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What do you eat?

1. What I eat

My approach to grocery shopping and mealtimes has changed completely since becoming vegan. Gone is the meat-and-two-veg approach. Instead, I've become more open-minded, willing to try unfamiliar ingredients from shops I usually walked past, and experiment with new foods and recipes. I've got into the habit of checking ingredients lists, making more effort in the kitchen and putting nutrition on my list of priorities.

But being vegan isn't hard work unless you think shopping, cooking and eating consciously are toil rather than vital life skills. You don't need to be Jamie Oliver to prepare tasty and healthy vegan food (not that he cooks vegan, mind), nor do you need to import exotic ingredients or forage in the wilds, and you don't need to be a nutritionist to ensure you're eating well. Veganism can be straightforward, affordable and accessible. I'll attempt to make this point by talking about my typical diet and routine. No weird ingredients and no monumental effort required.

Breakfast

Before I became vegan I'd either have skipped breakfast or had sugary cereal. Now I regularly have muesli or porridge. They might not seem as exciting as Coco Pops but they're tasty, filling and very nutritious. I’m a chocolate lover with a sweet tooth so I sometimes serve my muesli with chocolate oat milk and blueberries (buy frozen, they're cheaper). I also sometimes add cocoa powder to porridge. Such tweaks don't make breakfasts unhealthy, but obviously chocolate milk is higher in sugar than the regular kind. Try adding a handful of raisins or chopping a banana into your cereal for a natural way of making it sweeter.

Make your own almond milk
Recently I’ve been making my own milk out of raw almonds, a pinch of cinnamon, and a few dates to sweeten. Delicious, fresh and creamy, and happy in an airtight container in the fridge for 3 or 4 days. You can’t get a much purer alternative to cow’s milk with none of the additives of shop-bought plant milks. You’ll find various almond and cashew milk recipes on YouTube, but you will need a decent blender. If you’re relying on fortified milk and other shop-bought products for vitamin B12, homemade milk is not a good option if you’re not also taking a supplement. Almonds are a good source of calcium and plant milks typically contain equivalent calcium content to cow’s milk.

I also add flaxseed to any cereal for the omega 3 it offers (an important fatty acid we’re told in ad breaks that we need oily fish for - you don’t. More about fat here). Other ideas for boosting the nutritional depth of breakfast cereals are to add hemp seed (another omega 3 source), quinoa flakes (a complete protein food) and walnuts (nutrient dense), but the bog standard stuff you pour out of the packet is fine. Muesli is a particularly good start to the day because it contains nuts, seeds, and wholegrains: a cocktail of slow-burning energy food, with good oils, protein, fibre, iron and many other nutrients.

If you’re on a tight budget I can’t recommend porridge enough. A cheap bag of oats won’t set you back much and then it’s up to you what you can afford to bung in. You can even make it with water if things are really tight. Oats are a useful protein source, have cholesterol-lowering properties and give you energy. Find 59p from somewhere and grab a litre of Sainsburys Basics Soya Milk (59p) to turn porridge into a creamy B12 source too.

You're well catered to as a vegan if you like cereal. Weetabix and Sainsbury's Malties occasionally find their way into my cupboard. Such cereals don't pack the nutritional punch that muesli does but they're often usefully fortified with vitamins and minerals. Malties, for example, come with added vitamin B12, but beware of the high sugar content in many cereals. The deciding factor in whether a cereal is vegan is often down to whether the source of any added vitamin D is plant (D2) or animal (D3) derived. It's worth a quick visit to the manufacturer's website or dropping them an email. Most granola contains honey, but I recommend ‘Lizi’s Granola’ (all varieties, but especially the chocolate). Granola is a bit naughty due to its added sugar and fat, but it’s still packed with nuts, seeds and grains.

