10 Steps Towards a Plant-based Diet

If you haven’t yet read my Mom’s Guide to Changing Your Family’s Diet to Plants, I recommend you start there.

If you are ready to start shifting your family’s diet to include more whole plant foods, you’re in the right place. Rather than tell you which step you should take first, I’m going to lay out ten possible steps and encourage you to start with one that feels both doable and impactful.

After all, if you only rarely drink soda, giving it up would be pretty easy, but it also wouldn’t improve your diet much!

When you’ve got your stride a bit with one step, pick another one from the list and keep up your momentum. Change is hard, but this change is good.

Tackle Breakfast

We are priming our taste buds for the rest of the day when we eat breakfast. A great breakfast will mean you don’t have to think about food again until lunchtime, and making it a deliberate healthy choice will build momentum.

Here’s why I recommend oatmeal if at all possible, but you can also grab some fresh fruit and toast with avocado or nut butter on it. Keep it simple, but for sure swap out the cold cereal*, toaster pastries or bacon. Ack, sorry for mentioning bacon. You won’t miss it forever, promise!

*Eating a good-sized bowl of “healthy” cold cereal meant my kids were getting as much sugar for breakfast as a butterfinger candy bar has, and they were still hungry! So, I had to break up with cereal from a box.

One whole food plant-based dinner this week, two next week.

There is a fun trend for “Meatless Mondays,” but we don’t want to stop there. So often I see the meatless dish being full of cheese! Or I see that people feel they’re practically vegetarian now they’ve had a meat-free meal. That’s not doing your health any favors. Have a legitimate, whole food plant-based dinner once a week, then add a second dinner next week, and build from there. Here are my easiest, yummy soups to give you some ideas.

Tip: Remember to eat plenty! You can eat a lovely large amount of whole plant foods because they tend to be high in fiber and low in calories.

Get rid of one dairy item, then another

Cheese is harder for some people to give up than smoking. Maybe start with yogurt? Or stop drinking cow’s milk by the glass? Or give up string cheese or sprinkling cheese on dinner by default?

There are absolutely substitutes for dairy that are vegan, but I usually don’t recommend trying to use them right away. If you choose a vegan mozzarella “cheez” and compare it to a dairy-based cheese, I’m guessing you’ll be disappointed. There are so many delicious plant-based foods that don’t try to masquerade as meat and dairy. Start with those and if you circle back to a vegan sour cream, yogurt, or even “cheeze” later, you’ll be more receptive and enjoy them more.

I do recommend trying some plant-based milk. A good starting point is unsweetened soymilk. It can be used just like dairy milk in baking or splashed into oatmeal or muesli.

Meatless before dinner

There’s a group of people who eat “vegan before 6,” meaning they avoid animal products before dinner. One approach is simply to ditch meat for breakfast and lunch. No more lunch meat or bacon! Adjust to that, find a new groove, then move on to your next step.

Eat a baked sweet potato for lunch with black beans and salsa or a squeeze of lime. Have a veggie sandwich with hummus. Wrap up refried beans and shredded lettuce into a simple burrito. Go for tofu scramble instead of egg scramble for breakfast. Eat crackers with your tomato soup instead of grilled cheese. With a little creativity, you can find alternatives to what you’re currently eating.

Ditch the fast food

Your plant-based options are going to be limited at fast food restaurants.

Consider why you are turning to fast food in the first place. Are you wanting to feed your family without fussing with dishes? Are you grabbing dinner while running between activities? If you can identify the problem that fast food is currently solving for you, I’ll bet you can solve that problem in a different way.

It may come down to: using paper plates once a week, using the crockpot, packing “lunch for dinner” on that night you are going between activities, or it may be a different solution entirely.

In case it helps, our go-to when we want dinner in a hurry and don’t want to make it are vegetable fajita bowls at Chipotle. We load them with black beans, vegetables, brown rice, pico de gallo, lettuce and guacamole. But it’s at least a 15 minute drive from our house so it’s usually easier to just pull together a lazy plant-based pantry meal.

