How to Eat Like a Vegan
Veganism is more than a diet, but that’s the part that gets the most attention for one simple reason: We all have to eat food to live.
But food is more than that; it’s our family traditions, our treasured memories, and plays a role in all of our special gatherings. Food is a medicine; it can nourish us.
And for some people, food is elusive, and they go hungry.
This guide will show you how to transition to an entirely plant-based, nourishing vegan diet while still keeping family traditions and a budget. And if you are a vegan without an income or a home, I’ve got hacks for you too.
A quick note: This section is big and contains a lot of information, so I broke it into several sections. At the end of each chapter is a “related reading” that will offer you the chance to learn more, which I recommend you do — so much good stuff.
Non-Vegan Foods to Remove from Your Pantry or Fridge
Let’s start with the easy stuff. As a vegan, you’ll avoid foods that come from animals like:
- Meats like chicken, pork, and beef
- Seafood like fish, shrimp, crab, and tuna
- Dairy products like eggs, milk, cheese, and ice cream
You’ll also want to look out for ingredients made from animal by-products including these:
- Albumen (egg whites or the protein contained in it)
- Carmine (red coloring from crushed beetles)
- Gelatin (collagen from various animal parts)
- Shellac (confectioner’s glaze from beetle secretions)
- Vitamin D-3 (lanolin from washed lamb’s wool)
- Whey (lactose, protein, vitamins, minerals and fat from a by-product of cheese industry)
Then there are the foods that you might not think include animal-derived products but do, including:
- Boxed cereals (vitamin D3, milk or milk proteins, gelatin, or honey)
- Marshmallows, gummy candies, and chewing gum (gelatin or beeswax)
- Baked goods like cake and cookies (eggs, dairy, or honey)
- Beer and wine (Isinglass, aka fish bladders)
Don’t let these lists overwhelm you. Like anything else, veganism gets easier with time and practice.
Now, let’s learn about all the plant foods to fill our pantries.
Foods to Keep on Hand
Most people think of being vegan as surviving on salads and vegetables alone. Totally untrue. Plant-based meals include a wide variety of foods like:
- Beans & legumes
- Whole grains
- Nuts & seeds
Besides those foods, vegans also enjoy the following plant-based staples.
One of the biggest misconceptions about a plant-based diet is that you are going to give up all the foods you love. Not so! Living vegan doesn’t mean giving up the familiar tastes of your favorite pre-vegan foods.
Were you a fan of thick, juicy hamburgers? Replace them with plant-based versions made from beans, grains, and vegetables. What about sausage or deli meats? Bacon?
There are vegan versions of those too.
Look for brands like Beyond Meat, Gardein, Field Roast, Lightlife, or Tofurky in the refrigerator or freezer sections of the grocery store.
Are you looking for something a little more budget-friendly? Making burgers at home can be done at home with a few inexpensive ingredients.
Soy Powerhouses: Tempeh and Tofu
If we’re going to have a conversation about vegan staples, we must speak about the top two soy powerhouses: tofu and tempeh.
They’re similar in that they both are soy foods that have been around forever. Frequently used in vegan cooking, tofu and tempeh are favorites because of their versatility and ability to absorb flavor.
The similarities end here.
Tofu is made using the same methods and techniques as dairy-based cheese. Tofu’s texture allows it to mimic cream, eggs, mayonnaise, and even some soft cheeses, which makes tofu a go-to for many vegans. But tofu isn’t without controversy, however. It has to do with phytoestrogens called isoflavones.
The idea is that these soy isoflavones act like the female sex hormone, estrogen, which potentially increases the risk of cancer, as well as reduces testosterone levels in men.
But concerns about adverse effects are not supported by clinical studies available at the time of this writing. Soy is one of the most researched foods with more than 2,000 soy-related papers published annually. Based on the health benefits of these studies, along with the benefits noted in clinical trials, soy is not only safe, but it’s also beneficial when eaten in moderation. (1, 2)
Tempeh, on the other hand, has many nutritional and textural differences from tofu.
Made using a cultural fermentation process using whole soybeans, tempeh has a higher content of protein, dietary fiber, and vitamins than tofu. Between the two, tempeh is a healthier, less processed choice.
Replacing dairy-based milk in recipes isn’t complicated, but it does help to know which dairy-free milk will work best in the methods you’re trying to create.
In general, soy milk is an excellent choice as an alternative in any recipe. It’s thick and creamy, just like you’d expect milk to be. Plus, you can find soy milk in almost any mainstream grocery store, which is why it is my go-to recommendation for plant-based milk.
Almond milk is just as versatile as soy milk is, though the texture is thinner, and it’s also easily found in grocery stores. Other options include almond, flax, hemp, oat, pea, or rice milk.
Whichever dairy-free milk you choose, it’s important to remember to buy the unsweetened or original version. Some plant-based milk contains flavors or sweeteners, which can add unwanted sweetness to dishes if you plan to cook with it.
You’ll find dairy-free milk in two places at the grocery store; the refrigerated case as well as in aseptic containers stocked alongside their dairy-based counterparts.