Green smoothies

Three or four mornings a week I have a green smoothie for breakfast. It’s easy to make and stores in the fridge for a couple of days in an airtight container. Don’t be put off by the idea of raw veg first thing in the morning because you’ll barely notice it. The recipe below, by the rather gorgeous Sergei Boutenko, is 60% fruit. Add less veg and more fruit if you’re struggling but nothing beats fresh raw greens for nutritional punch. For a start, spinach contains more calcium than cow's milk but sidesteps udder infections. A raw breakfast is not only amazingly good for you but is also useful for those wishing to lose weight since it’s low in calories and fat. Most of us could do with eating more raw and less processed food. Swapping cereal for a smoothie a few times a week is a good place to start. Give it a try.

In a blender, mix:

  • 1 Large orange
  • 2 Apples
  • A few handfuls of frozen raspberries (or other favourite berry or mix of)
  • 2 Bananas
  • 2 Handfuls of green leafy vegetables. Typically I use 1 of spinach and 1 of kale. Also try chard, cavolo nero and even the greens you chop off of beetroot tops and usually bin
  • 1 Heaped tablespoon of flaxseed
  • 1 Dice-sized cube of ginger (ginger freezes, so buy a big knobbly chunk, peel and chop it before sticking it in a bag in the freezer for easy use later - no need to defrost)

Experiment with different fruits and greens, but keep the bananas or you might find your smoothie isn’t sweet enough. Throw a little end-of-week leftover carrot or tomato in, without perceptively altering the flavour; a great way to get the kids to eat some veggies while they think they're drinking a fruit smoothie. Also try adding hemp seed, cocoa or oats.

The cost of a plant-based diet
It's easy to be a smug vegan and use throwaway remarks about carrots being cheaper than steak but nobody can live on carrots. Many fresh vegetables are far cheaper than meat and dairy products, it's true, but that's only part of the picture. In reality your basket will likely contain bread, pasta, tofu, faux meats, oil, condiments and sauces, canned foods, treats, beans and lentils, rice and other grains, dairy-free spread, baking ingredients, plant milk etc. Still, I've found that I spend a little less than I did back in my meat eating days. A big part of that, though, is in buying few ready made foods and instead cooking most of my grub from scratch. Whatever diet you subscribe to it'll be significantly more expensive if you lean on convenience foods. Typically, the more ready made foods in the diet the less healthful it is. Convenience foods are usually highly processed, high in fat and sugar, low in fibre and contains all sorts of additives and weird ingredients you wouldn't otherwise encounter when cooking at home with natural and straightforward foods. It's beneficial to your wallet and body if you cook as much as possible from scratch. The initial costs of becoming vegan can create a bit of a peak on the expenses graph, as you stock up on items you may not have bought before, but thereafter the weekly shop is similar or lower than a vegetarian or carnist diet. There's plenty of scope for reducing the food bill too, just like in any other diet: use dried lentils or beans in casseroles instead of faux meats or tofu, use rapeseed oil in hummus and dips instead of olive, buy a big bag of oats and make porridge instead of buying breakfast cereals, and use common foods produced in your home country instead of exotic imported ingredients e.g. carrots and apples instead of peppers and pineapple. Many recipes are very adaptable, so work within your budget and use your imagination.

Lunch

I typically have a varied, mezze style lunch that I prepare at home. I keep it in the fridge at work and serve cold. These lunches are made up of small amounts of several things, including:

  • 2 to 3 roast ‘hard’ vegetables: carrot, sweet potato, butternut squash, pumpkin, parsnip etc. with herbs/spices. See my recipe.
  • 2 to 4 roast ‘soft’ vegetables: mushroom, courgette, aubergine, pepper, onion etc. with herbs/spices.
  • Falafel, tofu or tempeh chunks (recipes below), or beanburger balls (try my recipe but roll the mixture into small balls instead of burger shapes).
  • A grain: quinoa, buckwheat or wholegrain rice with a small amount of sauce, vegetable paste/pâté or miso stirred in or just drizzle a little lemon or lime juice over.
  • Hummus or bean pâté (see my hummus recipes. I talk about making pâté below).
  • Pesto, sauces and dips (find vegan pesto in health food shops and independent grocers or make your own. 'Zest' is a good brand).
  • Fresh salad ingredients like grated carrot, finely shredded red cabbage, cherry tomatoes or a few slices of avocado
  • Sundried tomatoes and olives.
  • A sprinkle of any/all: raisins, goji berries, toasted pine nuts, and sesame, sunflower and pumpkin seeds.

