I spent childhood years living on a farm, watching our backyard chickens become our dinner menu and eating frozen beef from the cow that had once grazed in the pasture. It wasn’t until my junior year of college that I really started to think about what I was eating and the fact that it had been a living creature only a short while ago—I haven’t eaten a bite of meat since then. I don’t try to guilt other people into doing the same because I realize that for most people, eating meat is no weirder than eating bread or dairy. I definitely won’t go back to eating animals, but I also didn’t realize how many struggles come along with being vegetarian in college.
1. Not being able to eat Chipotle chicken
I was never a big meat-eater anyway, which is why the switch to veggie-only wasn’t a big one for me. But if there’s one thing I miss, it’s those chicken burritos at Chipotle—and the popcorn chicken at KFC. “I’m a foodie, so whenever I see a good steak or lamb, I get really hungry,” said Andrea Yong, a junior at Messiah College who was a vegetarian for a year.
2. Getting used to tofu
Let’s be real, tofu in and of itself? Kind of gross. It’s slimy, grey, and doesn’t really taste like anything except mush. But now it’s pretty much my best option, whether it’s on salad, fried rice, or in my Chipotle burrito bowl (it’s called sofritas, and it’s legit amazing—even the carnivores out there should give it a try). Add a little seasoning and fry the tofu up, and it’s actually pretty damn good.
3. The lack of options on campus
I’d never realized before how literally everything has meat in it, whether it’s soup, sandwiches, or pasta dishes. The real killers are those bacon bits that people want to put on top of every meal ever made. I can only eat a garden salad for so many meals in a row before I feel like I’m literally made of romaine lettuce. Bread baskets are your best friend. “I think the hardest thing is finding things to eat. At home, it’s pretty easy to just cook a vegetarian meal for myself and be fine, but at college there are fewer options,” said Carly Laird, a freshman at Messiah College.
4. Visiting home and not being able to eat everything
Everyone has those home-cooked feasts they drool over while they’re living off of ramen noodles in college—Thanksgiving turkey, Christmas dinner, your grandma’s signature meal. It’s hard to go back and realize that you won’t be able to eat some of these childhood delicacies anymore, especially when your family tries to make you feel bad about breaking long-standing consumption traditions. “I really miss my mom’s chicken soup. She makes it with these thick noodles called pappardelle, but it uses chicken broth and has chicken meat in it. Sometimes she’ll still make it with vegetable broth, but it takes longer, so she doesn’t like to make it often,” said Laird, who became a vegetarian in sixth grade after researching the meat industry, which she said scarred her for life.
5. Telling people you’re a vegetarian without sounding like you’re guilt tripping them
For some reason, there’s always this awkward pause after someone offers me food with meat in it and I tell them, “No thanks, I’m a vegetarian.” They usually apologize, a guilty streak flashing hot across their face. I’m not being pretentious, I promise, and I’m definitely not judging you for eating meat in front of me. There are also the people who feel compelled to tell me all that I’m missing out on, as though eating meat is a person’s sole purpose for existing and without it, life can’t possibly be as beautiful.
6. Finding your protein sources
There are plenty of ways to get the amount of protein you need, even after cutting meat from your diet. However, as a college student it can be a little harder to find ways that are a) easily accessible on campus, b) go well with your meal, and c) actually taste good. I’ve eaten more nuts, beans, eggs and soy products in the past semester than I had in my entire college life beforehand, and I’m discovering all these great combinations of foods I never would have experimented with otherwise. “A lot of the time the vegetarian options are really heavy in carbs and, since the school doesn’t offer soy meat, sometimes my only option is salad, which is not fun to eat everyday,” said Laird.
7. Having to get a little creative
Cam Anak Nahar, Messiah College junior, decided to cut meat out of his diet for a week to increase his fiber intake and cut down on protein. “The hardest part was how limited my options are when ordering food—there’s just not a lot of vegetarian food going around,” he said. “Instead of having a normal turkey sandwich, it became just a cheese sandwich. Basically I went from meat to full-out cheese and tofu. I also started eating a lot of fruit.”
8. People assuming that because you’re veggie, you must be healthy
I’ll speak for myself here, but these two don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand. I’m not a gym rat or a kale junkie; I don’t eat raw spinach and quinoa to get through the day. I probably eat more vegetables and fruit than the average college student, but I’m positive I eat more Nutella and M&M cookies than all of you, too.
9. Cooking the same foods – over and over again
I’m not a big fan of cooking to begin with, and without some kind of meat element there, meals can often feel kind of flat. Spaghetti with tomato sauce. Rice with mixed vegetables. Pancakes. Those are pretty much my staple foods, which is great because I love them, but sooner or later I have to change it up. If anyone has any creative veggie meals for the cooking-impaired, send them my way and let’s be friends.
10. Eating at other people’s homes
Most of the time, this isn’t a problem—if there are a variety of dishes, you can just pass on the meat and eat the rest. And then there’s that awkward moment when the only dish on the table is a huge pan of lasagna, and you’re left drinking water or nibbling on your side salad to avoid feeling rude. “Friends always forget that you’re vegetarian and offer you food you can’t eat. Also, sometimes you won’t know there’s meat in it and you start eating it anyways before realizing,” said Yong.
11. Dealing with people who just don’t get it
Sometimes people feel uncomfortable eating meat in front of you, I guess assuming that you’re silently fuming at them. Sometimes people don’t understand the difference between vegetarian and vegan so they’re scared to let you eat dairy or chocolate (the horror). And sometimes, people just want to argue with you about how by eating animals they’re helpfully controlling the population and by eating vegetables I’m killing the earth. You do you, boo, and I’ll do me.
But don’t forget, besides the maneuverable struggles, there are a ton of benefits to being vegetarian! No meat means less money on groceries, typically less caloric intake per meal (unless you’re like me and make up the difference with pizza), and you usually digest your food faster, making you feel healthier. Plus, no guilt about eating animals. Win, win, win, win.