Vegetarian Challenge Final Thoughts

by Beth - Budget Bytes
Step by Step

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Every time I do a challenge I learn so much about myself. I set out on this 31 Day Vegetarian Challenge intending to increase my vegetable intake, reduce my dependency on pasta and cheese, and build some all around healthier food habits in the process. While I think I accomplished those goals, my bigger take away was re-discovering the benefits of being mindful. Crafting a weekly plan with intention and choosing each meal mindfully had positive effects in so many areas of my life. This, above all, is what I hope to continue going forward. 

First, here are some quick links to January’s Vegetarian Challenge if you want to catch up:

Vegetarian Challenge Final Thoughts

Vegetarian Challenge Final Thoughts

No Meat, No Problem.

As I mentioned above, this was actually kind of a hybrid challenge for me. First, I was challenging myself to eat no meat for the month. No problem. I eat at least 50% vegetarian anyway, so I really didn’t miss it. BUT I also challenged myself to reduce my consumption of cheese, and I usually lean pretty heavily on cheese for protein, so I had to make some adjustments there. I love beans, so I made sure to include plenty of beans in my meal plans. Eggs also made a regular appearance, as did peanut butter. I also increased my consumption of seeds, by adding them to my morning oat bran, or sprinkling them over yogurt. Those few intentional moves plus having a diet full of vegetables and whole grains helped me hit those daily protein goals. Getting the recommended amount of protein per day during the challenge did not prove to be difficult. (See 5 Easy Sources of Plant-Based Protein)

The Challenges

While not eating meat isn’t particularly hard for me, this month wasn’t a total cake walk either. Here is what I found to be difficult:

  • Getting used to being “fiber full.” I described this new phenomenon in week 1. Feeling so full from all the fiber rich foods, but still being hungry for calories. It’s not the most pleasant feeling and it took some getting used to, but I learned how to manage it very quickly (increase plant fats, like peanut butter or avocado).
  • Breaking that cheese addiction. The first week the withdrawals were HARD. Like cheese on the brain 24/7 hard. But then it disappeared and never haunted me again. I even felt a little sick when I ate a cheese heavy pizza for date night in week 2.
  • Making myself sit down to plan on Sunday night. Does this ever get easier? Life is 100% better when I take time to plan, yet it’s still so hard to make myself sit down and do it. I never regret it once it’s done, though. Kind of like exercise!
  • Grocery shopping on a specific day. Sometimes I just couldn’t get to the store on the day I had planned, and it would throw me off each time. I needed to replenish my groceries on a regular basis to make sure I was well stocked with healthy choices, otherwise the temptations would creep in.
  • Cooking when I was tired. I experienced some pretty big stress and exhaustion in the second half of the month, which made me start slacking. I really think this is probably the biggest and most difficult hurdle everyone faces, ammiright? I don’t have any special tricks for making this easier, unfortunately. You just have to power through and not get too down on yourself when you can’t.
  • Not splurging on take out when I’m super stressed, tired, or sick. I honestly don’t think I could have made it through this part if I didn’t have the accountability of the internet watching me. But hey, 80/20. As long as I make a good decision 80% of the time, I’m satisfied.

Oat Bran with Toppings

 

The Benefits

So much good came out of this challenge! So many unexpected benefits!

  • My blood sugar stabilized. When I do get hungry, it’s a lot less intense, which allows me to make smarter decisions with my food.
  • I enjoy food more. Limiting myself to eating out once per week and taking a more utilitarian approach to food has made me enjoy the “fun” food even more. It’s more special and I appreciate it at a much higher level.
  • Heavy food doesn’t sound as good. I guess my body got used to the lighter, fiber and water filled vegetables, because rich and heavy foods sort of lost their appeal. Sort of, anyway. ;)
  • Less work in the end. The few minutes of planning on Sunday night and the one (sometimes two) days of cooking up front left me free to enjoy the rest of the week without any effort. Who doesn’t want that??
  • A freezer full of meals ready to go. I ended this month with at least a week’s worth of food in the freezer, ready for me to reheat and eat without any effort.
  • Dramatically reduced waste. Again, planning is the key here. Being intentional about using up leftovers from week to week has seriously reduced the amount of food (and therefore money) that I waste. It’s a little weird to see my fridge so bare at the end of the week, but it’s better bare than full of food that is just going to sit there taking up space until it eventually gets thrown out.
  • Less grazing/mindless eating. Having a clear plan about what I’m going to cook, eat, and snack on really had an impact on my mindless eating. You know, boredom eating. I did lose a few pounds during the challenge and I have no doubt it’s mainly due to the fact that I didn’t mindlessly graze on food at all during the challenge.
  • Small spending. While I don’t have a “before” number to compare to because I normally have to buy a lot of food for recipe testing, video production, and other blog activity, I spent about $35-$40 per week on food (for just me) during the challenge and I think that’s a really good number.
  • I learned what works for me. Meal planning needs to be extremely individual and tailored to your lifestyle and food preferences, but just by forcing yourself to try meal planning every week you learn really quickly what types of meals work for you and will give you the most bang for your buck (and effort).
  • I got creative! Necessity is the mother of invention, indeed! With less resources you’re forced to get creative. Every time I’ve done a challenge it has helped me come up with some of my best recipes. This challenge was no exception.