If you can’t imagine how vegans live without eating cheese, I have a secret for you.
But instead of dairy-based cheese, vegans choose cheese made from things like nuts, nut milk, seeds, or even beans. And with so many different types available, you’re sure to find one that you love.
Are you looking for melty cheeses perfect for nachos or pizza? Find bags of shredded plant cheeses by companies like Daiya, Follow Your Heart, or So Delicious.
Or, maybe you’re searching for spreadable cheeses like cream cheese? You’ll find delicious options from brands like Daiya, Kite Hill, Treeline, Tofutti, or Violife.
If you’re looking for sliceable blocks of cheese, look no further than Daiya, Follow Your Heart, or Violife. Miyoko’s Kitchen makes a full line of cheeses from shreds to blocks to artisanal wheels.
It might seem strange to see sweeteners on the list; however, there are two considerations for vegans when it comes to them. First, liquid sweeteners like honey come from bees. But like other non-vegan ingredients, finding an alternative is easy.
Here are a few:
- Agave Nectar – Produced from several species of the agave plant, sweeter than honey and tends to be less viscous. It comes in a variety of styles that range from dark amber to light, each with its distinct flavor. Dark agave has a caramel-like taste, while the lighter agave is more reminiscent of a delicate blossom honey.
- Coconut Nectar – Made from the reduced sap of coconut palms, coconut nectar has a sweet, tangy, taste with no discernable coconut flavor.
- Maple Syrup – Yes, exactly the same stuff that goes so great on waffles.
- Barley Malt Syrup – Comes from sprouted barley, roasted and cooked down to a syrup with a malt-like flavor.
- Brown Rice Syrup – Brown rice syrup is a thick sweetener made by exposing cooked rice to enzymes that break down starches and turns them into sugars. Once complete, all the “impurities” are filtered out, and all that is left is a thick dark syrup with a caramel type flavor.
- Molasses – This thick, sweet syrup is made by refining sugarcane or sugar beets into sugar. Like agave, molasses has several varieties and flavors.
You can also find honey alternatives at health food stores and well-stocked markets. Look for the following brands:
How to Shop Like a Vegan
It might seem obvious that to purchase vegan products, you’d have to visit a store. Still, sometimes it helps to get a general idea of how most grocery stores stock these items. It can make your next shopping trip less frustrating if you know what to look for and where to find it.
It used to be that most stores would create a specialty section that housed their entire vegan stock, but that’s not always the case now. Many times you’ll find plant versions of all your favorite foods right where you’d expect them to be. So, if you’re looking for plant burgers, you’ll find them alongside non-vegan burgers, for example.
Vegans on a Budget
When talking about vegan food, one misconception comes up more often than any other; how expensive it can be.
And it’s true, or, it can be. Especially if you’re relying on prepared or processed vegan foods. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
In addition to this website, I also run an animal sanctuary for cats. That is to say, I’m always on a budget, so I know how to stretch pennies.
Here’s how I do it.
Making a Budget
The first step to eating an inexpensive but satisfying and nourishing plant-based diet is to create a weekly or monthly food budget. This budget will look different for every family.
Determine your budget by using the following formula: Monthly take-home pay subtracted by fixed costs, other monthly expenses, and savings goals. The resulting number is the dollar amount available for food and incidentals.
[If you do not have an income, skip to the next section.]
No matter how tight your budget is, these tricks can help make every paycheck stretch a just little further:
- Plan menus and use grocery lists.
- Use coupons and discounts whenever possible.
- Stock up on items when they are on sale (if you can).
- Shop online for items at a discount.
- Shop less often to reduce impulse shopping.
- Buy items like cereals, rice, and beans in bulk.
- Join a monthly Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) to get in-season vegetables and fruits.
- Buy from local ethnic markets or farmer markets.
- Grow your food if you can.
- Learn how to preserve your foods with canning or freezing. Particularly useful when bulk shopping or batch cooking.
If you regularly buy organic foods, you can still save money. Limit your spending on just those foods that are most prone to contain high levels of pesticides. The Dirty Dozen list from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) highlights the top twelve foods to contain the most pesticides. Keep in mind, the peels of foods like avocado and bananas have thick, inedible skins so they can be bought safely as non-organic.
Budget-Friendly Vegan Resources
The following websites are great for cheap vegan eats:
These money-saving tips and tricks articles from vegans around the web are worth reading and filled with tons of helpful information:
Homeless or Unhoused Vegans With or Without Income
For those not experiencing these issues, it can be hard to understand why this section is even here. You might be thinking to yourself, “the last thing homeless people are thinking about is how to be vegan,” and “there are no such things as homeless vegans.”
But, this is mostly incorrect. Worse, it erases large groups of people and their experiences. To make veganism accessible, it must be doable for all people living in all situations. Moving on.
If you are experiencing housing or income insecurity, veganism can be hard. From clothing donations to food, there are plenty of vegan challenges to navigate. But it’s not impossible, however.
First things first, sometimes survival depends on the generosity of others, and vegan options could be limited. Do the best you can in your situation, period. Stay alive.
