I Was Vegan This January. Here’s What I Learned.

This Cheese and Egg Lover Gives It All Up

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I’m not a vegan, but I’m only eating plants this month. Why? The main reason is simple: I know meat and dairy are hard on the environment and I eat way more than my fair share. Livestock creates over 14 percent of carbon emissions worldwide. According to the latest U.N. report on climate change, “balanced diets, featuring plant-based foods present major opportunities.” I don’t mean to be a downer, but I also don’t want to ignore this very important fact anymore.

As a food editor, I think about eating and cooking constantly and I now have to think about it in a new way. Normally, the food in our house features eggs-a-minute, milk with more milk, daily yogurt and meat. My love of milk and cheese is deep. I’ve been seen buttering my cheese. I run a lot and food is my fuel. It’s my job, my obsession, and a daily source of comfort and joy, so going vegan—even for just a month—is a big change. 

Almost every meal I eat has animal products in it. At breakfast, green smoothies are normal for me, but my beloved morning coffee normally has milk and my 13-year-old’s breakfast is another story with buttered toast, mango milkshakes, and crepes. For me, lunch and snacks are indistinguishable. It’s normal to eat something like hard-boiled eggs, several bites of cheese, and a yogurt. My daughter confesses to eating a slice of pizza for lunch almost every day. Our dinner plates feature piles of carnitas, fundito, bacon cheeseburgers, chicken thighs, Vietnamese pork chops, squid rings, bone broths, hunks of crispy-skinned salmon. Of course, there are rice and noodles and soups and really nice roasted, steamed, smashed, and shaved vegetables of every sort supporting them, but the veggies are not the main story. Eating out is a freefall of tacos, sushi, shawarma, kebabs, and curries. Cooking for friends is a pageant of edible animals from land and sea. 

Already, it’s clear to me that eating only plants for the rest of January will help me pay attention to what I’m cooking and eating. It’s helping me be creative and maybe more compassionate. Moderation isn’t my strong suit, but I have successfully quit smoking and run three marathons and I think this will be a little like both: equal parts hard and rewarding.

Here Is My Plan

  • Eat only foods made out of plants for all of January.
  • Concentrate on whole ingredients and try not to eat too many vegan replacements.
  • Just eat a little sugar in my normal way and ignore the bone-char conundrum.
  • Continue to use whatever body care products and leather things I currently own.
  • Take notes and be honest, and try not to judge or complain.

I did not do much to prepare: I put a bar of milk chocolate and mini Kit Kats into a box and hid it. I made and ate paneer to get rid of the last of the milk and I put my soup bones into the compost bin. They were hogging too much space in the freezer. I made carrot ginger and tahini salad dressings, then went to a New Year’s Eve party and ate a vat of queso. I woke up with resolve. At lunch that day, I stated the phrase for the first time ever in a restaurant, “We are vegan.”

“That was scary,” my daughter said.

So scary! But why?

The whirlpool of fears includes: Being hungry, being full, being bored, gaining weight, losing control, offending vegans, alienating omnivores, missing out on fun, running out of time, changing my mind, changing in general. Change is scary. But there has been a lot of encouragement. For starters, I’m not alone—so many food publications are focusing on plants and moving away from dairy and meat this month, so good ideas abound. Most cuisines consist of foods that are made without animal proteins. I love most vegetables and hope many habits will stick around when Veganuary ends.

Will I find new favorite foods? Will I lose weight? Be more healthy? Will my skin glow as if illuminated from within? Then what? I don’t know what I’ll do in February. In the weeks leading up to this experiment, eating was tinged with melancholy (last cheeseburger, last fried egg). Will I go back to loving brisket as much as I did? I’m doing this with my whole heart but I don’t quite know what “this” is yet.

So How'd It Go?

I went vegan this past month, cold turkey. I did it for the environment. As the least vegan person I know setting out to change my diet, I thought I’d first miss steak, then later be grossed out by it. I expected to learn a bunch of new dishes and hoped to feel light and fantastic. Instead, eating a vegan diet was less about changing my diet and more about changing my mind.

