10 People Who Leveled Up on Plants (and How They Did It)
This story is part of Eat More Plants, Kitchn’s June 2021 special issue devoted to putting the flavor and magic of plants at the heart of your plate.
My senior year of high school, a new In-N-Out Burger opened up down the street, and on more than one occasion I ditched my last hour of AP calculus for Double-Doubles and fries. Months later, faced with my end-of-year exam, I stared at one of the questions, blank where burgers replaced parametric equations. Instead of even trying, I wrote down every single vegetable I could think of. (I wrote the recipe for Ina Garten’s Outrageous Brownies on another.) Needless to say, I did not do well on that test!
These days the math in my life mostly revolves around quarter-cups and half-tablespoons. But managing that balance between burgers and veggies remains, weighted now towards the vegetable side.
Be it for health or sustainability, a plant-forward lifestyle is more popular than ever. With so many new plant-based products and cookbooks hitting the shelves of our grocery and book stores, access to vegetable inspiration is at an all-time high. But it’s not always that easy. Seemingly strict diet parameters and years of leaning on the same set of cooking skills can make any change in eating habits seem daunting.
Interest in veganism may be on the rise, but many are just making moves to incorporate more vegetables into their daily lives. It’s not one-size-fits-all: I talked with 10 people to hear about how they made moves to dramatically increase their plant intake.
Keep cooking simple at home; go extravagant when you dine out.
Theresa Holland, 62, Austin Public Library employee in Austin, Texas
Theresa identifies as 99% vegan, save for the occasional slice of pizza. She’s been committed to reducing animal products from her eating habits since 2006. After years of vegetarianism, she finally cut out dairy and committed to being almost entirely plant-based. “I don’t think you have to be 100% or radical — you just do what’s best for yourself and what works,” she says. And what works best for her is balancing cooking at home and eating out. She enjoys the vibrant Austin food scene.
And while she cooks now more than she used to, she’s the first to admit she’s a lazy cook. Relearning her way around the grocery store and kitchen took time. She’d pick out a few recipes she found interesting, and learned those well. Eventually she got comfortable enough to know what she likes and not have to rely on recipes, and takes inspiration from her garden. She likes to keep it simple: “I don’t do those extravagant meals. I’ll save those for when I go out. Let someone who can really cook do that.”
Prep veggies right after grocery shopping for easy access all week.
Maria Salermon, 28, construction project manager in Austin, Texas
Maria watched a documentary in 2012 that highlighted the effects the commercial meat industry has on the environment. That alone was enough for her to decide to go plant-based. “I tried cutting it out cold turkey, and was like ‘Well, that’s not gonna work,’” she explains. After a lifetime of meat at every meal, she had to gradually step it out. She went from having it a few times a week to not buying it at all. It became easier for her once she noticed a change in how she felt. “I only get that overly stuffed feeling from meat. Realizing that has made the shift easier,” she says.
Maria now reaches for tofu and tempeh to fill her up, and has gotten better at cooking for herself. While she doesn’t meal prep, she does take the time to break down her vegetables after grocery shopping. It not only cuts down on prep time during busy weeknights, but it also ensures she’s eating her vegetables. What is especially helpful for her is having a partner who eats the same way and shares the cooking duties. “He’s brought in new recipes so I’m not having the same menu every week, I have variety.”
Use a CSA box as a Chopped-style challenge.
Eva Rebholz, 35, project manager in Madison, Wisconsin
Eva’s approach to plant-forward eating is reminiscent of parenting: “80% doing our best, and 20% giving ourselves grace.” And as a parent with a newborn and a 6-year old, there’s certainly a lot to balance. Eva first changed her eating habits by removing beef, and eventually advanced into a plant-forward lifestyle. Her family belongs to a CSA, which provides a sort of framework for their dinners. The beauty of a CSA means the family gets some really special seasonal items, like ramps or nettles. But sometimes they’re stuck with produce she doesn’t love or doesn’t know what to do with.
