by Virginia Messina, MPH, RD
Whether you go vegan overnight or are moving toward a plant-based diet one step at a time, it’s likely that you’ll find some changes are easier than others. Many people say that deleting cheese from their diet is the biggest challenge.
It’s no wonder. Cheese sits front and center at many social gatherings—including vegetarian ones. It’s associated with some of our favorite comfort foods like pizza and mac ‘n cheese. And it’s familiar and convenient.
But there are 5 simple tips that can help you move beyond cheese toward a vegan diet that is simple and satisfying.
Add Umami. This hard-to-define flavor/essence has been called “the 5th taste” (in addition to salty, sweet, bitter and sour). Certain cheeses are especially high in umami, but so are many plant foods. One reason that many vegans love to use nutritional yeast in “cheesy,” recipes is because this ingredient is packed with umami. Other foods that provide a similar essence include dried mushrooms, olives, tomato paste, sun-dried tomatoes, ripe tomatoes, ume plum vinegar, miso, sea vegetables, and balsamic vinegar. Roasting and caramelizing also bring out the umami in vegetables and so does cooking with wine.
Make use of ingredients that include healthy fats. Going too low-fat with your vegan diet might leave you craving foods like cheese. Try onions caramelized in olive oil on top of pasta. Or spread a sandwich with hummus, tapenade or tahini. Skip the cheese on burritos and double up on the guacamole instead.
Try commercial vegan cheeses. To be honest, some of these are better than others. Many work better as part of a recipe than as a straight-from-the-package snack. Some are good, though, and if you experiment a little bit, you may find a few that meet your needs perfectly. Some of the new artisan nut-based cheeses in particular—such as Miyoko’s Kitchen, Kite Hill and Parmela—are especially good.
Let gifted vegan cooks show you how fabulous cheese-free cooking can be. Check out my pinterest board devoted exclusively to macaroni and not-cheese! You’ll find thirty recipes from some incredibly talented cooks.
Remember the cows. It can be hard to think about animal suffering. But it can also be helpful to remind yourself once in a while about why you are making this choice. And giving up cheese—or any other animal food—becomes just a little bit easier when you remember that every time you choose a vegan meal, it makes a difference for animals.
The next time you need a little bit of cheesy flavor for a dish, whether it’s vegetables or pasta, try our super-simple Vegan Parmesan. The nuts provide healthy, satisfying fats and the nutritional yeast provides lots of umami.
¼ cup almond meal*½ cup raw slivered almonds or chopped walnuts
¼ cup nutritional yeast flakes
Salt to taste
Mix together in a jar and shake to blend. Use on cooked veggies or on top of pasta sauce.
*If you don’t have almond meal, you can pulse ½ cup of raw slivered almonds in a food processor until very finely ground. Walnuts work, too.