How to eat less meat and more plants

With meat shortages becoming a new reality, we may have no choice but to consume less meat these days. That means now is as good a time as any to try plant-based meals and snacks, which can provide health benefits at a time when we may feel increasingly vulnerable to illness.

Whether you enjoy meat on a regular basis or savor a steak once in a while, one thing is true: Many people love meat.

The average American consumes about 222 pounds of red meat and poultry per year, according to a recent estimate by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, while a February 2020 report projected that global meat and poultry consumption is expected to reach 313 million metric tons in 2023.

But with meat shortages becoming a new reality, we may have no choice but to consume less meat these days. That means now is as good a time as any to try plant-based meals and snacks, which can provide health benefits at a time when we may feel increasingly vulnerable to illness.

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"Eating more plants and going meatless is a good way to preserve your health," said Dr. Robert Graham, who is board certified in both internal and integrative medicine.

"Eighty percent of chronic diseases we face are preventable and reversible by eating a more plant-based diet. This [pandemic] is a call to action to switch to more plant-based meals and to cook more. They are the two silver linings," said Graham, who is also a chef and co-founder of FRESH Med, an integrative health and wellness center in New York City.

We know getting started can be difficult, especially if burgers, meatballs and sausage with eggs have been your go-tos. So here are some simple ways to start eating less meat.

I'm not talking about becoming a vegetarian overnight or even adopting a strict vegan lifestyle. These are simply easy ways to cut back on your meat consumption as meat prices increase, and they're easy ways to improve your health, too.

10 ways to eat more plants and less meat

Designate one day each week for meatless eating. "Even going meatless one day a week can make a difference," said Sharon Palmer, a registered dietitian and author of "Plant-Powered for Life."

The nonprofit group Meatless Monday promotes the notion of cutting out meat every Monday for your personal health and the health of the environment, and it offers helpful tips and recipes for vegetarian cooking.

The group also offers a Meatless Monday family cookbook with comfort food recipes and plant-based versions of meals that are typically meat-heavy, like a "meaty" mushroom stew over garlic mashed potatoes

Plantify your favorite dishes. You can make your favorite entrees or meals plant-based with a few simple swaps, according to Palmer.

"If you have a mean lasagna recipe, skip the meat and add layers of greens, broccoli and peppers and perhaps some pine nuts and cashew cheese instead of the meat and cheese. If you love Taco Tuesday, make your tacos veggie by skipping the meat and serving black beans or a vegetarian mushroom tofu filling," Palmer said.

Go global. Many international cuisines incorporate plant-based proteins, including chickpeas, beans and lentils.

For example, a Mediterranean meal might include chickpeas; a Mexican meal might have black beans or pintos; an Asian meal might include edamame; and an Italian meal might use white beans or lentils to make a Bolognese-inspired pasta sauce, said registered dietitian nutritionist Dawn Jackson Blatner, author of The Flexitarian Diet.

And if you love Indian food, Palmer recommended chickpea masala in place of chicken masala.

For inspiration, check out recipes from cookbooks focused on international cuisines such as Mediterranean, Indian, Mexican, Thai and Japanese.

Search your pantry. Stocking your pantry with a variety of beans, whole grains, seasonal veggies, fruits, spices, herbs, healthy oils, nuts and seeds is the secret to eating more plant-based meals, according to Palmer. But even without conscious effort, your pantry is likely already stocked with plant-based ingredients that can be easily assembled into meals.

Canned corn, kidney beans and quinoa are among the most neglected pantry items, according to Meatless Monday's social media followers. To "rescue" quinoa, chef Adam Kenworthy recommended cooking it in a big batch by itself; then adding cucumber, thinly sliced celery, avocado, cilantro, basil or shiso; and salt and olive oil.

You can also combine quinoa, beans and corn along with other spices to make a vegetarian chili. And if a recipe calls for frozen corn, you can just swap it with canned, drained corn. It's delicious in soups, stews, casseroles and salads, according to Palmer.

Experiment with new recipes. Some fun meatless recipes include jackfruit sandwiches in place of pulled pork; black bean meatless balls or eggplant and shiitake "meatballs."

You can also try making a vegan-friendly Philly cheesesteak using seitan, a high-protein meat substitute made from wheat gluten.

For more innovative ideas, try carrot "bacon" wrapped dates, or as barbecue season approaches, you can give carrot "hotdogs" a try!

