In August 2020, my freshman year, I decided to pursue a plant-based diet. COVID-19 made me feel out of whack, and my diet seemed like one of the only things I could control. After a year of being fully vegan as a college student, I thought I’d share some of my trials and tribulations and the hacks/wisdom I discovered.
When I first started, I went cold turkey. This wasn’t as hard as it sounds — I had been a pescatarian for about two years. (That means no meat, but I still ate fish, dairy, and eggs.) I just had to drop the last animal products still in my diet.
When people switch to a plant-based diet, there are a lot of “transition foods” on the market that catch your eye. Vegan butter, chicken nuggets, even pizza rolls. Transition foods are a great way to get your mind off all the food you might be missing. I took advantage of these, and I still do, because who doesn’t like pizza rolls?
Now, everyone is different, but I didn’t really crave the foods I’d cut out. I found out I didn’t want cheese that much. Or fish. And even eggs weren’t my favorite. I discovered a love for peanut butter on pretty much everything, and I tried a bunch of new foods in new combinations.
Here is a list of things that I ate regularly in my first few weeks to give interested beginners an idea of how I started.
-Beans/legumes like black beans, chickpeas, and lentils
-Bananas, berries, and other dense fruits, tomatoes
-Tofu, Quorn (made of mycoprotein), pea protein
Here’s the holy grail of “hacks” I learned after many struggles.
-Cook different grains together. Make sure to mix grains that have similar cooking times. Quinoa needs to be rinsed first, and some people make crunchy rice because of a lack of water or continuous checking. Follow the instructions, and don’t put the heat on too high!
-Ingredient lists can be exhausting to comb through. To speed things up, check the allergen notice at the bottom of the list. This is usually in bold. It won’t tell you about meat present (which is typically obvious), but it’ll alert you to eggs and dairy.
-If the allergen list says “may contain,” it doesn’t mean there are animal products in your food. It just means it’s been processed in a facility that also processes animal products. They still clean the machines in between uses: it’s just legally required for those with extra-sensitive allergies.
-Figure out what ingredients are hidden! Things like gelatin, castoreum, whey, and casein can sneak into common store-bought foods. Educate yourself on what may or may not be vegan.
-Decide if you’ll be hardcore about veganism, or a little more lax. For example, granulated sugar is typically processed with bone char. Honey isn’t vegan, but eating it can be beneficial to honeybees. I tend to be on the more chill side of things, not worried about if my food touches food I don’t eat. And if something isn’t considered vegan but it’s better for the planet, I’ll usually go for the planet.
-Plus, some vegan foods can be harmful to the Earth. While almond milk is a great dairy alternative, it is in such high demand that the water required for 1 almond (1.1 gallons) is beginning to tax farmland. All nuts take around the same amount of water to grow, but almond milk seems to be the most popular. Keep these things in mind when you’re making consumption choices.
-If nutrition wasn’t that important before, it should be now. A vegan diet can be great for your health, but “junk food vegans” as I call them tend to be unhealthy, just like any other diet that contains a lot of processed foods. Frozen meals and convenience foods are awesome, but remember that this is a plant-based diet. Not a crap-based diet. It isn’t a big revelation that you should be mostly eating vegetables.
-Incorporate fat, protein, carbohydrates, and as much variety as possible into your weekly meals. Vegan diets are naturally high in fiber, so you shouldn’t have to worry about that too much.
–Consult your doctor if you have any conditions that might affect how you structure your diet. A physician might prescribe a supplement, or they might need to adjust certain medications or treatments like insulin levels. This is usually a good thing because you’re transitioning to a diet that helps lower blood sugar and processed fats/sugars!
-Vegans can be low in vitamins like B12, Calcium, Iron, or others. Getting tests if you think you’re deficient could make all the difference in your success with the diet.
Random Cooking Tips
-Focus on foods that fill you up, then add garnishes. Greens are great for you but don’t fill you up. I still eat things like kale and spinach, but I’ll usually add large handfuls to my smoothies or saute a whole bunch with a little sesame oil because they cook down so small.
-Prep grains, roasted veggies, and proteins. Sometimes assembling a full meal gets tiresome. I’m prone to the “bowl-o’-stuff” most days. I’ll make a whole bunch of different food groups in Tupperware to put together really quickly. This is especially great for busy days (which happen in college).
-Nutritional yeast is a common additive in vegan recipes because it’s a great B12 source and it has a cheese-like flavor. A common myth is that cooking it takes out the nutritional value, but cooking B12 doesn’t break it down.
-Learn how to properly season your food if you don’t know already. My favorite flavors are balsamics, paprika, rosemary, ginger, sesame, and mirin. Always put more garlic than you think you need. Experiment with new flavors! You might find something you love.
-Add extra toppings to your food to boost your nutrition. Nuts and seeds on oatmeal or in smoothies can bulk up a meal easily. Remember, the key to much vegan cooking is filling yourself up with as much variety as possible.
-Don’t be shy, get a cookbook! If you find yourself stuck in the same routine of meals every week, search for some new recipes. One of the coolest things about veganism is it forces you to seek out variety. I’ve learned a lot of recipes from other cultures whose diets are typically plant-based, out of necessity and boredom! If you let food get boring, you might quit altogether. (Here is my favorite cookbook. Not an affiliate link.)
Food is Social
-College students tend to make eating out or going to the dining halls a social activity. That can be difficult to navigate (I learned from experience) if your friends like Pizza Shuttle as much as mine do. However, I didn’t find it too hard to figure out where to eat because the University of Kansas has so many great vegan options — both in on-campus dining and in the surrounding Lawrence area.
-Downtown, my favorite places to go are Ramen Bowls, Zen Zero, and Archibowls. All the coffee shops and boba places usually have milk substitutes, too. KU even has a vegan version of the #CCCW (Crunchy Chicken Cheddar Wrap). I like to add a little black bean salsa and sriracha to mine for funsies.
-There are also veggie burgers, sushi options, burrito bowls, pho… The residence dining halls always have at least one meal option for vegans. If you’re concerned about it, though, you can schedule a meeting with the dining staff to work out a plan. They’re always happy to make accommodations!
-Sometimes my friends will go somewhere without vegan options, and that’s okay. I believe that my dietary choices shouldn’t affect theirs. A little tip? Always carry snacks on you. Granola/fig bars, trail mix, fruit… Whatever suits you. You never know if you might be stuck somewhere without options!
-Eating a vegan diet at KU has surpassed my expectations for how simple it is, even while living in a dorm. But I’d suggest at least a small fridge to keep non-dairy creamer or milk, some fresh berries, and maybe a few other snacks or easy meal options in case the dining options that day don’t seem so appetizing.
-If you’re not on a dining plan, even better! Just make a list ahead of time so you’re prepared to get ingredients for healthy, balanced meals. I like to decide what recipes I’ll cook for the weeks ahead and build my shopping list from those, plus the essentials I need every week, like bread or glorious peanut butter.
Whether you want to dive head-first or take it one step at a time, veganism is a great option to explore while you’re living on your own for the first time. If you decide to try it and it’s not for you, no problem!
Some people I’ve encountered have a stereotype in their mind that all vegans are like “that vegan teacher” (if you know, you know). That isn’t the case. Explore going plant-based if it interests you, and don’t let anyone tell you the “right” way to do it (or not do it).
To wrap things up, the takeaways are as follows: research, eat a variety, do prep work, and get creative. You’ll be a pro vegan in no time.