5 Things I Learned from My Month as a Vegetarian

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Black bean & chickpea salad

Meatless March: A 31-Day Challenge, or Shall I Say, Lifestyle Change

A few months ago, I wrote a post about me contemplating the idea of becoming a vegetarian. While I haven’t taken that leap as of yet, I did go meatless this past month and have decided to make it an annual tradition, one that I’ve cleverly named—you guessed it—Meatless March.

Meatless March turned out to be not as difficult as I’d thought it would be. When I first began, it was more about shifting my mindset than resisting meat cravings. In fact, my meat cravings were surprisingly minimal. (There was that one time on the bus when a guy sat next to me with an oil-stained paper bag filled with fries… the smell reminded me of burgers, and, well, I had a few daydreams about eating a burger. End of confession.)

A month may not be a very long time, but it was long enough for me to reflect on my food choice tendencies. So now that Meatless March is over, post-reflection time is at hand. Here are my 5 takeaways from the month:

1. An Experience for the Palate

When you think about putting restrictions on your diet, you don’t think expansion, you think elimination. But Meatless March actually expanded my palate by encouraging me to experiment with new vegetables and ingredient combinations. I’m sure it helps that I’m in no way a picky eater and I love vegetables, but even if that’s not the case for you, going meatless can be a great way to branch out of your regular go-to foods. It will just take some additional thought and effort. Which brings me to…

2. Creative Cooking Fun

I had a ton of fun discovering new recipes and food blogs! I would have never come across this delicious West African peanut and sweet potato stew were it not for this awesome recipe list, which I would have never sought out if not for Meatless March. And because I enjoy cooking, it was a fun creative challenge coming up with new recipes or making vegetarian versions of familiar ones. Also, this eggplant lasagna is amazing.

I’ve heard that people who become vegetarian can sometimes gain weight because they end up eating more carbs to substitute the lack of meat. I made a concerted effort to not fall into this trap. I love pasta, so I could have easily forged a million different pasta recipes to get me through the month, but I ended up making pasta only twice. I actually became addicted to lentils—there are so many ways to make lentils!

As a result of these cooking adventures (and the consequent commitment to meal planning), I ended up dining out less frequently and packing lunch for work pretty consistently. So I saved money that way, in addition to saving at the grocery store since I wasn’t buying meat.

3. Mindful Eating & Living

Taking a break from eating meat made me more mindful of my food choices. When you have to be selective, you naturally have to think things through and scan for options you may not have considered before.

One of the main reasons I did Meatless March was a desire to become more aware of my eating habits. It was also part spiritual, as practicing this restraint made me appreciate food more—as well as my easy access to the plethora of food options around me. Fasting of any kind opens up windows for reflection.

We tend to live on auto-pilot most of the time, reaching for the same ingredients whenever we grocery shop, rotating the same recipes whenever we meal plan. It’s comfortable and easy to stick with the familiar. But comfortable and familiar is not how we expand our perspective.

That said, grocery shopping and meal preparation definitely required more thought. Because I’m a nerd and love learning new information, I took it a step further and actually took to looking up nutritional facts on various vegetables (curiosity for what I was eating had increased) as I thought about what to buy for the week.

And Meatless March was a great conversation starter. By talking with friends and family about what I was doing and why, I’d like to think I was shining a light on our culture’s obsession with eating way too much meat. (There’s endless information out there on how meat consumption direly affects our health and the environment, not to mention the unimaginable cruelty animals suffer in the meat industry, so I will not even open up that can of worms. That’s another post entirely.)

The point is—everything we do, every choice we make, has an effect. Too often do we turn a blind eye to those effects because we’re too afraid or can’t be bothered to face them. This experience has really made me want to know where is my food coming from?

I believe we are all connected—all living creatures, the earth, our consciousness, all of it. So I want to know where I stand in the context of the larger system. That chunk of meat in the freezer section, how did it get there? How long has it been sitting in its packaging?

I want to know what are my choices contributing to? How can I make better choices? I don’t want to be a blind consumer. I don’t want to feed an ugly beast.

4. I Eat a Lot of Cheese

c23214a0f75f661f6f12d5a1dea27e72Okay so now to lighten things up a bit: I love cheese and I have always loved cheese. 🙂 (I even love cheesy jokes—ha.) This would have been an ENTIRELY different experience, and a true challenge, if I had gone vegan instead of just meatless.

As I look back on the meals I’ve had over the course of the month, I must say… I see a lot of cheese. I’m not really sure if this has always been the case and I’ve become more aware of it because no meat cleared the way for a clearer view—or if I ate more cheesy dishes and snacks because of no meat.

