Plant Based Diet for Beginners

Want to start eating a plant based diet? Here’s everything you need to know, including plant based protein ideas and recipes for every meal of the day!

Plant Based Diet for Beginners

Want to start experiencing the benefits of a plant based diet? You’ve come to the right place. Here at A Couple Cooks, we’re experts in plant based cooking, cookbook authors, and advocates for the joy of eating your veggies! We’ve devoted our careers to helping show you how to make eating vegetables delicious. Turns out, a plant based diet can be one of the most delicious, satisfying ways to eat. You’ll just need to start new habits that will result in filling, nutritious meals at every step of the way. Ready to get started?

What is a plant based diet?

First things first: let’s define what we’re talking about. The term plant based diet and whole food plant based diet have become very popular. But what do they actually mean? Does it mean you never eat any animal products, like a vegan diet? Or consume animal products in moderation?

According to Harvard Medical School, plant based eating focuses on foods primarily from plants. “It doesn’t mean that you are vegetarian or vegan and never eat meat or dairy. Rather, you are choosing more of your foods from plant sources.” This indicates that a plant based diet includes occasionally eating meat, like in a “semi-vegetarian” or “flexitarian” diet. Harvard and WebMD agree the following diets are included in the term plant based diet:

  • Semi-vegetarian or flexitarian. Someone who occasionally eats animal products, but not on a regular basis.
  • Pescatarian. Someone who does not eat meat and poultry, but still eats fish and seafood. Basically, a vegetarian plus seafood.
  • Vegetarian or Lacto-ovo vegetarian. Someone who does not eat meat, poultry, fish and seafood, but still includes dairy and eggs in their diet. (A Lacto vegetarian excludes all but eats dairy; an Ovo vegetarian excludes all but eats eggs.)
  • Vegan. Someone who eats not animal products at all: no eggs, no dairy, and no honey.

As you can see, there’s a lot of flexibility in a plant based diet! Take a moment to consider what type of diet will work in your lifestyle. Alex and I chose to eat flexitarian: we mainly eat vegetarian recipes and vegan recipes at home. But if we’re travelling or out to dinner, we’ll occasionally eat seafood or meat. This flexibly approach is what has made it sustainable for us to eat a mostly plant based diet for over 10 years!

Creamy Vegan Pasta Marinara | A Couple Cooks
Vegan Spaghetti features a marinara sauce made creamy using cashew cream

Vegan vs plant based

You’ll find that some sources equate a “plant based diet” to being a synonym with a vegan diet: eating not animal products whatsoever. This is also a valid use of the term plant based diet. But for the purposes of this article, we’ll be using the flexible definition for “plant based diet” above.

However, vegan vs plant based recipe is a whole different matter! Keep reading.

So what is a plant based recipe?

Here’s an important distinction. What is a plant based recipe? When we’re talking about a single recipe, we use the term plant based as a synonym for vegan. So a plant based recipe is a recipe that contains no animal products: meat, dairy, eggs, and honey. This still provides the flexibility for defining plant based diet (above).

This means that all of the plant based recipes you’ll find listed in this article are vegan recipes. You can mix and match these recipes into your lifestyle as you choose.

Wild Rice Soup Recipe | Plant based diet | Whole foods plant based diet | Plant based protein
Wild Rice Soup is filled with whole grain rice and thickened with cashews

What are plant based foods? How do I get protein?

Plant based foods are any foods that contain no animal products (meat, dairy, eggs, honey). Here’s the most important part of plant based eating: protein is key for staying satiated and full. Alex and I have been doing this plant based eating thing for years. And we’ve learned the most important part of eating vegan and vegetarian recipes is to make sure they’re packed with protein. If not, we’ll be hungry an hour later!

Luckily, there lots of options for adding plant based protein to your meals to make them filling and nutritious. Here’s a plant based food list with the top protein-filled foods:

  • Legumes: Try lentils (red, green, brown, French), split peas, black-eyed peas, and beans (black, garbanzo / chickpeas, lima, navy, pinto, white, and kidney)
  • Grains: Try quinoa, barley, bulgur wheat, amaranth, millet, and brown and wild rice (see How to Cook Whole Grains)
  • Nuts and seeds: Try almonds, cashews, peanuts, walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts, pistachios, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds
  • Soy: Soy based products like tofu and tempeh are rich in plant based protein; stick to 2 to 4 servings per week.*
  • Veggies: Some vegetables have protein, but in much lower amounts than the foods above. Some higher protein veggies are corn, broccoli, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, and artichokes.

