Behavior is a tricky thing to tackle. Eating behaviors are even more difficult to alter or improve. I mean, we all know that things like potato chips, candy, and pints of Ben & Jerry’s are bad for us but sometimes we just reeeealllyyy need that package of gummy bears (totally speaking from personal experience).
By now, many of us are also well aware of the environmental consequences of our dietary decisions. The meat and dairy industry has been considered the most problematic sector when it comes to greenhouse gases, land and water use, and acidification and eutrophication (runoff – imagine those algal bloom photos plastered all over the news).
As someone who is a true believer in the power of knowledge and education – especially in the form of documentaries (Food Inc. actually changed my life), I was shocked when my grad school experience confounded some of these beliefs. My Sustainability and Behavior Change course lecturer informed the class that knowledge alone isn’t the end all be all when it comes to encouraging change – particularly when it comes to things like health and sustainability.
Is your daily food consumption in line with RDA’s, does it look like the MyPlate dietary guidelines? Do you know that you shouldn’t drink more than one to two glasses of wine at a time – but occasionally (or weekly) consume a whole bottle? CASE IN POINT.
So then, if education and information alone don’t do the trick when it comes to correcting your friend or family member’s view that each meal absolutely must contain a slab of animal protein, WHAT DOES?
Well, according to my lecturer and what can be found in the behavior change literature, motivation and self-efficacy 1 are key when it comes to inducing change.
Let’s start with motivation – are you likely to do anything in life without feeling a desire to engage in that behavior? I remember my first time eating tofu – it was bland and cold and mushy and gross. Thinking of my future as a vegetarian constrained by meals of tofurkey and brussels sprouts certainly didn’t make me feel motivated to continue this culinary journey – I had to find ways to motivate myself to do so.
Simply telling someone that they should eat a climate-friendly diet is probably going to be pretty ineffective when all they want to do is smash 20 chicken nuggets every day. That’s why you’ve gotta make people want to eat plants. Help convert their cheeseburger cravings to veggie burger ones instead. Simply put, plant-based food needs to be delicious so that people will feel driven to eat it.
The second aspect of this behavior change adventure is self-efficacy, that is, a belief in one’s abilities to perform a certain behavior. Switching to a plant-based diet can feel like a challenging obstacle for someone whose culinary prowess consists of microwaved meals and frozen chicken strips, let alone someone who’s never truly cooked a single meal in their entire life.
With UberEats and drive-thrus, gone are the days of grocery shopping and preparing real meals. Many people don’t have the time or desire to cook – and with the death of home ec classes, finding an adult who knows how to boil an egg is proving to be more and more difficult.
So as much as you want to take your friend to the newest veg-friendly restaurant and hope that they’ll go home a changed person, you’re gonna have to put in a little more legwork than that.
Invite your friend over for dinner, prepare a delicious plant-based meal, and let them know how they can easily replicate it! My go-to trick with this is to let everyone know the cost of the meal and compare that with something meaty (plant protein is usually much cheaper). Letting them know that everything can be chucked in one pan and cooked without channeling an inner Gordon Ramsay will hopefully provide them with some self-efficacy. Here are some other tips I’ve found helpful over the years:
- MAKE GOOD FOOD. As someone who’s reading this, you obviously have expressed an interest in eating products of the produce section. You also probably know how to cook said produce products. As is obvious, think of your dinner guests when preparing the menu. Do they like spicy? Are there any allergies or dietary restrictions? What type of food do they most commonly consume – pasta, burgers, sandwiches? Use this information to develop a meal that’s sure to please everyone – including Mother Earth.
- Avoid using terms like vegetarian or vegan. Yes, you may be proud of your decision to go vegan, but that steak-loving friend of yours may cringe everytime they hear the ‘V-word’. If you feel the need to categorize your meal in any way, try calling it healthy, fresh, nutritious, or simply, delicious. That way, your omnivorous and herbivore-curious tablemates won’t feel like they’re being subjected to evil veggie-fueled brainwashing.
- Take baby steps. So, if you’re planning to serve raw zucchini noodles with hemp seed alfredo and tempeh, maybe tone down the produce lover inside of you and think of how to best satisfy a variety of eaters. Think of meat-filled meals that may be easy to replicate. Something like a veggie burger, bean tacos, veggie lasagne, or shepherds pie can be a good place to start.
- Use a recipe found online. Go to your trusty BFF Google and try something like ‘veggie recipes for meat lovers’. You’ll get no less than 44,000,000 recipes – and it can be shared with your dinner guests after the meal!
- Make it a regular thing. With the success of your first hosted meal, why not make it a regular thing!? Try to coincide with Meatless Mondays or plan on having monthly themed eating events. One of the best parts about food is that it can be shared, so stop eating alone while creeping on Instagram and instead start planning your next dinner party!
This ‘trick’ has worked for me with friends and family, and has even led to changes in eating behaviors! If it works for you, let us know about it!
- Gale, J. and Skouteris, H. (2013), Health coaching: Facilitating health behaviour change for chronic condition prevention and self-management, in Handbook of Applied Topics in Health Psychology, M. Caltabiano and L. Ricciardelli, Editors. Wiley-Blackwell. ↩