I try to avoid processed foods as much as possible, but cheese… cheese is a processed food VIP in my book. Still, now that I’ve observed that I probably eat more cheese than I should, I will take some steps towards moderation. (Yes, there was cheese in my dinner tonight…)

5. I Don’t Really Need to Eat Meat

I suppose my biggest takeaway is that meat doesn’t need to be on my plate in order for me to enjoy a meal. Meat to me is definitely delicious but it’s not a necessity for deliciousness. And while I admit that the last week of the month had me craving certain meat dishes, I think it was more that I was craving those dishes as a whole, as opposed to the meat specifically.

Throughout the month I rarely felt that my meals were lacking. I always felt full and fulfilled after eating. In the beginning it did take some getting used to and I did miss the substance of meat, but after a while, it felt pretty natural.

A month may not be a long enough time to make me officially “enlightened” on the subject of vegetarian living. I’m sure this blog post would look differently if I’d gone an entire year without meat. But the truth is, if you would have asked me a few years ago how I felt about vegetarianism, I would have probably told you that I didn’t understand why people did it.

But over the years, and especially now, I finally understand it in a way that I hadn’t before. To all the vegetarians and vegans out there—I respect you, and I guess I feel that my increased understanding has helped me connect with you more.

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So Now What?

Without going too deep into this, I feel I must also share that I don’t believe there’s anything inherently wrong with eating meat. But I do believe there’s something horrifically wrong with the way the meat industry operates. And this desperately and urgently needs to change. 

I don’t have any grand solutions to offer (I’m no Temple Grandin), but my own personal solution is to reduce my overall meat intake, to incorporate more vegetarian and perhaps even vegan dishes into my eating rotation.

Because at the end of the day, I enjoy food very much. I love trying new recipes and cuisines. And I love my body. And I love animals. And I love the earth and the bountiful gifts she has to offer. So moving forward, I will strive for variety when it comes to my food choices. Variety and balance and mindfulness and always—without exception—deliciousness.

So until next year’s Meatless March, stay healthy and merry… and savor your food as you chew!

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My zucchini & chickpea stew creation

Deciphering Happiness

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I watched this documentary recently, simply titled: Happy. It’s a thought-provoking examination of life’s most valued human emotion, happiness, and really is a must-watch for everyone. It grapples with the questions: What makes humans happy? And how can we cultivate lasting happiness in our lives?

I learned there are two types of happiness: intrinsic and extrinsic.

Intrinsic happiness has to do with the fulfillment of your soul’s needs. Fulfillment through personal growth, living your passion, knowing your values and aligning your life’s work to them, forging and maintaining meaningful relationships, giving yourself to others (which goes back to the importance of community), nurturing self-esteem, health, and well-being.

Extrinsic happiness has to do with the fulfillment of your ego’s needs (what your mind tells you you want). Fulfillment through obtaining something external (mostly tangible desires): money, success, status, recognition, any kind of “object” that you perceive will make you happy if you could only have it.

Come to think of it, extrinsic happiness is what I realized I was referring to when I wrote “happiness is a unicorn”; it comes from gaining something that you feel was missing from your life—the type of happiness that shapes the attitude: I will be happy if or when I have this.

With extrinsic happiness, we are chasing something outside of ourselves instead of looking inwards. Hence the plight of the human: we always want what we don’t have. Because of this, extrinsic happiness is fleeting. It’s not something we can ever keep or hold.

“Man is a fool. When it’s hot he wants it cool. When it’s cool he wants it hot. Always wanting what is not.”

Intrinsic happiness, on the other hand, stems from the idea that we are the source of our own happiness (“i am the compass”), and that only we can be responsible for our own happiness. As I see it, extrinsic happiness satisfies the ego while intrinsic happiness satisfies the soul. Interestingly, they directly oppose one another, and therein lies the great paradox that we experience in our hearts.

Before watching Happy, I didn’t think real and lasting happiness could be achieved in life; it seemed to me that, like every other human emotion, happiness could never be constant. I believed that happiness was a temporary high, rendering us unable to find a permanent sense of fulfillment, so that we’re constantly on a search for our next dose, the next thing that will make us happy. Each of us carries a hole in our hearts that we try to fill in some way.

But now I see that I was only thinking about extrinsic happiness. Now I see there is a constant happiness that we can achieve in our lives—one that comes from centering ourselves, knowing and being true to ourselves, and giving ourselves to something bigger than our own personal desires and ambitions. Gratitude, appreciation, purpose, a sense of connection with yourself and others… all these things cultivate a steady flow of intrinsic happiness.