Ditch processed food

As a general rule, if it has a barcode and an ingredients list, don’t buy it. That’s the end goal, and to get there, you can swap one item at a time. Buy grapes and carrots for snacks instead of fruit-by-the-foot and graham crackers. Buy a whole grain pasta and a tomato-based sauce with real ingredients and ditch the blue box and powdered cheese packet.

Before you toss something in your grocery cart out of habit, pause. Commit to finding a new normal without it.

Get rid of soda

This one is simple to type and more difficult to do. We love Spindrifts on crushed ice. They have a squeeze of real fruit juice, but no sugar or fake sugar, so they don’t hold our taste buds hostage.

Stay the course and pay attention to why you’re reaching for soda in the first place. Is it stress? Just habit? Acknowledge the stress and cope with it in a healthier way. Replace the habit with something that serves you better.

Plan your sugar

Of course ditching sugar in your diet completely would be a home run for health, but for most of us that’s not sustainable. Instead, can I recommend planning your sugar? Decide in advance what treat you’re going to enjoy. And, then thoroughly enjoy it! Otherwise, automatically decline offered sugar.

Here’s an example: I plan on going out as a family to get a donut on Saturday morning. Yum! I’ll enjoy both the anticipation and the experience. And when someone brings donuts (or cupcakes, or cookies, or whatever) to Book Group on Thursday evening, I simply pass them by and grab some of the cut up fruit instead.

Planning your sugar is a deceptively powerful change because it means your self-control muscle gets a break. You aren’t looking at those cupcakes and cookies and wrestling with yourself. You’re just acknowledging there’s always an endless supply of treats in the world, but you’ve already decided which you’ll enjoy that day or week.

I pass up cigarettes without thinking about it every time I go to the drugstore, because I’m not a smoker. I’m also not a random sugar eater.

Next Book Group I may plan on eating a treat and that’s cool, too. But I’m not making those decisions in the moment when presented with gooey chocolate. I’m also not reaching for cookies at 11pm because I’m feeling restless, which I otherwise might be inclined to do. Ahem.

This particular gooey chocolate is a whole food plant-based treat, so that’s a bonus!

Leafy greens every day

There are so many ways to get some greens in your day, and just this one goal will have ripple effects in other areas of your diet. You might start throwing kale or spinach in your breakfast scramble, adding a green smoothie to your breakfast, stuffing shredded romaine or spinach in your lunchtime wrap or putting chopped kale or spinach in your dinnertime soup. Make your burrito into a salad instead by dumping all the filling onto a pile of crisp greens.

Look at your meal plan for the week (or for the next day if you tend to wing it) and see where you could get some greens in. I recommend starting with baby spinach (all washed in a bag or tub) because it’s convenient and it inconspicuous. But curly kale or romaine are both solid choices as well.

Only fruits and vegetables between meals

Snacks often get overlooked when we plan meals, but they count for a lot! In fact, two thirds of Americans are eating at least two snacks a day. We average 24% of our calories from snacks, and what we eat at snack time influences our appetite and taste-preferences when it comes to meals.

So often our kids turn up their noses at what’s for dinner because they’re not actually hungry! They whine before dinner so we hand them something to tide them over, which then prevents them from enjoying what we serve them.

What if we allow for as much snacking as we want, but limit it to fruits and vegetables? No, don’t dunk them in ranch dressing. Just fruits and vegetables. How would our appetite for meals be affected?

Currently just 1 in 10 Americans eats the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables each day. You are about to enter into a very elite group!

We love munching on snap peas, cucumbers, frozen peas, frozen edamame, carrots, celery, bell peppers, romaine lettuce, sweet mini peppers, watermelon, apples, oranges, bananas, pears, grapes, canned pineapple, and so much more!

(I do personally limit my kids to one fruit as a snack per day, unless it’s apple or peach season, simply because our grocery budget would be out of hand if they were given free rein. I also have them start with a vegetable snack. )

Ok, enough yacking. Time to get cracking! Pick an area of focus get started and remember any progress counts! Progress, not perfection, is the goal.

I’d love to hear how you’re doing with changing your family’s diet. Please drop a comment, so I can cheer you on.

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