I’ve been a vegetarian on and off for about eight years now. I started during my freshman year of high school when my sister became one because I’m the little sister that always has to copy everything. The start was my longest stint, I believe, of two years. However, I’d take bites of breakfast sausage or fried chicken here and there, deciding to stop labeling myself as an herbivore once it became too much. Once I started college, I tried again but again naturally quit because the plant-based foods available in the dining hall weren’t that appetizing — something I feel like a lot of vegetarians in college can relate to their college is lacking even though one in ten college students labels themselves as one. At my university, each dining hall had little vegetarian options, but only one on campus had a designated plant-based section, and even its options were limited.
This is something I feel is very common for people in smaller cities and towns if they decide to become vegetarian: a lack of options. My Walmart doesn’t even carry oat milk (my milk of choice), and their plant-based section is minuscule, hiding out at the end of the produce aisle.
I tried it again, hoping that by living on my own, I could stay away from meat completely if I just didn’t buy it. That’s where restaurants and post-night-out foods came in the way. My friends would invite me to dinner or breakfast at the limited number of restaurants in my college town, and either the vegetarian options just happened to be vegetarian or there was only one choice that was also extremely too healthy. After nights out, it was even more difficult to avoid meat: what if the token late-night pizza shop was out of cheese (which they routinely were)? And while I could’ve scarfed down leftovers, who wants to eat beans and lentils after an exhausting night?
The bottom line is being a vegetarian in college for me has not been the easiest thing. Not only is meat almost too accessible, but it’s cheaper. Meat replacements are always extremely expensive and don’t sit well with my small budget. Kelsey Piper at Vox reported that the beef for sale at a Walmart near her was only $2.80 a pound, whereas Beyond Beef, one of the leading brands for meat substitutes, was $6.25 a pound. Real beef and chicken are extremely cheap compared to the meat replacements available for vegetarians and vegans unless you’re just looking at tofu. On a college student budget, it can be very difficult to purchase healthy foods that also provide enough vitamins and protein that many vegetarians miss out on from excluding meat from their diets. And skipping meals is NOT the answer, as doing so can be the start of a bad relationship with food and slows your metabolism.
After my years of vegetarianism — and I am one right now — I’ve learned some tips that could help you either become a vegetarian if you’re interested or stay a vegetarian if you’re struggling a bit. No matter the reason chosen for becoming one, these tips below should help you in your choice!
01 Take Your Vitamins!
By excluding meat, your body will be missing some of those much-needed nutrients — you don’t want to become anemic or protein deficient. Thankfully, different vitamins are accessible at almost every grocery store, so you can just pick up a bottle of iron or B12 tablets, two key nutrients you’re probably lacking by not eating meat. Iron is essential for your health, as iron is used in proteins to carry oxygen from your lungs to other parts of your body. B12 keeps your blood cells healthy, so you definitely want that. However, if you, like me, hate taking pills, some foods rich in iron are beans, nuts, raisins and broccoli.
02 Find a few key recipes and stick with them
While beans and lentils aren’t the best after a night out, most of my meals have some type of beans in them. They’re extremely high in amino acids and antioxidants that help remove free radicals from your body, a.k.a molecules that can harm your cells and make you sick.
It’s really easy to get overwhelmed when becoming a vegetarian even though it sounds easy: just don’t eat meat, duh. But it can be daunting, as meat is generally the main course in a meal. I decided to find a few recipes that are easy and filling to serve as my staple meals, made with ingredients I would always have in my apartment.
One of my staple meals is a burrito bowl. It’s super easy because every ingredient is the same except for the meat, and I either add in soy crumbles meant to look and taste like ground beef or I just don’t add a meat replacement at all. I also eat my bowls over a ton of rice to make them a bit more filling.
Pasta is another great staple to keep around the house, it’s an extremely versatile food. Red sauce, white sauce, Gigi Hadid’s vodka sauce, or just olive oil and garlic — pasta is always a great option. However, if you eat a lot of pasta, you’re eating a lot of carbs which is expected of vegetarians. To lower your carb intake a bit, try chickpea or lentil pasta instead of the original kind.
Soup is another easy meal; it’s filling and comforting, especially on these frigid nights. It’s also great if you’re busy because you can just leave it in the crockpot and go. I make black bean soup a lot, but other recipes are extremely easy to make because they’re either already vegetarian or you can just take the meat out of the recipe and it’ll generally taste the same.
Keep track of the recipes you make as you go along and experiment. Write them down or put them in your notes app on your phone to ensure you’ll really enjoy what you’re making. Hopefully, some of my staple meals will inspire you to find your own.
03 Eat your fruits and greens
We all know the plights of buying fresh produce and the next day already having mold cover your raspberries. Everyone, but especially vegetarians, should be buying produce, so it’s important not to bite off more than you can chew. Buy in small quantities, choose staple fruits and veggies you know you won’t let go bad. If you want to, make some of those staples spinach, kale and oranges — they all carry necessary nutrients that’ll help you stay healthy.
Salad kits have been my go-to for a while now, even when I wasn’t vegetarian because I never eat enough salads to justify buying a whole thing of spinach or lettuce. Salad kits also take up less space in your fridge, and they can inspire you to buy your own ingredients for a salad next time.
The key to vegetarianism is versatility, buying foods that you won’t eat in only one meal that you’ll definitely only make once. Stick with fruits and veggies that are easy to cook with and that you can add to any meal, like broccoli, asparagus, apples and bananas. Make some fruit açai bowls for breakfast and have a banana on the side at lunch. Roast some broccoli for dinner and add the leftovers to your pasta the next day. It saves you from throwing away produce that you barely touched.
If you just can’t seem to keep produce from getting moldy, or you love smoothies, buy frozen fruits and vegetables. They’re cheaper than fresh produce and are easy to work with.
04 Save some money
One word: Aldi. If you don’t know what that is, I am so sorry because it is the greatest grocery store on the planet. Aldi stores exist mainly in the midwest and on the eastern side of the country, and they are perfect for finding vegetarian options and meat substitutes. My Aldi has a bigger vegetarian selection than Walmart, and it’s much cheaper. They also carry oat milk! If you don’t have an Aldi’s near you, Trader Joe’s is a great alternative that also carries plant-based foods for a smaller price.
It’s important to remember you don’t have to shop at those boujee, organic grocery stores to find good quality vegetarian options — though they are fun to browse in and get ideas for meals you could make. Meat alternatives are generally more expensive, but stores like Aldi and Trader Joe’s make them more affordable. If it still isn’t an option, get some tofu and play around with spices and marinades to find what you like.
And finally, just some general advice. Don’t expect meat replacements to taste exactly like meat. There is no way fake chicken and tofurkey are going to taste exactly like the meats they’re replacing. Go into it thinking it’s a completely separate dish. Also, don’t beat yourself up for cheating! It’s not easy to go completely cold tofurkey when leaving behind the world of eating meat. For whatever reason you’re choosing to be a vegetarian, if you cheat for one meal or one week, you’re still working towards your goal and that’s what matters.