Just like the recent Tesco TV ad, I told my mother I didn’t want to eat animals anymore when I was around seven years old. 

Toni Vernelli

Toni Vernelli

We had just gotten back from a weekend on a family friend's farm where I had fallen in love with all the animals, especially a little lamb who couldn’t walk. I carried her in my arms all weekend and was heartbroken when we had to leave. I was even more distraught when I asked my mum what would happen to the lamb and she gave me the honest answer – the lamb would be killed. That is where meat comes from.

It could seem surprising that I didn’t already know animals were killed for meat since my dad was a butcher and I spent a fair amount of time in the back of the shop where carcasses hung openly. But I had never met animals that looked like those carcasses – cows, pigs, sheep – so their skinless bodies resembled nothing more than giant pieces of meat with hooves. That all changed when I met their living relatives; then the thought of eating them horrified me.

Sadly, unlike Tesco’s understanding father, my parents told me I needed to eat meat or I would die. This tactic worked for a few years, until I was 15 and met a 40-year-old lifelong vegetarian. I started my vegan journey on that day and have now been vegan for more than 30 years. And like every vegan I’ve ever met, my only regret is that I didn’t start sooner – though I did try.

Despite being vegan for well-over half of my life now, I haven’t forgotten that I grew up eating meat and enjoyed it, or that I did not suddenly go vegan overnight when I learned ‘the truth’. I started by giving up meat but continued to eat seafood while I learned what other foods I could fill my plate with. Growing up in a small town in Northern Canada long before the internet existed, this was not an easy task but after about a year I had mastered lentil chilli and meat-free lasagne and the time was right to give up seafood.

Transitioning from veggie to vegan took a few more years and also happened in stages. At first, I was vegan at home where I could have plant milks, vegan marg and other specialities from the health food store. I was less strict at work meetings, family outings or other occasions where vegan options didn’t exist and insisting on them would have damaged important relationships. I knew I would be fully vegan one day, but I also knew I couldn’t do it all at once.

I wish more people accepted that changing the habits of a lifetime takes time. So many well-intentioned people are put off by the all-or-nothing approach to veganism and many who try this approach and ‘fail’ then give up because ‘veganism is too hard’. But, it’s actually behaviour change that is hard. New habits take time to form and being imperfect does not make us a failure, it makes us human.

As a healthy 49-year-old who runs marathons and is a self-confessed gym addict, I know without a doubt my parents were wrong about the need to eat meat. Tesco’s supportive TV dad is an encouraging sign of progress, as is the easy availability of vegan options in so many parts of the world. I’m lucky to have spent most of my adult life working to help make this happen. Thanks to my healthy vegan diet, I’ll hopefully be around to see plant-based eating become the norm – though I don’t expect it to happen overnight.

RELATED: Media and PR Officer at The Vegan Society, Francine Jordan shares her vegan journey

Growing up the youngest of 4, I accepted early on that many of the decisions about my life would be made for me, from what I ate and wore down to what music I liked. Maybe it was because my mum, a strict Glaswegian, already had a good routine with my other siblings, or just because I’ve always had quite an easy-going personality...