It’s New Year’s Day and you are likely emerging, bleary-eyed and bloated, from a week of wanton meat consumption. Turkey stuffed with pork? Ham and crackling? Devilled pigs on horseback? Cover the whole lot with gravy? Yes, yes, yes, and yes, it’s Christmas so you’re not allowed to judge.
After the meat fest that is festive eating, it’s little wonder that many choose to forgo animal products in January as part of the global vegan eating campaign, Veganuary. Encouraging the vegan-curious to sign up for a month without meat or dairy, the charity says it had a record 150,000 people take part last year, with participants motivated by health, environmental, and animal welfare reasons. And with research into the impact of meat consumption on both our bodies and the planet becoming more damning, we can certainly see appeal of cutting down—at least for one month of the year.
But going cold tofurky is hard work, especially if your experience of vegan eating extends only as far as buying Linda McCartney sausages when they’re on special offer. To help get your Veganuary off to the best start, we asked professional vegan chefs for their tips on switching to a plant-based diet for the first time. Even the most clueless vegan n00bz will find something (plant-based) to chew on.
Tldr: get yourself some good meat substitute nuggets and yes, nutritional yeast is exactly as scary as it sounds.
“Firstly, don't put too much pressure on yourself. If you view going vegan as a huge life-long shift, the likelihood is that you'll slip up. But if you do slip up, don't kick yourself. Trying your best is better than not trying at all. When you make the transition, the chances are you'll end up craving meat, so I'd recommended trying some really good vegan alternatives. The best I've tasted are Fry's Chicken-Style Nuggets—they are just like the ones I used to have for tea as a kid. At SpiceBox we also do a banging ‘chickn’ tikka masala, which is seriously similar to the real thing—smokey and charred ‘chickn’ pieces in a tandoori spice rub. Finally, if you live in London, go check out one of the city’s many vegan markets such as Hackney Downs or Vegan Nights. They are proof that being vegan nowadays is super easy if you know where to look.” Grace Regan, founder of London-based “vegan curry house” pop-up SpiceBox.
“We would highly recommend anyone who is starting out and trialling vegan for the first time to keep it simple to start with. Remember, veggies can be sexy—an incredible sweet potato curry or insane burger are delicious just as they are. Don't compare them to meat, don't sacrifice flavour, and just take everything for what it is: delicious veggies bursting with new tastes and textures. You can also check out amazing vegan chefs like Gaz Oakley, who showcases most of his recipes on his channel @avantgardevegan. And finally, don't hesitate to do your research. Find simple recipes online and on Instagram for the types of foods you regularly love. We guarantee there is a vegan version out there that is even more nutritious and delicious!” Rachel Hugh, co-founder of The Vurger Co, a vegan burger restaurant in London.
“The first thing I’d say is, don’t beat yourself up too much if you slip up. Even if you’re checking ingredients on packaging and requesting vegan options at restaurants, mistakes happen, especially when you’re just starting out! Don’t let setbacks throw you off, and if anyone gives you shit for slipping up then that’s on them, not you.
If you like meat alternatives then the sooner you can get into making your own, the better. There are tons of seitan recipes out there that you can perfect; the first few times are probably going to range from awful to passable, but keep at it and you’ll be churning out A+ stuff in no time. Making seitan is pretty time-consuming, so you’re better off making it in big batches—if you do it in fairly neutral flavours, you can divide it out and season it based on whatever food you’re making. It freezes really well too, so no need to worry about eating a few kilograms of gluten in a couple of days.
Also, press your tofu! I blame badly prepared tofu in recipes by chefs like Jamie Oliver for putting people off it. (I remember seeing him eat plain tofu straight out of the pack and saying it was delicious. It’s not.)
Anyway, yeah, being vegan is a lot more than just eating plant-based, so treat people and animals with respect too, and just do your best. Nobody’s perfect. Eat plants, hail seitan.” Dom Moss, founder of V Rev Vegan Diner in Manchester.
“Don't give up anything, just find a vegan replacement. This has never been easier. There are great replacements for everything, so you can still have pizzas, burgers, sandwiches, pasta, tacos. You should also research the lifestyle, the stronger the reason you have for doing it, the easier it will be! Also, eat until you’re full and don't go hungry for long. Carry vegan snacks with you so you're always prepared.
It’s also important that you don’t restrict your social life. You can still go out and have fun, most restaurants today have loads of vegan options, so enjoy yourself! If you like to cook, be excited about learning new dishes.
In all seriousness, don't be too harsh on yourself—do the best you can and if you crack, it's not the end and you are still doing your part. There can be no success without failure.” Alex Santoro, co-founder of Genesis , a plant-based restaurant in London.
“I think definitely don't overcomplicate things. There's all sorts of weird ingredients you've never heard of (seriously, what even is nooch?) but to start out, it can be fun to just try and veganise dishes you already love.
Other simple things like learning how to make a ‘bowl’ can take the pressure off. You just need a protein (tofu, beans, nuts), a grain or other carb, fresh veggies and/or fruit, and a tasty dressing. It can be served hot or cold—super delicious, balanced, and filling! Do some reading about nutrition so you have a good idea about how to balance your meals and get everything you need—there's lots of resources out there and you'll definitely bust some meat-based nutrition myths along the way. Finally, get familiar with spices and herbs. I can guarantee the reason you think you hate cauliflower is because grandma boiled it to death and served it without any seasoning. Learning to prepare vegetables well is one of the secrets to easily sticking with a vegan diet.” Lue Cuttiford, founder of vegan cheese company Black Arts Vegan .