When you’re eating lots of protein from plants, it’s important to get a wide variety of protein sources. The point isn’t just to eat a can of black beans every day! According to Harvard School of Public Health, make sure to mix up your sources so no “essential” components of protein are missing. For more on plant based protein and lots of recipes, go to All About Plant Based Protein.

*According to the Harvard TH Chan School of Nutrition, soy is a nutrient-dense source of protein that can safely be consumed several times a week. It’s likely to provide health benefits—especially when eaten as an alternative to red and processed meat!

Notes on protein and Vitamin B12

  • If you eat a vegetarian diet that includes dairy and eggs, those foods are rich in protein as well, so you can keep these in mind to combine with the plant based proteins. Eating a flexitarian diet and occasionally eating meat or seafood makes it easy to incorporate protein.
  • Dairy, eggs, and seafood have the Vitamin B12, which is important for avoiding anemia and does not occur naturally in plants. If you eat a fully vegan or plant based diet, you may need to add a supplement (specifically vitamin B12) to make sure you receive all the nutrients required. Consult your doctor for more.
Best stir fry vegetables | Plant based diet | Whole foods plant based diet | Plant based protein
Best Teriyaki Stir Fry includes soy-based tempeh

How to start a plant based diet for beginners

Are you ready to get started? Unveiling, our most comprehensive list yet: how to start a plant based diet for beginners! Here’s what to do:

  • Review the recipes, listed by type. A plant based foods list is overwhelming. Here we’ve organized our recipes by type. Plant based eating revolves around main types of recipes based on function, from soups to sandwiches to tacos to breakfasts to snacks.
  • Remember plant based protein. Most of the recipes below are loaded with plant based protein. Review the list above, and if necessary serve with a side that includes it. A side salad with nuts and seeds or even a handful of almonds works.
  • Pick one and start! If you’re looking to start a plant based diet, you don’t have to know everything before you get started. Just pick one recipe and make it! If you like it, great! Save that for the future. If not, move on and keep trying things until you develop your tastes.

And now…all the plant based recipes!

Sandwiches and burgers are a great way to make satisfying, crowd-pleasing recipes in a plant-based diet. Make sure they feature plant based protein (or serve some on the side) to make for a filling meal.

Best Plant Based Sandwiches & Burgers
Jackfruit BBQ Sandwich
Easy Chickpea Salad Sandwich
Vegan Banh Mi Sandwich
Mediterranean Veggie Sandwich
Falafel Burger Recipe
Perfect Vegan Black Bean Burger

Serve with: Crispy Sweet Potato Fries, Restaurant-Style Baked Fries, or Baked Potato Wedges

Bonus: Our Best Vegan Pizza (counts as a flat sandwich, right?)

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Tacos are one of the best ways to eat a plant based diet, especially for beginners! These tacos recipes incorporate all sorts of plant based foods in creative ways that are packed with flavor.

Best Plant Based Tacos Recipes
Loaded Quinoa Tacos
Best Jackfruit Tacos
Instant Pot Tacos
BBQ Bean Tacos with Pineapple Salsa
Cauliflower Tacos with Yum Yum Sauce (vegan option)
Easy Vegan Tacos
Refried Bean Tacos with Chipotle Cream

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Who doesn't love pasta? Noodle bowls are fantastic for a well-rounded plant based diet. Make sure that they feature plant based protein, or serve with a side salad that features nuts, seeds or legumes.

Best Plant Based Pasta Recipes

Spring Roll Noodle Bowl
Vegan Pesto Pasta (using Vegan Cashew Pesto)
Vegan Spaghetti and Meatballs
Italian Vegan Pasta Salad
Vegan Spaghetti with Marinara Sauce
Instant Pot Spaghetti

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Throw it in a bowl! One of the most delicious ways to get lots of plant based foods into your diet is in a bowl meal. It's basically a main dish salad that includes lots of nuts, seeds, and whole grains to keep it filling. Bowl meals are perfect topped with our Best Tahini Sauce.

Best Plant Based Bowl Meal Recipes
Mediterranean Couscous Bowls
Raw Falafel Buddha Bowls
Tropical Mango Quinoa Bowls
Thai Salad with Peanut Sauce Dressing

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An easy way to make plant based foods fun and filling? Stuff them! Be it stuffed sweet potatoes, stuffed peppers, or stuffed squash, these recipes are always crowd pleasers.

Best Plant Based Stuffed Vegetable Recipes
Mexican Sweet Potatoes with Creamy Cilantro Sauce
Sweet Potatoes with Thai Peanut Butter Sauce
Loaded Mexican Fries
Quinoa Stuffed Peppers (vegan option)
Stuffed Acorn Squash

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Eating a plant based diet couldn't be easier than starting with a curry! Curries are full of big flavor, and typically loaded with plant based protein. They're hearty and filling.

