When I first became a vegetarian almost 22 years ago, the landscape for meat-free eating was incredibly different. There wasn't much to enjoy at most restaurants (I was expert at putting together side dishes to create a meal), friends and family members were still reciting that much-disproved idea that you had to eat "complimentary" proteins, and without the Internet, vegetarian recipes could usually only be found in specialty cookbooks like Moosewood's. And forget the horrible attitudes people had about being a vegetarian (really, let's forget those!). 

Now meat-eaters happily take part in Meatless Mondays, and sometimes even order vegetarian meals because they know those dishes can be delicious, too. And with the rise (and consequential explanation of what it is to millions of grandparents throughout the early aughts) of veganism, all of a sudden nobody blinks an eye at special diets, whether that's Paleo, gluten-free, low-carb, nut-free or vegetarian. 

Oct. 1 is World Vegetarian Day — also the kickoff of Vegetarian Awareness Month — which was founded by NAVS, the North American Vegetarian Society (founded in 1977, the same year I was born!). They succinctly outline some of the excellent reasons to go veg:

  • Reduce the risk of major killers such as heart disease, stroke and cancer while cutting exposure to foodborne pathogens
  • Provide a viable answer to feeding the world’s hungry through more efficient use of grains and other crops
  • Save animals from suffering in factory-farm conditions and from the pain and terror of slaughter
  • Conserve vital but limited freshwater, fertile topsoil and other precious resources
  • Preserve irreplaceable ecosystems such as rain forests and other wildlife habitats
  • Decrease greenhouse gases that are accelerating global warming
  • Mitigate the ever-expanding environmental pollution of animal agriculture
The most convincing aspect of the rise of vegetarian acceptance has to be how good the food has become. It used to be you were lucky to get a sandwich made without the meat (meaning it was toppings and cheese on bread). Now, even in delis in the middle of nowhere, there's a Portobello mushroom or black bean burger option. So whether you are a long-time vegetarian like me, a new vegan or a meat-eater who wants to lighten it up before the holidays, why not celebrate World Vegetarian Day? Or commit to some aspect of less meat or animal-product consumption for the month of October? 

There are lots of ways you can experiment with being a vegetarian, from doing it on the weekdays (saving meaty meals for the weekends), to following Mark Bittman, of The New York Times' idea of "vegan before 6 p.m." (he only eats animal products for dinner). Or you can go vegetarian for the month of October, and sign NAVS' pledge saying you'll stick to it. 

I'm going to go vegan for two weeks. How about you? 

Need some inspiration? How about these 7 cheap and easy vegetarian meals? Or what about 3 amazing fall vegetarian soup recipes? Looking for super-filling vegetarian entrees? Or lighter salad-for-dinner ideas? What about some vegan no-bake chocolate tortes? Maybe try a heart-healthy, dairy-free substitute for cream to top those tortes (or anything else that tastes great with cream)? 

I could go on, but you've got the whole Internet full of delicious meat-free ideas to try. 

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Starre Vartan ( @ecochickie ) covers conscious consumption, health and science as she travels the world exploring new cultures and ideas.