How to Start a Plant-Based Diet: A Guide to Sustainable Eating

Trying to shrink your meat carbon footprint by having more vegan and vegetarian meals? Prep your kitchen with these actionable tips, recipes and tools.
Posted on
January 18, 2021
How to Start a Plant-Based Diet: A Guide to Sustainable Eating

What does sustainable eating involve?

You’ve probably heard that part of sustainable eating means eating more plant-based foods, which tend to leave a much smaller “foodprint” (that’s short for food carbon footprint) than animal products.

After all, animal agriculture is the second-largest contributor of human-made greenhouse gases, second only to fossil fuels.

Is eating a plant-based diet better for the environment?

In a 2019 report on climate change and land, the IPCC stated that plant-based diets are a huge opportunity to mitigate the effects of climate change and reduce emissions. “We don’t want to tell people what to eat,” said scientist Hans-Otto Pörtner, an IPCC committee chair, in an interview with Nature.

“But it would indeed be beneficial, for both climate and human health, if people in many rich countries consumed less meat.”

Sustainable food, particularly vegetable produce in a grocery store aisle.

Is eating a plant-based diet better for the environment?

This kind of change may seem daunting, but doesn’t have to be.

First, let’s discuss the essentials—three key ways to make your plant-forward diet a success.

  • Get inspired. There are so many documentaries on food and climate change to help motivate you. Kiss the Ground focuses on sustainable eating, while Forks Over Knives and What the Health cover the effects of a plant-based diet on overall health and longevity. Are you a fitness buff convinced you need meat protein? The Game Changers will challenge your assumptions. (Of course, as with any content you consume, it’s always a good idea to do your own research—and consider the counterarguments—before making conclusions.)
  • Be realistic. If you’re currently a “speed-scratch” omnivore—as in, you use pre-made products as recipe shortcuts—don’t expect to become the vegan Julia Child overnight. Being overly ambitious can cause burnout, reducing your chances of making lasting changes. Luckily, there are plenty of plant-based convenience foods, as well as vegan and vegetarian options on restaurant menus. 
  • Plan ahead. Being hungry and unprepared is the most common trigger for reverting back to old eating habits. Equip yourself with a stocked pantry, lots of snacks, and meals that are ready to heat and eat, stowed away in your fridge and freezer for emergencies.
A person chopping raw ginger for a sustainable, vegan dish
Photo by Conscious Design from Unsplash
There’s no need to take an all-or-nothing approach—you can start with Meatless Monday.

Another important point to remember is that there’s no need to take an all-or-nothing approach—you can start with Meatless Monday (or Tuesday, or Wednesday) and go from there.

What are the challenges of a plant-based diet?

Below you’ll find some challenges people commonly face when switching to a plant-based diet and how to solve them, plus simple hacks for making meatless eating part of your natural routine—without giving up all your favorite dishes.

1. “I’m interested in sustainable eating, but don’t know where to start.”

The idea is progress, not perfection.

Little changes make a big impact over time. Meatless Monday is one common way to ease your family, and yourself, into a more plant-centered diet. Other routines you might try include vegan before 6, or eating plant-based at home, with animal foods a restaurants-only treat. Or pick a few items you eat a lot and switch them out, like making your morning lattes with oat milk instead of dairy.

Even changing one meal a day is a solid start.

A healthy, sustainable breakfast, consisting of mostly fruits and oatmeal
Photo by Burst on Pexels


  • Overnight oats are a nutritious go-to breakfast if you’re in a hurry. 
  • Tofu scrambles are a filling vegan egg alternative, or try a plant-based egg replacement, like VeganEgg, on whole-grain toast. 
  • Most cereals are vegan, if served with plant milk. Be sure to choose a cereal that’s high in fiber to feel fuller longer. When reading the label, a good guideline is Dr. Michael Greger’s 5-to-1 Fiber Rule: For every 5 grams of carbs, there should be 1 gram of fiber. Oatmeal, oat bran and other hot whole-grain cereals, topped with fruit and nuts or seeds, like chia or ground flax, are excellent choices.
  • Want to win over the family? Whip up some kid-friendly vegan pancakes
  • Smoothies are a go-to quick option. Again, add fiber-rich ingredients (and optionally, some healthy plant fats) that will help keep you fuller longer. 
Anything you eat for dinner can make a great lunch, so be sure to save leftovers.