I roast the vegetables, cook the grain and prepare the tofu or bean burger balls at the weekend. I usually made loads when I do a batch of bean burger balls and freeze it for weeks to come. It’s the same with pâté or hummus, so most Sundays I’m simply roasting veg and taking things out of the freezer while I go about the other things I’m doing that day. It’s the sort of relaxed cooking where you need only open the oven and stir occasionally. If I’m having falafel in the week ahead I typically cheat and buy it ready-made. Sainsburys own and Cauldron brand falafel are vegan.

It takes no time on a work day morning to put all these bits into a lunchbox. It’s a nutritious, tasty and varied way to eat and you’re unlikely to get bored. Swap things out each week: different veg cooked with different herbs and spices, different grains or even pasta or noodles. Try veggie sausage cut into chunks and add a little onion or spicey sauce. Add a spoonful of homemade salad and mix lentils into your grains. Thrown in a wholemeal pitta bread - perfect for scooping up all those yummy things and making the lunch even more filling. I often see things in the supermarket or get ideas as I browse recipe websites for things that would slot into this style of lunch. For a completely different lunch I sometimes make a batch of soup at the weekend, bunging loads of different veggies in. A tip for a thick and creamy soup is to stir some hummus in once the soup has cooled. Keep the soup in the fridge and heat for a few minutes for a quick lunch throughout the week. Perfect with a wholemeal bread roll.

Vegan sandwiches

When I first became vegan I struggled to think of sandwich fillings. I was used to filling my bread with cheese, ham, egg, tuna, and prawns, and wasn't thrilled at the idea of a cucumber sarnie to get me through the week. But with a bit of creative thinking you can have hearty and tasty vegan sandwiches, rolls, wraps and stuffed pitta bread. Fill your sandwiches with tofu, tempeh, falafel, sausage, avocado, hummus or pâté… and cucumber if you really want to.

Tofu is prepared the night before. I slice a whole packet (around 10 chunky slices) and fry them in a little toasted sesame oil until golden and then splash with soy sauce. Keep the slices in the fridge overnight and they'll becomes a meaty and dense sandwich filling. For tempeh 'bacon', cut the tempeh into slices (around 8-10 per 200g packet) and put them in a bowl to marinade for an hour with soy sauce, maple syrup or agave nectar and a generous sprinkling of smoked paprika. Fry the slices in a little toasted sesame oil until they caramelise on both sides. Pour leftover marinade on top if there's only a dribble. You want the slices to soak up the liquid, not float around in it. Again, refrigerate overnight and you have a delicious sandwich or wrap filling that's very different in texture and flavour to tofu. Both the tofu and tempeh will keep for 4-5 days in an airtight container in the fridge.

For sausage sandwich, cook sausages the night before so they're nice and cold for your packed lunch. Try different brands of sausage to see which you prefer. I find the most flavoursome varieties with the best texture when cold are Fry's traditional sausages and Redwoods Lincolnshire style sausages. I also love Taifun's Tofu-Wiener and Grill Sausages (neither require cooking). Best with pickle, chutney or good old ketchup. Add veggie bacon and crunchy salad for a vegan BLT. Again, cold sausages will keep in the fridge for 4-5 days, so you need only have one cooking session to make enough for your work lunches for the week.

