Reducing the meat in your diet can save money, reduce environmental impact, improve your health, and reduce the calories per meal. (Obviously, all these things are affected by what you eat instead of meat!) You don’t have to become a total vegetarian to experience the benefits of eating less meat. Here are some tips for adjusting your habits:
1. Try new kinds of meals. If you’re accustomed to a standard dinner format requiring a chunk of meat, a starchy food, and a vegetable, then it’s hard to imagine a vegetarian diet–what would you put in place of the meat?? I think this is the reason so many people who quit (or cut back on) eating meat wind up eating too many carbs and not enough protein, or eating heavily-processed soy fake meats every day, neither of which is very healthy. So, instead of just replacing the meat in your standard meals, try some different approaches, like
- Ethnic cuisines. It’s a lot easier to find a vegetarian dinner in a Chinese, Indian, Middle Eastern, Mexican, or Italian restaurant than in the typical American restaurant. That’s because these cuisines include many dishes in which meat is a sort of token ingredient that can be easily left out or replaced with beans, cheese, tofu, or vegetables. Once you learn to make this type of dish at home, it becomes easier to think of something to cook that will taste complete without meat, and you get used to new standard formats like the Tofu Soba Supper and Veggie Burger Lunch. Instead of roasting a beast for your holiday feast, try Stuffed Shells.
- Mixed-up meals. Recipes like casseroles, stews, and pasta salads that combine several food groups in one dish have the same advantage as above, even if they are American-flavored. Often, there’s a way to tuck some protein into a side-dish recipe and make it the main dish–for example, when we gave up meat for Lent, I discovered that I could substitute peanuts for some of the fried onions in that green-bean casserole (you know, the one with the mushroom soup) to make it more nutritious and still tasty! Personally, I would much rather make some kind of one-pot meal than fritz around with preparing several different things and trying to have them all ready at the same time, so I love this kind of recipe.
- Variety of vegetables. If you’re accustomed to “vegetable” meaning one kind of plant, steamed, maybe with a little butter, sitting in the corner of your plate, then no wonder a vegetarian diet sounds boring! Human beings crave variety in our diet (well, most of us do) so we’ll eat a lot more veggies if we’re served a variety of them. My mom often serves summer meals consisting of, for example, beans, fried okra, corn on the cob, and sliced tomatoes; there are several things to eat, and the picky people don’t have to try all of them. In the mixed-up meals I favor, combining two or more vegetables, like green beans and tomatoes, makes a much more interesting meal than one vegetable alone.
- New protein sources. Protein does not have to come from the main ingredient of your main course. Many starchy foods, especially whole-grain ones, have more protein than you might expect. Other high-protein foods–like peanut butter, other nuts, nutritional yeast flakes, sunflower seeds, and sorghum syrup–can be used as condiments. Pureed beans can be mixed into sauces and soups. Just because you’re cutting back on meat doesn’t mean you have to give up other animal foods: yogurt, eggs, and cheese are more versatile than you may have realized. (Although the typical American restaurant doesn’t offer many vegetarian dinners, in places that serve breakfast all day you can order eggs!) Reducing meat also is an opportunity to try things you may not have given a fair shot before, like tofu.
- Protein throughout the day. Lately it seems everyone’s discovering the benefits of high-protein snacks, like almonds or hummus, for maintaining your energy level . . . but I rarely see it mentioned that every serving of protein in your snacks is one you don’t have to work into your larger meals! If you’re worried that you might not be getting enough protein as you cut back on meat, keep a protein diary and add up the grams (from the handy Nutrition Facts panels) in everything you eat for a few days.
2. Plan your meals around the vegetables instead of the protein. Does your dinner planning begin with, “What kind of meat am I going to defrost today?” Start with the vegetables instead: “We have this huge zucchini and a red pepper. . . . I know! Zucchini Tofu!” This is a great change to make during the summer, when lots of fresh vegetables are available at low prices: Stock up on bargain vegetables, and then plan your meals around using them all before they go bad! Shifting your focus to the veggies is likely to help you eat more fiber and vitamins, while still getting enough protein from the foods you choose to complement the veggies.
