Going vegan: the diary of a dairy-free week
How will the carnivorous family of Chrissy Harris survive five days without meat or milk?
It's a term that seems to strike fear into the souls of many a carnivorous foodie: veganism.
This strict branch of vegetarianism involves cutting out meat, dairy and all animal products from your diet.
Vegans, of course, do it for moral reasons, but many people are turning to the eating regime for its health benefits.
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We're always being told to cut down on meat and dairy, so why not cut it out altogether?
It sounded like mission impossible for my family, who think nothing of devouring a rack of ribs, followed by lashings of ice cream, rounded off with a large helping of crackers and cheese.
November is World Vegan Month and a good chance to ask if the family could survive five whole days on a vegan diet. What would my children, Jake, five, and Alice, three, who inspect every forkful of food for flecks of green, think about it?
How about my husband, Luke, who likes to spend his downtime roasting huge joints of pork?
It was a challenge but we did it, and in the process we got the taste for a healthier lifestyle…
Breakfast Cereal and soya milk, toast and Marmite (with dairy-free spread)
Lunch – Kids: Peanut butter rolls, strawberry bars, kettle crisps, raisins
Adults: Carrot and coriander soup, bread roll, banana
Dinner Vegan sausages, oven chips, baked beans, salad. Soya yoghurt and grapes
Snacks Breadsticks and hummus, cereal, gelatine-free sweets, fruit, ricecakes
Okay. It's day one. We've stocked up on protein over the weekend and eaten a roast dinner, sausages and fish pie (not in one sitting).
The grandparents are worried about the safety of the children but there is soya milk in the fridge, vegan flapjacks in the cupboard and we are ready to go. We can do this.
"Euugh – what is this milk?!" says Jake.
"Ummmm, it's a special sort. Just drink it," I say. He doesn't but he has it on his cereal. I think the game is up though. Our tactic of not telling the children is not going to work. We are going to have to confess.
My brother, John, has been a vegan for nearly three years and is part of the reason why we're trying this out.
"We're going to try eating like uncle John does for a while," I tell my anxious offspring.
They carry on watching Postman Pat and eat their Cheerios. Phew. I think that worked.
The door goes and it's Joe Brown, the vegetable delivery man. He has a stall in Plymouth's Pannier Market and arrives with a crate full of his lovely produce.
"So this vegan thing,' he says. "Do you think you're going to last?"
Everybody keeps asking me that and I remember saying it to my formerly meat-loving brother. John's right. It does make you want to keep being vegan.
We survive the first day intact. The meat-free sausages went down unnoticed with the kids. The only stumbling block is the soya yoghurt. Alice actually gags on it. I try a bit then I gag too. What is that stuff?
On the whole, I am feeling very pleased with myself and go to put the bins out, only to get a whiff of next door's tea – some sort of meat and gravy. I am like a Bisto kid.
Breakfast Dry cereal (we've ditched the soya milk), toast and Marmite
Lunch – Kids: Hummus wraps, dark chocolate oatcakes, ricecakes, grapes, dried fruit wheel
Adults: Vegetable soup, bread roll
Dinner Soya mince spaghetti bolognese, salad, grapes
Snacks Fruit, ricecakes, bourbon biscuits (apparently these are OK), cheese dipper made with vegan cream cheese, lollipops
I'm starting to realise there are varying degrees of veganism. There are those who say it's OK to eat Bourbon biscuits and Chupa Chups lollies but others who don't like the idea of eating refined sugar because some of it is processed with animal bone char.
I decide we are going to be vegan with a small "v" and take the Chupa Chups (cola and orange flavour). It's all I have to keep the kids quiet after dinner.
Luke sums it up by reasoning that technically you could walk past someone who has eaten a burger and you might breathe the same air. He has a point. We've got to draw the line somewhere.
We are feeling hungry pretty much all the time at the moment but we're not missing the meat. We are really missing milk, though. Lovely milk in our tea. It's just not the same without it. I need a builder's brew.
The kids are hankering after their dairy too. "This cream cheese doesn't taste right," says Jake. "It tastes a bit, well, vegan."
On the plus side, our pans are very clean – no animal fat to scrub off.
Breakfast Toast and peanut butter, pitta bread, oat milk (still not a hit)
Lunch – Jake: Pasta and hummus, fruit wheel, kettle crisps, grapes, tortilla wraps, Oreo biscuits (I know, it's a lot. I think I'm over-compensating)
Adults (and Alice): The three of us head out to the Samphire Brasserie restaurant, in Mayflower Street, Plymouth. We have vegan burgers (made from chopped olives and mushroom), hand-cut chips, vegan coleslaw, falafel wrap, vegan tzatziki
Dinner Beetroot tarte tatin, (the kids have home-made vegan sausage rolls) corn on the cob, potato wedges
Snacks Fruit, dried apricots, crumpets, almonds, Oreos, home-made vegan flapjacks
There he is: my carnivorous, rib-of-beef-obsessed husband chomping on a vegan burger made from mushrooms and crushed black olives, swigging a cup of tea made with soya milk.
