Jessica Seinfeld on being a part-time vegan: "If I can do it, anyone can do it"

The best-selling author on the joy of being plant-based . . . sometimes

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published December 8, 2021 7:15PM (EST)

Jessica Seinfeld (Mark Weinberg / Gallery Books)
Jessica Seinfeld (Mark Weinberg / Gallery Books)

As the best-selling author of "The Can't Cook Book," "Deceptively Delicious: Simple Secrets to Get Your Kids Eating Good Food," and "Food Swings," Jessica Seinfeld is all about get getting us to eat well — in every sense of the word. Her newest book is "Vegan, at Times: 120 Recipes for Every Day or Every So Often."

Seinfeld recently joined us on "Salon Talks" to talk about shaking up the family dinner plate, and why she doesn't believe in "guilty pleasures." Watch the episode here, or read a Q&A of our conversation below.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

In the book, you describe your journey towards a more plant-based diet. In all of your books, you're about the fruits and vegetables. This isn't a huge stretch — it's not like you suddenly went from deep-fried Snicker bars to this. Talk about what pushed you in this direction.

I have been having some health stuff in my late forties. I saw a couple of different doctors, and one of them recommended, "Look, it's not quantified or even qualified, but a bunch of my patients have tried eating less dairy and tried eating less meat. It's just something I'm going to say you should try, perhaps." I did, and I not only felt better, I found that if you're habitual about it, you crave those foods more than you crave the other ones. That really set me on a path towards just trying this lifestyle without talking about it, without making any grand statements, certainly to anyone in my family. It was really just a quiet pursuit for me just to feel better.

Want more great food writing and recipes? Subscribe to Salon Food's newsletter.

I have tons of autoimmune stuff, and I'm already on medication I don't want to be on. I'm always looking for ways to improve my nutrition and just feel a little less tired. I found that this works, but I also found that it's really hard as a mother of three and a wife. We talked about it before the interview. We have these boomer husbands who kind of like traditional foods. I think we all grew up seeing our dinner plate look a very specific way with — in America at least — protein and carbs and a vegetable. It's a hard habit to break.

It was for health reasons, and it was really undeniable how much better I felt. But I also know that this is a very hard lifestyle to commit to 100% for some people — myself included, my family included. I find that with social media and people's ability to have a voice now, which is a wonderful thing in many ways, it also can be directed at people in ways that make them feel ashamed. I don't like the shame around food. I think that that has been something that has backfired for the vegan movement. I think people feel like, "I'm not going to be able to do this 100%. I'm not going to be perfect right out of the gate. I don't want to feel like a failure, so I'm not even going to go near it."

I say, "Let's just dip our toes in. I'm on this journey myself." I'm not 100% vegan. I'm trying. I'm definitely on a good run right now. I feel so much better that I don't want to eat any dairy, and I don't want to eat any meat. But that might change over the holidays — and that's OK. And then the next day, I'm going to start over. And I'm going to do better, and I'm going to eat less meat and less dairy than I did the day before.

RELATED: Upgrade your baking with these inexpensive kitchen tools

Now that you've gone public with this, I imagine you've heard from some people, "Well then why not go all in?"

I wish I was that person. I'm not that person. Does that mean that I can't try harder? I think we have that same end goal, right? Which is, let's all eat less dairy, and let's all eat less meat for the sake of animals for the sake of the planet. And, of course, for the sake of our bodies. Let's all get there how best sets us up for success. I don't respond well to shame. I don't respond well to this idea of perfection. I completely celebrate imperfection and am far more compelled by people who acknowledge that they're not perfect and acknowledge that things are hard for them. I respond to that, and I assume that other people do, too. I wrote this book for the rest of us.

Jessica, as a mom and especially as a mom of daughters, I really appreciate that in all of your writing, you understand what it means to have a healthy relationship with food. That can be different from only objectively "healthy" food. There's fried stuff in this book. There's sugar in this book — that's OK. Because as soon as we start to say that some things are bad, that can be so damaging not only to ourselves but also to our children. We want our kids to be able to feed themselves.

As somebody who grew up in a very healthy home, my parents are very counterculture. I've been eating brown rice and tofu and have been having embarrassing lunches my whole life. I probably felt very embarrassed at school. I felt embarrassed by the food that my parents served, which was so different from everybody else's. I always wished like, "Why can't our cereals come in a box? Why do they all come in bags from a co-op?" I think that I grew up with this idea that shame is very close to food in our minds. When I had my first child, who's now 21, and she refused to eat any vegetables or refused to eat anything green, that was so shocking to me as someone who eats really healthy and has only eaten healthy.

