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10 Tips for Easing Into Plant-based Eating

04/18/2014 09:52 am ET | Updated Jun 18, 2014

At the end of a tour of Catskill Animal Sanctuary last year, a visitor who'd just been kissed by cows and held chickens in his lap said to me, "OK. I get it. How do I start?" The question came up again last night, when I was discussing my most recent post with my dad. "I've been eating one way for a long time," he said. "It's hard to change."

Not if you do it one step at a time, I said to him. In legions, Americans are opening their eyes, minds, and hearts to the personal, environmental, and ethical horrors of growing animals to feed humans. Moving toward a kinder and healthier way of eating needn't feel drastic if you simply ease into it. Here are ten tips for doing just that!

1. Eat vegan in the a.m.

Oatmeal. Berries and granola with almond milk. English muffin with jam and non-dairy butter. Fruit and soy-yogurt smoothies. Green smoothies. Toast with peanut butter. Lots of your favorite cereals -- Chex, Corn Flakes, and Special K, for starters -- are vegan. Pancakes (there's no difference in taste between vegan pancakes and the one's you're used to). Tofu scramble and vegan sausage: Can you say yum?

Now come on... was that hard?

2. Switch to non-dairy milk:

From soy to coconut to rice to almond, plant-based milks abound! With fewer calories and no cholesterol, they're arguably healthier. And the impact on animals if America went non-dairy is staggering! Here's the math: In 2010, the average American drank over 20 gallons of milk, which translates to over 6 billion gallons of milk annually. If each cow produces 2,500 gallons, it takes 2.5 million cows to produce the milk America consumes. If we switched to non-dairy milk, 2.5 million animals each year would be spared a life that consists of forcible impregnation, growth hormones and antibiotics, the stealing of their babies immediately after birth, intensive confinement and milk production for much of their lives, and slaughter at just a few years old, when their wracked bodies are worn out. Many cows are too broken to stand when they arrive at the slaughterhouse. As "downed cows," they are simply shoved onto a pile and left to die.

3. Go Meatless Mondays:

Cut back at dinner by joining the Meatless Mondays movement. If all Americans participated in this popular trend, 1.4 billion animals per year would be spared.

4. Bake without animal products.

The reasons to bake without eggs and dairy abound. First, a single egg contains over half the recommended maximum intake of cholesterol for a healthy person. Second, many believe that the egg and dairy industries are the cruelest industries that have ever existed. Finally, you can't taste the difference between a vegan quiche, cake, or cookie and one laden with butter and eggs. Get started here!

5. Try one new vegan product a week.

If you don't want to give up the taste and texture of meat and dairy, you don't have to. You won't like all of these foods, but when you find ones you do, use them as substitutes in your meat and dairy-based recipes. Here are some favorites: Trader Joe's vegan Meatless Meatballs, Field Roast Frankfurters, Gardein Beefless Burger, Beyond Meat Beef-free Crumbles, Tofurky Deli Slices, Daiya cheese, Treeline soft cheeses, Kite-hill cheese, Whole Soy yogurt, Almond Dream yogurt.

6. Ditch McDonald's.

McDonald's is the largest buyer of eggs in North America, and purchases its eggs from hens kept in battery cages. Grinding up all newborn male chicks is a standard industry practice. Another? Leaving dead birds in cages for months at a time. According to an undercover investigator at a McDonald's egg supplier, "... [Dead] birds... were left in the cages... decomposing for weeks or months at a time... with birds who were still alive and laying eggs for human consumption." Think conditions at McDonald's beef, chicken, and fish suppliers are any better?

Choose Loving Hut, Native Foods, Moe's, or Chipotle instead for more humane options. Loving Hut and Native Foods, 100 percent vegan fast food chains, may not be as widespread as McDonald's but their presence is growing. Loving Hut is now in over 40 locations across the U.S. and Native Foods plans on adding 200 new restaurants in the next 5 years. Moe's and Chipotle also have many delicious vegan options. Fill your Moe's burrito with tofu or beans, or try the tasty new Chipotle Sofritas, a burrito with organic braised tofu.

7. When choosing restaurants or recipes, think ethnic.

America created the meat and dairy-based diet that is making us all sick and fat. Most other cuisines are healthier than ours; the ones that seem to have a tremendous number of delicious plant-based choices are Indian, Japanese, Greek, Chinese, Thai, Spanish, and Mexican, so eat the foods you already love that happen to be vegan! There are also hundreds, literally, of vegan cookbooks on the market. Check Amazon or the cooking section of your favorite bookstore. My current favorite is Big Vegan.

8. Give up one animal a month.

If you're a typical American eater, you likely eat chickens, cows, pigs and fish all the time. You drink milk and eat eggs. All these animals suffer mightily for the benefit of our taste buds. Cutting out one animal per month is a painless way to do a whole lot of good for the animals, your health, and the planet we all share.

9. Make friends!

Join a meet-up group and see how "seasoned" vegans live -- it's helpful, inspiring... and fun!

10. Visit an animal sanctuary.

Huh? Yep. In my view, this might be the most important tip of all. Catskill Animal Sanctuary is just two hours from Manhattan, an hour from Albany, four from Boston. We're also in the exquisite mid-Hudson Valley, a prime vacation destination. Most importantly, hundreds of animals, including some free-rangers who may hop into your car when you pull up to the barn, are here to work their way into your hearts. We open for the season on Saturday, April 5 -- I will be there with a big smile on my face, as will Arthur the goat. Hope to see you soon. And if you can't get to CAS, find a reputable sanctuary near you. Fair warning: Be prepared to fall in love, and be prepared for a new way of eating to begin feeling much easier than you ever imagined.