It was an image I never thought I'd see. We enjoyed our lunch out but we are struggling a bit today.
We really need cheese. We are missing the dairy the most. It's such a quick fix.
I have a funny taste in my mouth and am feeling constantly hungry. I think it's just me though because everyone else is managing really well. The kids' lunch boxes are coming back empty and they tell me they've eaten it all.
Dinner time is hard though. Jake now says doesn't like potato wedges because they are "vegan". Hmmmm. Note: don't mention the "v" word anymore.
This experiment is tricky for us because we don't have those strong ethical beliefs pushing us along. If you are committed to a cause, it's obviously a lot easier to change your lifestyle.
Breakfast Cereal with oat milk, toast and peanut butter or Marmite
Lunch – Kids: Peanut butter sandwich, dark chocolate oatcakes, soya custard pot, rice cakes
Adults: Home-made vegetable soup, lentil salad and a vegan flapjack
Dinner Mushroom fried rice, home-made vegan apple crumble (delicious)
Snacks Fruit, pitta bread, dark chocolate rice cakes, bourbon biscuits, breadsticks and hummus
I think we've turned a corner today and I'm starting to feel pretty good about it – it's got to be a healthier way of life. I feel like I've got more energy, and the kids wolfed down two bowlfuls of mushroom rice. Rice with actual mushrooms in!
I don't feel quite so hungry all the time and am learning fast what you can and can't have.
There is still a lot of "can't" though. However healthy it is, veganism, to me, is a lot about what you don't eat. That's hard enough for adults who want to go out for dinner with their mates but it's really hard for kids who are going to be surrounded by all sorts of food as they're growing up, especially when they get to school age. You can't say no to everything.
There is a lot of choice out there for vegans – massively more than there was 20 years ago – but it's still a niche market.
Luke found this out when he went to grab a sandwich in his work canteen and found there was nothing left he could have.
He settled for a bag of ready salted crisps (which didn't contain milk powder).
Breakfast Bagels and peanut butter
Lunch – Kids: Marmite roll, kettle crisps, fruit wheel, fruit smoothie, strawberries
Adults: Leek and potato soup, pitta bread and hummus
Dinner – Kids: Pasta and home-made tomato sauce, strawberries, veggie Percy Pigs
Adults: Chickpea curry, spinach and Bombay potatoes, vegan apple crumble and soya custard
Snacks Fruit, kettle chips, almonds, dried apricots, ginger-flavoured oatcakes
It's the last day and I think we've all done pretty well. The kids have adapted (as they do) and I know they have benefited from cutting out the junk. I'm definitely going to use my vegan knowledge to make their lunch boxes healthier and cut down on the amount of fat we eat.
This experiment has also forced us grown-ups to take a good, close look at our family's nutrition and that's never a bad thing. But it is labour-intensive eating.
You can't just go and grab a sandwich. There has to be a lot of planning and preparation to make sure the kids in particular are getting their daily nutritional requirements – particularly calcium.
I wouldn't trust myself to get this balance right long-term without the quick-fix of a glass of milk or a hunk of cheese.
I'm surprised though at just how little we've missed the meat. We are going to have at least one meat-free meal a week from now on. It's a small step, I know, but I hope my brother will be pleased. Now, where's my proper cuppa?
What does the expert think?
Dr Clare Pettinger is a lecturer in public health and dietetics at Plymouth University. I asked her what she thought about our experiment.
“It’s a big thing to embark on. Being vegan or vegetarian is as healthy as any other diet but you have to be careful.
“A lot of people stop eating meat but don’t give a lot of thought to what that is providing.
“You need an appropriate combination of amino acids and the easiest source is through meat but they can also be found in things like soya and quinoa.”
Dr Pettinger said parents would have to be careful that the high fibre diet did not affect their children’s absorption of minerals, such as iron and zinc. However, foods such as tofu and beans contain these healthy essentials.
It’s also vital that children get their calcium and omega 3 for growth and brain development. Omega 3 is usually in oily fish but can be taken as a vegetable-based supplement.
“You are not going to do yourself any harm by cutting down on processed foods, fats and sugars but you’ve got to get the balance right,” says Dr Pettinger.
“You’ve got to do your homework on a vegan diet.
“Also, such a diet might not be accessible to those living under tight financial constraints as many of the food items are costly.”
Was it expensive?
We found individual items costly. The soya milk we bought was £1.39 a litre, compared to 78p for a litre of semi-skimmed. For a large family, that would add up.
Also, items such as soya spread and soya yoghurt were more pricey than their dairy counterparts.
We spent about £120 in total, stocking up for the experiment – about the same price as our normal weekly shop, and we weren’t being strict on budget.
We did have to shop around though. It was not possible to get everything in one supermarket and we had to go to some specialist shops.