The Beginner’s Guide to Going Vegan

Tell someone you’re vegan, and they’ll most likely look at you blankly and assume you only eat salads and that horrible white jiggly stuff from the ‘70s. But we’ve come a long way since wheatgrass was all the rage.

These days, there are hundreds of vegan substitutes for foods like meat, eggs, and, yes, even cheese, that are tasty, affordable, and can fool even the most meticulous of meat eaters. If you’ve been thinking of going vegan, are curious about how to go vegan, or are cooking for someone else, check out these easy vegan tips for beginners to make plant-based your new go-to. 

vegan bowl of food

What is a vegan lifestyle?

Natalie Slater, author of Bake and Destroy: Good Food for Bad Vegans and the director of marketing for Upton’s Naturals, breaks down a vegan lifestyle in a pretty easy way:

“In the simplest terms, a vegan diet means no animal flesh, no dairy, no eggs, and no animal or insect by-products,” she explains. “There are lots of reasons why a person might choose to go vegan — compassion for animals, environmental concerns, and health concerns are the most common.” 

A lot of vegans will also extend these principles beyond their diet, buying faux leather or fur when it comes to fashion or furniture and forgoing some candles and even makeup that contain beeswax or honey. 

There can be a lot of misunderstandings about a vegan lifestyle since it’s a different way of, well, living. Veganism challenges the standard American diet most of us grew up with (remember the food pyramid and the old “Got Milk?” ads?). Veganism is different, and whenever you try to be different, you may get challenged. Slater says educating yourself and others is imperative.

“There are a lot of misconceptions about animals used for food,” she says. “One of the most intelligent people I know once asked me if I was worried about cows ‘exploding’ from not being milked and I had to explain to him that mammals don’t produce milk unless they have recently given birth, and then further explain the cycle of forced pregnancy that supports the dairy industry. He was very shocked.”

But it’s expensive, right?

Living a vegan lifestyle doesn’t have to be expensive. When you consider the rising costs of everything lately, it may be a bit of a relief to your bank account to not have pricey meat and dairy in your cart at all. Slater says that plant-based protein can be considerably cheaper than its animal-based counterparts if you shop smart. 

“If you’re cooking primarily with fresh produce and grains, plant-based foods can be very inexpensive,” Slater says. “I mainly eat tofu as my protein and one pack is under $3. For me, that’s two servings because I eat a high-protein diet, but for others that could be four to five servings.” 

Tofu, once feared and disgusted by many, is not only cheap, but it’s easy to cook and incredibly versatile. It takes on the flavor of whatever you’re cooking it with and there are varying levels of firmness depending on what you’re cooking. It can be seasoned and crumbled for a scrambled egg-like breakfast or cut into cubes and pan-fried for a delicious takeout-style dinner.   

Slater also mentions that the cost of your food has a lot to do with the government, which people aren’t really thinking about when they’re dashing out to the store looking for a quick fix for dinner.

“I encourage people to think hard about why meat and dairy tend to be cheaper than plant-based foods,” Slater says. “It’s because those foods are subsidized by the government. So it’s not so much that vegan food costs more, as it’s that you’re paying the true cost of the products as opposed to an artificially low price.” 

Where do you get your nutrients from?  

Research points to diet as a significant factor when it comes to preventing diseases such as cancer or Alzheimer’s. And there’s a lot of research in the last few years that confirm a vegan lifestyle over an omnivore’s lifestyle reduces total cholesterol, LDL-cholesterol, and glucose levels.

Slater says people can be misinformed when it comes to protein especially. The average American only needs about .8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (using an online calculator like this one makes it pretty easy to get an estimate) and a lot of plant-based foods such as oats, lentils, beans, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts are chock full of protein. But again, we’ve been trained to think steak + chicken = protein and broccoli = vegetable, period.   

“People are very misinformed about nutrition,” says Slater. “Every vegan I know has been quizzed on their protein intake but no one ever questions where elephants, one of the largest and strongest mammals on the planet, get their protein.”

Slater mentions the other argument she often hears is the one about vegans being deficient in B-vitamins, which play a vital role in protein metabolism, forming red blood cells, and keeping your nervous system healthy. 

“If you don’t have any underlying health issues and eat a well-balanced plant-based diet that includes lots of vegetables, whole grains, and simple proteins you’re likely getting everything you need,” she says. “Leafy greens are nutrient powerhouses, containing several essential vitamins and minerals. Soy products are very nutrient-dense as well.” (Also, research shows we don’t have to be scared of soy!) 

And of course, working with a doctor or nutritionist who specializes in plant-based diets is key if you’re not quite sure where to start or you need a cheerleader to help you along as you get started.

What about cooking at home or going out to eat? 

Cooking and baking vegan at home is all about the substitutions. Slater recommends buying plain (unsweetened!) non-dairy milk for cooking and baking, vegan butter, and egg replacers (flax-based, liquid, or powder, depending on what you’re making) to start.

There are also a growing number of meat and dairy substitutes out there like Beyond Meat, Upton’s Naturals, Violife, and Chao (which all frequently go on sale). Slater says it may take some trial and error to find your faves. A lot of food we have in our fridge or pantry already is accidentally vegan, so it’s not as complicated as you might think. As for restaurants, the ease of eating out as a vegan really depends on where you are, Slater says. 

“In major cities it’s pretty easy to find a vegan-friendly spot, if not completely vegan restaurants,” she says. “But even in more rural areas you can find options at chains like Chipotle. I use the Happy Cow app when I travel. The information is crowd-sourced, and the locations are rated by users.” 

How can I start? 

“I always recommend that people first go vegetarian if they aren’t already,” Slater says. “There are dozens of meat alternatives to choose from and everyone has their own preferences. Once you’ve figured out vegetarianism, start replacing the other animal products in your diet one by one.” 

Finding a group either online or in your community of like-minded individuals is also a great idea, both for support and trading ideas back and forth. 

“I tend to look at city-specific hashtags on Instagram and TikTok to find people to follow,” Slater says. “In Chicago, for example, I follow #chicagovegans.” 

Slater says that most cities have at least one vegan group active on Facebook and/or Reddit, and those can be good places to get recommendations about restaurants or reviews about new products to try out. 

Eat Hacks & Tips

About Jessica Wrubel

Jessica Wrubel is a freelance writer, editor, and fact-checker. A lifelong New Englander, she moved to Chicago five years ago for the big city life but goes home for lobster rolls frequently. She graduated from Southern Connecticut State University with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Nutrition and a master’s degree in Health Education. She has worked for various publications and websites owned by Tribune Publishing, Hearst Communications, and Dotdash Meredith. Her greatest accomplishments as a writer include scoring press box tickets to the Foo Fighters, interviewing a TV chef, and sneaking into New York Fashion Week. She was also a middle school health teacher for nearly a decade, which earned her dozens of fantastic stories to tell. When she’s not in front of her computer, you can find her trying the latest wellness trends, playing with her power drill, or at a hot yoga class.