Meat produced in large factory farms has enormous negative environmental impacts, including contributing to global warming and polluting waters. So giving up your daily slice cow or chicken for one week every year, or one day every week can make a huge difference. We know you’ll miss your steak. So do we. But don’t worry, vegetarians around the world have figured out how to make their dishes just as tasty and equally as hearty as those with meat. But be careful what you replace your meat with or you might unexpectedly gain weight! However, if you approach vegetarianism right, you just might miss meat less than you’ll think.
Love your vegetables. Surprise! If you remember the “veg” part of vegetarian, you can avoid accidentally becoming a carbo-tarian for your meat free week. Vegetables give you endless options! Sauté them in olive oil, and add wine, spices or sauces to the mix. Eat them on their own or use them to beef up (ha!) your pasta, rice, omelets, and more. Steam or boil your veggies and put them in a soup or make them into dumplings. Or eat them raw in a salad, on a sandwich, or with a dip. My staples are mushrooms, onions, tomatoes (technically a fruit, but works like a veggie), garlic, carrots, bell peppers, celery and broccoli. Try taking Popeye’s advice, and buy a bunch of Spinach – it’s a tasty base for salads, hot or cold, and it’s just yummy. If you’ve retained you’re childhood fear of veggies, letting it go will open a lot of deliciously healthy doors.
Get creative with your carbs. It’s always great to have pasta around because it acts as a base in which you can put almost anything, but remember that there are plenty of other carbs that have the same function. Variety is key for any diet. Make the switch to whole wheat and whole grain if you haven’t yet – a whole new world of flavors awaits you. Buy some quinoa, lentils, beans, or rice noodles. You can mix them up, too; mac and cheese with quinoa happens to be delightful. On that note, don’t forget that carbs can be baked, not just boiled (and a little butter never hurts, flavorwise). Granola and oatmeal (with milk, yogurt, fruit, etc) are also tasty ways to fill up at breakfast without needing to reach for that bacon.
Dairy and eggs are your friends. Just because you can’t eat meat, doesn’t mean you can’t eat animal products. Eggs are great for eating and for baking. They can be cooked in so many ways (omelets, boiled, deviled, egg salad), eaten on their own, or put into other dishes like Pad Thai or salads. Adding a baked good to your meal always makes it more satisfying, so eggs definitely come in handy even if they’re baked into cornbread. Cheese is always a great topping, and I’ve learned in my college years that cheese can be melted onto almost anything. Branch out to fancier, less processed types like ricotta and buffalo mozzarella, which are healthier than cheddar and make a great snack with grapes or crackers. Remember that milk can often replace water if you want a thicker, sometimes sweeter result for sauces, especially ones that are tomato-based like marinara.
Have fruits on hand. Fruits make great sides or snacks. They’re sweet and healthy, too – a combination so rare these days! You can by them fresh, frozen or dried. Fruits have good sugars and carbs, so they’ll fill you up and give you energy. If you you’re a snacker, small fruits like grapes or blueberries are fantastic. Eat them on their own, chop them up and put them in a salad, or smother them in melted chocolate. Try baking some, like pears, with some sugar or cinnamon sprinkled on top for a healthier dessert. Frozen fruits can also be popped in to breakfast cereals and granolas for added deliciousness.
Look to other cultures. Many food traditions either don’t revolve around meat or construct their meals so that mean can be easily removed or replaced with little consequence for flavor of filling. Indian foods and Thai foods are particularly easy to make vegetarian, but they are still full of flavor and spice, and they won’t leave your stomach or your brain unsatisfied.
Buy spices and herbs. Spices and herbs are essential. They add a necessary kick to vegetarian dishes, and when combined they infuse foods with wonderful flavors. Pick a few favorites and add them as you please. My personal favorites are garlic, cumin, turmeric, fenugreek, cayenne pepper, salt, black pepper, and sugar. (Yes, sugar and salt count if cooked into something!) Fresh herbs can turn a plain dish into a transcendent one.
Learn the art of snacking. Veggies and whole wheat carbs won’t sit in your stomach as long as conventional meat does, so you might get a little hungrier in between meals. Snacks are a great way to tie you over. We’ve already discussed fruits as a fantastic snack, but keep things around like tortilla chips and salsa, hummus for your raw veggies and breads, nuts and seeds, and not only will you begin to love more non-meat flavors, but you’ll also invariably end up incorporating them creatively into your cooking. Eating nuts is also a great source of protein. Making a trail mix is a great way to snack on a lot of tasty items at once.
Meat substitutes can be tasty. Portobello Mushrooms are by far my favorite meat substitute, probably because they don’t pretend to be meat, and because they allow you to participate in a time honored American tradition – eating burgers. Grill them with a little olive oil, vinegar and cinnamon, slap them on a bun, and you’ve entered heaven. Vegetable patties also make for good fake burgers and sausages if your goal is density and not similar taste. Amy’s makes delicious patties with organic ingredients in six flavors, including a quarter pounder! Soy and Tempeh don’t taste like anything on their own, which might be precisely why they make good substitutes–they take on the flavor of anything you put them in, and you can consequently make them taste like meat. Hence Tofurkey. Sauté or marinate them as you like!
Get your iron.When you give up meat you will lose a source of iron, a necessary vitamin, especially for women. Many of the foods discussed above are some of the best sources of iron: count cereals, organic soy beans, pumpkin seeds, dark chocolate (not milk or white, sadly), spinach, lentils and white beans among them. As a chocophile, I’ll also say that dark chocolate is also full of antioxidants. The darker the better – above 75% cacao. So throw some of these into a trail mix and throw the others into a couple of meals, and you’re good to go.
Get your protein. Much as with iron, you’ll lose a valuable protein source when you stop eating meat. But fear not, it is replaceable. Again, the foods mentioned above are great sources: organic eggs, plain yogurt, almonds, tempeh, and quinoa. See above for suggested uses.
Christine Johnson writes about Urban Green Foods for Big Girls Small Kitchen. She is a senior at NYU passionate about urban and community agriculture, sustainability and cooking delicious, responsible meals!