My life as a temporary vegan

vegan word on wood background and vegetable - food
c) minoandriani

Maggie Robertson shares her experiences of going vegan for lent.

‘Several Grantham staff doing vegan for lent. Fancy it?’ That was the text from my husband back in February that began our vegan adventure.

Or did it begin further back, when I first announced (I do all the cooking for our small family) we were going to be eating less meat? Or was it ten years ago, when a country walk took us past a dairy farm and we had to pick our way through a mudbath of smelly effluent and swore never to touch milk again? (An oath I forgot the minute I was back in the city). Or perhaps it began twenty years before that, when my father expressed his surprise that I was eating a steak in the midst of the BSE epidemic.

It was only recently that I began to understand the impact of agriculture on climate change. In total, the food supply chain contributes 26% of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. Livestock alone accounts for between 14.5% and 18%. We can’t address climate change without changing agriculture.

On Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, I woke with the thought: ‘What am I going to eat for breakfast?’ In fact, it hasn’t been difficult to find things to eat. It’s all about attitude. A year ago I would complain bitterly if served a sandwich with margarine in it, or a coffee with UHT milk. Now I am cheerfully seeking out the tastiest vegan spread and there’s nothing I’m not prepared to try in my tea. And I’m not just making a sacrifice for the common good. It feels like a healthy change. Saving the planet has proved a much more effective motivation for improving my diet than my own health ever was.

So here are my top tips for anyone else thinking of ‘doing’ vegan.

  • Get a great vegan recipe book that suits your taste and cook your way through it. Plan your meals a few days ahead, so that you can get the right ingredients in. But…
  • You already know lots of vegan foods. A peanut butter and banana sandwich is just as vegan as a fancy brownie involving buckwheat flour and chia seeds. Beans on toast is a quick and easy vegan meal for when you don’t have time to make a five-bean chilli with home-made cornbread.
  • Don’t be overwhelmed by the choice of plant-based milks. Soya is the one with the most protein, but I think oat milk is the best in hot drinks. Almond milk has hardly any almonds in it. Notably, they all have much lower greenhouse gas emissions than dairy milk.
  • The British Dietetic Association has some excellent fact sheets on plant-based eating and soya, which are very useful when your mum asks if you are getting enough iron. By the way, there is no vitamin B12 in an exclusively plant-based diet, except in foods that have been fortified. If you don’t want to have to tot up how many of these you’ve had each day, take a supplement.
  • BBC Good Food’s glossary will tell you how to use unfamiliar ingredients, like nutritional yeast and tempeh.

As I said, for me it’s been a long journey to trying veganism. What would help people make the transition more quickly? Vegan food has got to be everything that omnivore food can be: sometimes lush and hedonistic, at other times quick, cheap and convenient. Supermarkets are offering a great range of interesting vegan food, but most restaurants need to try harder.

The government can influence menus in public institutions like schools and hospitals. This year, my son’s school has adopted meat-free Mondays. It’s not enough, but it’s a start. The government must also help farmers to transition from animal-based agriculture towards more intensive production of plants and, with land thus freed up, towards other beneficial land uses such as forestation or restored wetland. Vegans aren’t, or shouldn’t be, anti-farmer. Everything we eat originates on a farm.

So will I continue once Easter is over?

For me, flexibility is important. I still feel that dairy foods, in particular, are part of my culture and I’m not ready to turn my back on that completely. But, having immersed myself for a few weeks in the moral and environmental arguments about meat and dairy, I can’t go back to the way I ate before. And being a temporary vegan has certainly given me the confidence to embrace vegan meals most of the time. I’ve learned new ways of putting a meal together, and how to build complex flavours with ingredients like pomegranate molasses and harissa. If ten people go mostly vegan, doesn’t that make more difference than one person renouncing animal products entirely?

Joseph Poore of the University of Oxford has said, ‘A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth.’ And doing it is as simple as choosing what to have for dinner.


My mother’s Vegan Hot Chocolate Sauce

Take one tablespoon each of water, cocoa and Lyle’s Golden Syrup, heat gently in a small pan, stirring constantly, until bubbling, and serve immediately over non-dairy ice cream or frozen banana. Enjoy!


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