted me a few months ago, pretty much out of the blue: “I watched Eating Animals last night. Yikes.” Apparently, the Natalie Portman-backed film had affected him so much, he hadn’t had an animal product since. Of course, I was more excited than a tap dancing corgi, but now what?
I’m so glad you asked, I have some tips.
Food: the most important meal of the day.
If I had a nickel for every time I heard, “I could never give up cheese,” I could buy a year’s worth of Fauxgonzola. Everyone has to eat, and food seems to get the most attention when it comes to the vegan transition. Changing their diet is what most budding vegans tackle first. It can be difficult and just plain intimidating to give up much of the food you’ve been eating most of your life. So when it comes to supporting your new vegan, helping them find tasty vegan meals is essential.
Many new vegans focus on what they can’t have. My first piece of advice is to shift that conversation to focus on what they can. I once read that most people have about 11 staple meals they eat throughout the year (I have about three: pb&j sandwiches, chick’n patties, and vodka tonics). This is a very manageable way to approach a new diet. Sit down with your new vegan and help them brainstorm a list of meals they like that are already plant-based or could be easily tweaked to be animal-free. Put your compassionate, problem-solving mind to work — a few food swaps go a long way. Let your new vegan know they don’t have to give up their simple comforts like coffee, they just need to find the right non-dairy creamer.
Here’s where product recommendations come in. The vegan world is very different than it was when I made the switch ten years ago. There are so many amazing plant-based products on the market now, with more added every day. In fact, there’s sometimes an overwhelming wealth of options. And as well all know too well, they aren’t all tasty. When it comes to your new vegan, I suggest introducing them to the safest, most delicious products first. The foods that have resonated most with Joel so far shouldn’t be a surprise: Beyond Meat burgers and bratwurst, Violife cheeses, and Oatley milk. That’s pretty much top of the pops right there, and those products are some of the most reminiscent of their animal-laden counterparts.
Another key contribution you can make is recipe recommendations. Send your new vegan a handful of your favorite recipes. You don’t want to overwhelm them, so start small — just send three or four of your go-tos. Once they get into it, they will most likely start asking for vegan recipes for specific foods (we’re still looking for the perfect plant-based potato salad for Joel, message me if you have it).
Inform, don’t traumatize.
Even after a decade, I’m still shocked by all the inventive ways people find to abuse and exploit animals. And as any experienced vegan knows, animal byproducts are hiding everywhere (enough with the whey, omnivores!). For now, your newbie doesn’t need to know there’s casein in most latex condoms or fish scales in some nail polish.
Just think about what information was the straw on the figurative camel’s back for you and start there. For me, the dairy-veal connection is what got me to go from vegetarian to vegan. So that’s what I lead with. And I’m not talking about graphic videos of calves having their heads bashed in. You don’t need to immediately expose people to blatant cruelty and bloodshed, and I find that the shock technique turns many people away. It’s a lot to process emotionally and some people just shut down. You don’t need the videos anyway — the average person is so far removed from how animal products are procured, that just talking about the most basic information can be shocking to them. When I mentioned that the dairy-veal relationship is what got me to go vegan, it was really just learning the simple fact that cows aren’t just milk fountains, endlessly spraying everywhere, that they need to have babies to produce milk, and that those babies are then sold to veal farms. I had no idea (in my defense, I didn’t meet a lot of cows while growing up in Philadelphia).
One thing I said early on that has stuck with Joel is that veganism is not about perfection, it’s about doing what you can to reduce suffering. The truth is, none of us can live completely devoid of causing harm. From ants you accidentally step on to the doomed mice in a crop field, some things can’t reasonably be avoided. Trying to discover, wrap your mind around, and constantly remember all the ways humans exploit animals can be overwhelming. So, let your new vegan ease into it all.
Let go, let seitan.
It seems like everyone and their adopted pit bull try a vegan diet at some point. Maybe for a month, maybe for a day. It’s an experiment or just an interesting challenge, and it doesn’t last. That’s not ideal, but it happens, and it’s better than nothing. If you’re an ethical vegan, you’ll obviously be emotionally invested in whether or not your new vegan stays the course. However, while you can’t help feeling that way, you don’t have to put that pressure on your newbie. Your friend should be vegan because they want to, not because they don’t want to let you down. The latter is an express train to resentment city.
Not everyone is ready to be vegan, and accepting that will save you a lot of heartache. The bottom line is that your new vegan is their own person, and this is out of your control (shout out to my therapist and #boundaries). All you can do is answer questions, be supportive, and help them navigate this new world.
So far, this strategy is working with Joel. You can follow his progress Instagram—my vegan baby is about to hit his six-month veganniversary!