Best Plant Based Stir Fry & Curry Recipes
Easy Chickpea Curry
Coconut Cauliflower Curry
Quick Coconut Lentil Curry
Red Lentil Curry
Masoor Dal (Indian Red Lentils)
Best Teriyaki Stir Fry with Tempeh

Serve with:
Stovetop Brown Rice (or Instant Pot Brown Rice)
Stovetop White Rice (or Instant Pot White Rice)

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Don't forget starting your day eating plant based! Once of the easiest things you can do? Oatmeal with peanut butter! But here are lots more ideas for plant based breakfasts.

Best Plant Based Breakfast Recipes
Best PB&J Oatmeal Recipe
The Best Toasted Oatmeal (with peanut or almond butter)
Best Instant Oatmeal Recipe
Homemade Acai Bowl
Vegan Blueberry Pancakes with Almond Butter
Apple Cinnamon Steel Cut Oats
Tofu Scramble with Black Beans
Healthy Granola Recipe with Almond Milk
Cinnamon Pecan Muesli Recipe
Healthy Banana Bread Muffins (vegan variation)

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Now, for all those in-between times: plant based snacks! It can be as simple as reaching for a handful of salted almonds. Or try some of our best recipes below.

Best Plant Based Snack Recipes
Crispy Roasted Chickpeas
Homemade Hummus with Pita Chips or veggies
Superfood Pecan Energy Bars
Honey Roasted Almonds
Easy Refried Bean Dip with Tortilla Chips
Best Pico de Gallo, Best Salsa, or Black Bean Salsa
Mexican Pinwheel Recipe

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Eating a plant based diet doesn't mean you don't get to enjoy desserts, too! Here are some of our favorite plant based dessert recipes, for when you need a little treat!

Plant Based Desserts
“Bliss Bites” Healthy No-Bake Cookies
Vegan Chocolate Chip Cookies

Chewy Pumpkin Oatmeal Cookies

Decadent Vegan Chocolate Cake
Instant Pot Apple Crisp
Fudgy Vegan Brownie Recipe

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Plant based cookbook

Plant based cookbook: Pretty Simple Cooking

Looking for a cookbook that outlines a plant based diet for beginners? This is exactly why Alex and I wrote the book, Pretty Simple Cooking! It’s all about making vegetables taste delicious, and features protein-packed vegetarian and vegan recipes. If you need more structure than a list of recipes, this is a great way to get plant based eating inspiration: right on paper!

Get it: Pretty Simple Cooking

Plant based diet meal plan

Plant based diet meal plan

If you’re looking for a way to put the plant based diet into action, our 28 Day Plant Based Meal Plan is a great place to start! It includes weekly dinner ideas, breakfast ideas, and lunch ideas, and a meal planning spreadsheet. You can also try out our Vegan Meal Plan, which has similar options.

We also have a Vegetarian Meal Plan and Pescatarian Meal Plan if you have a more flexible definition of plant based diet!

Benefits of eating a plant based diet

So, why do all this? Why eat a plant based diet? First, there are lots of health benefits of a plant based diet. What is the evidence of this? According to Harvard School of Public Health, the Mediterranean diet, rich in plant based food, has been shown to reduce risk of heart disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, certain cancers, depression, and in older adults, better mental and physical function. A vegetarian diet has been shown to support health, including a lower risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and increased longevity.

There are environmental benefits of a plant based diet as well. The EAT-Lancet Study that talks about how eating more plants and a little less meat is better for the planet. This New York Times Food and Climate Change article also shows that meat has the largest effect on greenhouse gases.

Alex and I started eating a mostly plant based diet about 10 years ago when we read a book called Food Matters by Mark Bittman. If it’s better for our health and the planet, why not give it a try? And in the process, we’ve found the most important thing: a plant based diet is the most delicious, too.

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About the Authors

Sonja Overhiser

Cookbook Author and writer

Sonja Overhiser is author of Pretty Simple Cooking, named one of the best healthy cookbooks of 2018. She’s host of the food podcast Small Bites and founder of the food blog A Couple Cooks. Featured from the TODAY Show to Bon Appetit, Sonja seeks to inspire adventurous eating to make the world a better place one bite at a time.

Alex Overhiser

Cookbook Author and photographer

Alex Overhiser is an acclaimed food photographer and author based in Indianapolis. He’s host of the food podcast Small Bites and founder of the recipe website A Couple Cooks. Featured from the TODAY Show to Bon Appetit, Alex is author of Pretty Simple Cooking, named one of the best vegetarian cookbooks by Epicurious.

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