Switching your family to a plant-based diet: A working mum’s practical tips and tricks

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Addiction specialist Dr. Rashmi Chadha has worked at VGH since 2010, becoming progressively more involved in planetary health issues over that time. She chairs the VA/VC Medical Staff Planetary Health Committee and over the past few years has committed herself to an entirely plant-based diet. Dr. Chadha is also a working mum who is the primary home cook for her family. As such, she takes a practical approach to the meals she makes.

“Just like with addressing substance addiction, everyone has to move through their journey by what’s comfortable and doable with the stresses and pressures they have,” said Dr. Chadha. “Every little bit counts. If the most you can manage is 50 per cent plant-based protein with 50 per cent animal-based, that’s a start. It’s still less animal industry, mass agriculture-based food being consumed than if you used only meat.”

Dr. Chadha became a vegetarian during her teenage years because she objected to animals being killed for food. That was something she admits she “selectively forgot” when she started residency with its time and academic pressures. Motherhood further ingrained her omnivore diet due to her own biases and knowledge about what constituted healthy nutritious food for young children.

“I had been working hard on planetary health but had been focused on fossil fuel extraction as the main problem. Attending a presentation by Dr. Annie Lalande a few years ago about the climate-related harms of agriculture made me realize I had to get back on board with not eating meat,” she said. “Later, I had some challenging conversations with vegan MD friends on the ethics of a lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet from an animal welfare perspective. This in-turn led to an intense journey of inquiry as to the harms of dairy and eggs from a planetary health perspective and after watching the documentary, Dominion, I realized I personally couldn’t be a healthy planetarian whilst also consuming eggs and dairy. Thereafter I changed my diet to be entirely plant-based.”

Dr. Chadha’s tips and tricks to wean the family onto plant-based food

Dr. Chadha emphasizes that you don’t have to approach plant-based meals as an all-or-nothing choice.

“Start small with maybe one vegetarian meal a week,” she recommends. “As that becomes easier, perhaps add a second meal that is vegan. Over time, make the majority of meals plant based.”

Other tips:

  • Remember: any reduction in animal-based foods that you make counts from an animal-welfare perspective.
  • Reduce the proportion of animal meat to plant-based protein gradually. For Dr. Chadha, that meant, for example, slowly switching the protein portion of her spaghetti Bolognese recipe. She says, “It’s a bit like doing a blind cross-taper of an opioid medication; start with 75 per cent animal-based protein, 25 per cent plant-based; then reduce to 50:50; and then, when they’re ready, 25 per cent animal, 75 per cent plant based. Eventually transition off meat altogether.
  • As per the Canada Food Guide, make half the plate vegetables and with that, add plant-based protein to boost overall protein in the meal. For example, include a handful of nuts, lentils, beans, or seeds. By doing this, family members end up eating less animal-based protein but get their overall daily protein requirements met.
  • Dr. Chadha only eats plant-based meals herself but sometimes prepares meat, fish, dairy or egg meals for other family members. To avoid creating too much work for herself at the end of a busy working day, her meal will be the salad or vegetables that she is making for the rest of the family boosted with additional protein from mushrooms, nuts, tofu, seeds, or pulses.
  • Grow your own food with your kids to teach them where it comes from, to give them the enjoyment of growing something from seed to picking, and to start a conversation about sustainable organic food. The best part about this process is it’s offline, involves getting your hands in the dirt, and, most importantly, is a way to have fun and bond as a family. The joy of watching a child see a pea shoot sprout, grow into a full plant, and ultimately bear shelling peas, that can be harvested and eaten in the garden is priceless!
  • Be practical. Food needs to be enjoyed and meals are a time when families bond. If you lose that because you’re being militant about forcing only plant-based meals on loved ones who aren’t yet ready for change, you may end up with disgruntled family members who miss out on both physical and psychological nourishment because the joy has been taken out of the experience of food. Dr. Chadha found having a more relaxed attitude has led her family to actively ask for plant-based food now they are used to it and has been surprised that they often choose it when eating out.
  • Modern fortified plant-based milks and yoghurts are delicious—give them a try! The oat- and soy-based ones are the most sustainable for us here in Canada.
  • As a former cheese afficionado, Dr. Chadha can firmly advise that plant-based cheeses have a way to go. She recommends that you do not start off your plant-curious journey by trying to emulate your favourite mac n’cheese recipe—it will only end in rapid relapse to dairy! She says that over time, your palate will change, and you’ll find you don’t crave the umami unctuousness of cheese, something she was surprised to discover.
  • If you and your family are ready, start a conversation about animal welfare. As healthy planetarians we need to turn our attention to our own ways of treating other creatures we share this planet with.

There are lots of recipes online, including our own recipe webpage.

“I’m a mum who gets joy and connection by feeding my family healthy home-cooked meals every evening,” added Dr. Chadha. “I know there are many doctors who have the same family roles and take pride in what they’re providing to nourish their kids and partners. Many will think there’s no way their six-year-old will eat plant-based food, so may not even try. To them I say, don’t give up! Just incorporate it gradually with sneaky tips and tricks!”

Get involved

We’re looking for more VPSA members who follow a plant-based diet or who are incorporating more plant-based meals into their diet to profile. If you’re interested, please send us an email.

Check out our plant-based recipes page, which includes some from Dr. Chadha. We’re hungry for more recipes. You can submit one (or more!) here.

Photo: Dr. Chadha made vegetarian (one side) and vegan (the other) enchiladas. The stuffing of the vegan side had plant-based cheese and the toppings were regular cheddar on the vegetarian side and plant-based on the vegan side. She had vegan sour cream on top and other family members had regular. Guacamole on the side. Everyone was happy.

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