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We all want (and probably need) to eat healthier, but as much as we might think, “I should become a vegetarian!,” we just can’t seem to say goodbye to meat.  We get it.  We really do.  But you don’t have to give up meat and/or all animal products to change your diet for the better.  Here are a few of favorite lessons learned from our vegetarian and vegan friends (vegans take vegetarianism a step further; they give up all animal by-products) about eating healthy.

1.  Pass the veggies.  This is a given, right? The vegetarian diet is veggie-packed, and yours should be, too.  Veggies are a great way to pack a plate, fill a belly, and give your body the nutrition it needs without the bulk of unnecessary calories.  We suggest sautéing (in water or olive or grapeseed oil rather than butter or other animal-based fats); steaming; baking; broiling; or just eating your veggies raw.  When you take out all of the added fats, the true flavor of the vegetables shines through.  You might just be surprised how good they really do taste, frill-free.

2. Cut some condiments, namely mayo (which is made with eggs and has loads of unhealthy fats).  Vegans get creative with their food, and some of the condiments they use may just open up a whole new world of flavor to your palette.  Have you tried tahini?  It’s a sort of paste (much like the consistency of peanut butter) that’s made from sesame seeds.  It has a nutty flavor and is packed with protein, Vitamin A, thiamine (Vitamin B1), riboflavin (B2) and Niacin (B3).  You can use tahini in salad dressings, hummus, baba ghanoush and halva; or you can use it as a dip, as is.

If you’re thinking that mayo makes a sandwich and there’s no way you’re eating it dry, we suggest you think outside of the mayo jar and consider balsamic vinegar and a bit of olive oil, smushed up avacados spread across your bread, mustard (think of all the varieties!), or even pesto!  How about an olive tapenade?  Really, the possibilities are endless, and mayo is only the tip of the condiment iceberg–so get creative, jump in, and introduce your taste buds to a whole new sea of worthy sandwich spreads!

3.  Open up your spice rack and say, “Ahhhhhh!”  Folks, there’s a world out there beyond salt and pepper!  Americans, in general, ingest far too much sodium and fat, so if you’re forced to cut fat via animal products, your spice rack will become your new best friend.  Put down the salt shaker, too, and consider cilantro, basil, cumin, curry, fennel seeds, garlic and ginger (just to name a few).  By skipping the butter and cheese that you might normally use to top your broccoli, you not only cut the fat and calorie content, but you add flavor and nutrients.  We bet you could eat broccoli five nights in one week, and just by  switching up the spices, you’ll feel like you’re eating something completely different–such is the magic of herbs and spices.

4.  Start at the beginning–in short, cook it from scratch.  When you start a meal with the basics and build it yourself, not only do you know exactly what’s in it, but you can put whatever you want it in it.  So, forget all about those preservatives and artificial flavors, added sodium and sugar, trans fat, etc.  They can stay in the box/can/bag on the grocery-store shelf.  Being vegan means engaging with your food in a new way.  Generally, the days of grabbing a box off the shelf are gone.  You have to really pay attention to labels to make sure that no animal by-products are used in the processed foods you purchase; whereas, if you start at the bottom and add each ingredient yourself, the questions disappear.  Eating vegan means eating more consciously, and this is a good lesson for all.  If you cook your own food from scratch, we bet you’ll find yourself using more fresh ingredients and boosting the nutrition level of each meal.

5.  Learn to love beans–and other vegetable-based proteins.  If you’re not getting your protein from lean meats and dairy products, where can you get it (because you still need it to be healthy and keep your body functioning at its best)?  Beans are a great way to load the proteins, but they’re not the only way.  Try broccoli, avocados, spinach, kale, peas, sweet potatoes, nuts and seeds, non-dairy milks (like soy or almond), quinoa, oatmeal and brown rice.  There are LOTS of ways to get the proteins your body needs with resorting to meat, and they’re usually lower in fat and calories than their animal-based counterparts.

There’s a lot to be gained by looking at the meat-free diets of vegetarians and vegans, and there are easy ways to add these benefits into every meal without actually giving up meat.  Add lettuce, tomatoes, sprouts, peppers, etc. to your sandwich or salad.  Throw some spinach into your morning omelet or smoothie.  These are things we’ve already thought of at Brown Bag, so don’t worry when you come to have breakfast or lunch with us.  We pack as much nutrition and flavor as we can into every item on our menu–and our menu is varied!  We love experimenting with different herbs, spices, and fresh ingredients; we love creating healthy, gourmet foods for people on the go.  So, put these lessons to work in your own kitchen, and when you can’t be there, come visit ours.