One of the first reactions non-vegans have when confronted with the concept of a vegan diet is, “But I could never live without cheese!”. I will be totally honest, transitioning to a vegan diet wasn’t easy for me. I full-heartedly encourage people who want to transition to a vegan diet to do it at their own pace. For me, it took several YEARS. Yes, years. Cutting out most dairy and eggs wasn’t a problem for me, but cheese… I loved cheese. But slowly over time I was able to remove cheese from my diet, and in this post I’ll detail tips for making the transition easier.
1. Set goals
Start with easily achievable goals for yourself such as, “I will only eat cheese once this week.” Then, as you feel more comfortable set what you think is a more challenging yet achievable goal. Some people might find that after a few weeks of only eating cheese once a week, they can cut it out completely. Others may need to set a another goal of once a month or once every other month. Do what works best for you. Remember, it’s not a race! Go at your own pace and you will have much more success.
2. Make Plant-Based Substitutions
One of the main components to ditching cheese is to satisfy your craving for the salty fatty flavor of cheese with a vegan equivalent. When first confronted with the idea of a vegan diet, many people see it as restrictive. They focus on the exclusion of meat, dairy and eggs instead of how the diet can open one up to new meals and flavors. If you reframe the thought “I can’t have cheese” by focusing on what alternatives you CAN use in your meals, the exclusion of cheese will feel less restrictive. Simply put, think of it as a creative challenge. The following are a few examples of whole-foods plant-based alternatives to cheese.
An easy plant-based substitution for cheese is to use avocado. Instead of adding cheese to your favorite Mexican dish, simply add sliced avocado or guacamole with a touch of extra salt. You can also add avocado to salads, wraps, sandwiches and burgers in place of cheese.
My favorite equivalent became olives. I wasn’t a big fan of olives most of my life, but after trying fresh Cerignola olives I fell in love. Cerignola are mild, buttery olives that are easy to find in any fresh olive bar and a great way to tip your toes into the world of olives. A local market in my neighborhood offers a vegan wrap with hummus, avocados, kalamata olives, and fresh baby greens. The wrap became my cheese-free go-to for a quick lunch. If you absolutely hate olives, there are other snack alternatives that might hit the spot: peanut butter on crackers or pretzels, salty roasted almonds, and edamame with sea salt.
You might notice that I haven’t mentioned processed vegan cheese alternatives. While some brands have succeeded in creating awesome vegan cheeses, they aren’t so great for you, your wallet or your cheese craving. And sadly, many brands have completely failed. Before journeying down the path of processed vegan cheeses, try creating your own cheese alternatives. Cashew Cheese is not only easy to make but versatile! In a food processor, blend 1 1/2 cups raw cashews (soaked in filtered water for 2 hours), 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice, 1/2 cup nutritional yeast, 1-2 cloves of freshly minced garlic, 1 tsp sea salt, 1 Tbsp freshly chopped basil (optional), and add water until you get a consistency you are happy with. Add to pasta dishes, use as a dip with crackers or veggies, or as a spread in a wrap. You can also play with different flavors by adding spices you love.
Tofu Ricotta is a very easy plant-based substitution that you can make yourself in just a few minutes. First, squeeze out the excess water from a package of firm tofu. In a large bowl, mash the tofu with your hands until it’s crumbly. Add 2 teaspoons of lemon juice, 1 clove of minced garlic, 1/2 teaspoon of salt, a dash of black pepper, 1/4 cup of nutritional yeast, 2 teaspoons of olive oil and as much freshly minced basil as you desire. Tofu ricotta is great to make at the beginning of the week for use during the week. Add to a boring dish of pasta and sauce for a fast protein-rich meal.
3. Practice Mindfulness
At Compassionate Fitness we advocate progress not perfection. Practice mindfulness by offering kindness towards yourself if you find yourself giving in to the temptation of a slice of pizza or a cheese plate at a party. Every moment is a new opportunity to start over. Dwelling on guilt only makes going vegan a negative experience. Your energy is best focused on making veganism a positive experience. Be mindful of cravings and negativity and try to reframe those thoughts in a positive light. And, if you do find yourself dwelling on the negative thoughts or giving in to cheese cravings, forgive yourself, move on and try again.
So, if you are struggling to cut out cheese from your diet, try out these easy steps and see how long you can go without cheese. I found that once I went a month without cheese, when I did cave in and eat the occasional slice of pizza, both my stomach and my sinuses were displeased. Having my body negatively affected by consuming dairy made it even easier to cut it out of my diet. You might notice the same reaction. Also, going vegan isn’t just about you and your health. Keep in mind that your efforts are also a way to show compassion for the animals affected by the dairy industry. Every day you go without cheese is a day that you’ve practiced compassion and took a stand against the suffering of animals and the pollution of the environment.
Good luck with your transition. If you’re trying to cut out cheese, tell us how you’re doing. If you’re vegan, feel free to comment with your tips and tricks!