Hummus and Vegetables

What Worked for Me

Meal planning is very individual and it can take some time to learn what works for you. Through this challenge I was able to identify a few things that helped me meet my goals week after week. Hopefully they’ll help you craft an effective meal plan of your own.

  • Buying multi-purpose ingredients. Almost every week I bought spinach, grape tomatoes, and bell peppers. These vegetables are so versatile that I was able to use them in different recipes and meals nearly every day. they became just as much of a staple group of ingredients as my milk, eggs, and butter.
  • Focusing on Freezer Friendly Recipes. I don’t eat a lot so it was pretty critical for me to be able to freeze my leftovers to keep them from being wasted. Cooking things like the West African Peanut Stew, Roasted Cauliflower and Quinoa Salad, Vegan Winter Lentil Stew, Freezer Garlic Bread, and Rosemary Pepper Drop Biscuits kept me stocked with a freezer-full of alternate meal options and made sure that none of my grocery dollars went to waste.
  • Cooking for Fun. A couple times during the challenge I dug into my pantry and made a little “treat” with whatever I could find (I made a Dutch Baby in Week 3 and Lime Bars in Week 4). These little splurges were enough fun to keep me from wanting to splurge on take out and they were FAR less expensive as well. It’s important to treat yourself now and then, but do it reasonably. :)
  • Baby Steps. Week 1 was really hard for me because I took too big of a step, or changed too much of my diet at once. I scaled it back in week 2 and life was 100% easier. It’s easy to get too ambitious, so just remember to take baby steps!
  • Be Easy on Yourself! Making lifestyle changes is not an all or nothing deal. Every good decision you make has value and is not negated if you happen to make a bad decision. Take pride in even the small changes you make, and let that fuel you to do even better the next day.

What Did I Spend?

Here’s a summary of my weekly expenditures:

  • Week 1: Groceries $32.76; Value of meals eaten $29.44
  • Week 2: Groceries $38.29; Value of meals eaten $30.92
  • Week 3: Groceries $40.06; Value of meals eaten $33.36
  • Week 4: Groceries $34.95; Value of meals eaten $28.48

Not bad! The grocery expenditure and value of meals eaten each week were fairly close, especially if you take into consideration the amount of food that got saved in the freezer.

Overhead view of a bowl of "Sweep the Kitchen" Pasta Salad

The Last Few Days…

For the last few days of the challenge I planned to eat mostly out of the freezer, make a big pasta salad, and stock up on my weekly basics. Here is what I bought:

Week 5 Grocery List and Receipts

Aldi Haul Week 5
Aldi Haul Week 5 $11.41
Kroger Haul Week 5
Kroger Haul Week 5 $19.01

What I Ate:

TUESDAY 1-29-19 DAILY TOTAL: $4.21

  • Breakfast: 2 cups coffee ($0.42), 2/3 cup milk ($0.22), 1/4 cup oat bran ($0.18), 2 Tbsp peanut butter ($0.16), 1 Tbsp chia seeds ($0.16), 1 Tbsp ground flaxseed ($0.03), 1/3 cup frozen blueberries ($0.36), 1 Tbsp maple syrup ($0.30)
  • Late lunch/Dinner: Roasted Cauliflower and Quinoa Salad ($1.41), 1 large egg ($0.25), 1 slice Freezer Garlic Bread ($0.19)
  • Snacks: 1 lime bar ($0.33), 16 crackers ($0.12), 1 Tbsp peanut butter ($0.08)