I grew up cooking, and I grew up having to take care of myself and my family because my mom worked and commuted. I helped get dinner on the table. I've always had these habits around eating healthier, cooking for my family, cooking for myself. I never had the money to go out to dinner when I was in high school, in college. I was always working in restaurants, and I was always broke. But I didn't want my daughter to feel bad about how she ate or what her tastes were because she seemed to have even a textural thing. She was so picky that it was like, "Where does this come from?"

I was curious about it, instead of angry or worried. Well, I was worried. I was worried and scared because we do have these ideas around how we should be raising our children. I saw these other kids eating broccoli and eating all these things. And I was like, "Why is she like this?" I said, "I'm just going to throw vegetables and purée them into all her foods, and I don't need to really have a conversation about it. Why not?" I treated it as an ingredient, and it struck a chord with people. I wrote that book, "Deceptively Delicious." To this day, people are like, "You got my child eating vegetables — you. My son has real textural things with autism, and thank you so much. You wrote this amazing book."

I had no idea. I just was trying to solve a problem. This has kind of been the thread throughout my books, which is I just want to help people eat better. I just want to help make it easier for people. A lot of us — especially right now — we have very complicated busy lives. We have kids we want to feed. We have husbands, or partners or whoever we want to feed. We also have, thankfully, other things that we're focused on. Maybe making a perfect meal, if that exists, for a family is not on the front burner, so to speak. So how do we do this in a way that makes us feel somewhat successful, everyone's happy? Because we're at least eating together or some version of it. That's really my philosophy around food, which is just "however you can get it done." If it means you're cutting corners. If it means you're not buying organic, but it's just convenient. If you're doing something that feels good to you and feels better for your family, that's the way to do it.

I think that sets up your kids and you, as a woman in the world, to have a healthy relationship with food. To not feel like you're constantly on the treadmill that I see so many of my peers and their kids getting on out of shame and that feeling of, "This is bad, I'm being bad," when you're simply enjoying food. That's a really sad way to go through life.

As this is my fifth book, I am asked a lot in interviews, "What is your guilty pleasure?" I do not have guilt around anything that I eat. Everything is a privilege and a pleasure to me in food. We're so lucky not to be worried about it. We're so lucky not to be worried about the next meal on our table. To even be having conversations like this is an absolute privilege. A guilty pleasure, that does not exist for me. Food is a pleasure. Putting these labels around, "You're bad because you couldn't do this or you should be a certain way," is really why I wrote "Vegan, at Times."

I understand and respect completely the ideology and the values around eating vegan food, especially as it is protective of animals, which is super important to me. But I do think that the vegan movement would have more people engaged and supporting it and helping to build that infrastructure that is needed if there was a more welcoming, accepting tone. If I've made anyone upset or angry in my view of it, I totally hear that. But I think that we're among friends. Let's do this together, and we'll have setbacks — that's OK. We're going to have setbacks in everything we do.

And to not even see them as setbacks but rather part of a normal life. Let's talk about how we get there, especially when we have more reluctant family members. Tell me how you brought your family on board with this. It can be a hard sell. And you don't start with, "Now we're going to be vegan."

I wouldn't say that my family's on board. Well, we only have one child at home now because our two are in college. Jerry and I have committed to four dinners a week together that are vegan. Then he goes out with his friends. He loves Chipotle. That's his thing on a Friday night with his friends. That's fine. But as a family, we've decided, "Let's do four nights a week, see how it goes." The other two are not on board, but they will eat the food. When I serve things they don't ask, "Is this vegan or not vegan?" Most of the times now it's vegan, but they don't have a problem with it.

I want to ask you about the food, specifically, because I love so many of the ideas and the recipes in here. They don't rely on a lot of special ingredients. They don't rely on a lot of processed food and alternative foods that can taste weird. Talk about the way that you developed the recipes in here to make them accessible and to make them meals that you can make with stuff you probably already have on hand.

It goes back to my original philosophy around that started with "Deceptively Delicious," which is that people are pretty set in their ways that they like to eat. If you are presenting an idea to them that might be better for them or might feel better for them, you have to do it in a way that feels comfortable and feels familiar.

I started with ideas for recipes that wouldn't feel way too healthy or way "too elite," as my kids would say. I felt like, "How do I make my own family not terrified when I bring something out during the pandemic?" And then I felt like I just spent an hour cooking dinner and nobody ate it. That's also something that I really do not love. I started with a mac and cheese and that — up until that point — I had really been doing by myself and just having tons of sweet potatoes and vegetables and tofu.

