Vegan, Party of One: Being Vegan Where No One Else Is

I live in the heart of the Midwest - Des Moines, Iowa. We boast a Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival that sells out in under four minutes and a state fair with over 50 foods on a stick and a life-sized cow made of butter.

Where my parents grew up, a local eatery's "vegetable burger" means you get lettuce, tomato, raw onion, and pickles atop a pound of 80/20 ground beef. At family gatherings, you have to specify greens as "lettuce salad" to distinguish from all the other varieties (e.g., potato, pasta, Jell-o, etc.). I regularly field questions about what veganism is, and whether I eat fish.

I don't actually know any other vegans outside the blogosphere. I know a few vegetarians here and there, but even they admit it's tough.

On the surface, Iowa may not appear to be a plant-eater's paradise, but I couldn't imagine living anywhere else. With multiple generations of family in the state, my roots run deep. Iowans' friendliness is unsurpassed. The pace of life provides us with enough to do without being overwhelming, and Des Moines ranks high on multiple lists for quality of life, cost of living and career opportunities.

I've heard from many who live in agrarian or rural areas who are wishing to become vegan, but feel that resources are too limited or that they'll just be misunderstood. Today, I hope to offer some insights and practical advice on how to start and maintain a vegan lifestyle without a Whole Foods at your fingertips.
  1. Think beyond faux meat... Your small-town grocery store probably doesn't stock tofu, veggie burgers or tempeh - but that's OK. These items can prove somewhat expensive, and if you're cooking for a whole family, may cause commotion when hamburgers are suddenly made of soy. Instead, look to beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds for plant-based protein. A delicious bean-based chili or black bean burger is the perfect place to start. (When your recipe calls for tofu or a meat substitute, see #2 and #3.)
  2. ...but don't be afraid to use substitutes where you can. It's perfectly normal to like the taste of meat, and butter and milk likely play an important role in your baking. Luckily, a wide range of substitutes - including many that are shelf-stable - are on the market today. For things like vegan butter or mayo, try bringing a cooler and stocking up when you know you're visiting somewhere you will have access.
  3. Technology is your friend. You don't even have to get out of your pajamas or leave your house to have access to a whole world of vegan-friendly products. Websites like Vitacost and Amazon offer selections that rival or even surpass the biggest specialty food stores, as well as a wide range of cruelty-free personal and beauty products. And, if you spend enough or check the coupon code site RetailMeNot, you can almost always score free shipping.
  4. Start with your own backyard. The best way to chart your dietary destiny is to grow your own food. Hearken back to the days where canning was once common (ask your grandma for help!), and you'll have summer-fresh produce all winter.  
  5. Bring your own food to family gatherings. Family dinners or potlucks can be an especially harrowing experience for vegans. People notice your plate no longer contains what it used to, and there's always the chance someone will feel insulted or guilty for not having what you want on hand. The simple solution is to bring dishes that you (and likely everyone else) will love. When I first became vegan, I didn't advertise that I had brought cashew-based soup or tofu pie. I let them try it first, then waited for them to compliment or ask about the recipe before divulging the ingredients. It turns out I was worried over nothing - they were more intrigued than anything else. It's become a fun exchange for my family and me, and one small way for me to improve their diets. And when the cheesy potatoes start calling your name, just remember that what's not vegan at the table is probably also not good for you. Your thighs will thank you later.
  6. Don't rely on restaurants. In small towns, perhaps an even bigger challenge than dining at a family member's home is dining at a restaurant. Simply put, it's not going to be as easy as it used to be. But on the bright side, it's not going to be the gut-busting greasefest it once was, either. Free of bacon cheeseburgers and cheeseballs dunked in ranch, you have the capacity to enjoy food that won't leave you feeling slow and stuffed. You can almost always find a salad (albeit it may just be plain iceberg lettuce) with oil and vinegar, french fries, and a vegetable side dish. If you really know there's going to be nothing for you, eat before you go and sip beers while everyone eats (thank God most beer is vegan, right?).
  7. Adopt a one-out, one-in clothing policy. For most of us, it's just not financially feasible to suddenly get rid of every item of clothing that contains animal fibers or every pair of leather shoes at once. When I became vegan, I donated some wool and leather items I hadn't worn in well over a year, then vowed that every time I got rid of a clothing item, I would replace it with something cruelty-free, and that every new piece I bought going forward would also be. It's not perfect, but we can only do our best.
  8. Arm yourself with information and answers... As I mentioned in #3, the Internet is the best place to find vegan and cruelty-free products for those who don't have nearby stores. It's also the best place to find support, resources and information for those who don't have anyone to discuss veganism with. Countless blogs will share their vegan story, give you outstanding advice, and provide you with grocery lists, recipes, and encouragement for living in an un-vegan world. Spend some time exploring vegan blogs and find ones that speak to you. Start commenting on bloggers' posts - you'll be surprised to find that you hear back from almost all of them. Connecting with other vegans, although you may actually never meet face-to-face, makes your world feel a lot smaller and your journey much easier.
  9. ...but don't be preachy. No matter what you do, you're probably not going to convince your cattle-farming cousin or your deer-hunting friend to eliminate animal products from their lives. Insulting their livelihood or lifestyle is only going to build barriers between you and your loved ones and make veganism appear even more radical than it already does to someone eating the standard American diet. As passionate as you may be about animal rights and vegan eating, you need to know your audience. Being vegan is about creating a better world, not alienating everyone you know. Answer questions and explain your position politely when asked. Don't respond unfavorably when you feel you're being challenged. If it's heading down the path toward an argument, simply say, "I thought about what I enjoyed and felt good about eating, and decided that this is the best choice for me."
    I thought about what I enjoyed and felt good about eating, and decided that this is the best choice for me. - See more at: http://www.veganiowan.com/2013/01/declaring-yourself-vegan-to-difficult.html#sthash.Rlmreald.dpuf
  10. And most importantly: Stay true to yourself. You're likely to encounter challenges and roadblocks. Most people you know aren't going to understand - and that's OK. I promise you that it does get easier - people will stop offering you ham and cheesy potatoes. You will learn how to cook with almond milk instead of dairy. You will find innovative ways to veganize your favorite recipes. Trust me. At the end of the day, you are the one who has to accept and live with your choices, and you should focus on making ones you feel good about.


