B E C O M I N G V E G E T A R I A N:
Why You Should Do This
and How to Make the Transition
The Shopping List: How to stock your pantry
Making the transition to better eating isn’t difficult when you start with vegetarian foods that are already in your cupboard. Then, you can learn where to shop and what products to buy for good health and great taste. You will probably find a number of items on the list below that are unfamiliar to you. Rather than feeling intimidated by your new choices, though, get excited about all of the wonderful things you’re about to try. Eating like a vegetarian doesn’t limit your options; indeed, it will actually broaden them. Have you ever had millet with an African peanut sauce, or coconut curried vegetables served over barley? The array of choices may surprise you. Hold on to your chef hat because you’re about to discover the best food of (and for) your life!
The following are suggested categories of foods to include in your pantry.
BEANS AND LEGUMES
Otherwise known as legumes, these foods are essential for their high levels of vitamins, minerals, fiber and protein. You can choose dried, canned, or even frozen versions of many legumes, such as garbanzo (also called “chick peas”), black, pinto, anasazi, navy, kidney, and mung beans and black-eyed peas. Try green and red lentils, or green and yellow split peas. Dried beans require lengthy cooking (unless you have a pressure cooker— then they take only minutes), so you might start with canned beans, which are ready to heat and eat. You’ll be amazed at how many recipes you can use beans and peas for. They’re great in veggie burgers, dips and spreads, salads, soups, sauces and casseroles.
Soybeans are more nutrient dense than most other legumes. They provide all of the essential amino acids your body needs. They’re also easily digestible and work well with all combinations of seasonings. Prepared soy products (tofu, tempeh, soy cheese, etc.) are also useful as substitutes for meat, cheese and eggs.
Try tofu in all its forms; the firmer varieties are good for a “meatier” texture, while the softer or silken versions are wonderful for spreads and desserts. Give tempeh a try. This cultured soy product has a wonderful nutty flavor and is perfect for marinating and grilling, or baking. Soy beverages are great on cereal or for baking. And many are great to drink as well.
- When choosing soy beverages, choose fortified versions, especially for children. Look for calcium and vitamin D levels on the labels.
- Because nearly 50% of all soybeans grown in the United States are genetically modified - choose organic varieties when possible.
- When purchasing canned beans and peas, be sure to select varieties without animal fat or excessive amounts of salt or preservatives.
Full of great flavor and very filling, these complex carbohydrates provide lots of nutrients. Grains should be kept in an airtight container in a cool dry place, or in the refrigerator or freezer. Some grains you might want to stock up on include brown rice (long-grain, short grain or basmati), millet, buckwheat groats, barley, bulgur and rolled oats. All of these grains are easy to cook. It’s as simple as boiling water, and adding the grain, and covering to simmer. Grains are used in many recipes, from pilafs to casseroles to stir-fries. They are also great in breakfast foods or desserts, such as rice pudding. And don’t forget about whole-wheat bread, bagels and cereals.
Pasta is made from grains. It is really quick to cook, and usually only needs to be topped with a sauce and some veggies to create the foundation for a healthful meal. It can also be added to soups and made into salads. A variety of shapes, colors and flavors is available. Try spirals, bow-ties, angel hair, and alphabets for the kids. Just don’t forget to pick the whole grain versions. If you have a wheat allergy or sensitivity, or if you just want a change, try brown rice pasta, quinoa pasta or spelt pasta.
- Always choose whole, unrefined grains whenever possible. The refining process (turning brown rice into white rice, for instance) removes most of the fiber, protein and vitamins and minerals from the grain, and enriching doesn’t begin to add back what was lost.
Fresh produce is your best choice. The key here is to choose a variety of produce. Variety will keep you healthy and will ensure that you never get bored. Organic, locally-grown produce provides the best flavor, condition, and nutrition. Buying in season ensures freshness and quality, and helps maintain healthy ecosystems by encouraging diversity and reducing transportation. Try winter vegetables such as carrots, turnips, rutabagas, beets, onions, cabbages and citrus fruits. In the spring, give leeks, lettuces, watercress, spinach, green onions, peas, asparagus, strawberries and blackberries a try. Summer is great for tomatoes, sweet corn, beans, eggplant, chard, zucchini, squash, peppers, okra, peaches, blueberries, plums and fresh herbs. Fall ushers in apples, pears, grapes, cauliflower, lettuces, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, collard greens, potatoes, winter squash, sweet potatoes, and pumpkins.
- Try shopping at a local farmer’s market for the best locally-grown organic produce around. The prices are much cheaper than they are once they hit the grocery stores. Consider joining a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) buying club with organic farmers. You’ll get a variety of wonderful fruits and vegetables all through the growing season at a bargain price. Plus, you’ll be supporting local farmers who are working in concert with nature. Sometimes they will even deliver the produce right to your front door!
- Try dried fruits and vegetables for a change. Great in cereals, baked goods, chutneys, grain dishes and salads, or all by themselves, these foods are best in their organic, unsulfured, preservative-free forms. Stock up on raisins, currants, dried apricots, dates, figs, prunes, dried apples, dried corn, dried cranberries, sundried tomatoes, and dried mushrooms. They can be eaten as is or re-hydrated in water or broth.
- Buy organically-grown foods whenever possible in order to limit exposure to pesticides and other chemicals, and to avoid genetically-engineered and irradiated foods. Plus, ask any of the nation's finest chefs and they'll tell you, "Organically-grown foods just taste better."
