In 1990, I stopped eating meat, cold turkey. I’d wanted to give it up for a while (out of love for my dog), but my husband Max was not on-board, which made it too inconvenient. Then, when Max got a six-month fellowship in Palo Alto, and I remained in Illinois for grad school, my excuse vanished overnight.
Here’s what I said to myself: Going vegetarian is likely to be another in a long list of “diets” you won’t stick to. But give it a try while Max is gone. If you fail, you won’t need to tell him, and there will be no losing face.
My first night as a vegetarian did not go well.
I went to Dave’s Italian Kitchen with a friend and, as was my habit, ordered linguini with clam sauce. I ate half before I realized I’d lapsed. (I finished it anyway). The next three nights, I stayed home and ate peanut butter on rye with a generous pour of Liberty School cabernet. I was hungrier and less healthy than before I’d made the switch. I craved broiled chicken, my go-to supper.
I went to the bookstore. There, I discovered Frances Moore Lappe’s Diet for a Small Planet. That’s when it dawned on me: I had to learn to cook.
My friends Jerry and Christy, the only vegetarians I knew, taught me how to make pesto, and suggested the first of many Moosewood Collective cookbooks. It did not take long to master mulligatawny soup (Indian vegetable soup) and West African groundnut stew. Thinking beyond chicken had opened a new world of food possibilities. Cooking took less time than I’d feared, and the payoff was greater than I’d imagined.
I called Max in California and announced, “I’m a vegetarian!”
But here’s the thing: Quitting chicken, cold turkey, I’d set myself up for failure, unnecessarily. Chicken was a habit, and breaking habits, as we all know, requires willpower. Denying myself chicken made me crave it more.
Recently, when I decided to give up dairy, I did not go cold turkey. I made rules, which helped gradually break my habit. I would no longer cook with dairy, but I would eat pizza or perhaps a risotto at a restaurant. When friends visited us in Vermont, I’d serve goat cheese from the farm down the road, where I was certain the goats were treated kindly. The final frontier: light cream in my morning coffee. The process took almost two years. And that’s okay.
If you’re interested in breaking your chicken-three-times-a-week habit, psychologist Wendy Wood suggests in her book, Good Habits, Bad Habits, figure out what’s keeping you stuck in your chicken rut. Don’t have time to figure out alternatives? Do the expiration dates on your spices pre-date the Reagan Administration? Professor Wood labels these habit-inducing constraints friction. Removing them is the key.
Here’s how to start: Before your next trip to the grocery store, browse the Good News recipe page, and find a recipe (or two) that appeals to you. Make a shopping list. Once at the store, you’ll find yourself lingering in produce and grains, and perhaps picking up a new spice or two. By the time you reach the chicken section, I bet you’ll realize, hey, I don’t need so much of this!
Want to learn more about how break habits? Listen to the popular Choiceology podcast, where host Katy Milkman interviews Professor Wood. Her advice extends way beyond food choices.