Homemade pâté is a cheap and easy to prepare sandwich staple. Get your blender out (a cheap handheld one will do) and whizz up a can of butter beans, the juice of a lemon, a few sundried tomatoes, a little garlic, a sprinkle of your favourite herb or spice, a little salt and pepper and a drizzle of oil and/or water for consistency. No cooking involved. Pâté can be as smooth or as coarse, or as thick or loose as you like. Keep in the fridge for 3-4 days or freeze for later use. Use it as a main sandwich or wrap filling with salad, or as an accompaniment to another filling such as tofu or veggie sausage. You can also simply scoop it up with batons of raw veg or strips of toast or pitta bread. Experiment with other types of beans and replace the sundried tomatoes with roast peppers, a handful of cooked mushrooms or any combination of roast vegetables you like. You’ll find recipes around the internet that use lentils instead of beans and feature nuts and fruits. Animal-based pâtés are made with cooked innards and an overdose of butter, while vegan pâté contains zero cholesterol and can be virtually fat free (depending on the recipe). No innards in sight.

All sandwiches work well with hummus (see my recipe here) and crunchy salad, but also try a thin spreading of miso paste, black olive pâté, vegan pesto, tahini, hoisin sauce, sweet chilli sauce, and any of a number of chutneys. Finish off any sandwich with a sprinkling of sprouted lentils or sunflower seeds for a crunchy and nutritious flourish.

Homemade of shop-bought bread?
I love making my own bread. I once read the ingredients list on a pack of some supermarket rolls and was horrified: I think there were around 15 ingredients in something that traditionally should have 4 or 4. Put off by the e-numbers and additives I decided to make my own. It's cheap, easy, tastes loads better than bought stuff and will make your home smell incredible for the whole day. There's no need to spend cash on a bread-making machine; they are glorified mixers anyway, and make loaves with big holes in the middle. You can make more bread than you immediately need and freeze the rest, so don't worry about being imprisoned in the kitchen all week. See my wholemeal roll recipes.


Salad

Sometimes I have a large bowl of salad for lunch with a simple homemade dressing. Raw fruit and veg aren't as calorie-dense as some other foods and won't fill you up for as long, so don't be shy about making a large bowl-full for one sitting. Salads aren't just for dieters but they can be a valuable tool in any weightloss effort, especially if you opt for a low/no fat dressing or even keep it naked. A bowl a day substantially increases raw food intake, a good idea for everyone. Salads are as cheap as you like, from a bargain-bin approach using whatever's in the fridge, to something more extravagant and planned. Salad can easily be a one-bowl complete meal, or work as a side dish or starter.

I love sweet foods, so typically choose peppers, carrots and cherry tomatoes. I'd also add cucumber, courgette and a handful of spinach. Choose whatever veggies you like and don't be afraid to put fruits in too: apple works very well with the mix I've suggested here, but also try orange segments, mango chunks, pineapple pieces, or seedless grapes. Use a vegetable peeler to make thin ribbons of carrot, courgette and cucumber. It looks beautiful and is great for fussy eaters or those not used to eating this much veg; much easier to contend with than big lumps. Also try adding beans or chickpeas; cooked and cooled pasta pieces, noodles (check they're egg-free), rice or quinoa; tofu, falafel or veggie hotdog chunks; nuts and seeds; dried fruit etc.

For a no-fat dressing, mix the juice of one lemon with a tablespoon of agave syrup. This creates a ‘sweet and sour’, tangy dressing that’s great as is, but try adding a little of your favourite spice or herb. Also try: lemon juice and sweet chilli sauce; hoi sin sauce; olive oil shaken with apple or balsamic vinegar and a little dijon mustard for a more traditional dressing; soy sauce, sesame oil and a pinch of Chinese Five Spice; tomato ketchup, hummus or vegan mayo, and vegan Worcester sauce for a creamy seafood style dressing etc. Some shop bought dressings can be useful, but watch out for weird and not-so-wonderful additives and artificial ingredients.

