A vegetarian diet can be healthy, but it requires careful thought and planning. In this article, we’ll discuss vegetarian meal plan for beginners.
By definition, a vegetarian doesn’t consume animal flesh but may consume animal byproducts like dairy, eggs, and honey.
Any dietary or lifestyle change, especially a huge change like this one, can pose many challenges, many more so if it has to do with nutrition.
What to consider for vegetarian meal planning
1. Sources of Protein
In a vegetarian diet, it is important to consume protein from different sources, as mentioned in this study in this Stanford University study.
Beans and lentils provide a good amount, but they are not complete sources. This is because they do not have all the different types of proteins (amino acids) needed by the body.
This can be made up for by the proteins present in grains like wheat, oats, nuts, and seeds, or by complete sources like dairy, eggs, soy products, and quinoa.
Depending on the kind of vegetarian diet, your sources of protein include:
- Legumes – soy products including tofu, tempeh, and soy milk, beans, and lentils such as chickpeas, kidney beans, and brown and red lentils.
- Eggs – the whites of eggs are a good source of complete protein with 6 g per egg.
- Dairy – milk and certain types of cheeses, like cottage cheese, are the best sources of dairy protein. According to the USDA, one cup (240 ml) of milk has 8 g of protein, while half a cup of low-fat cottage cheese has 12 g of protein. Other cheeses high in protein include mozzarella and feta.
- Grains – grains can also provide protein. The ones higher in protein include wheat, oats, and barley.
- Nuts and seeds – Nuts and seeds also provide protein. According to the USDA, almonds provide 6 g per serving (23 whole kernels) and three tablespoons (30 g) of hemp seeds provide 9 g of protein.
- Quinoa – unlike most other plant sources, quinoa is a complete source of protein and can be a good substitute for rice.
2. Sources of Fat
Fat is an essential nutrient but if you are a Lacto-vegetarian, it is easy to go overboard by consuming a lot of cheese, butter, and oil.
Though you should not consume fat in excess, the best sources in a vegetarian diet are:
- Olive oil – a monounsaturated fat, olive oil is one of the healthiest oils in the world. While it is healthy, it is important to consume it in moderation because it is still pure fat.
- Nuts and seeds – a good source of fat, it comes with protein, fiber, antioxidants, and many vitamins and minerals. Walnuts provide healthy omega-3 fat and nuts, in general, have also been found to lower bad cholesterol.
- Avocados – although they are a trendy food, avocados are good for you. They are a source of healthy fat, as well as fiber, helping you to feel full. They too are a good source of vitamins and minerals.
- Coconut products – we love coconut milk and coconut meat as much as you do, but most of them (except for coconut water) are high in fat and calories, so consume them in moderation.
Sources of Carbohydrates
In a vegetarian diet, it’s important is to focus on consuming complex carbohydrates, which digest slowly and release sugar into the bloodstream at a regular pace.
It is best to lessen the consumption of refined carbohydrates like sugar, refined flours, and white rice, which are often not filling.
Refined carbs raise blood sugar levels quickly, are often not filling, and can lead to weight gain. Good sources of complex carbs include:
- Beans and lentils – although a good source of protein, beans, and lentils also have carbohydrates and fiber, which makes them a complex carbohydrate.
- Whole grains – contains fiber, which slows digestion and helps.
- Fruits – a good, natural way to satisfy your sweet tooth, fruits contain fiber as well as vitamins and minerals.
- Starchy vegetables like pumpkin and carrots
Some of the important micronutrients to consider in a vegetarian diet are vitamin C, B1,2, and iron.
Vitamin C-rich food, such as citrus fruits, when taken with a meal, helps in the absorption of iron. In a vegetarian diet, all iron is non-heme, which is more challenging for the body to absorb.
A systematic review study found that vegetarians generally have lower iron stores compared to meat-eaters.
A definite cause for concern, vitamin C-rich foods may help in improving the iron status of vegetarians. Vitamin B12 is another nutrient that vegetarians need to consider.
A nutrient found only in animal products, it plays an essential role in red blood cell development.
In a vegetarian diet, it can only be sourced from dairy and eggs, or in fortified products like fortified soy milk.
Great sources of micronutrients include:
- Eggs – both the white and the yolk are great sources of vitamins and minerals, including vitamin B12. The yolk is an excellent source of choline, which is important for brain function.
- Dairy – aside from calcium, dairy products are also a good source of phosphorus, which along with calcium, is important for bone development, and vitamin B12.
- Beans and lentils – a rich source of folate (vitamin B9), iron, and zinc. Folate also plays a vital role in red blood cell development.
- Fruits and vegetables – a good source of vitamin C, potassium, and folate.
Vegetarian Meal Plan
A good vegetarian meal plan includes enough protein from different sources, a moderate amount of fat, and a focus on complex carbohydrates.
It should also include a variety of foods for a balanced diet rich in vitamins and minerals.
- Oats: 1/3 cup of rolled oats and
- 1 cup of low-fat milk or soy milk, topped with nuts and fresh fruit.
- Stevia or 2 tsp of honey may be added as a sweetener.
- Simple burrito bowl: ½ cup quinoa
- 1 cup of kidney or black beans
- side salad of tomato, cucumber, and corn, with a creamy yogurt dressing
- Stir-fry: 1 cup of cubed extra firm tofu and
- 2 cups of vegetables such as bell pepper, carrots, and mushrooms in a simple stir-fry sauce, with ½ cup of brown rice.
Precautions for beginner vegetarians
- Get enough protein and calories from a variety of sources.
- Go easy on the butter, cheese, oils, and coconut products.
- Switch refined carbohydrates for complex ones.
- Lastly, listen to your body – it’s important when embarking on a big change in your diet and lifestyle.
Like any big lifestyle change, becoming a vegetarian can be challenging at first, but it gets easier once you get used to it.
You may have to experiment a bit, try out new foods and food combinations, and see what works for you.
Eat foods that fill you up and make you feel good! Just remember to consume a variety of foods, especially protein sources, and plan your meals if needed.
Enjoy your dietary journey!