"When I first turned vegan, even as a chef, I felt completely lost. I went from being a chicken-breast-and-some-veg guy, to not having any go-to quick meal fixes."
"We like to ensure there’s plenty of flavour and texture in every meal, so that it’s super tasty and interesting. Think hot, sweet, sour, salty, and umami. Mushrooms and kombu (a type of seaweed) are perfect for adding that umami kick to your dish. For example, a hot steaming bowl of mushroom noodle soup topped with bok choi, crispy fried onions, and loads of fragrant herbs. A few vegan potsticker dumplings and chili oil drizzled over to finish it off— et voila, flavour and texture!
Our kitchen cupboard staples include: dried noodles, rice, soy sauce, sesame oil, vinegar, veg stock, shiitake mushrooms, black bean sauce, chili oil, veg oyster sauce, nuts, seeds, and nutritional yeast. Just a few things to help us whip up a tasty dish in no time!
You should also invest in some cookbooks. Start with plant-based cookbooks to begin with and learn the basics, then diversify into more regional cuisines. A few of our favourites are Bento Power: Brilliantly Balanced Lunchbox Recipes by Sara Kiyo Popowa, Happy Food: Fast, Fresh, Simple Vegan by Bettina Campolucci Bordi, and Vegan 100 by Gaz Oakley. We would love to write our own vegan Chinese cookbook one day
Finally, watching documentaries and following vegan accounts on Instagram is helpful to educate and inspire you." Jade Rathore and Angie Li, founders of vegan Chinese supper club Phung Kay Vegan .
“When I first turned vegan, even as a chef, I felt completely lost. I went from being a chicken-breast-and-some-veg guy, to not having any go-to quick meal fixes. During those early days, a few staples kept me going. I'd never be too far from some good quality sourdough bread, baked beans, hummus, and avocado. They were my saving grace.
Once you get through that early stage, then it's all about preparation. I will always have a good few sauce options in single servings in the freezer. A curry sauce, mushroom sauce, gravy and tomato sauce, for example. Then it's just about adding your favourite carbs, grains, vegetables, pulses, and plant-based protein sources such as tofu or tempeh. Before you know it, you're creating new things and trying new ingredients. Then just like that, you find yourself, you are on a roll. You are a vegan.” Dominic Taylor, founder of The Meet , a vegan pop-up in South London.
"I blame badly prepared tofu in recipes by chefs like Jamie Oliver for putting people off it."
“My advice for people trying Veganuary is make it fun! Go out and try things that you've never tried before. Happy Cow is an app that will become your vegan GPS for great food out there. Try as many different cuisines as you can and see how all of them offer great vegan food before the cloud of ‘I can't eat anything’ descends. There's so much out there, you just have to become a bit of a vegan adventurer to find it.
As for my business, I literally started it because I was missing good cheesy pizza. Almost everyone that eats our food comments on how delicious the vegan cheese is.” Matthew Smith, founder of Little Leaf Food, a vegan pizza stall at Greenwich Market.
“My number one tip is: don’t be too hard on yourself! When new to veganism, a lot of people end up worrying so much that they are going to get ‘caught out’ that it ends up being a stressful experience. It doesn’t need to be. Accept that you’re going to slip up every now and then, and when you do, don't chastise yourself. Shit happens, don't sweat it. You don't need to purge, you don’t need to label yourself a failure and give up. Just take it one step at a time and do the best you can. It's a journey and the vegan police will not arrest you on the spot, I promise.
My other tip would be to ENJOY YOURSELF. Work up a list of all the awesome vegan restaurants to try, the vegan markets to visit, the exciting vegan recipes you want to make. My top eating tips would be our brunch (of course) at The Spread Eagle alongside a banging vegan Bloody Mary, pie and mash from Young Vegans, and the vegan tasting menu at Vanilla Black. Hackney Downs Vegan Market has London's best producers at it consistently and the line-up is always changing, so it’s a great place to find food to cook at home.
As long as you keep your tastebuds happy and your tummy full then you'll be fine. Being vegan isn’t a sacrifice—the vegan offering in London now is insane. So go book a table, fill your basket, get creative—and eat loads!” Meriel Armitage, founder of the vegan Mexican pop-up Club Mexicana and co-founder of The Spread Eagle , London’s first vegan pub.
"It’s easy to be overwhelmed when you first go vegan, as everything seems so new and confusing but to keep things simple. Stick to your favourite dishes that you already know and love and simply recreate them with cruelty-free ingredients before branching out into things you’ve never tried before.
For example, why not try making spaghetti Bolognese, pizza or stir fry? Simply replace the meat and dairy products with vegan versions. Don’t give yourself a hard time if you slip up or make a mistake, you are doing great and every day you continue to try veganism, you are taking a huge step forward for the animals, your health, and the planet.” Karris McCulloch, co-founder of vegan subscription box company TheVeganKind .