I was really quiet about it within my own family because I just didn't know if I was going to be able to do it. I didn't want to make any big changes in our house if I couldn't follow through. I started with this idea that a lot of people are scared to eat this way. They have ideas about it. Sara Quessenberry — who I've worked with for 10 years on my last three books and would not do any of this without — she wasn't at all vegan, and she eats more like Jerry. They're very close. I had to really get her on board to, "Let's try to make this a little healthier. Let's try to take the dairy out."

She's a real chef, and she definitely loves comfort food. It was an interesting time for us to really shift because I felt for my health that I had to. Sara's idea was, "We're not going to do recipes with processed foods. We're going to do whole foods only." I said, "OK, that's a great idea. Let's see how far we get." We got halfway through the book, and we shopped only at Walmart and Kmart and Target and regular grocery stores. We never went to Whole Foods. We never went to gourmet food stores. Then the pandemic hit. We started to see, "Wow, we can order all of these things online, too. They're totally accessible to everyone." But she was really stuck on, "I don't want to add those cheeses, and I don't want to add those butters. There's too much — it's too processed."

I said, "I get it." But in our other recipes, we do tell people to eat cheese. And if somebody takes it out of plastic, that's pretty much how we do it at our house. I'm being real — not fancy over at our house, so we have to compromise. The minute we made this macaroni and cheese, she was like, "OK." That sold her and my family. My family was crazed about this macaroni and cheese and had four helpings on the first night. I was like, "We've got something here." Then we really shifted gears and started using the butters and the cheeses and definitely the plant milks. We had a real concept that people could relate to, which is food you want to eat but without dairy and without meat.

A lot of us have this concept of what a meal looks like — even our kids do, even our families do. You break free of that. That's a great way to get a more vegan diet, as well as expand your idea of how people eat around the world. It's an extremely American-centric idea that there's a triad on your plate. Talk about opening up what a meal means to us.

I always say I'm very grateful to ramen because ramen was really what broke my kids out of this idea that we always have to have chicken, or we always have to have some protein on our plate. I started to make ramen for them, so it was vegetables and protein and noodles, which is of course, in a bowl. It tasted really good, and it was spicy and we could add things in it. That opened their minds up to this idea that we can be a little looser about how things look and taste.

Then I experienced it myself. I made dinner for my family, and they all had a plate that looked like that. I wasn't eating like that. I had lots of sweet potatoes, and I topped them with different things. I would have some kind of stewy beans with bread, and that's when my husband was like, "Wow, that looks really good." He kept seeing that my meals looked really different from theirs because I would pull it together at the last minute after I got theirs on the table. I'd sit down and everyone had the same thing, and then I looked different. He responded to that like, "Well, it's so colorful."

One night, I had beets and spinach. And I still wasn't fully in it, but I was at least trying. That's just an interesting pivot for people, which is, "Oh, wait, I don't need to do what I've always done, even though we're all so connected to these traditions and how we grew up and how our plate always looked." There are so many ways to fill up your plate that are nutritious. I think the key is really satisfying and not feeling like you walked away from the table needing another meal in an hour. This book has plenty of those ideas.

Was there one thing that made you feel, "That was a surprise hit with my family and a surprise hit with my husband"? As we try to persuade the more traditional among us, what would you say was your sleeper hit?

Well, the sweet oat crepes. I put them first in the book because they're so easy to make — and they're shockingly delicious. Maybe they weren't a sleeper, but they are such a hit at my house that it constantly reminds me that I can do this. There are ways, because we're big pancake eaters at my house. It was just an easy recipe to adapt. I have it first for not only for people who buy the book but for myself to just remind me, "This started somewhere, and it was an idea. And I never thought I'd get my family on board."

Again, they're not 100% on board. Neither am I. I'm not 100% vegan. I don't know if I'll ever get there. I feel great right now. It's been probably a month since I've had a bite of cheese or anything dairy. I'm not forcing myself, but I do feel I'm on a good path. I don't crave it. Let's see how long it lasts. So, yeah, the sweet oat crepes. Not a sleeper but a home run. It just reminds me, "If I can do this, anyone can do it."

More of our favorite conversations about food: 

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

MORE FROM Mary Elizabeth Williams

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Food Jessica Seinfeld Producer's Picks Salon Talks Vegan At Times Veganism