Try tofu. In addition to serving as a substitute for taco meat, tofu can be used as an ingredient in many other dishes. For example, you can make "chicken fried" tofu instead of chicken fried steak, tofu wings in place of buffalo wings and tofu parmigiana. For a seasonal dish, you might try a springtime asparagus quiche made with a creamy tofu filling.

Freezing tofu and then thawing it will limit moisture and give more meat-like texture when cooking, according to Graham. Additionally, when you freeze tofu before marinating it, it will soak up the flavor of the marinade better, Graham added. Note: The extra firm tofu is your best option to replace meat.

Use herbs and spices to mimic meat flavor. "Umami is the flavor that people miss from plant-based sources," Graham said. He recommended using ingredients such as miso and tomatoes, as well as mushrooms and lentils to help deliver a meat-like taste to foods.

"One of my favorite things to cook is a lentil, mushroom, tomato Bolognese (see recipe for Vegan Bolognese below). I love it because it's stealth health — people think they are eating meat," Graham said.

Consider faux meat burgers. A Beyond Burger or Impossible Burger may be worth a try if you are looking to mimic the flavor, aroma and even the bleeding color of meat, though it's wise to consider how these burgers fit into your daily nutrient goals.

If you're not interested in faux meat, try making your own grain burger. My tasty DIY meat-free burger recipe includes beets for a red color, as well as mushrooms, brown rice, lentils and walnuts.

Keep in mind, you don't necessarily have to replace meat entirely in a recipe.

"Using less meat is what I encourage," Graham said. "Even if you add a little bit of chopped mushroom to a ground beef patty mixture, that can help to reduce the meat you consume." Graham likes a burger made with half beef and half roasted mushrooms.

Find fun frozen meatless meals. Frozen foods provide a convenient way to prepare meals when you're constantly eating from home. Amy's Kitchen offers a range of meatless options including a vegan supreme pizza with meatless pepperoni and veggie sausage, a mac and cheese meatless pepperoni bowl as well as a new Greek-inspired red rice and veggies entree. Amy's Kitchen also offers a variety of vegetarian burgers, including a black bean veggie burger.

Dr. Praeger's, another plant-focused frozen food brand, offers a California veggie burger as well as a meat-alternative Perfect Burger. However, the company also offers meat-alternative recipes on its website that incorporate its frozen foods, such as pan-fried veggie burger dumplings, a California veggie burger bowl, Thai chicken rice bowl and breakfast quesadillas with veggie sausage.

Download a meatless app. Lastly, if you decide to venture out and you're looking for meat-free meals from a local eatery, apps such as HappyCow or Vegman can come in handy, especially when you are in an unfamiliar area.

Vegan Bolognese

Courtesy of Dr. Robert Graham, chef and co-founder FRESH Med

"I love this one, packed with Umami flavor. It is a mix of walnuts, mushrooms, lentils and tofu with tomato and spices," said Graham.

Yields: 6 to 8 servings

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cooking time: 30 minutes

Ingredients

• 1 cup walnuts, finely chopped

• 16 ounces brown mushrooms (Portobellini, Cremini)

• 1 8-ounce block extra firm tofu

• 1 16-ounce can brown lentils (or dried lentils)

• 1 medium onion, diced

• 1 medium carrot, diced

• 2 Tbsp olive oil

• 1 Tbsp crushed garlic

• 1 tsp dried basil

• 1 tsp oregano

• 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper

• 1 Tbsp dark soy sauce or tamari (gluten-free)

• 1/2 cup tomato paste

• 1 14-ounce can crushed tomatoes

• 1 Tbsp turbinado sugar

• Salt and pepper

Instructions

1. In a food processor, process walnuts and mushrooms until finely chopped and then add to a mixing bowl.

2. Crumble/mash tofu with a fork and add to mixing bowl.

3. In same mixing bowl, add the drained lentils. Mix together the walnuts, mushrooms, tofu and lentils.

4. In a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, sauté onion and carrot in olive oil until the onion is softened, 7 to 10 minutes.

5. Combine tofu/walnut/mushroom/lentil mixture with crushed garlic, dried basil, oregano, cayenne pepper and dark soy sauce and stir-fry for a couple of minutes, letting the bolognese cook off some of the liquid so it's not too wet.

6. Add tomato paste and crushed tomatoes and keep cooking until you achieve a meaty consistency, about 5 minutes.

7. Stir in sugar and add salt and pepper to taste.

8. Serve over cooked spaghetti and top with fresh basil and vegan Parmesan cheese or nutritional yeast.

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