At a recent dinner, I turned down the cheese that I could have sprinkled on top of my chili. “Oh, are you vegan now?” my friend asked. “No,” I said, “I’m just eating less dairy.”
I live in a happy vegetarian household. We eat a great variety of fresh foods, explore new dishes from around the world, and indulge in yummy desserts. We get all these benefits without supporting the meat industry. We are not sending animals to be killed and we’re not adding to the huge carbon footprint of animal agriculture.
Except for dairy. We bake with eggs and we enjoy milk, all sorts of cheeses, and definitely ice cream. But even organic, more-humane dairy operations have negative effects. Milk production requires the separation of calves from their mothers. Egg production requires a steady supply of female chickens; the boy chicks are considered excess and are killed. Feeding all those cows and hens is inefficient, using far more water and grain and fossil fuels than would be needed for plant foods.
So I’ve started eating less dairy. My goal right now is to avoid dairy Monday through Friday. It feels maybe a little too easy compromise, since weekends have always been prime times for brunch foods, baking, and parties. And I haven’t been perfectly vegan even on the weekdays, mostly because I’m still learning all the products where whey protein sneaks in at the end of the ingredients list. But I feel myself growing the awareness and will to sustain a new habit.
Sometimes I wish I had just taken the plunge and declared myself a vegan. There is a comfort in having a clear identity, something that others can easily recognize. Having a clear rule against dairy would release me from the constant internal negotiations: Is this preference worth inconveniencing a host? Or moving on to a different restaurant?
I know, however, that an all-or-nothing approach rarely works. When we invest too much in a complete, permanent change, we just set ourselves up for failure. If we make one mistake, we’ll just give up the whole thing. That’s why there are now more ex-vegetarians than vegetarians in America. I’d rather make my own compromise and stick with it than become another ex-vegan.