I don’t mean to say that personal ambition is wrong or bad. Only that we need to find a balance between fulfilling both mind and spirit. Happiness, as I understand it now, is not just a fleeting human emotion, it’s a state of being, an attitude, a way of life, a deliberate choice to focus on certain aspects of life over others.

The documentary Happy inspires a clairvoyant understanding of this emotion that we all crave and seek. We all want to be happy. We’re all trying to figure out how to be and stay happy. We all think we know what will make us happy. Many people believe the goal and purpose of life is to achieve happiness.

But I don’t believe happiness is a goal or a prize—I believe happiness is a by-product emotion that springs from the heart, that can be achieved and maintained through actions that are driven by the heart. We become what we do every day.

Do what makes you happy and you will be happy; no action or thought is too small to inspire a sense of happiness. Chase what makes you happy and you will forever be in a chase; everything eventually loses its novelty. So what are the things that your heart longs for? And what are the things that light up your heart from the inside out? True happiness is not something to covet, it is something to be.

Watch the documentary and let me know what you think! 🙂

The Monday Frame of Mind

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I get it. Nobody likes Mondays (or whatever day your week begins). Nobody likes waking up early after taking a much needed break from the alarm clock. Nobody likes getting up and going somewhere under the pressures of obligation and responsibility, especially if you don’t particularly like your job.

Bear with me here. I’m going to risk you rolling your eyes at me.

mondayI have grown to really dislike the “Monday blues” attitude. It’s such a cliche, this way of viewing Monday. I dislike sour attitudes in general because they cloud my world and bring me down. There’s enough external junk beyond our control that we have to deal with on the daily, so if there’s one thing I strive to control in my life it’s my attitude—my way of absorbing the world around me. My way of viewing myself in the world.

The way we approach every day really is a matter of choice.

I wasn’t always this person who strove to be happy. I was the opposite. I lived under a veil of pessimism and unhappiness for a long time, but ironically, those years inspired me to find a renewed sense of joy and optimism in my life. I realized nothing was going to change for me if I didn’t change for me.

1004650_495422900533919_350052237_nThat said, I used to be on the “I hate Monday” band wagon too… until I realized that it’s actually pretty silly to hate a day, and it’s actually pretty awesome waking up because you have something to do.

Mondays represent having to go back to work, sure, but they also represent a new beginning, a new week, a new day of being alive. You woke up today, on this day you dread called Monday, but you woke up. Waking up to a new day, Monday or not, is something to be glad about, I think. No?

At least you didn’t wake up as a giant bug? (Kafka, anyone?)

“In your mind, change the name of every day to Saturday… change the name of work to play.” Matt Haig from The Humans

What is it with Mondays?

I’m stubborn and I hate cliches, so I’ve rebelled against this anti-Monday attitude. I don’t want to be another “I hate Monday” zombie who’s only saving grace is a shot of caffeine and the fact that the day will eventually end. And I feel genuinely better now that I’ve changed the way I view and anticipate Mondays.

1345678621940074Yes, I’m that happy person at work on Mondays, but I’m also that happy person (I try my best!) any day of the week. Why? Because I want to be happy no matter what day it is. Because the opposite of happiness sucks, quite frankly. And because happiness is a good kind of contagious. People who are sour will be sour regardless, so people who strive to be happy should strive to be happy regardless.

Changing your attitude about Monday is not about changing your attitude about your job necessarily. (External circumstance rarely brings internal happiness; we will always be wanting of something—it’s our inherent flaw as human beings to believe we’ll be happier if or when _________).  (So if you can’t be happy Now with what you have then you won’t be happy ever.)

Changing your attitude about Monday, rather, is about seeing Monday as simply a new day, as opposed to a day of going back to the reality of work. It’s about seeing Monday as a new beginning, as opposed to the end of the weekend. It’s about seeing Monday as a day you get stuff done, as opposed to a day you have to do stuff.

Monday-12-2Wake up, people! You are alive. You lived to see another day. Who cares if it’s called Monday (or whatever day your week begins)? Let’s see and treat Monday for what it really is—another day of life, the refresh button for a new week. Monday is like New Years Day once a week! (Is this too much? Maybe…)

Bottom line—begin your day blah, and you will be blah; begin your day grateful, and you will be grateful. So choose your frame of mind for every day—and watch your world change, or not change.

Thanks for bearing with me.

Happy Monday, world.

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