Plant-based eating: otherwise known as vegetarianism. It’s a term that grows complex when we consider all of the arians that go along with it. There are ova-lacto vegetarians who eat eggs and dairy products, and ovo-vegetarians who consume eggs but no dairy. Then there are vegans who exclude all animal products, including eggs, dairy, and animal by-products such as leather and beeswax.
Vegetarianism is daunting for me when I consider all of its varying degrees and rules and regulations. Maybe it’s the diehard rebel in me that cringes when it comes to identifying with subgroups and labels.
That’s the sort of thing that makes my skin itch and my eyes cross, a situation that makes me want to turn and run in the opposite direction. My goal isn’t to become a diehard vegetarian, but to simply eat more plants and make them the focus at our dinner table.
Plant-based eating for me means plant-focused, allowing fish, dairy, and eggs in moderation, cooking with healthy oils, and maintaining a low-sugar diet. Eating this way gives me adequate and even energy throughout the day; it’s a method that saves me from waves of sugar and caffeine cravings mixed with emotional highs and lows. Yet still, while I plan to greatly reduce my animal protein consumption, I won’t turn down a good bowl of chicken noodle soup from time to time. Let’s be real here: there is nothing better to have on a really cold Tennessee day than a good bowl of hearty, homemade chicken noodle soup fresh from the kitchen. I’m not really sure what to call this way of vegetarianism, but if we must create a label for it, lets do. Maybe something along the lines of ova-lacto-chicken-noodle-soup-ah vegetarian. That has a fun ring to it, I think!
Plant-based eating for me will mean learning to cook in a way that bases our meals around plants instead of animals in an effort to transform our table. From time to time, we may have a little bit of meat, but in moderation, not at every meal, not every single day, and it will not be the centerpiece of our plates.
This is a completely new way of preparing meals for me. I grew up in southern Kentucky where our farm to table casseroles, vegetable dishes, and biscuits were second best to whatever meat was served along with it. Mashed potatoes and sweet peas accompanied ham. Allen’s Italian cut green beans cooked in bacon accompanied turkey and stuffing, or fried chicken. Vegetables arrived at the party neatly dressed up in butter and cheese, but meat was the prom king!
It wasn’t until we found out that our fourth baby had a single kidney that I started researching the best diets for kidney health, and meat was dethroned. Again, just as any hardcore practice that makes me curl into a ball and start shivering, there were so many approaches to kidney-friendly diets at so many varying degrees of kidney health that the information got backed up in the traffic jam of my mind. One bit of information started rear-ending the next, and by the time I was finished reading, I would go to the kitchen and forget everything I had just learned.
Over time, and with a little added common sense according to what is doable in our busy family of six, I have started to pave a path that realistically benefits not just Joseph, but all of us. Too much animal protein is hard on the kidneys, but there is no need to completely eliminate meat and dairy from our menu. Joseph doesn’t have kidney disease, he has a single healthy kidney, which is very common. However, moderation will be key when it comes to keeping it that way. As his Mommy, I not only see him now as an adorable little baby eating Cheerios in his high chair at the dinner table, I see him one day sitting in his very own chair sharing in conversation about his day. All I want for him (for any of my children) is to see him grow into a boy, a teenager, a father, and into a cute wobbly little old man playing chess in the park with his geezer trousers pulled high with suspenders. Getting him there will be influenced by what I put on the table as he grows.
I made mistakes with my older girls, turning to baby cereal bars, Gerber puffs, and goldfish because it was easier when I needed to get grocery shopping done during snack time. Desperate times called for desperate measures, and as a young mom, I was hell bent on moving quickly while jamming in as much as possible; that’s the American-approved way of doing things, a marker for success. However, and as many of us are starting to realize, that kind of lifestyle wreaks havoc on our mental, physical, and emotional health. Now I’m the old mom of four children, and time has taught me that slowing way the hell down while being mindful brings more peace and a more balanced and healthier lifestyle than thinking that I can get everything done in every right way possible in just the nick of time.