Now, let’s talk about vegan eats.
Cheap Vegan Food
Access to income, storage, the ability to heat food, and even the proximity to a grocery store or food market can vary dramatically from area to area.
To be the most beneficial, I’ve put together a list of inexpensive foods found in grocers, convenience stores, and gas stations. Most come fully cooked, others require nothing more than a cup of hot water.
Some are single-serving for cases where storage isn’t possible, while others can be stored until opened without refrigeration. I’ve also tried to find some foods that are on the soft side in cases where dental issues are a problem.
- Peanut Butter
- Cans of Beans, Soups, Stews, and Vegetables like Potatoes or Green Peas
- Bags of Carrots
- Nuts or Seeds
- Fresh or dried Fruit
- Instant Oatmeal, Rice, or Mashed Potatoes
- Fortified non-dairy milk (single serving sizes)
Check local stores for bulk sections. Sometimes you can find things to cook with hot water like textured vegetable protein (tvp) and soup mixes. To add flavor, save soy sauce, hot sauce, salt packets, or pepper packets from other meals to help add spice to the next one. Some grocery stores and bakeries will offer deeply discounted foods (sometimes free) at the end of the day.
One of the biggest hurdles will be finding an adequate amount of vitamin B12.
The easiest way is through supplementation. Generally speaking, you can find a bottle of vegan B12 supplement for $8 – $12 for 90 tablets. If you’re unable to purchase a supplement, drinking B12-fortified beverages are the next best thing.
Believe it or not, and I checked with a registered dietitican for accuracy on this, Redbull is a good choice because it’s packed with vitamin B12.
Be sure to drink a fortified beverage 2 – 3 times per week if possible.
Resources for Homeless or Unhoused Vegans
It can be hard to find a soup kitchen that serves exclusively vegan food, however, these organizations do. And, they have chapters all across the country.
For a complete directory of soup kitchens in the United States, visit Homeless Shelter Directory.
How to Plan a Nourishing Vegan Meal
I’ve covered a wide variety of information in this guide so far. Having all of this information is one thing; the real trick is to know how to use it. Now that you’ve removed all of the animals from your diet, what’s left, and how do you build a vegan meal plan?
That will depend on you.
The first rule of building any successful meal plan is to be realistic about what you are comfortable doing. Don’t think that you’re suddenly going to become the next vegan home chef if you’ve never cooked before.
Build a menu that reflects foods you already love, while adding in new foods you want to try.
- Breakfast Options: Cereal, oatmeal, toast with nut butter, non-dairy yogurt, polenta, tofu scramble, pancakes, waffles, muffins, bagels (check ingredients carefully), or smoothies.
- Lunch + Dinner Options: Soups, salads, sandwiches, wraps, pizza, pasta, stir-fry, tacos, or burritos.
- Snack Ideas: Trail mix, bars (fruit/nut, granola, or protein), cut vegetables with hummus, fresh or dried fruit, kale chips or other vegetable chips, crackers with nut butter, or popcorn.
Evidence-Based Nutrition Recommendations from a Registered Dietitian
Here’s some real-talk: While a well-balanced, adequately planned plant-based diet is perfectly healthful, poorly designed ones can cause nutrient deficiencies.
[Poorly designed non-vegan diets can cause nutrient deficiencies, too.]
The good news is that there are easy ways to prevent this from happening.
To put together something that looks familiar, I paired with Anya Todd MS, RD, LD. She’s a dietician who specializes in vegan nutrition.
The result is “Your Daily Vegan Plate,” an easy-to-understand eating guide to help ensure you’re meeting nutrient needs as a vegan.
Your Daily Vegan Plate
These daily food recommendations are general guidelines and a good starting place when learning how to put together a day’s worth of vegan meals.
In order from most servings per day to least:
- Vegetables (5+ servings): Serving = ½ cup cook; 1 cup raw; ½ cup juice
- Whole grains (5+ servings): Serving = ½ cup cooked grain (pasta, rice, quinoa, oats, etc.); 1 slice bread; 6-inch tortilla; 1 oz ready-to-eat cereal; ½ cup cooked potato or corn
- Legumes (3+ servings): Serving = ½ cup cooked beans, peas, tofu, tempeh; 1 oz plant meat; 1 cup fortified soymilk; 2 TBSP peanut butter; ¼ cup peanuts; ¾ c soy yogurt
- Fruit (2+ servings): Serving = One medium whole fruit; ½ cup cut fruit or berries; ½ cup juice; ¼ cup dried fruit
- Nuts/Seeds (1+ serving): Serving = 2 TBSP nut/seed butter; 2 TBSP seeds; ¼ cup whole nuts
- Fat (1-2 servings): Serving = 1 tsp oil
Todd also recommends including plenty of calcium-rich foods from every group like kale, bok choy, and broccoli; beans; fortified dairy-free milk and juices; whole almonds, tahini, fortified cereals, and many more. She also recommends supplementing with Vitamin B12 if you’re not consuming two to three fortified foods per day.