3. Learn about what’s wrong with meat. Watch Food, Inc. (I took my four-year-old son to this movie–he still insisted he wanted to see it, even after I warned him that it would show “animal killing factories” and that might be scary–and he found it very interesting. He finally comprehends that I’m serious when I say hamburgers can kill little boys!) Read Fast Food Nation or The Omnivore’s Dilemma or Diet for a Small Planet. Learn what’s in hot dogs. Learn about the pink slime that is mixed into 70% of American hamburgers. Meat is bad for the environment and your health. You might not decide to give it up altogether, but every bit you cut back will help, and within the general category of animal flesh there are some options that are better choices than others. (Yes, I realize that organic, grass-fed, drug-free meat exists. If you have a convenient place to buy it and are willing to spend the extra money, that’s great! But most of the meat consumed in the United States is not like that. I find it easier and more affordable just to avoid meat.)
4. Start to see raw meat as repulsive. This was an important step for Daniel and me because it stopped us from cooking anything at home that involved handling raw meat. We cut back to just fish sticks, canned fish, frozen meals with meat in them, meat in restaurants, and meat cooked by housemates–years before we tried vegetarianism–and in those years we ate significantly less meat than before. To repulsify meat, just look at it and feel it–how slimy and bloody and, well, fleshy it is. If you happen to find a dead squirrel or something, take a good look at that, too (can’t recommend feeling it), and I bet you’ll remember it next time you cut up a chicken. Give some thought, too, to the safety precautions necessary for handling raw meat, how scary the possibilities really are, and how nice it would be to be free of that annoyance. (The other day, we were at a party where some people were cooking hamburgers on the grill and fretting over whether they were done yet. Daniel said to me, “Isn’t it nice not to be worrying about whether our food is still poison?”)
5. Give up all meat-eating . . . temporarily. This gives you the experience of vegetarianism without a permanent commitment. Give it up for Lent, for one month, on a certain day each week, or whatever makes sense to you. See how feasible it really is, what you find to eat, and whether you feel any different, save any money, or lose any weight. When you allow yourself to have meat again, you may find that you eat less of it. This is the one thing that made the biggest difference for us.
6. Figure out vegetarian versions of your favorite meals. This can be tricky, depending on what your favorite meals are. I never was all that fond of most meats–in fact, I coped with the many pork chops and such served to me as a child by dipping them in salad dressing or Spike to disguise the taste–but for a long time I missed the kind of dish that could be described as “chicken breast sauteed with onions, garlic, herbs, and vegetables, producing a delicious brown goo.” Cooking the other ingredients without the chicken in olive oil does not create the same type of goo. When I figured out how to make Improved Pasta Salad, that niche was finally filled! If you like spaghetti with meat sauce, try Chickicheesinara Sauce.
7. Make a Plant Appreciation List. This idea came to me when my Girl Scout troop was earning the Plants & Animals badge and one of the activities was to make a list of all the plants and animals involved in our lives that day–those we ate, wore, sat on, or otherwise interacted with. The number of animals on anyone’s list was small, but the number of plants was huge! Since then, I’ve been making a Plant Appreciation List once in a while.
For example, these are the plants involved in my life yesterday: cotton, assorted trees, peppermint, hemp, olive, coffee, wheat, barley, sorghum, grass, spider plant, privet, rose, petunia, chrysanthemum, English ivy, vinca, lentil, onion, garlic, soybean, clover, orange, tomato, apple, wasabi, pea, sugarcane, marigold, ornamental grass, thistle, zucchini, ginger, cashew, kale, blueberry, spearmint.
And I’m sure that’s an incomplete list! Going to and from work, I admired several vistas of flowers and shrubbery without paying attention to all the species present, and I know from reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma that in a day in 21st-century America I must have encountered some corn! Anyway, the point is, when you make a list like this you can’t help appreciating the abundance available from Earth’s plants, and it’s easier to understand what you could eat instead of meat!
Visit 7 Quick Takes Friday to learn about the “pieces of rain” that recently fell in Texas!