If Beyoncé can do it, so can you.

So, you’ve decided to make the move toward a meatless 2020. Maybe you’re interested in the viral #veganuary challenge, which involves going vegan for the month of January. Or, hey, maybe you’ve noticed your roommate’s tofu scramble actually looks pretty good, and you’re curious to learn more. Whatever the case, good for you! You’re well on your way to embracing a lifestyle that has proven health benefits and a positive environmental impact.

A cartoon planet Earth smiles as it sprouts a healthy tree.

The only issue is, you find yourself incredibly overwhelmed by the thought of changing your diet completely. For one, you couldn’t imagine replacing those tasty Big Macs with heaping bowls of kale and air, or whatever it is vegans eat. Also, let’s be real, you’re a student, and you’ve heard plant-based living is wildly expensive. You can’t justify spending $18 on lunch when tuition is due next week! And hey, does giving up dairy mean you can’t eat pizza?

Believe me, I hear you! Any fears you have about altering your nutrition habits are completely understandable. After all, your diet can be a huge part of your identity, and how you eat can greatly affect how you socialize. But, if you’re interested in trying plant-based living on for size, you shouldn’t let your apprehension hold you back. There are tons of ways to transition that don’t involve living off of white rice and french fries (although, every vegan’s done it at some point. Myself included.) So, in the spirit of new year’s resolutions, here’s my unofficial guide to going meatless the right way.

Also, for the record: yes, you can still eat pizza.

Snooki from Jersey Shore lays next to a box of pizza and says "I love you"

Find your “why”

If you’re already thinking about reducing your consumption of animal products, there’s likely a reason you want to make the change. However, if you consider yourself more “veg-curious,” your motivations could be more ambiguous. In that case, the best place to start is by identifying a clear purpose — something that will keep you grounded in your new lifestyle even when you’re really craving chicken nuggets.

As mentioned, plant-based diets have proven health and environmental benefits. But, with both vegetarianism and veganism becoming increasingly widespread, there’s tons of research being conducted on them. Thus, there are tons of reasons to give them a shot! For example, did you know reducing your consumption of meat has been proven to improve your mood?

Whatever motivates your decision to go veg, make sure it’s something that resonates with you.

A character from season 44 of Saturday Night Live feverishly asks, "But why though?"

Teamwork makes the dream work

With nearly 10 per cent of Canada’s population now identifying as vegan or vegetarian, chances are you already know someone who’s made the switch. And, if there’s one thing vegans like to talk about, it’s being vegan. So, reach out! Ask them for tips and tricks that helped them along the way, what challenges they faced, and for any advice they have for someone looking to transition. Who knows…they might even have a few tasty recipes up their sleeves, which can help you establish some solid go-to meals. Win-win!

Even better, try reworking your diet alongside someone else. Shifting away from using animal products is much easier when you have external support to keep you motivated and hold you accountable. Whether you live at home or with roommates, cooking yummy, meat-free meals as a team is a great bonding activity that can also help you discover some new favourite dishes. In short: tackle veganism as an exciting group challenge, instead of as a personal test. It will make your changes more sustainable and more satisfying.

Don’t know any vegans or veggie-wannabes? Fortunately, there’s a huge community of meat-free eaters at your disposal. The Toronto Vegetarian Association is a fantastic resource that offers recipes, guidance, and the opportunity to connect with other vegans and vegetarians through regular sponsored events and meetups. Also, donating to the TVA (even once!) entitles you to a TVA membership card, which allows you to score discounts on veggie cookbooks and at vegan restaurants throughout the city. Score!

Spongebob Squarepants and Patrick Star high five

Seek out vegan eats

Contrary to popular belief, vegan food extends far beyond boring salads and dry toast. Thanks to the increasing number of vegans and vegetarians worldwide, we’re essentially living in a golden age of yummy plant-based snacks! And, lucky for you, Toronto just happens to host a multitude of outstanding vegan eateries that will please even the most hardcore meat lovers. Check out our list of Toronto’s best vegan restaurants for some ideas!

On top of exploring the city’s fabulous vegan joints, I highly suggest spending some time browsing for recipes to try at home. Searching for plant-ified versions of foods you already love is a great place to start. (I promise you, there’s a vegan version of everything. Yes, even cheesecake.)

