By Dustin Rhodes

I recently read an article which pointed out that, according to the latest surveys, the number of vegans and vegetarians really hasn’t grown dramatically in the past couple of decades; it’s stayed roughly the same since the 1990s. That means a lot of people go back to eating animals. This always surprises me, given how easy it is to maintain a plant-based diet and vegan lifestyle in the U.S. nowadays.

Also, animals—yes, mainly dogs and cats—are front and center in our lives now, bringing moral questions about animals right into our homes.

Though I don’t have science to back it up, I bet the number of people trying plant-based meals and opting into things like Meatless Mondays, etc. has grown dramatically. Just look at the number of vegan products that seem to have overtaken grocery store aisles in the past few years.

But what will it take to make a full-on commitment to being vegan — which is the best way to help animals and combat climate change — and staying vegan?

I hear a lot of people say they want to become vegan or plant-based, but don’t know how. In my opinion, the best plan is to make a plan. So here are a few tips to help you get started.

Know who you are

I am not convinced there is compelling research to suggest there is a single best way to become a vegan—whether it’s gradual or cold Tofurkey—but we all know our worst tendencies, hopefully. So I always suggest making the switch by embracing a strategy that’s most conducive to long term success—for you. I have a bad habit of jumping into something headfirst and being overwhelmed by it—which is a set up for disaster. I did actually become vegan overnight—I wasn’t even a vegetarian beforehand—and I would actually not do that again. I was not a good cook, and had virtually no experience preparing vegan meals or even knowing what to look for at the grocery store, and I found it to be extremely frustrating. Don’t misunderstand: If you’re good at instant change, then go for it. But there is nothing wrong with starting with vegan meals here and there, and finally setting a goal to fully commit over a period of time (don’t make that goal too short or too long a period of time). It’s better for animals if you spend many years as a practicing vegan rather than a few months because you went back to eating animals because the whole thing felt impossible.

Yes, you can 

I talk to a lot of people who say, “I could never go vegan because…”; and the list usually involves awkward social situations, fear of what family gatherings will be like; not wanting to be an “animal activist,” and many other things that involve drawing attention to one’s self in a way that some expect will be uncomfortable. I felt the exact same way. My advice? First, remember there will always be awkward family dynamics as long as there are families—vegan or not. That’s what families are for, am I right? All kidding aside, becoming a vegan will not have a detrimental effect over friends and family over the long haul. You just need to learn how to navigate it. They will, too. No big deal.

Flip this one on its head: I can go vegan because __________. My belief about creating personal change is that we really have to want it, and that we have to expend the energy to short-circuit our personal psychology—the inner critic / voice that tells us we can’t do something—to make lasting change.

My suspicion about people not wanting to be an “animal activist” or being “political” is really not wanting to be a vegan stereotype—the loud, in-your-face-judgmental stereotype; that person exists in the vegan world, I cannot deny—but he or she is not the majority. And if you don’t like that vegan, don’t become him or her. This is an excuse, not a reason to keep eating animals. But I humbly admit that I probably didn’t become vegan for years for exactly this reason. And, of course, decades later, it seems so stupid.

The kitchen is the most important room in the house

I cannot stress enough how important it is 1. to learn how to cook and also learn to 2. eat plant-based meals that make you feel healthy. I messed this up royally at the beginning. While I did enthusiastically embrace learning to cook, I embraced heavy, comfort foods and made no attempts to balance this out. Almost everything I made was rich, salty, too sweet or greasy. I did not course-correct for years. Looking back, it’s strange that I adopted this type of eating, because I did not eat this way as an omnivore. But all of the sudden, I am baking vegan biscuits and extremely rich mac-and-cheeses and living off of deep-fried tofu and vegan cupcakes. Subconsciously, I believed that, “if it’s vegan it’s good for you,” which of course is not true. Don’t get me wrong: I am not suggesting that you follow any one-way of vegan eating exclusively, but only remember to embrace balance. Vegetables are your friends.

Also, learn what you like to do in the kitchen and what is realistic—in other words, embrace cooking habits that are sustainable. After cooking vegan meals for nearly 20 years, I think I am pretty good home cook. But I have learned that I don’t like to make time-consuming meals very often. In fact, I gravitate towards meals that I can make from start to finish in less than an hour—which is imminently do-able once you get the hang of it and learn what you like. There are at least 10 meals I can prepare in 30 minutes-ish that are 1. very good 2. very healthy and 3. very filling/satisfying. But what people want from time spent in the kitchen is very individual, so once again: know yourself.

Being vegan is more than what you put on your plate

For some, the goal IS to do Meatless Monday — and stop there. (I have a friend who’s been doing Meatless Mondays for many years—without taking any steps whatsoever to actually stop eating animals); Make Meatless Mondays a first step, if you want, but map out a whole plan of becoming a full-time vegan. And this goes beyond just your food choices. Eating plant-based meals is not an end unto itself. There’s still more to do. Through my work at Friends of Animals, I have learned first-hand that just adopting a plant-based lifestyle does not win victories for animals who are exploited in other countless and often tragic ways around the globe. You have to stop wearing animals. You have to show up at public hearings to support wildlife to also help.

It’s not too late

My favorite correspondence in my entire career at FoA was a letter from a woman in her mid-80s who wrote to us to say that we had inspired her to become a vegan; and not only that but that she “felt great” and wished she had done it sooner. I must have read the letter 100 times. Every time we’d learn of something horrible happening to animals I’d read it again to remind myself: People can change and it’s never too late.

Adopt that attitude. Don’t use age as an excuse—either that you’re too young (and have the “rest of your life”) or too old (“it’s too late”). All of us die, and none of us know how long we’ll live. The one thing we know? We can change the world for animals. Now. Today. It’s never too late.

Tell us about your experiences with becoming vegan and what advice you may have by leaving a comment on our Facebook page or tweet us @FOAorg.

Development Director Dustin Rhodes is in charge of fundraising for Friends of Animals and is a contributing writer for Action Line. He resides in Asheville, North Carolina — a progressive, animal-loving community in the Blue Ridge mountains