As Michael Pollan so brilliantly said, the most basic rule of healthy eating can be summed up in seven simple words: “Eat food, not too much, mostly vegetables.” For most folks – especially most Americans – ‘mostly vegetables’ is perhaps the hardest of Pollan’s tenets to follow.
Although consuming mostly vegetables has certainly been a challenging guideline for my wife and I to abide by, we have nevertheless managed to cut back substantially on our meat intake – particularly when it comes to red meat – over the past couple of years. While the change has been tough at times, overall we feel better and fitter than ever, we have more energy than before and we typically feel fuller than we did with our previous diet.
Looking back, it’s easy for my wife and I to see the subtle changes we made to our eating habits that have allowed us to transition into a routine that better reflects what Pollan encourages. Though it may seem daunting for those looking forward, below I will share a few tricks and tips my wife and I have learned for cutting back on meat and amping up our veggie intake.
Five years ago, if anyone asked me whether I would enjoy chowing down on veggie burgers, tofu bowls or vegan curries on a regular basis, I would have probably laughed. Now, I can’t imagine not enjoying these delicious meals. So, what happened?
As a child, I grew up with the common myth that meat substitutes were flavorless, ill-textured and unappetizing. When my wife and I got married and moved to Cincinnati, we began a culinary adventure – trying exotic restaurants, creating exciting new dishes and experiencing new flavors and ingredients – which overturned many of the preconceived food ideas with which we both grew up.
We ate saag paneer at Ambar Indian, tried seitan sandwiches at Melt Eclectic Deli, indulged in veggie burgers at Loving Hut and prepared General Tso’s tofu at home. Throughout these experiences and more, we grew to realize that preparation and quality – not the ingredients themselves – are what make the difference when it comes to taste. Therefore, it’s not that steak tastes better than tofu in general, but rather that most people know how to cook a delicious rib-eye but struggle when making a yummy dish out of bean curd.
Knowing this simple rule of thumb has completely changed my outlook on cooking meatless meals, and it has broadened my food horizons to include a multitude of new dishes. When someone is willing to cut chicken or beef out of a meal, seasoning becomes much more important because you can’t rely on the protein to carry the dish. Instead, going meatless necessitates the inclusion of more spices and a wider range of vegetables to achieve a delicious and harmonious whole.
What’s more, since cutting out expensive proteins – particularly red meat – saves money, it offers the possibility of including more expensive flavor-boosting extras. Making black bean and corn enchiladas? Use the money you saved from nixing the carnitas and splurge on a wedge of delicious cheese, fresh cilantro and plenty of ripe avocadoes. Having a plate of pasta primavera? Since you won’t need to purchase chicken or shrimp to bolster the dish, have a restaurant-worthy side of fresh baked bread with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
Simple additions like cheese, exotic spices and top-shelf ingredients can revolutionize a dish, but these expensive items are usually out of reach for the average home cook on a budget. When costly meats are off the table, however, these once budget-busting extras become a fiscal possibility. Moreover, by including more delicious ingredients, it helps turn what might seem like a boring vegetarian dish into a truly spectacular family favorite.
In addition to higher-quality ingredients and a wider-array of spices, sauces and extras, focusing more time and energy on the main vegetables of a dish makes another excellent way to turn up the taste on a meatless meal. I remember reading a wonderful article about this in a Bon Appetit last year, which gave a number of helpful methods for turning vegetables from side items into showstoppers.
For grilling enthusiasts, marinades and a nice char can transform carrots, corn and eggplants into crave-worthy main courses. Topped with sharp cheddar and seasoned with smoked paprika, a humble portabella becomes the flavor-packed center of a juicy and hearty veggie burger. Between two pieces of toasted sourdough, sliced heirloom tomatoes and fresh mozzarella make a perfect summer lunch, needing only a drizzle of balsamic and a pinch of salt. And, with some za’atar and a nice slow-roasting, root veggies take center stage in a meatless tagine.
The final tip I have for anyone wanting to increase their vegetable intake might seem counter-intuitive: don’t skip the meat, especially when eating out. Although I love chowing down on vegetables, I am no stranger to eating meat, particularly lamb. Nevertheless, like so much else in life, meat is best enjoyed in moderation – both for the eater’s health and for the health of our planet.
Whenever my wife and I go out to eat – with rare exceptions made for vegetarian-centric restaurants – we dive into heaping plates of food, almost always with meat as the main ingredient. Though this might seem strange, indulging in one’s favorite meaty dishes – be it barbeque, burgers or bangers – gives eaters a treat to look forward to when dining out.
As my wife and I have discovered, this helps us cut back on meat during the rest of the week because we always know we’ll have our Friday night fix. Also, since many meat dishes require more precise and difficult cooking methods – like frying, basting, smoking and rotisserie roasting – it behooves home cooks to let the pros handle it, saving stress and hassle in your own kitchen.
With these minor and straightforward adjustments, you’ll be hard-pressed to admit that you still miss eating meat at every meal. Instead, you – like my wife and I – will find yourself craving foods you never dreamed of and enjoying a plethora of tastes and textures that only meatless cuisine can offer.
Rather than offering a list of meat-substitute recipes, I find it’s better to offer this challenge to close: find two dishes that you love, and think of ways you can alter them to remove the main protein. This will prompt you to develop your own strategies for going meatless, and the results will be all the sweeter.
To get your creative juices flowing, here are a few of mine and my wife’s meatless favorites: dandelion, cremini and red bell pepper lasagna; portabella burgers; lentil, chickpea and raisin jalfrezi curry; pasta primavera; General Tso’s tofu; Greek pizza; root veggie tagine; black bean and corn enchiladas; and kimchi tofu stew.