There are endless vegan blogs and food sites out there, but Lauren Toyota’s hot for food and BOSH! are two of my favourites. A warning, though: you will get hungry looking through them.

Gif of Garfield licks his lips and rubs his paws together while being served a plate of lasagna.

But isn’t it expensive?

Short answer: not necessarily.

If your vegan diet consists solely of fast-casual takeout, fancy protein bars, and Beyond Meat burgers, you’ll definitely notice a dent in your monthly food budget. However, focusing mainly on whole foods (i.e. foods that have been processed as little as possible) and make-ahead meals could wind up saving you money!

How come? Well, for one, meat and cheese are some of the pricier items at most grocery stores; replacing them with plant-based alternatives like tofu and nutritional yeast (or, as it’s known by vegans, “nooch”) is extremely cost-effective. Plus, many of the groceries you already buy are accidentally vegan! Peanut butter? Yup. Oreos? You betcha. Bread, Ritz crackers, Skittles, hummus, salsa, hash browns, Cheerios? Yes, across the board! Finally, lots of vegan recipes have overlapping ingredients. You can pick up a big ol’ bag of lentils from your local food market and use ’em in soups, sauces, pasta, and even tacos! Did you hear that? Sorry, it was just my stomach grumbling.

When it comes to vegan living, the more you can make at home, the better. I get it, though: you’re a student; you don’t have time to be cooking every day. You want to try veganism, but your schedule’s packed! You barely have enough time to eat your lunch, let alone make it. Never fear, my friend. Vegan fast food isn’t only $14 smoothie bowls that still somehow leave your stomach grumbling 45 minutes later. For example, A&W is my favourite spot for a quick veggie burger. Taco Bell can also be easily veg-ified (ask for a Crunchwrap Supreme with beans instead of beef, no cheese or sour cream, add guacamole and potatoes. It will change your life.) Even Pizza Pizza can give you dairy-free cheese at no extra cost! *Insert cash register sound here*

Gif of rapper Lil Wayne "making it rain" by tossing paper bills at the camera.

Baby steps

Remember when Jess Glynne said, “Don’t be so hard on yourself”? She was actually talking about the switch to veganism.

Okay, she wasn’t, but that doesn’t mean her lyrics don’t apply. Basically, altering your diet is a big deal, and you can’t expect yourself to be perfect right away. If you’re interested in moving toward a vegan lifestyle, begin with small behavioural adjustments, and slowly increase them as you adapt. Start by going meatless one day a week. Then two. Then three. Then, try adding almond milk to your coffee instead of two per cent. In short, take it slow. Don’t cut out turkey cold turkey.

Another thing I found helpful during my transition was the mentality that you aren’t restricting foods, you’re replacing them. In other words, you can still have all your favourite foods as a vegan, you’ll just be eating a different version of them. If you tell yourself, “I can’t have ice cream,” you’ll be in line at Baskin Robbins by the end of the week. But, if you say, “I’m going to have a new kind of ice cream,” it’s much easier to stay on track with your goals. Don’t limit yourself; delicious, plant-based versions of all your favourite foods exist, and you’re going to love them.

Lastly, veganism is not an all-or-nothing venture. If you’ve ever met one of those vegans who preaches the immediate and permanent elimination of all animal products or else, they’re wrong. A friend of mine once said, “Veganism isn’t about being perfect. It’s about doing your best to help the animals.” She’s exactly right. Animal products are firmly established staples in the cultures and cuisines of people around the world. And, while I believe wholeheartedly in veganism’s ability to improve one’s personal health and heal the planet, the fact of the matter is, a total conversion isn’t what’s right for everyone. The mere fact that you read this article shows you’re at least somewhat aware of the benefits plant-based living can have. That alone is a win! If you try veganism for a while and decide you’re most comfortable with, say, ditching dairy but keeping meat, you’re still doing your part. Even the smallest change of habit is worthwhile.

After all, we’re just doing our best.

A baby pig smiles as as a person scratches its belly.

For more on sustainable living, check out how one Guelph-Humber student went zero-waste for a week.

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