Inspired by someone who wanted to and didn't know how!
You don't have to join a society or do anything the same way as anyone else. It's a personal journey. These groups can provide support and advice, but you don't need it to make the decision.
I gave up eating meat age 11. I just couldn't put it in my mouth and chew and swallow it any more, so I decided not to. At first it was a matter of choice; won't eat meat, won't eat fish. Then I learnt about, and decided not to eat, animal derived products such as gelatine, lard, and suet. Besides, you do notice - things with gelatine (like wine gums) are tougher to chew - it just seemed to me like I was chewing an animal and I couldn't face it.
For the new veggie, I'd say how much you do is up to you. Some people just don't eat meat. Some don't eat meat or fish. Many won't eat meat, fish or animal products, and they can often be angry at other veggies who will, because it can lead to confusion - if a meal is served containing an animal product, or perhaps a fish dish, and one "veggie" will eat it happily yet another "veggie" will utterly reject it. So decide how you feel and go with it, but be aware of what stage you are at and tell people, including anyone who shops for you, so they can check the labels. (Veggies also get annoyed at people who say they are veggie because they think it is trendy, hope to lose weight, or want a better packed lunch on school trips!) The common types of vegetarian are listed on this Vegetarian Society webpage.
Anything with a green V on it has no animal products. Cheese which says "Suitable for vegetarians" has no animal rennet in it. Anything that *looks* veggie, but has no V, probably has an animal product in it. For example some pesto has parmesan in it which contains animal rennet - many veggies will be bothered by this, for example I can't eat cheese if I know it still contains part of a dead animal, but some veggies won't care. Tomato juice in the pub may actually be a "tomato juice blend" which contains a dash of worcester sauce, and worcester sauce contains anchovy, a small fish! So ask to see the bottle/can before you buy it if there is any doubt; I think Schweppes is an offender. By the way, Crosse and Blackwell make a veggie worcester sauce which is nearly as good as Lea and Perrins! Tesco also sell one in their "Free From" range, although it doesn't quite hit the mark for me. Pastries often have gelatine in the glaze, so I avoid pastries and deserts with a jelly layer.
You will also form your own distinctions about other issues, such as whether you will eat veggie sandwiches from a mixed platter where they were leaning on salmon ones, for example. I personally can't do it, but that's really only because they are contaminated in my mind - the sandwiches may or may not have been in actual contact with meat or fish. It's also important to me at sandwich shops to ask that my sandwich is prepared on a board and with utensils that have not been used on meat since they were last washed. Most shops happily oblige - it is also a hygiene issue. It can be harder to ask a pub to cook your veggie burger in a separate fryer or grill to their meat options, or to keep part of a barbecue for veggies - so take tin foil to barbecues if you go to them! Whether you fuss about all this depends on how strongly you feel, of course.
Personally, I am now at a stage where I eat no animal products, try to only eat free range eggs (but this is hard if someone offers you a cake made with an anonymous egg!) and I also avoid the UK milk industry if I can, so I try to drink soya milk and eat only ewe, goat and buffalo cheeses. This is as big a concession I can make to being vegan, I couldn't live without cheese altogether! This was a gradual progression over the last 17 years of my life, I only began to reject UK cow dairy products over the last year and have to accept that it is very difficult especially at people's houses when they say "oh sorry! I put milk in your risotto! but there's no other veggie food!" Maybe being vegan would be clearer. But that's where I'm at, and whatever stage you find yourself at is a personal thing and probably a gradual progression too. The only suddenness that came was avoiding meat and fish.
When I became veggie, I was the only one in my school. At first they thought it was a phase and made me take meat on my plate. So I didn't eat lunch. Then they finally twigged, and gave me the option to get potatoes from the hot counter, and veggie food from the salad bar - unknown as you were allowed EITHER hot OR cold! These days it is far easier, particularly as labelling in supermarkets is good and people are aware of ingredients in restaurants too, as allergies are more of a problem and vegetarianism is far more common. It's no bother to get a veggie meal in schools and universities now, whereas in the past the only veggie option might have been a plate of chips. Multicultural societies really help with this as the fact that different religions will reject different meat groups can mean there is a nice veggie option available. Unfortunately sometimes this is also the "healthy eating" option, but you can always order twice as much!
What I am trying to say is that - at least for me - vegetarianism is a continual journey. My stance has changed many times from when I initially gave up meat and fish. I know others who have gone back to eating fish or eating all animal products. It's a continuous and very personal thing. You need to be sure that you are comfortable with what you are doing and how you treat your own body, and if you change the boundaries, don't forget to let the people around you know so they can serve you what you will eat.
Another issue is the "fake meat" debate. Personally I can't eat Linda McCartney pies or whatever, they taste and look too much like meat and it's something my brain just rejects, I can't eat it. But if you love meat's taste and will miss it, maybe you will like that kind of thing. If not, be clear to people who cook for you and might well-meaningly get it!
Some other tips - many products aimed at muslims or other communities are free of animal products, or at least those from particular animals. My local shop used to sell vegetarian jelly in mango, pineapple and strawberry! If you don't mind the Evil That Is Nestle, then Rowntree's Quick Set Jelly sachets are the only veggie jelly I can find in supermarkets. Also "traditional" chippies (including Harry Ramsdens - i.e. usually those up north) still use dripping to fry their chips. Most in the south don't, so it depends where you are in the UK. I believe healthfood stores sell veggie things but I don't really visit them.
If you're female, or not eating many greens, I would also suggest you take a vitamin supplement, at least to start with, until you are used to eating a well-balanced vegetarian meal and have been through all stages of your cycle. Boring as it is, it's really important to get enough B vitamins and Iron. Marmite is a good veggie source of these, but many people don't like it. I only take supplements if I'm under the weather, personally, and luckily my iron levels are great, but it is a good idea just to cover all bases while you change your diet.
A final tip - no matter how proud you are for becoming vegetarian (and you should be, it's as hard as giving up smoking or losing lots of weight) please do not preach at others! They may be at another stage in their journey, or just have different reasons to you for the foods they do and don't eat. If they are claiming to be veggie when they have merely given up beef, or some other similar scenario, by all means explain to them how they are clouding the issue and making it harder for genuine veggies to be understood, but please respect their choices. It is horrible to have someone saying "you can't have that! It contains [insert prolific description here]" - it might be that they are allergic to some products and you have mistakenly assumed they are veggie, or that they are doing their best but finding it hard to give up some food groups. Preaching veggies seem to give us as much of a bad name as lapsed or fake veggies!
That's about it - you should have no problem shopping at major supermarkets, as they have such good labelling, and once you are aware yourself of possible ingredients in your chosen foods, you can move further afield without too many problems.
Finally, I wrote a guide for "helpful" parents on what sort of things I like and how to cater for a vegetarian. They seem to think they have to make something special and I really just want normal veggies, but with cheese sauce instead of meat! So maybe it will be useful and reassure people who cater for you (the in-laws or whoever): Feeding a vegetarian - as ever, season to suit yourself!
Vegetarianism is a way of life for me, but it's not a big issue - not something I think about very often, except when someone who doesn't know me well invites me to dinner. i don't eat wierd or freaky food, I eat normal, healthy food - it just doesn't happen to contain meat.
Of course I miss a few meat dishes - duckling a l'orange, parma ham and veal are the main three - but I know I could never eat them again, so I merely order something else and recommend them to others with my blessing.
If you are on the journey of becoming or being a vegetarian - good luck. If I can give you any more help, please feel free to email me via this web form.
This page last updated: 01 September 2022
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