WEDNESDAY 1-30-19 DAILY TOTAL: $5.25

  • Breakfast: 2 cups coffee ($0.42), 2/3 cup milk ($0.22), 1/2 Tbsp butter ($0.04), 1 egg ($0.25), 2 cups spinach ($0.30), 1/4 bell pepper ($0.25), 6 grape tomatoes ($0.34), 1/4 tsp seasoning salt ($0.03), 1 tortilla ($0.17), 1 oz. goat cheese ($0.50)
  • Lunch: 1 serving “Sweep The Kitchen” Pasta Salad ($1.82), 1 mozzarella cheese stick ($0.19)
  • Dinner/Evening snack: Greek yogurt ($0.44), 1 banana ($0.17), 1 Tbsp ground flaxseed ($0.03), 1 tsp honey ($0.08),

THURSDAY 1-31-19 DAILY TOTAL: $4.53

And that’s a wrap! I’m sure I have so many more thoughts about all of this, but my brain is a little fuzzy today, so I’m going to end the final recap here. If you have questions or are curious about anything, feel free to drop them in the comments below! And if I remember anything significant that I wanted to mention, I’ll amend the post. :)

Thank you so much for joining me! I hope this challenge was as insightful for you as it was me!

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  1. I’m totally with you on being able to enjoy the “special” food (like takeout or restaurant meals) more because you eat at home the rest of the time. Your blog has helped us eat at home more often and even makes quick work of dinner for my husband who is less experienced in the kitchen. This has made handling a new baby SO much easier! I’m no longer the only one who can put him to bed and then still have to do dinner afterward.
    Seeing your final thoughts has made me, once again, ponder our efforts to eat less meat at home. I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes last year and even though it appears to have gone, I’m still trying to be mindful of my carb intake. This often seems at odds with trying to eat less meat but we’re trying!

  2. I really enjoyed reading about this whole challenge! I noticed you said you struggle with cooking when tired and I do too. At the same time I do my meal plan I usually try and look at my week ahead regarding commitment/events etc. and plan when to cook as well. Then on the days I don’t feel like/don’t have as much time to cook I can lean on simply reheating a freezer meal. I love to cook but not everyday which I why I love your recipes as they’re mostly very freezer friendly! Thank you for inspiration and clearly all the hard work you did in logging this challenge.

  3. I’ve been a lactose intolerant vegetarian for several decades now, but am always looking for new recipes and easy meal ideas. 
    Loved your challenge! 
    Formatting vegetarian meals is very different, they work better as a one pot meal or stew or tossed salad than the traditional plate with seperate protein/starch/veg; such as a lentil salad over greens, or tuscan bean and veg soup with a slice of bread, or something like bibimbap. 
    I hope you’re able to sustain the most enjoyable and beneficial parts of your challenge , you may find yourself transitioning to a vegetarian lifestyle for good at some point ;) 

  4. I absolutely loathe meal planning – hate it with a passion. But there is no denying the fact that we end up with very little food waste as a result of it. Your blog has really helped me figure out what and how to freeze and multi use foods. I loved that you did the vegetarian challenge as we have cut back on the amount of meat we eat.

  5. I’ve been following your blog for years now with so many loving recipes in rotation, when in doubt i go to your blog. I’ve indirectly grown a reputation of being a cook amongst co-workers whenever they see the lunches i pack, little do they know i’m just good at following directions. In particular, i really appreciated this challenge in so many ways and how you’ve broken down the metrics. not only are we trying to eat healthy and save dollars but i also try to view food in a way thats more mindful for our bodies and the environment. your blog is truly appreciated and i cant wait to see more of what you have to offer!

  6. Hi Beth,
    Thanks for sharing all of this and it’s been interesting and useful to read! I really appreciate your blog. I also hope that some of the stresses you mentioned resolve themselves and all is well.
    I didn’t participate in the challenge but I’ve been working to try and move more of my diet to vegetarian. Thanks!

