By Mallika Rana
We all know we should be eating less meat and dairy. Before even considering animal welfare, the environmental benefits are significant. A vegan produces a quarter less dietary greenhouse gas emissions than a vegetarian, and half of what a meat eater produces. This makes Veganuary an easy way to try out reducing the amount of such food that you are eating.
The idea is that you completely cut out meat, dairy, eggs, honey and any other animal products for January. By signing up on the Veganuary website, you will get general tips on things such as recipes or which chain restaurants that are suitable.
So why did I decide to take part? To be completely honest, it was much more of a diet thing than anything higher-minded like animal rights or the environment. I had realised that while I was at university and cooking for myself, I was not really concentrating on the types of food I was making. I tend to eat lots of quick and easy foods, and although I was not eating loads of meat; cheese and eggs were a huge part of my diet. So when my vegan friend shared the link to Veganuary on Facebook, I thought it was something I should try.
When I came back to Durham in January, I stocked my kitchen with soya milk, houmous and Tesco Mexican bean burgers. The Veganuary website recommends that you shouldn’t be too hard on yourself if you are having a break, so I did plan on some. I didn’t start “January” until the 5th because I didn’t want to have to ask for special food while being a guest at a house for a couple of days, and I had a meat-filled dinner for Burns Night (we celebrated it every year at home – it is like Christmas to me). There were a couple of ‘cheats’ along the way as well. I had a small mouthful of a friend’s birthday cake and half a muffin someone had made. I went out for a meal once and tried to request no cheese or milk, but the dish came with them anyway and I was too awkward to send it back. Being a perfect vegan requires a lot more determination and fastidiousness than I possess.
But other than those minor incidents, I did follow the diet. I am a good cook, and so I was pretty comfortable in making vegan dinners. Quick snacks on lunch breaks however were more of my concern. I found that various forms of toast toppings were my saviour, especially beans, avocados, houmous or mushrooms (though make sure that your bread does not contain milk).
I also tried to avoid buying too many meat alternatives, mainly because Quorn tends not to be vegan (the mixture is often bound with eggs). Holland and Barrett has a great vegan meat alternatives section. Some sandwich slices I bought were okay, and when all my friends got together for a birthday and ordered Dominos, I bought a frozen vegan ‘meat feast’ pizza which was amazing. I also bought Tesco soya soft cheese, which was sort of grim by itself but really good stirred into pasta.
I was also concerned that when I was drunk, I would resort to my classic cheesy garlic bread from Paddy’s to warm me up on the way home. I managed to resist this temptation by having loads of snacks at home, like crisps and Linda McCartney frozen sausage rolls (these were amazing).
I experimented a lot with cooking when I had time. My favourite were a roasted butternut squash risotto with fried salted pine nuts on top (they were a great replacement for parmesan), and a weird but really nice ‘lasagne’ with tomato and vegetables and lentils mixed with soya soft cheese and layered with pasta.
I didn’t get a chance to go out to any of Durham’s vegan cafes during this January, though I have been to Tia’s Mexican restaurant on Claypath with a friend. She said her vegan fajita was the best thing she’d ever eaten.
Generally I found vegan life to be pretty cheap, as meat and cheese are expensive, although I also did save a lot from not having takeaways or dinners out. Some people claim they feel much healthier when they don’t eat dairy and meat, others may feel lethargic from the lack of iron. To be honest, I didn’t feel any difference, although I was eating more vegetables and less fatty food.
So if it is easy, healthier and cheaper, why am I not making this a permanent change? It is because of all the things I missed out on when I had extra dietary requirements. Having to say no to brunch with my boyfriend, or missing out on a roast dinner with my family when I went home was really hard. People underestimate the emotional feelings you can get from food; and to me (although not everyone will agree) this is more important than any other reasons to change my diet. Maybe if my family or partner had this kind of diet, I would be keener, but I just enjoy shared eating experiences too much.
Overall I think I have learned to be more conscious of what I eat, and I have had more inspiration to make dairy-free and meat-free meals for myself. I would definitely recommend anyone to try this for a month. It gives you an opportunity to try new food, while being mindful of diets and environmental impact. It is surprisingly easy to resist cheese or chocolate temptation if the food you’re making is tasty, and it definitely helps knowing that you can eat anything after a month’s time.
Photograph: Charles Smith via Flickr