  1. Thank you! In my small rural Iowa town, I definitely feel very isolated as a vegetarian trying to transition to vegan. I know of no other vegetarians or vegans in this area.
    I had thought about becoming vegetarian for years, but always thought it would be too difficult. I wish I would have found advice like this a long time ago it would have encouraged me to do it much sooner. I have been 100% vegetarian for 6 months and the only things keeping me from being a vegan are cheese and ice cream.

    Eating in a restaurant is challenging and most any veggie option is either a salad or has cheese. And in my town there are no options for ice cream. The grocery stores don't carry non-dairy and of course going to the drive in is all dairy too. I know I could make my own but really haven't found any make yourself ones that I like. I do want to eventually become a vegan.

    I am much happier now that I have made this change in my diet and am influencing my husband and grown children to think about and make significant changes in theirs. They respect my choices and are supportive of my decision to not prepare or serve meat in my house.

    I feel so much better health wise and my conscious is so much clearer and I feel good about my choices.
    I am starting to wish we lived in a more veg friendly place though. I am find it very difficult not to get angry and frustrated when I see all of the chicken, hog and egg confinement facilities that are every where around here. I also find it harder to walk past the meat department at the store and get very disgusted when I have to sit with someone who is eating chicken, watching people chewing the meat off the bones. I am trying to be tolerant and not resent others choices. But it was much easier when I was blind to the horrors of meat production. I always knew it was bad but was able to close my eyes and not let myself think about it. Now that I have opened my eyes I am unable to ignore and not see it.
    I wonder if other vegetarians/vegans go through these feelings and if it gets better or worse with time.
    Sorry this is so long, guess I needed to vent.
    Thank you again for your website and valuable advice..

  2. Thank you for this post, great to think about no matter where one lives. I am a vegetarian (which is admittedly easier) but because one when I was 15 because I DID see cows and a farm from my table while I ate. Sometimes it takes a little extra work, but once one gets into a system and groove that works for him or her, like everything else, it becomes habit.

  3. Hi, Kelly! It's been a long time since you've posted, and I just wanted to see if everything is okay with you. Hopefully all is well, and you're just busy and enjoying a blogging hiatus.

    1. Thanks for writing! I started a new job last fall that's very busy (I had a lot of free time with my old job), and I haven't quite figured out how to balance the blog along with my new job (and the rest of my life!). I am doing well though. It's great to hear from you!