But she takes it as a challenge.
“Instead of relying solely on old favorites, we do a lot more Googling ‘best dish with [ingredient]’,” she says. This sort of “Chopped” box challenge has led her to some happy discoveries. She previously disliked butternut squash, but trying it in new and different ways has changed her mind. Thanks to a basil delivery, they discovered pesto is their son’s favorite food (well, that and faux chicken nuggets).
And while Eva and her family do occasionally enjoy using some of the newer vegan meats on the market, she passes on vegan cheese. “I’m a Wisconsin girl at heart,” she laughs.
Memorize this formula: beans + greens + grains.
Holly Deitz, 51, document specialist in Greenville, South Carolina
Holly grew up with meat at every meal — at the center of the plate, and flavoring all of the vegetables she ate. When the pandemic hit, Holly and her husband took a hard look at their at-risk factors for the virus and decided to make a drastic change for both their health and their wallets. When she was furloughed, she asked herself, “What can I do to eat really healthfully and save a lot of money? And the answer to that is easy: beans, greens, and grains.” They lean heavily on that formula for easy lunches, but love to play around with dinner and find new ideas on YouTube. She finds it helpful to see new ingredients introduced through video.
Speaking with Holly about her vegetable-heavy choices, the joy in her voice is so clear. “Food has always been a huge part of my life, and when I’ve thought about trying to be healthy in the past, it’s always involved some sort of diet,” she recalls. “But this is still about food and ‘yay.’ And that’s what’s so different about this.”
Dip into cookbooks for plant-forward inspiration.
Jordan Smith, 31, baker in San Francisco, California
Meat-centric, fried-food home cooking was Jordan’s norm growing up in southern Alabama. “There was this perpetual pot of grease just sitting on the stove. I don’t think I ever ate a meal without french fries.” A move to Michigan for graduate school opened up his world to a new way of eating. “Growing up, no one ever talked to me about how to eat, it wasn’t a discussion we had,” says Smith. “But once I was in Michigan, I just started asking everyone how they ate.” These frank conversations and exposure to new foods and cultures motivated Jordan to be more healthful with how he was feeding himself. “In the beginning, I was way too careful about counting calories. It took me a good six months to a year to get away from that.”
Today, the way Jordan eats is mostly vegetarian and centered around food as an experience. If he chooses to eat meat, it’s typically while eating out with friends. “It’s easier when you’re out and sharing. You aren’t stuck with all this meat you have to eat yourself.” But at home and cooking for himself, he finds inspiration in the pages of his extensive cookbook collection. He plans his vegetable-focused meals around a few cookbook recipes a week, setting himself up for success with well-prepared leftovers. “I had to figure out how to take care of myself first. It changed how I feed others.”
Embrace this mantra: Greens by any means.
Bailey Dunnivant, 26 in Minneapolis, Minnesota
“Greens by any means” is the mantra in Bailey’s house. Their household is fully omnivore, but increasing their vegetable intake has been a priority for Bailey — especially with young kids in the house. “Broccoli needs butter, and brussels sprouts are served with honey, but that’s OK,” Bailey explains about serving vegetables to her 4-year-old. There wasn’t a lot of home cooking in Bailey’s childhood, and she grew up eating mostly snacks and frozen convenience foods. The way she ate didn’t change much until she met her now-husband, who is a personal trainer.
Now Bailey makes sure meals always have both a salad and a cooked vegetable. Her mother in law helps out a lot in the kitchen, and they serve what they’re eating to her daughter, no special meals. “We’ve never bought into the idea that kids only like mac and cheese and chicken nuggets.” Bailey laughs telling me about her daughter starting to resist at mealtimes. “It’s not that she doesn’t like it — it’s just that she’d prefer to have something else in the moment.” But Bailey’s not too phased; she just saves it for a snack for another time.
Keep produce out on the counter or at eye level in the refrigerator.