Anything you eat for dinner can make a great lunch, so be sure to save leftovers for instant, reheatable meals. Some other quick ideas:

  • Prepare some cooked grains, and steam or roast veggies to fill out a week’s worth of lunch bowls. Pack salad greens into a reusable container and top with piles of chickpeas, beans or marinated tofu, cooked rice or quinoa, roasted sweet potatoes and broccoli. Pack a separate container of your favourite non-dairy, egg-free dressing and Sriracha to drizzle over top. 
  • Have a plant-based sandwich. Hummus, roasted vegetables and mock tuna salad all make excellent fillings.
Wholesale bins of assorted beans and legumes
Photo by Ivan Rivero on Pexels


Keep these in small, insulated containers and bring with you anywhere:

  • The usual suspects: fresh fruit; crackers with nut butter; nuts or trail mix; veggie sticks and hummus or a vegan mayo dip
  • Plant-based yogurt alternative with vegan granola
  • Baked chips and salsa
  • Popcorn with vegan butter (or a spritz of olive oil and your favourite seasonings)


Don’t give up your favorites.

Start by taking a half-dozen of your go-to recipes and making them plant-based with a few ingredient swaps. Finding the right plant-based meat replacement has never been easier. Cheese alternatives are also getting better and better, and plant milk options—like almond, coconut, soy and oat—are widely available.

You can even make a cake mix vegan with a couple of substitutions.

Finding the right plant-based meat replacement has never been easier.

If you’re more adventurous or experienced in the kitchen, own it and try new recipes for your household staple meals. Whether your family’s craving mile-high burgers, gooey lasagna, nachos dripping with cheese sauce, pizza or wings, there’s nearly always a vegan alternative.

2. “But where do I get my protein?”

“Foods such as peas, green vegetables and beans have more protein per calorie than meat does,” explains Dr. Joel Furman, M.D., in his book The End of Diabetes.

You can get plenty of protein by eating a variety of plant foods throughout the day, including whole grains, beans and legumes, nuts, seeds and green vegetables. 

Meat alternatives made from soy and pea proteins can be a delicious addition to your diet—and a great way to transition from meat eating—but they’re not strictly necessary to get enough protein for good health. Plus, the growing number of vegan athletes—tennis phenom Serena Williams, football player Colin Kaepernick and Olympic sprinter Morgan Mitchell, to name a few—shows that a plant-based diet can fuel high levels of fitness.

For more on performance-based protein goals, check out The No-Meat Athlete and Plant-Based Sports Nutrition by D. Enette Larson-Meyer. 

Sustainable tofu in a bowl being soaked in soy sauce for a no meat meal
Photo by Polina Tankilevitch on Pexels

3. “I don’t have time for all this cooking!”

Too busy to shop and cook vegan or vegetarian meals from scratch?

There are many new, plant-based meal kit delivery services, such as Purple Carrot or Sun Basket. Some even do some prep for you. Another benefit of meal prep delivery: You get only enough ingredients for what you’re making, minimizing the amount of food (and money) going to waste.

A meal kit delivery of sustainable vegetables being used for a meat-free meal
Photo by Lisa Fotios from Pexels

4. “Veganism is way too expensive.”

While it’s true that prepared food options, like vegan meat, ice cream and cheese alternatives, are often just as (or more) expensive than their animal-based counterparts, you don’t need them in a plant-based diet. Think of them as treats.

Plant foods are often the least expensive ingredients available, especially when bought in bulk.

As for whole plant foods, they’re often the least expensive ingredients available, especially when bought in bulk.