Although sea vegetables are relatively new for American tastes, they have been used for centuries in other countries. With 80 main varieties, there are more than 250 different types of edible sea vegetables. These low-calorie, nutrient-rich foods are wonderful to try. One popular sea vegetable is nori, which is used in making sushi. Agar agar is used as a vegetarian gelatin. Dulse, hijiki, arame, and kelp are other great varieties that you’ll want to try in soups, salads or sandwiches. They can be found in flakes or in strips.
NUTS AND SEEDS
Nuts and seeds can be used in many recipes or eaten alone as a great snack. Almonds, pine nuts, cashews, pecans, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, pistachios, and sunflower seeds are all tasty and nutrient dense. Both sesame seeds and almonds are a good source of calcium as well. Try any of a number of different nut butters for a real treat. Cashew nut butter, almond butter and, of course, peanut butter all make great spreads on bread; plus they’re wonderful in baked goods. Try mixing hazelnut butter with silken tofu and maple syrup for a great dessert topping! You might want to buy some flaxseed oil for those hard-to-get omega-3 essential fatty acids. Always keep this oil in the refrigerator and use it before its expiration date to ensure good quality. You can add this oil to salad dressings or drink it in fruit smoothies. A cheaper way to get those essential fatty acids is by buying flax meal, or purchasing flaxseeds and grinding them yourself in a coffee mill. Keep this meal in the freezer or refrigerator to maintain its freshness.
- When choosing peanut butter, avoid the varieties with sugar and hydrogenated oil added to them. Non-hydrogenated versions are delicious and you can add a sweetener to them if you’d like. Because the oil separates from the nut, you’ll want to stir the oil back into the peanut butter (or pour it off if you want to reduce the fat content). Be sure to read the label to see if hydrogenated oil is used. As mentioned previously,hydrogenated oils should be avoided because they are rich in trans fatty acids, which have been shown to increase the risk of heart disease.
- When purchasing flaxseed meal, try to avoid the “defatted” variety, which has been stripped of many of its essential fatty acids
SPICES AND HERBS
Buy small quantities of these items, as they lose their flavor and intensity over time. Fresh herbs usually taste best, but dried ones are more available and work quite well. Dried herbs should be kept in tightly closed jars in a cool, dark place.
You’ll learn which spices go well together (cumin, oregano and chili powder are great for Mexican; basil, oregano and rosemary are wonderful in Italian dishes), but you can experiment with any variety you choose. Try some of the following for a start: bay leaf, sage, peppercorns, rosemary, basil, tarragon, dill, oregano, thyme, cumin, coriander, cardamom, allspice, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, caraway seeds, fennel seeds, fenugreek, mustard seeds, chili powder, paprika, cayenne, onion powder, garlic, and parsley.
- Buying herbs and spices in bulk at natural grocery stores will save you a bundle. They’re sold at a fraction of the cost you pay for a small jar in the grocery.
OILS AND BUTTER SUBSTITUTES
Because these are all fats, they should be used sparingly. A little goes a long way in sautés, stir-fries, and salad dressings. But not all fats are created equal. The less-refined oils are better for you. Look for "cold-pressed" or "expeller pressed" oils because they retain more nutrients than highly processed and refined oils. It’s best to keep these oils in the refrigerator, as they will turn rancid over time. Use olive oil for all your cooking and baking needs, of course, using it sparingly. Look for extra-virgin olive oil.
It’s best to avoid hydrogenated oils, such as margarine, even if it’s soy or canola margarine. Adding hydrogen to oils creates trans fats, which we described earlier as the worst type of fat to eat. You can buy non-hydrogenated versions of margarine in most grocery stores. Even these should be used very sparingly.
Organic, unsweetened fruit juices can be great sources of vitamins and make tasty refreshments, but they do contain calories. Mineral water and herbal teas are a great way to make sure you get your recommended eight 8-ounce servings a day of water. There are more herbal teas available than you could imagine. Or blend some soy milk with frozen strawberries and bananas for a powerful breakfast smoothie. But the best beverage of all is good, pure, refreshing water.
Because these products are obviously not high in nutritional value, they should be used sparingly. But when you want a sweet treat, try molasses, pure maple syrup, brown rice syrup, sorghum, Sucanat (sugar cane natural) or agave nectar (cactus nectar) as they are probably metabolized by your body more slowly than white or brown sugar. They’re also less processed and may have small amounts of beneficial nutrients. The herb Stevia is a good alternative.
WHERE TO SHOP
Where do you buy these staples? You don’t necessarily need to change where you shop, although you might want to find a natural foods store in your area to expand your options. Look in your Yellow Pages to get a listing of groceries in your vicinity. Most natural foods stores have trained, knowledgeable staff who can help you to get accustomed to their store. Take advantage of this service and get the real "scoop" on which items are the tastiest.
There are many large natural food store chains in many parts of the U.S. Stores such as Fresh Fields, Wild Oats, Whole Foods, Trader Joes, and more, offer wonderful choices for healthy, tasty fare.
The large conventional super markets are not about to be left out. Many of them offer organic and natural food sections for produce, bulk foods, and other healthy choices. Check them out!
Hopefully we've given you some tools to work with on the road to health and healing--your road to a new you!