  7. I am very, very proud of you and your 30 day vegetarian challenge. You did an amazing job coming up with delicious recipes while doing the best you can to stay on budget. I too have taken something from this experience: I’ve learned that I do not always have to have meat whenever I plan on making dinners. My sister and I now have been making one meatless dinner entree to save money on our proteins, and that has made a world of a difference on our budget. Great job Miss Lady and you go girl!!! 😀😀

  8. Well done on sticking to it! I’m a vegan and I started out just doing it for a month but ended up staying this way. I meal plan too and it really helps me to be mindful of what I’m eating. It means I don’t waste food and I look forward to my meals. I usually do it on a Saturday morning and I use a massive pile of cookbooks, flicking through to see what I fancy. I don’t see it as a chore at all. I’ve pinned some of your recipes this month, I hope you’ll keep up some of the plant based eating!

    1. Thank you for that encouragement!! It’s awesome to hear from someone who started out the same and then just stuck with it. :)

  9. The “mindfullness” issue was a big thing for me during this challenge–well, that and negotiating with my husband before starting. Many of us cook for families and for a change as drastic as this, others need to be onboard–maybe just onboard for reduced level commitments is a place to start.

    One comment last week was from someone who mentioned that she was committed no meat for breakfast and lunch, but since her husband expected meat for dinner, that was all she could do. Maybe next time she can persuade him into 1 meatless dinner per week. Baby steps are the way most of us move into new things. Good job, by the way–it’s hard to stand up to other family members. art of my negotiation was that DH was welcome to depart any time and eat out for a meal if he didn’t like what I prepared.

    I was lucky–DH has been moving to a more vegetarian lifestyle during the past 20 years, and I, growing up on a farm, I was already used to a largely plant based diet. We have a vegetarian daughter, and accommodating her food wants has been part of our life for a couple of decades. We rarely include meat for breakfast, and meat free lunches and dinners have been our pattern several times a week.

    Another easy approach is to adapt family favorites–DH loves potato soup–drop the bacon; spaghetti Bolognaise–use eggplant instead of meat. Foods with a lot of “mouth feel” such as eggplant, large cut mushrooms, and tofu can help. Soy substitutes, such as Morningstar brand crumbles can fill in for hamburger and sausage in favorite casseroles and pasta recipes.

    I LOVED this challenge, as did DH. We saved money, lost weight, and felt good without sacrificing taste.

    1. Even though we, too, love cheese and pasta, we ate about the same amounts per week during this challenge as before. Same for eggs–about 3 dozen total for the 2 of us, which is pretty normal–4-6 eggs per week per person, and about 4-6 oz of cheese per week per person. Pasta about 1.5 times per week–5 pasta meals in a month. I never feel guilty about cheese, which is a nutrient packed food. I mentioned starting a day late several times–we were committed to bringing a smoked brisket to a New Year’s Day party–it took 15 hours to smoke, was spectacular, and I left the few leftovers behind in order to start our veggie challenge.

  10. You have, in my opinion, hands down the best food/recipe/lifestyle blog on the internet. Informative, interesting, great recipes, proper English (language snob here), personality, innovative ideas, easy to follow. So glad that this wonderful blog has been and continues to be so successful for you. It certainly is successful for me, thank you! Faithful and Grateful Viewer.

  11. Good woman, you are such an inspiration. Thank you for the careful and creative work that you do here. 

  12. Just wanted to say I really love reading your challenge recaps!! Even though you eat much less and quite differently than I do, your recaps feel “real” and honest and I truly enjoy reading them. I often get as much inspiration from your snacks, breakfast ideas, etc. as from the actual recipes!

    1. Thank you!! I’m glad I was able to share a little bit of “real life” with everyone so they can see how the recipes I usually post fit into a bigger picture. :)

  13. I loved reading all these Vegetarian Challenge Posts! Especially seeing your grocery receipts and what you actually bought. I’m inspired to try oat bran for breakfast now…I’ve been eating your Baked Oatmeal for breakfast literally every weekday for the past few years, so it might be time to try something different :)

    I noticed that you use frozen blueberries sometimes and I wondered if you’ve ever tried the frozen berries from Aldi? I buy their frozen mixed berries to put in smoothies and I think it’s only like $1.79 per bag. Aldi has such great deals, sometimes I’ll shop there and Kroger and Sprouts in one weekend and get so much cheap produce!

    1. Like last week when they had 12 oz bags of blueberries for $1.49? LOVE Aldi’s! They often run out of specials fast, but a quick stop on Monday will usually find renewed supplies.

    2. Yes, I think I’ve bought Aldi’s berries before, although I don’t remember them being that inexpensive! I think I need to look at that again!