How We Transitioned To A Plant-Based Family
(And How You Can Too)
My family of five (including three kids under the age of 5) has been plant-based for over a year now. Interchangeably, we use the term vegan, but I will point out that we are not fully vegan.
What's the difference? Being vegan is a lifestyle where you avoid all animal products or products that involve animal cruelty in their processing. For example, beef, eggs, leather purses, and mascara tested on animals are all off limits. People are more accustomed to the term “vegan” over "whole-foods, plant-based diet", which is why we often use the terms interchangeably. A whole-foods plant-based diet is exactly what it says it is; you aim to eat mostly fresh foods in their whole, natural form, and that most of your diet is composed of plants or things from the earth. Some people consume small amounts of dairy or meat on a plant-based diet, however, we do not. A few years ago I had a conversation with someone about a vegan diet and thought that it was absolutely impossible for the kids, but here we are today! If a plant-based diet and lifestyle change is something you are interested in, I'm here to tell you that you can do it!
WHY WE CHANGED OUR DIET
After going through some personal health issues in our family we began researching alternative diets. It was during this time that we learned about the harmful effects our diet and lifestyle had had on our bodies. We realized that a more intentional diet would promote long, happy, and healthy lives. We also realized that the animal industry as a whole is incredibly cruel and harmful to the environment (let's be honest, we already knew that, but we finally decided to acknowledge it).
I'll note here that many of our vegan and sustainability habits—like composting—developed at this point, but a vegan diet is not automatically a healthy diet. More to come on that below. A plant-based diet has been proven to improve your immunity, decrease inflammation, improve digestion, and decrease your risk of heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer's, and diabetes. Anecdotally, people frequently report feeling better with this diet and feel full faster since they are absorbing more calories and nutrients without junk in their system. You can read these highlights from MD Anderson and Healthline for more of an introduction to these concepts.
I mentioned that we started researching this path due to personal reasons.
I had been feeling poorly for a long time and was suffering from ulcers and mouth sores and was struggling with eating. I was looking for ways to reduce inflammation and fatigue.
Our daughter had been diagnosed with a genetic disorder which had some similarities with the Autism Spectrum and I was researching gluten-free, casein-free diets and any impact they could possibly have.
We learned more about sustainability and many hidden issues in the food industry. We couldn't ignore it any longer. This sent us down a rabbit hole of information and it was honestly an exciting experience to read, learn, and grow together—feeling empowered to take control of our own health. Many diets out there seemed to replace "taboo" foods with processed foods, and a whole-foods plant-based diet just made sense for us. It naturally tends to be gluten minimal, casein-free, can be vegan, and removes a lot of options to eat processed crap that we had previously consumed for so long.
The first month was the hardest. We essentially relearned how to cook and shop and therefore we often didn't know what to eat. We had previously been in a groove with meat, dairy, and frozen foods in our rotations of meals and grocery shopping and we had to rethink it all.
My husband and I lost about 5-10 pounds each as we began to remove some of the junk out of our meals. After a few months, I noticed I was feeling full sooner since my body was actually absorbing calories and nutrients. I ate less each meal and my heartburn went away. Our digestion changed a lot (no one really prepared us for this)! Our twin girls stopped having constipation within the first few weeks and everyone in the house was very regular! I also noticed that a lot of my bloating and cramping improved (but of interest, didn't go away fully until I cut down on my alcohol intake). Slowly we got into a good rhythm and our new lifestyle felt completely normal to us.
If You Want to, You Can Do It too
DO THE RESEARCH
Don't make any changes until you know what you're doing (mostly). Research a few different diets, watch credible documentaries, read related books and cookbooks. You don't need to be an expert, but you should have some information under your belt before getting started. I recommend Forks Over Knives as a great documentary, book, and cookbook to start.
GET THE WHOLE FAMILY ON BOARD
Not to say that it can't be done, but the transition will be so much harder if you have one or two people eating one way in your home and one or two people eating another way. Get everyone on board with the change and decide how you will take on this diet together. Will you only eat home cooked meals? Will you only be plant-based when home or at restaurants and parties, too? Make sure you involve every family member who is old enough to understand while you do the research. If everyone doesn’t understand the “why,” they’re not going to be totally on board.
RESTOCK YOUR PANTRY
Your pantry will likely need a complete overhaul to ensure it’s stocked with all the essential nutrients you need (and to keep you focused). A few staples that we have in our pantry are coconut oil, unsweetened organic applesauce, lentils, black and garbanzo beans, steel cut oats, tahini, nutritional yeast, flaxseed, hemp seed, chia seed, and walnuts. Little by little, clear most of the processed food and meat products out of your home. Be sure to read labels for hidden dairy if you plan to eliminate it fully (it's in so many things!).