Grains and legumes should cover much of your caloric needs. With fruits and vegetables, you can buy frozen when it’s marked down—it’s just as nutritious as the fresh assortment. Shop for local, seasonal produce when available, then freeze for later use.

 A colorful bowl of sutainable vegetable curry
Photo by Oh She Glows Blog on Oh She Glows Blog

The best blogs for sustainable plant-based recipes

Here are some of the best plant-based websites that can help you meal and snack prep abound.

These are just a few of the many amazing options out there, but once you go down this rabbit hole, you should find plenty to inspire you.

1. Oh She Glows

The rise in popularity of plant-based eating has been partly credited to the success of this blog. Angela Liddon has since expanded Oh She Glows into a series of bestselling cookbooks full of approachable, healthy recipes, a custom app and over 1 million followers on social media platforms like Instagram

Highlight: Banana Bread Muffin Tops

2. Pick Up Limes

Registered dietitian Sadia Badiei’s blog and accompanying YouTube channel offer a variety of nutritious, easy solutions for meatless meal prepping, especially on a budget.

Highlight: Meal Prep On a Budget—Under $2 Meals

3. Hot for Food

Blogger, YouTuber and author Lauren Toyota offers her accessible take on comfort food recipes (vegan doughnuts, anyone?).

Highlight: Creamy Pumpkin Paccheri Pasta 

4. Chocolate-Covered Katie

If you’re into the sweet stuff, this blog (as well as Katie’s Instagram) is a fantastic place to start. From brownies to cakes to breads, it makes vegan baking seem like a breeze. 

Highlight: One-Minute Chocolate Mug Cake

5. Sweet Potato Soul

YouTuber, Instagram influencer and author Jenné Claiborne delivers colorful, flavorful and healthy Southern-inspired fare in a quick and approachable way.

Highlight: Instant Pot Mexican Rice

6. Vegan Richa

Vegan blogger and author Richa Hingle focuses on Indian and South Asian cookery using easy-to-follow, step-by-step instructions.

Highlight: Instant Pot Vegan Korma

7. Sweet Smple Vegan

Vegan couple Jasmine and Chris offer up exactly what their website’s name promises. The fare often includes whole-food and oil-free options, too.

Highlight: Easy Mushroom Gravy

Sustainable spinach being blended for a plant-based smoothie
Photo by Valeria Aksakova on Shutterstock

The best gadgets for plant-based cooking

While none of these tools is necessary, they can make cooking more convenient and enjoyable.

1. An electric pressure cooker

Electric pressure cookers are game-changers for batch cooking, and one especially popular brand, Instant Pot, has inspired practically a genre of cookbooks—including ones full of simple meatless recipes. Try The Vegan Instant Pot Cookbook by Nisha Vora or The Ultimate Vegan Cookbook for your Instant Pot by Kathy Hester as jumping-off points.

2. A high-powered blender

From super-smooth shakes and vegan banana ice cream to the creamiest hummus and mock cheese sauces, there are so many fun, easy and delicious recipes you can make with raw food blenders like the Vitamix.

3. A tofu press

A tofu press firms up and removes excess moisture from tofu, giving it a “meatier” texture. Alternatively, a must-know hack is to freeze your medium or firm tofu in advance for 24 hours, then thaw and squeeze before marinating and cooking it. The tofu’s post-thaw sponginess helps soak up any marinade and makes it extra crispy. Try this crispy tofu recipe and then cook this General Tso’s Tofu.

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Annabelle Waugh
Written By
Annabelle Waugh

Annabelle Waugh is a food writer, recipe developer, food stylist and culinary instructor with a passion for sustainable, healthy eating. Her life’s mission is to create trustworthy, delicious recipes that anyone can tackle.

This article offers general information only and is not intended as legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. While the information presented is believed to be factual and current, its accuracy is not guaranteed and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the author(s) as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada, RBC Ventures Inc., or its affiliates.

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