All Pepperidge Farm and Nabisco products, with the seasonal exception of Mallomars, were forbidden in my home. My mother, the baker, would not allow them. For years I was convinced that she was actually Rosie from The Jetsons*. The balanced dinner that magically appeared before me each evening, followed by the gratification of a single, freshly baked cookie, did not prepare me for college. Eight months into Northwestern, and 22 pounds into my weight gain from Sodexo-provided pizza and cheese fries, I decided if I didn’t want to keep buying new pants I had to watch my what I ate.

I foolishly thought a vegan lifestyle would undo every choice I had made to microwave a bowl of mac ‘n’ cheese at 3 a.m. But veganism isn’t a magic bullet for weight loss. I didn’t find a diet limited to nuts, grains, fruits and vegetables entirely satisfying. At the end of my thirty-day challenge, however, I felt “cleaner.” It’s a grunt worthy cliché, and a vague concept for people who aren’t hypersensitive to their wellness, but it’s the peace of mind and body that feeding yourself simple foods from the Earth is better than complexity. Here are my tips:

  1. Health comes first. You might choose to try veganism on a whim, but banning several sources of nutrients can have dangerous side effects. Every body requires unique levels of vitamins, minerals and amino acids. Have your blood checked before, during and after you change your diet. You may be placed on a regimen of calcium, iron and B-12 vitamins.
  2. Look for quality. Oreos and potato chips are vegan, but maybe not the greatest staples in your diet. Choose nutrient-dense foods for your day-to-day meals.
  3. Be prepared to defend your choices when people will insult you. …Because they will. Be well versed on health issues, U.S. animal and food policy, and the environment. More importantly, know your own reasons for being vegan. Deflect badgering with some humor. (Just check out that animal pun.)
  4. Refrain from bringing up your diet. Others might think you’re looking down on them.
  5. Don’t beat yourself up, and don’t beat others up. You might not always be able to find vegan food in a gas station on a road trip, and you probably don’t want to ask your new boyfriend’s grandmother to make you a separate meal. Do your best, and know you’re human.
  6. No one wants to live without any indulgences. Life’s just too short. My mom and I bonded over this vegan chocolate cake which we prefer to non-vegan counterparts:

Vegan Chocolate Cake

2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup cocoa
1 1/2 cups applesauce

1. Preheat the oven to 325°F.
2. Combine dry ingredients, and then stir in the applesauce.
3. Grease (with vegan margarine or oil) and flour a bundt cake pan.
4. Pour batter into the pan.
5. Bake for 50-55 minutes.

Vegans must learn exactly where their ingredients come from, how they are produced, and what products they exclude. Every vegetable becomes a favorite because it has to be if it’s the only option! I encourage everyone without health restrictions to try living free of animal byproducts for thirty days as an purely educational experience.

Every month I re-assessed my choice to live as a vegan. For one year I answered pointed questions by omnivores who, I believe, felt threatened by my cheeseburger abstinence. Why else would anybody care so much about my food choices? The most common questions were answered with, “No, I don’t miss anything,” and, “No, I probably won’t be vegan forever, but I don’t know when I’ll eat meat.”  When I woke up from dreams of lasagna layered with bacon I knew my veganism had run its course.

Nowadays, I eat without restrictions. I try to purchase both meat and vegetables ethically when I can. Dairy, though, I have to buy in bulk. After all, Julia Child said, “With enough butter, anything is good.” Or was that Meryl Streep? Paula Deen perhaps? Definitely not Anthony Bourdain.

*Mom, no one is Rosie from The Jetsons. Meal planning, grocery shopping, cooking and baking are a lot of effort as I’ve come to learn by feeding myself as both a vegan and an omnivore. I love you, and thank you for all of those healthy meals.