D’andre Balaoing, 30, baker and cake decorator in Las Vegas, Nevada
Like many, D’andre turned to comfort food when the pandemic hit. “Oh I’m feeling sad, I’ll make myself a cheese plate or white rice and adobo,” he recalls. But as the pandemic wore on, D’andre realized he had an unhealthy relationship with comfort food. An Imperfect Foods box sparked a shift in his cooking habits. Now D’andre reframes what it means to use food to feel good. Focusing on giving his body what he needs, minimizing food waste, and always prioritizing for flavor gives him a place to celebrate what food can do for him. Getting in the kitchen for longer cooking sessions to put together banana peel curry or deeply spiced cabbage dishes gives him both nourishment and a creative outlet.
While he isn’t meat-free, his whole-food approach uses meat as a flavoring rather than a star ingredient. Key for him staying on track is keeping his produce out on the counter or at eye level in the refrigerator. “If you see that bell pepper starting to get wrinkly, you think to yourself, times are tough right now during the pandemic. I don’t want to throw that away, I’m going to cook or eat it.”
Believe in the power of a good sauce.
Briana Prieto, 24, administrative assistant in New York City
Briana has been a believer in the health benefits of a plant-based way of eating since high school. She remains a believer in the health benefits, and has moved into the vegan activism space in the last few years. Her advice for newbies? “Take it slow,” she says confidently. “I started out vegan and raw, and soon just started thinking, ‘There’s got to be more to this.’” Working at a cooking school for kids helped her learn how to explore new flavors and techniques. These days, she’s sure she can convert you with her veganized mac and cheese or Cuban classics she grew up with. She prefers scratch cooking to relying heavily on a lot of processed vegan products, for budget, health, and sustainability reasons.
And while she’s been committed to veganism for a while, her continued keys to success are meal prepping and sauces. “A sauce can save you. If you have something delicious ready to go, you can dip or spread it onto anything to make it taste good.”
Buy a variety of vegetables (in small amounts) to keep things interesting.
Paul Amoroso, 36, operations manager in San Francisco, California
Paul’s former life as a chef challenged him to really examine his food sourcing and eating habits. Growing small amounts of vegetables and herbs in his city apartment wasn’t enough to sustain him, and he asked himself, “How come we aren’t procuring our own meat?” Much of the animal protein he eats now he sources for himself as a hunter. But Paul eats vegetable-based during the week. He does 90% of his grocery shopping at the farmers market. “I like farmers markets because you’re supporting the actual farm versus a third party, and the carbon footprint is so much smaller,” he explains. “Honestly, I could find a positive thing to say about any vegetable you find at a farmers market.” He prefers to buy a variety of smaller amounts of vegetables, which help him avoid palate fatigue. Switching things up is key for him, and keeps him cooking at home and from defaulting to ordering meat-heavy restaurant meals. What helps him stick with it? “My bank account. The lower it got, the better I got with sticking to cooking and not eating out all the time.”
Take a relaxed approach, and give yourself time.
Hannah Hansen, 28, software engineer in Seattle, Washington
Hannah switched to being vegan overnight in 2016. Her initial parameters were strict and included only unprocessed foods: no salt, no refined sugar, no oil. Over the years, she has evolved to a more balanced way of eating. She likes being able to expose her friends and family to the idea of eating more plant-based options, and realized being less rigid is better for herself and more accessible for most. “You don’t have to be restricted,” she says. “We don’t just eat salads all the time.” Vegan baked goods and plant-based twists on the traditional Korean food she grew up eating are some of her favorite things to experiment with. “Korean food is very meat-dominated, with Korean barbecue, and there’s meat or fish in every meal,” she says. “I like to show people that the flavors are still there.”
And while she was able to make the switch overnight, she recognizes it can seem intimidating and is not for everyone. Like any big change, things can sometimes take time. “But after a while you gain confidence, you figure out the different types of foods to look for.”