A few months ago, while making dinner for my husband, Kevin, and 1-year-old daughter, Eavie, I realized something: This was our third meal of the day featuring sausage as a main ingredient. Our morning started with eggs, hash browns, and sausage links, followed by sausage pizza for lunch, and then corn dogs and fries for dinner.
By 7:30, with Eavie tucked in for the night, Kevin and I retired to the couch for what had become a comfortable weekend routine: cookies, milk, and hours of HGTV. But thinking back on our unhealthy menu that day—and the day before and, yep, the day before that too—was working on my mind like a distraction. (It didn’t help that I was hiding my flabby abdomen under a throw pillow.)
I knew our eating habits weren’t great, but still, they weren’t that bad . . . or were they?
At my most organized, I would plan a week’s worth of dinners that looked something like this: two meals with chicken, two with beef, one with fish, one without meat and something in the Crock-Pot. But when I wasn’t organized—which, let’s face it, was most of the time—we’d resort to whatever was quick, easy, and on hand. Usually boxed meals, ground beef, boneless chicken breasts, and, since Eavie’s arrival, frozen peas and carrots.
What’s more, like many people, Kevin and I had taken to rewarding ourselves with food. Birthdays, anniversaries, good news of any kind—let’s celebrate with a steak dinner! Food was a go-to for the converse as well. You know what helps in stressful situations? Fried chicken. Also a bacon double cheeseburger.
It was high time to make a change, and I had something big in mind.
“I’m going to become a vegetarian,” I announced to Kevin that night, “and I’m starting right now.”
Always the pragmatist, Kevin responded without taking his eyes off the TV. “Go for it. But I think you’re going to be grumpy.”
Realizing this might be the case, I decided a compromise was in order. While Kevin and Eavie would stick to their regular diets, I wouldn’t eat meat for 30 days. Then, at the end of the month, we would take a good, hard look at our food choices and create a menu plan together.
Let the grumpiness begin!
Meal 1 of day 1 of my vegetarian experiment began something like this: No meat? No problem! There are plenty of other things I can eat for breakfast. Besides, I don’t usually eat meat that early in the day anyway. Meal 2 was equally as effortless: grilled cheese, fruit, and fries. Eavie left the table full and happy, and so did I.
The third meal of the day was more of a challenge. Cooking two dinners (one for me, one for Kevin and Eavie) was inconvenient, and, considering I hadn’t exactly planned for my new diet, I wasn’t left with many choices. But, hey, we had eggs, peanut butter, and lots of cheese. What more could I need, right?
Wrong. The challenges continued two days later when we joined my parents for a traditional Wisconsin fish fry at a German restaurant. While everyone else happily devoured their meals, I was left eating bland mushroom soup, a salad with wilted lettuce, and a scoop of soggy coleslaw.
The following week my new diet became even more complicated when we visited my in-laws for Christmas. My mother-in-law is a fabulous cook who always prepares extensive meals, and since I wasn’t about to have her make me special foods, I decided to have what everyone else was having—minus the meat.
This was especially painful during the Heffernans’ traditional Christmas Eve meal: steak fondue. I’ve never liked preparing meat, but I tell you, that steak looked pretty tempting even uncooked. And when I saw the finished product—brown and crispy on the outside, juicy and tender on the inside—I had to resist lunging across the table like a meat-deprived maniac and grabbing my father-in-law’s fondue fork.
My turkey-less turkey dinner the next day wasn’t much better. There were plenty of side dishes to choose from, but my plate was missing the main event. To top it off, by that time I was definitely feeling the effects of too much sugar (so many Christmas cookies!) and too little protein.
Day 10 of my food diary read as follows: “I can tell I’m not functioning on all cylinders. I’m sluggish, jittery, and walking around in a fog. Kevin’s even noticed that I seem more accident-prone than usual—running into things, tripping on the stairs, etc. I should’ve taken the time to do more research instead of diving right in. This is a lot more difficult than I anticipated. I need to make some changes fast, or I’m gonna be a wreck for the next 20 days.”
The Next 20 Days
On the four-hour car ride home from my in-laws, I did some serious thinking about how to survive the upcoming weeks. Nothing about vegetarian eating came naturally to me, and for the first time in my life I found myself obsessing over food. What would I have for dinner tonight? What about tomorrow? What can I eat to give me more energy? And why am I doing this again?
Then I realized something: Becoming a vegetarian was my choice, and it was time to embrace this new lifestyle, find some new recipes, and ultimately figure out what I want my family’s diet to look like now and in the future. And that’s exactly what I did.
First, I wrote up an outline of meals we already liked, and then made sure they included a meatless source of protein. One example was quesadillas (no chicken on mine) and fresh salsa with avocados, onions, and tomatoes.
Next, I researched vegetarian recipes and chose some that I thought were realistic for the whole family. We didn’t venture into tofu-territory, but we did try homemade hummus, veggie pizza, falafel, sweet potato fries, fresh lemon couscous, and veggie burgers. Some were a success (the pizza, of course), others weren’t (Eavie only ate one bite of her veggie burger).
Finally, I bought snacks. Lots and lots of snacks. Fruits and vegetables, trail mix, oatmeal, cereal bars, crackers, and rice cakes.
I wouldn’t say going meatless was easy, but, lo and behold, all three of us ended up eating more fruits and vegetables and we found quite a few new meals we all enjoyed.
On day 30, as the vegetarian challenge wound down, I knew my family would have a healthier diet from here on out.
These days, we eat less fast food and have more fresh produce accessible. Examining my diet and especially thinking about how Eavie is affected by the groceries I buy was certainly eye-opening. In the end, our family is healthier and that made the hunger, lethargy, and, yes, even the grumpiness well worth it.