PREP YOUR KITCHEN
No reno needed, but you will need a good setup since you'll be preparing most if not all of your own meals. Set yourself up with plenty of food prep space! Sharpen your knives, get a food processor and/or a blender. Other gadgets we like are an avocado slicer, peeler, and strainer. You can find Amazon links to My Favorite Things on my website for more!
If you go cold-turkey your chances of success are slim because you will feel deprived and miserable. Don't toss out all your food. Slowly use up your meat products and don't replace them. Going dairy-free too? Instead of cow's milk, try almond or soy milk (but be sure to read the ingredients to buy clean, whole products). We like lentils, beans, and falafel in place of meat, and avocados and hummus in place of cheese, but in the beginning we bought lots of tofu "chicken" nuggets and meatless "meatballs" to get the kids (and us) used to things as a temporary bridge.
USE RECIPES AS INSPIRATION, NOT A RULE
You'll drive yourself crazy if you need a recipe for every meal. You'll also drive up your bill if you try to find each and every ingredient that someone else used in their fancy blog post. My biggest success has been using recipes for inspiration and then making a meal that is similar based on the ingredients I already have. If you want to see what I cook, follow me on Instagram @IntentionalTen where I often post the ingredients I’m using along with the finished meal.
ONE MEAL FOR THE ENTIRE FAMILY
People often ask me how we got the kids to eat (and love) things like kale, hummus, broccoli, and soup. The biggest answer is that we only offer one meal. When they get hungry they will eat it. Yes, this means that sometimes they don't eat, but everyone is doing well in weight and growth. We aren't as strict as we sound; we do allow room for personal preferences (I mean, I don't like mushrooms, so I don't expect them to like everything either!). Our 4 year old son and 3 year old twin daughters have vivid imaginations, so we also talk very openly about food as a source of nutrition and medicine. Those carrots make your eyes strong, this kale will help you to have energy, those little hemp seeds (a great source of protein) will make you grow big and strong!
BE INTENTIONAL WITH FOOD CHOICES (Know What Nutrition You Need and Plan Your Meals for That)
Be sure you get enough Zinc, Iron, Calcium, and B12. Many of our processed foods are fortified with these supplements, meaning they are added to them in the factory. Therefore you could lose out on some of these if you reduce your processed animal based foods and don't replace them with whole foods! If you are getting lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, you will naturally be getting what you need (including plenty of fiber). Lentils, beans, and seeds will give you enough protein. If you don't take in any meat, you must take a B12 supplement to avoid anemia. Sadly, our soil has evolved overtime and it doesn't contain enough to support the human body. Animals are often injected with B12 as well because of this. The good news is there is a variety of supplement options available! Our family has never been anemic and we don't take any iron supplements. Don't assume something labeled as "plant-based" or "vegan" is "good" for you. It’s important to always read labels and know what you are consuming.
BRING YOUR OWN FOOD OR BE PREPARED TO "CHEAT" AT TIMES
Decide what you'll do outside of your home. If you plan to continue this diet at work or at parties, then be prepared to bring your own food. No one will invite you to anything if you expect them to prepare you special food. We often bring fruits and veggies on the go with us so we don't feel tempted to drive through Wendy's for french fries (which are indeed plant-based and vegan, but not good for you, see?). When we go out to dinner, we sometimes have to make vegetarian choices instead of vegan choices. We chose to allow for some flexibility so we aren’t stressed in socially-busy situations, but we are conscious not to make a habit out of it.
There was a time when I thought a plant-based diet was impossible for not only myself, but my entire family. Now I'm happy to say that we are all healthier than ever and are so happy with the change. Whether plant-based or another diet is right for you, remember to be intentional with your decision. Whatever you choose, make sure it is in alignment with your goals and add value to your life!
This piece was written and contributed by:
Podcast host at Intentional 10
Christina is a wife, mom of three, plant-based food enthusiast, and yoga teacher. Inspired to change her lifestyle after a stress-induced illness, she slowed down, found mindfulness and journaling, and improved her mental and physical health. She created the Intentional Ten Podcast, Blog, and Journal to share her life-changing thoughts and habits with others. Get ten-minute inspirational messages on the podcast, and deep dive into the Ten Essentials of Intentional Living on the blog. Find more at www.intentionalten.com and join the community online on Facebook and Instagram @intentionalten.