Illustration by David Busby
When I became a vegetarian about 11 years ago at age 13, I'm pretty sure most of my family thought it was going to be a phase. I decided to try out the diet on a whim and literally stopped eating all meat and seafood overnight, though I never gave up eggs and dairy products. To be fair, I was never a big meat eater. The only time I remember eating seafood was when I mistook calamari for curly fries (an honest mistake by an 8-year-old), and I don't think I've ever had lamb or pork. I've never had meat off a bone, so yep, that means ribs, wings, drumsticks, etc. I don't remember the moment I realized that meat was something that used to be alive, but I recall being aware of the concept, and feeling unsettled by it.
It's safe to say that at 13, I had no idea how to eat healthy as a vegetarian. I grew up near Short Pump, and when we went out to restaurants in the suburbs, everything on the menu seemed to have meat — even the salads! After I had gone almost two weeks eating nothing but pasta or pizza, my mom promptly sent me to a nutritionist. I also learned the art of substituting in restaurants — beans rather than beef in a taco, for instance — which has made eating out easier.
Being a vegetarian can be a really healthy choice. Here's an interesting fact: The American Dietetic Association and the Dietitians of Canada have concluded that vegetarians typically have a lower body mass, lower death rates from heart disease, lower cholesterol, blood pressure, hypertension, and Type 2 diabetes than non-vegetarians do. In a position statement, the organizations say that "vegetarian diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases" when they are appropriately planned. Despite popular belief, vegetarian diets can provide enough protein, iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and calcium. For me, the biggest goal was to understand what vegetarians typically lack in their diet and how to compensate for that.
The No. 1 thing that people say to me when they learn I'm a vegetarian is that there is no way I could possibly have enough protein in my diet. On the contrary, most Americans get more protein than their bodies need. Although vegetarian diets typically are lower in protein than non-vegetarian diets, they can still meet or exceed daily protein recommendations. Additionally, there are some excellent plant-based sources of protein such as soybeans (and soy products such as tofu, veggie burgers, soymilk, etc.), quinoa, nuts, seeds and grains. I regularly exercise at the gym, work more than 40 hours a week and never find hunger pangs getting in the way.
I remember that the nutritionist I saw when I was younger really emphasized vitamin B12, which plays a role in the proper function of the brain and nervous system, as well as in the formation of blood. She explained that plant foods, unless fortified with B12, do not contain adequate amounts of the vitamin, which is naturally found in fish, meat, poultry, eggs and milk. It is essential that vegetarians take a B12 supplement if they feel they are not getting enough in their diet.
Moving into the city of Richmond to attend Virginia Commonwealth University opened my eyes to an entirely new world of eating out. For the first time, I discovered restaurants with completely-vegetarian menus. At Panda Garden on the corner of Harrison and Grace streets, I could walk in and order anything on the menu. It was so exciting!
And even if you're not a vegetarian, there are some amazing meatless dishes you should try. For breakfast, Lamplighter Roasting Co. has some wonderful options, including egg sandwiches with soy chorizo, tomatoes and avocado. Ipanema Café's vegan Caesar salad with grilled tofu is out of this world. The 821 Café's Billy Philly, a vegetarian cheese steak, makes my mouth water every time I think about it. You've never tried jackfruit before? (It's a giant fruit that's sweet when ripe, but it holds flavor well and acts as "vegetable meat" when unripe.) Strange Matter's BBQ jackfruit sliders can remedy that and blow your mind at the same time.
Of course, eating at restaurants all the time can get expensive, even though vegetarian entrées are typically less costly than meat dishes. In my first apartment with a real kitchen (as opposed to a dorm microwave), I started experimenting with vegetarian cooking. Now, I adore preparing meals for friends to show them how good vegetarian food can be.
Avocado and Bell Pepper Salad with Herbed Tofu
This foolproof recipe is one that's always been a hit with my guests. (It serves 2 or 3.)
• 1 block of extra-firm tofu
• 1/4 cup of olive oil (use more if needed)
• 2 tablespoons of soy sauce
(use more if needed)
• 6 cloves of garlic, crushed and diced
• 3/4 teaspoon (or more, to taste) of each: cumin, curry, cayenne, ginger, salt,
pepper and oregano
• 1/2 avocado, cubed
• 1/2 yellow bell pepper, diced
• 1/2 tomato, diced
• 1 tablespoon of herbed goat cheese
• 1 bag (or bunch) of spinach or
• Dressing of your choice
Start by draining the tofu, using paper towels to blot and soak up as much moisture as possible. This is perhaps the most important step, because then the tofu becomes like a sponge, soaking up all the other ingredients.
Cut tofu into 1/2-inch by 1/2-inch squares and cook it on low heat in a large frying pan with the garlic, olive oil and cumin, keeping the lid on until it's just simmering. Add in the other spices and let it simmer on medium heat for about 10 minutes with the lid still on, stirring to make sure each side of the tofu gets cooked a bit.
Turn up the heat slightly (I never cook tofu on high heat) and add the soy sauce. Toss the tofu in all ingredients for a few more minutes until it is lightly browned. Taste it and add more spices as necessary to please your palate. Mix the avocado, tomato, yellow pepper, goat cheese and greens in a bowl and top with the tofu. Add your favorite dressing (I like to use a balsamic vinaigrette).
Erin Kelley, a former editorial intern at Richmond magazine, is a freelance writer in Denver as well as a youth art instructor for the Boys and Girls Club of Metro Denver.