When I look at this beautiful one kidney baby boy happily watching us from his high chair, I want to make sure that as he makes his transition to the table, that I’m putting before him the very best things I can to benefit his kidney health long term; what I serve him now will impact him for a lifetime. And so, this isn’t a New Year’s Resolution to transform our lives when the clock strikes midnight; it’s more of an adaptation to a new way of doing things that starts whenever, over and over, day after day, and allows flexibility. Probably for the same reasons that I don’t like labels, I don’t believe in New Year’s Resolutions. A new year does bring new seasons and a new era for hope, but I don’t believe healthy choices have a start date. Healthy choices should have a renewing continuity that builds over days, weeks, and years. If we want to get healthy, or change old habits, the best time to start is in the very minute we are standing in. There is no solitude or promise in having one last day of pies or alcohol or cigarettes or sex or bad attitudes or negativity or toxic friendships. Whatever it is that any of us may indulge in, we have to make a concerted effort every minute of every day to avoid those things until they fade out and in that space is born something healthy and new.
Slowly over the past months, I have been transitioning our family to ova-lacto-chicken-noodle-soup-ah vegetarians, or whatever one might call it (I just call it us doing us). I have slowly eliminated red meat to little to none and have begun to decrease our intake of poultry and dairy. The big transition for me now will be preparing dinners with a focus around plants instead of chicken saltimbocca, or stuffed chicken breasts. We can have meat, just not a lot, because for all of us, but for Joseph in particular, we want our kidneys to be fed the healthiest of diets we can find to put on our plates. In addition to increased risk of kidney disease, taking in too much animal protein can lead to things like kidney stones, osteoporosis, unhealthy arteries, heart disease, and increased risks of cancer. You can read more about that here, here, and here.
I used to push myself hard at the beginning of every new year to eat healthy, shed pounds, and would approach those two things with unshakable willpower. It would always work for a few weeks until I would break over having a single dessert on Spring Break. The remorse over that single dessert would lead me to an overwhelming sense of failure that would snowball into that same pattern of highs and lows with eating well and exercising mixed with eating poorly and being sedentary. Once I finally woke up to this unhealthy habitual cycle, I accepted that flexibility is key to my success. My best self is yielded when I approach each day and each meal as an opportunity. Some of those opportunities are lost on unhealthy choices, but I’m human and it happens. The days are long gone that I expect myself to be perfect lest I be a loser. I’m a woman who enjoys yoga, running, feels great when she eats healthy, feels gross when she eats fried and greasy foods, is fulfilled by friends who are authentic, altruistic and original, and loves to have a really gooey chocolatey dessert every once in a while. My best self isn’t lived in excess, but somewhere in the middle on healthy and stable ground and from a place of unshakable self-love. Living this way has helped me be a better and happier person in this world, which benefits my children as much as it benefits myself. The way I live my life—what I put before my children both in practice and on the table—will impact their future. Therefore, I have learned to gracefully give it my all while doing the very best I can and letting good be good enough. I don’t want to put into practice strict diets fraught with arguments and regrets. I want our dinner table to be surrounded by good food, healthy habits, happy hearts, and good times.
Join me if you will. Here I will share this journey on our path to a plant-based diet for a busy family of six. Of course, in true Caroline fashion, I will include all of the loveliness along with the brutal raw truths when it comes to our setbacks and gains, temper tantrums, and the recipes that fail and ones we love. In addition to transforming our plates, I’m also going to be focused on improving my yoga practice, continuing to build upon my knowledge and abilities as I reach toward becoming a yoga instructor sometime in the future (which scares the shit out of me, pardon my language).
Already I have seen my children practically foam at the mouth when I told them we were not going to be having meat as the centerpiece of our meals. We have yelled, they have cried, I have threatened to make them watch documentaries to back up my claims, and I have held our responsibility to be good examples for Joseph over their heads. Yet still, we have had moments of laughter while making plant-based meals together, such as sweet potato and black bean tacos, which turned out delicious! (Sweet Potato and Black Bean Tacos)
This is a process, and with any process we must allow ourselves the inevitable advances while appreciating the moments we tumble backwards. Our efforts should always be achieved in realistic realms. If we approach new habits less in the way of perfection or failure, we find that in between there is a happy and healthy balance.