Keep the flavor and cut health risks with a meatless menu makeover

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Looking to reduce your grocery expenses, eat more vegetables or try something new for dinner tonight? A meatless menu makeover might be just what you need.

Two vegetarian burgers with beetroot patties and fresh vegetables on a wooden cutting board.
All of the flavor, none of the meat. Simple swaps, plant-based proteins and more tips for your meatless menu makeover. Photo credit: Depositphotos.

If you start your day with bacon and end it with steak, going meatless may sound like an impossible challenge. But you don’t have to sacrifice flavor and substance to create a meatless menu. Through simple swaps, plant-based proteins and a variety of vegetables, you can create a meal that is so hearty and satisfying that you might just forget that it’s meatless. 

Why go meatless?

People have followed meatless diets for thousands of years. But lately, there has been increasing awareness of the health benefits of reducing meat consumption. 

A 2012 study from the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) confirmed the link between red meat consumption and an increased risk of type 2 adult onset diabetes. According to coverage in Harvard Magazine, adult-onset diabetes is not the only health risk associated with eating red meat. Higher levels of colorectal cancer, atherosclerosis, heart disease and stroke are all linked to red meat consumption.

Why the Harvard study’s findings matter

According to the Harvard study, a daily serving of red meat “no larger than a deck of cards” upped the risk of adult-onset diabetes by 19%. An even smaller serving of processed red meat was associated with a higher increase in risk: 51%. These percentages emerged after the researchers adjusted for other risk factors.

The good news? Swapping other foods for meat, the researchers found, “substantially lowered” diabetes risk. In order of effectiveness, the best substitutes for meat were: whole grains, nuts, low-fat dairy, fish and poultry. 

Small changes, big impact: the flexitarian approach

For those who aren’t interested in quitting meat cold turkey — or cold tofu? — the flexitarian approach might be the solution. Dawn Jackson Blatner, who coined the term flexitarian, was sick of feeling like a “bad, lazy vegetarian” every time she ate meat. So Blatner created the term flexitarian “for people who know that vegetarianism is one of the healthiest and smartest ways to eat, but don’t want to sit in the corner at a BBQ with an empty bun.”

Flexitarianism doesn’t have to be complicated. By implementing simple swaps, opting for plant-based proteins and embracing a wide array of vegetables, your favorite recipes can easily get a meatless makeover.

1. Start with simple swaps

If you’re going meatless for the first time, you might feel like something is missing from your plate. An easy way to avoid this is by substituting vegetarian options in place of meat in your favorite dishes. 

Mushrooms, the flexitarian’s best friend, are an excellent substitute for meat thanks to their chewy texture and umami richness. For example, if you’re making bolognese or shepherd’s pie, try swapping ground beef for diced portobello or cremini mushrooms. Similarly, trumpet mushrooms are called king oyster mushrooms for a reason: their large size makes them a great alternative to chicken thighs or beef steaks. 

Beans, another healthy option, can be swapped for meat in a variety of dishes. For example, homemade black bean burgers are a budget-friendly way to take your meatless barbecue to the next level. Keep a few cans of beans in your pantry, and you’ll always have a way to upgrade quesadillas, tacos and burritos, especially for those days when you forget to defrost ground beef in the morning.

Cauliflower and eggplant are two other vegetables that make great meat substitutes, although they don’t taste like meat. Both are excellent for frying. For example, cauliflower buffalo wings are a meatless favorite. Moussaka made without the ground meat is a delicious and filling alternative to lasagna.

2. Explore plant-based proteins

Reducing your meat consumption doesn’t mean you have to say goodbye to protein. Once you start cooking with plant-based proteins, you’ll be surprised at how much variety you can add to your diet. Instead of eating the same few meats over and over, you’ll have dozens of protein options to choose from.

When you aren’t eating meat, plant-based options such as lentils, chickpeas and homemade seitan can help you get the protein intake you need. Many plant-based proteins are budget-friendly and shelf-stable, meaning that they will stay edible for months or even years. 

Plant-based proteins are versatile. For example, instead of adding chicken or pork to your plate, you can swap in tofu: its neutral taste makes it the perfect blank canvas for any blend of seasoning. 

If you’re running low on inspiration, consider the ways in which cultures around the world have traditionally used plant-based proteins. Hakka-style stuffed tofu, using mushrooms instead of ground beef, is a hearty dish perfect for special occasions. Pita sandwiches, stuffed with falafel and vegetables, and drizzled with tahini, are a fresh and satisfying alternative to meat sandwiches. Beans and rice, a common staple in many cultures around the world, are a low-effort side dish that can be cooked in dozens of different ways.

Of course, exploring new recipes certainly doesn’t mean that you have to say goodbye to your favorites. This vegan turkey roast, for example, uses seitan to create a savory and satisfying centerpiece. 

3. Make vegetables the star

Have you ever stopped to think about just how many vegetables are out there? From artichokes to zucchini and everything in between, it’s never been easier to enjoy a wide variety of different vegetables. But — as anyone who grew up on steamed brussel sprouts will know — it’s easy for vegetables to get a bad rap. 

Before you blacklist a vegetable, consider cooking it in a few different ways. Roasted vegetables become sweeter, heartier and more flavorful, especially when seasoned with a bit of olive oil, salt and pepper. If your steamed vegetables are bland and mushy, you’re likely cooking them too long. Most vegetables only need to be immersed in boiling water for a few minutes to cook to perfection. 

If you’re overwhelmed by the bounty of vegetables out there, think about trying out just one new vegetable every week. Or embrace seasonal eating by joining a community-supported agriculture program. Vegetables in season aren’t just more affordable; they’re tastier, too.

So, whether you’re looking to say goodbye to meat entirely or are merely interested in trying out the flexitarian lifestyle for a bit, there are plenty of tips and tricks to make planning your meatless menu easier. Simple swaps, plant-based proteins and different types of vegetables are all excellent ways to reduce your meat consumption without compromising taste.

Shruthi Baskaran-Makanju is a food and travel writer and a global food systems expert based in Seattle. She has lived in or traveled extensively in more than 60 countries, and shares stories and recipes inspired by those travels on Urban Farmie

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The contents of this article are for informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice. The content presented here is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of a qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or dietary changes. Reliance on any information provided by this article is solely at your own risk.

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