There are many reasons why you might be thinking about becoming a vegetarian. One popular reason is that you do not feel that it is ethically and morally sound to eat meat. You might become a vegetarian for religious reasons. Or you may become a vegetarian because it is very healthy. However, what can start as a healthy choice can easily change into a damaging one if you do not follow a healthy vegetarian diet and consider what you are eating. As a vegetarian, your main concern is getting enough protein and iron, the two major nutrients from meat. It is actually very easy to do so as long as you put a little effort in when you think about what to eat.
Prepackaged Vegetarian Foods
One way of getting protein is prepackaged vegetarian foods. Usually, you can find these in the freezer section of your grocery store. They aren't the best health-wise or cost-wise, but they do provide a lot more nutrients than just eating carbohydrate-based foods like pasta. Prepackaged vegetarian foods either come in the form of frozen entrées, meat substitutes like veggie burgers, veggie hot-dogs, and "chicken" nuggets, or "starters" like "chicken" strips, ground "beef", etc. They usually have between 7 and 20 grams of protein per serving.
Beans are an awesome, cheap source of protein. It's surprising how often you can sneak them into a recipe, too. Beans are great in Mexican food, lentils are good for Indian food, and both work in many other cuisines as well. Baked beans (British-style, not American-style) are a common snack in the UK. Beans are great in soup, adding texture as well as nutrients. The downsides to beans are that they are boring after a while and that they also contain a fair amount of carbs--not very good for diabetics to eat a lot of beans on a regular basis.
Uncooked Soy Products
The last easy way to get more protein into your diet is with products like tofu, tempeh, and TVP, which are soy-based. All of them are great sources of protein and none are too expensive. They are more costly than beans but much less costly than prepackaged frozen foods. There are many different ways to incorporate t0fu into your diet--the silken tofu can actually be used as a substitute for dairy in smoothies or baking, and can be added to sauces to make them creamier. Not only does this add a nice texture, but it also adds a lot of protein to your meals! Extra-firm tofu can be used as a subsitute for meat in pretty much any dish. It's great in stir-frys and omelettes.
Here is a good way to prepare extra-firm tofu:
1. Open package and drain. Wrap in towel and put on plate.
2. Find something heavier than 5lbs that will stay on top of your wrapped tofu and place it on top. The reason is that you are pressing the excess liquid out of the tofu, leaving it with a much better consistency.
3. Let it sit for at least two hours, or as long as overnight.
4. Cut into bite-sized chunks.
5. Cook either by sautéing in a little oil or covering lightly with oil and baking at 400F for 20-25 minutes on parchment.
The tofu will not have the squishy consistency that people expect tofu to have. It will also have a much better flavor. It is definitely much more appetizing after being pressed.
Tempeh is fermented soybeans. It is packed with even more protein than tofu. It is even healthier because it is much lessed processed than tofu. However, it has a very strong flavor. One way to mitigate the problem of the strong taste is by marinating for several hours and then baking. You can also sauté or steam the tempeh. All will lessen the strength of flavor to a much more acceptable level. If you eat tempeh a lot, you actually become used to the flavor so much so that the full flavor is not too strong anymore.
TVP or textured vegetable protein is usually found packaged like flour. It looks a little like cereal, but it is full of protein. To make TVP, you need to reconstitute it by adding liquid. You add a tiny bit more liquid than TVP. It does not have a flavor, so you need to add some flavor, either when reconstituting it or when making your dish. A great way to use TVP is in a "taco bake": it has a texture similar to ground beef, so treat it like that, adding to it taco seasoning, black beans, onions, peppers and salsa, and putting the mixture on top of tortilla chips in a baking dish. Sprinkle liberally with cheddar cheese and bake at 400F for about 20 minutes.
For iron, foods like raisins and spinach are good substitutes. Many vegetables have iron in them.
So you see, you can easily eat the right foods to have a healthy vegetarian diet!