At the ripe old age of 30, Rich (my hubby) came home from a routine checkup with a prescription for a cholesterol-lowering drug. At that point in our standard American life, we didn’t know much about health, but it didn’t sit right with us. A medication for the rest of his life? We talked it over and agreed – the answer wasn’t a pill. The answer was to go vegetarian. Hey, if you wanted to get healthy in 1998, that’s what you did. You stopped eating meat.

With a two-year-old in tow, we went cold turkey. No more meat. We then proceeded to fill our freezer with veggie burgers, soy “chicken” nuggets and fake hot dogs (forehead hits palm, ugh, the truth hurts). You gotta start somewhere, right? At the time, it’s all we knew.

It didn’t take long for me to dive head-first into as much nutrition information as I could get my hands on. One of the first books that rocked my world was Diet for a New America by John Robbins – heir to the famous Baskin Robbins ice cream empire. He laid out a compelling argument for ditching animal products – for human health, for animals, and the environment. Discovering the reality of factory farming strengthened our resolve to eat a plant-based diet. With our new found knowledge, it wasn’t long before we said goodbye to eggs and dairy and went vegan – no animal products whatsoever.

Step by step, we began to discover life outside the packaged food aisles. Colorful fruits and vegetables began to take up more space in our refrigerator. Whole grains, beans, and lentils filled our pantry. I remember sitting down for dinner each night marveling at the beautiful foods gracing our table.

But it wasn’t always that way. Growing up in the 70’s/80’s with a mother who didn’t like to cook, I never went hungry because my dad owned a restaurant. All the burgers, fries, and milkshakes a girl could ever want were at my fingertips. My high school sweetheart (I married him, by the way) – a Pizza Hut delivery boy – supplemented my Standard American Diet with plenty of Thin & Crispy pizza pies. And don’t forget the garlic bread with cheese dipped in ranch dressing.

Getting married and moving away from home, I was suddenly thrust into grocery shopping and cooking. As two small-town newlyweds attending a big-city college, we had no money, no cooking skills, and health wasn’t on our radar. So, it was Hamburger Helper to the rescue! I must have learned something from the low-fat health rhetoric of the time, however, because I remember browning hamburger, rinsing it off, and patting it dry with paper towels. Surely this was healthy, right? Cereal and skim milk rounded out our sadly mistaken low-fat diet.

Graduating college and entering the workforce opened a whole new culinary season. Who needs Hamburger Helper when you can now afford to eat out? And what luck – my corporate American accounting job provided plenty of after-hours take-out meals that kept us chained to our calculators long past the dinner hour. Suffice to say, I weighed more during my yuppie years than any other.

As I write these words, I’m now 51 years old. Twenty years have come and gone since that prescription was handed to my husband. It was a wake-up call. We took action. Did we do it all perfectly? No. In hindsight, I would never have fed my kids all those soy substitutes that were so prevalent at the time. We certainly made some mis-steps – but they were steps nonetheless and we learned a lot in the process.

One thing we learned is that it’s ok to eat different than others. Given the current epidemic of food sensitivities, how many kids (and adults) need the confidence to simply choose to eat what works for them? And be ok with saying ‘no thank you’ to what doesn’t?

Ultimately, wellness is a step-by-step journey. We make the best decisions we can based on what we know. And then we tweak things when we learn something new.

While I’m grateful for everything I discovered during my twelve meat-free years, I must tell you I’m now a happy (and healthier) omnivore. And I eat way more vegetables now than I ever did as a vegetarian. But that’s another story – so stay tuned for Part II!