How to Help Someone Trying a Plant-Based Diet for the First Time
It happened to me just the other week: After I sent my stepdad the new documentary What the Health, he finally agreed to give a plant-based diet a try for two weeks. I was ecstatic—my years of talking to him about the health, environmental, and ethical benefits of a vegan diet had paid off! But then I realized… I wasn’t sure exactly what to do next. How could I best support someone trying a plant-based diet for the first time?
After two more friends called me to say they were also trying to go vegan, I realized that we already-veg allies could use some help figuring out how to best support the people we inspire. So I spoke with Erin Kwiatkowski, Mercy For Animals’ own global vegetarian support manager, to find out just how she works her magic. I also spoke to a few friends I’ve encouraged to try a plant-based diet to find out what’s most helpful.
So here you have it: your ultimate guide to helping a friend who’s trying out a plant-based diet.
1. Congratulate Them and Voice Support
This is the most obvious and easy step. Let them know that you are excited for them and willing to help every step of the way—and that you are their ally. Invite them out to eat with you at a vegan restaurant to celebrate, or have them over for dinner and show them how you do your thing!
2. Introduce Them to ChooseVeg and Have Them Download the Veg Starter Guide
Next, send them over to ChooseVeg, where they can find not only free live chat support but also the Vegetarian Starter Guide, which has all the information they need to transition to a plant-based diet. Suggest they check out the health tips section of ChooseVeg so they can learn more about proper nutrition. You can also send this article with tips for people trying to move toward a plant-based diet.
3. Send Some Recipes
If they’re comfortable in the kitchen, suggest some recipes from ChooseVeg or plant-based food bloggers, like the Minimalist Baker or Oh She Glows. If cooking isn’t their thing, recommend the meal planning section of ChooseVeg. Michelle Morro from MFA’s veg support team says, “It lays out seven days of fast, simple meals that will help you feel more comfortable in the kitchen and better understand how to eat a veg diet.”
Elizabeth Enochs, who recently went vegetarian and is moving toward a plant-based diet, agrees this would be helpful: “What I’m really struggling with right now is finding recipes to replace the dishes I’ve always loved, like cheese pizza and mac ‘n cheese. So recipes are always helpful. Also, I could use some direction regarding the kind of gadgets that might make vegan cooking more simple or quick.”
4. Remind Them You Don’t Expect Perfection
As tempting as it may be to encourage someone to be really strict about testing out a plant-based diet (especially if you’re hoping they see substantial health changes), it’s not smart to expect them to be perfect. “Chances are you didn’t go vegan overnight either,” Morro says.
“I think it’s really important for people who have been veg for a long time to remember that if you’re a person who isn’t used to cooking regularly, switching to a plant-based diet is more than changing what you eat—you also have to develop the habit of cooking daily, and that’s not easy,” Enochs observes. “Try to remember that it can be even more challenging to go vegan or vegetarian when you live in a rural area, a small town, or the Midwest. Where I currently live, I would have to drive two and a half hours to find a vegan or vegetarian restaurant. There’s literally only one grocery store in my town that offers vegan cheese. Also, remember that misinformation and propaganda around the meat and dairy industries run deep.”
Make it clear that you are a safe space for any struggles that come up along the way and that you won’t judge them.
5. Keep Checking In
I worried about annoying my stepdad with too many check-ins, but Kwiatkowski says they are a good idea, especially in the beginning. “Maybe text him a picture of one of your meals every day, and ask him to send a picture of his back. You’ll give him meal ideas while allowing him the chance to talk about how his experience is going,” she suggests.
Just how often you check in, of course, also depends on the person. If you know someone tends to be more independent, adjust accordingly. “If you’re unsure, I think it’s best to first make it clear that they can reach out to you whenever they need help, and second, try to touch base with them maybe every other week,” Kwiatkowski says. She suggests a quick “how’s the veg eating going?” or “did you struggle with anything this week?”
6. … But Don’t Overdo It
I’ve definitely been guilty of this: sending people pages-long emails full of all the resources at once—and I’m pretty sure it only overwhelms them.
“A lot of vegans, including myself, are extremely excited when someone else reaches out and wants to talk about going veg. I think it’s fine to be happy for that person and excited about it, just don’t constantly be in their face,” Morro says.
“If you find that every conversation you now have with that person is about going veg, you’re probably being a bit too enthusiastic. Just talk to them how you normally would, and check in on their diet every now and then or when they bring it up.”
7. Keep It Upbeat
As much as possible, ask the new veg in your life positive questions to keep things upbeat. “Something like ‘what was your favorite veg food you ate this week?’ will make them recall the happy feeling of eating something delicious. This will help them associate their new diet with positive thoughts and motivate them to continue,” Kwiatkowski says.
8. Encourage Them to Seek Community
It might seem too early to encourage your friend or family member to seek vegan community, but Morro says it’s a good idea. Suggest a Facebook group you like or a vegan meetup.
“Having a support system is incredibly helpful when first transitioning to a veg diet,” Morro notes. “Plus, social gatherings are often centered around food, so being the only veg person in your circle can feel isolating.” If they’re too intimidated by the idea, remind them that they can also reach out to the veg support team at MFA.
9. Don’t Be Judgy About Setbacks
If your friend admits that they caved and started eating meat again, it can be easy to feel disappointed. But it’s important in these moments to remind them that you don’t expect perfection, lest they give up altogether.
“The biggest mistake vegans make when helping someone else transition is that they forget they were once a meat eater too!” Kwiatkowski says. “Even though it’s hard, we have to remember to show the same compassion we show to animals to our non-veg friends and family by celebrating their small victories and supporting them when they need it.”
If they take a step back, tell them not to be discouraged. Remind them that going veg is a big deal, and that it’s going to take time to adjust. The point is, they are trying to do something positive, and they should never feel bad about that.
10. …But Don’t Be Afraid to Continue Sharing Your Reasons for Being Veg
If they could use some extra motivation, suggest documentaries like Forks Over Knives, What the Health, or Cowspiracy, or books like Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. If your friend has expressed interest in viewing footage of how animal products are made, you can send them MFA investigative footage or documentaries like Earthlings.
If they’re open to it, you can also suggest a visit with your newly veg friend to an animal sanctuary. “Not only will this be amazing motivation for sticking to their diet, but directly interacting with animals who have been rescued is rewarding in itself,” Kwiatkowski says. “Seeing how emotional and intelligent the animals are will make anyone think twice about eating them.”
If they committed to a certain amount of time on a plant-based diet, set a date to celebrate when they reach their goal. Take them out, and let them know how proud you are of them for completing the challenge—even if they were imperfect. Ask what kinds of emotional and physical changes they noticed and if they’re interested in continuing toward a plant-based diet, even if only for another week.
If they refuse to continue, Morro suggests thanking them anyway for embracing your diet and asking that they continue to respect and support your dietary choices.
13. Be Patient With Reductionism
If they are still open to eating less meat but aren’t ready to go vegan, remember that a reductionist approach still alleviates animal suffering.
“For many people, going vegetarian or vegan overnight is too hard, and studies show it often results in reverting back to eating meat,” Kwiatkowski explains. “There are so many habits to reform in this process, so suggest taking it one step at a time, whether that’s cutting out one type of animal product first (ideally chicken, fish, or eggs!) or limiting the number of days a week they eat meat, dairy, or eggs.”
“Encourage whatever feels practical and doable for them moving forward. It doesn’t mean you’re giving them a free pass—it just means you don’t want them to give up altogether.