Dinner

Dinners vary, but I usually cook stuff from scratch. I often prepare things at the weekend so that evening meals are as quick and easy as possible. This often produces leftovers that I bung in the freezer for another time. Favourite recipes are cottage pie, lasagna, pizza, bean burgers, roast veg wraps and sausage casserole (recipes for all are available here). I'm a single chap so I tend to go for dishes that will last me several evenings and will freeze well. This avoids waste and makes my budget stretch further. Sometimes I just feel like sausage, beans and chips!

Drinks

I used to survive on sugary soy latte and coke. Both vegan. But adopting a healthy plant-based diet seemed like a good time to reduce the sugar and try something new. Water is best, of course, but can be a bit boring. I've gotten into herbal teas and my favourite is hibiscus. It’s got a strong berry-like taste, almost like Ribena but without the sugar and completely natural; it’s just flowers dunked in hot water. Not only are herbal teas or fruit infusions caffeine-free and contain only a couple of calories, some come loaded with antioxidants and minerals. We don’t tend to think of drinks as contributing to our overall nutrition, but we should. I decided to quit caffeine last year because it made me feel anxious so I switched to caffeine-free coffee granules and also use Orzo Coffee, a naturally caffeine-free alternative. I still enjoy a sweet soy latte from time to time or a hot chocolate. I sometimes have a pint of chocolate oat milk straight out of the fridge. For a refreshing cold drink with no sugar or chemical crap in it, make up a jug of fruit tea, cool in your kitchen for a few hours and then keep in the fridge. Serve with ice, a slice of lemon or lime and a sprig of mint. If you like it sweeter add a little agave syrup.

But that's just me, and there's no need to make drastic changes to your tea break when you become vegan. Soy milk is lovely in tea, so you needn't ditch your usual cuppa. Hobnobs are vegan so get dunking! Soy milk curdles in coffee so try rice, coconut or almond milk instead. I'm not sure why but soy milk seems to work fine in latté making, where the drink is 100% milk, though I think it helps to have one of those magic machines that they have in cafes. At home I make mine by heating milk in the microwave and then stirring it slowing into coffee or Orzo granules that I've mixed into a paste with a tiny bit of cold water or milk.

Booze
Alcoholic drinks are sometimes not vegan, especially wine, because animal products are used in their processing. Check the vegan status of your favourite beverage on sites like
Barnivore. I'm not a big wine drinker but have found that Sainsburys, Co-op and Marks & Spencer label their wines helpfully for vegans. Assume wine is not vegan unless it says otherwise on the label. If in doubt, point yourself toward supermarket own brands, organic and Fairtrade wines as they're more likely to have vegan labelling. Drinking wine when out and about is trickier and not all bar staff are knowledgeable about the products they pour. Even in vegetarian places, you can’t always assume their booze is veggie-friendly. There’s a vegetarian pub near my home and while the food is fantastic, the bar itself seems to have a blind spot when it comes to animal liberation. Whatever your preferred tipple, there are plenty vegan-friendly booze options, but it's well worth checking that your favourite brand is animal-free before heading out for the night.

Snacks

Snacking as a vegan is easy, whether you opt for the healthy or junk route. I tend to snack on nuts, seeds, and dried or fresh fruit. All decent, natural stuff that supports a healthy diet. They contain good fats, complex carbohydrate, fibre, vitamins and minerals, and no added crap or artificial ingredients. Muesli bars and flapjack are good too but watch out for added sugar and fat. This sort of stuff will keep you feeling full and prevent energy slumps throughout the day. My current favourite snack is '9bar Peanut'.

But heck, sometimes I'm in the mood for biscuits and crisps, and there are plenty of options in those categories. You may be surprised how many biscuits are vegan-friendly: Hobnobs, Jammy Dodgers, Co-op and Waitrose bourbon creams, Co-op and Asda digestives, Nairn's choc chip oat biscuit, original Oreos (though ingredients do seem to vary, so check) etc. Many crisps are suitable too, even some of the meat flavoured. Still, this is all sugary, salty, fatty stuff that's best relegated to the status of occasional treat.