I learned a lot about myself (and my intestines). I met so many nice vegans. It was wonderful to find new foods in favorite old restaurants and discover a corner in my grocery store that had allegedly been there all along. Experiencing what it’s like to be hungry after skiing at a ski lodge made me vow to try and meet even outlandish requests when feeding others. I tried to snuff out dumb pockets of carnivorous snobbery. Do I need bacon in my beans? No! Oh, I ate so many beans, and can confirm that all of the rumors about them are true. I re-friended carbs and discovered that my attachment with low-carb eating is unhealthy, but also that vegan replacements for classic American comfort foods are unhealthy. People were supportive and asked a lot of questions. Here are some of them:

Cut to the Chase. Did You Lose Weight?

Based on my pants, I lost inches. Please give credit to the vegetables, but also blame my poor planning, being bloated, occasionally leaving my lunchbox at home, and sometimes being too tired to continue chewing. You also have to factor in that I maxed out a New Year’s kickboxing deal.

How Was It?

I liked it. It led to more navel-gazing than is advisable. But I felt less guilty and more wholesome and was surprised by the way that having fewer choices actually made me appreciate my meals so much more. My dirty dishes were less greasy. My garbage had more plastic in it, but did not smell as bad. My compost was entirely innocent. What to feed my 13-year-old—who decided to become vegan with me, was a logistical pain in the neck—but we finally found a cashew milk that went well with Cheerios. The New York Times wrote an veganuary article with us in it and that helped me keep focus. 

No, Honestly, How Was It?

I am astonished by how quickly I found new comfort foods. On January 15, it was already so normal that I could stop talking about it for a few minutes at a time. I did miss cheese. I ate two large triangles of fried cheese on February 1 about three hours after I woke up. I would also like to inform you that regular Fritos are vegan. 

What Did You Eat?

My diet included a lot of vegetables that I normally eat—such as garlic and broccoli—and cauliflower with lemon, kabocha squash and string beans, lettuce with cucumbers and onions, garlic and kale, plus one thousand mushrooms.

Did You Cheat?

Twice. Once, I tasted a fish broth that someone literally put into my mouth and once I accidentally licked feta off my finger. I tried not to complain in general, but it’s a hobby and  I couldn't always help it.

Did You Try an Impossible Burger?

No. The most surprising thing is how incredibly tasty so many vegan foods are in their own right. Some comfort vegan replacement foods I loved: cultured butter, coconut cashew milk, cashew cheese, coconut yogurt, “sausage” (a red meat-ish paste that reminded me of the Salisbury steak served at my Massachusetts elementary school that I secretly liked), yellow liquid that became egg-like in a pan. Pretend cheese. It’s probably mildly disrespectful to call it that, but the variety of shapes and textures and colors of cheese simulacra were amazing. A few were off-putting. I called it pretend cheese with love because I was pretending it was cheese and because I wanted cheese so very much. It was overall a satisfying dream. The mayo is just not worth it.

Was Getting Dinner on the Table Difficult?

Too many successes to name. Here are the Cliff’s notes: Instead of chicken or salmon or steak or fried eggs, we had slabs of tofu coated with cornstarch and flour and crisped up in a hot skillet. I’m crazy about that dish and we had it eight times, when we craved a “meat and three” type of dinner. We had an assortment of noodles and chilies, discovered an amazing falafel recipe, and my boyfriend made us pickles, mushroom risotto, kabocha, and a big pot of Japanese root stew.

What Was the Hardest Part?

Going away for the weekend with a bunch of friends who were celebrating with food that was not vegan. I wanted some as much as Golum in Lord of the Rings wanted the precious. Two tricky days out of a whole month is not bad.

Are You Going to Stay Vegan?

No, but I will eat vegan food a lot. This experiment left space in the center of my diet that I’ll fill slowly and variously with colorful new vegetables from cuisines that don’t rely as much on meat. I’ll buy smaller amounts of the better meat, and milk and eggs.