This post is from KS Contributing Writer ‘Becca Stallings of The Earthling’s Handbook, with photography assistance from her son Nicholas Efran.
Meat has been a part of most human beings’ diet for millennia, but we’re overdoing it lately. The amount of meat eaten by the average person each year has almost doubled since 1961, and Americans eat more meat per person than the people of any other country except Luxembourg.
The average American eats more than 270 pounds of meat per year! The average Japanese citizen eats less than half that much meat–and Japanese people are healthier, on average, than Americans, so they must be getting adequate nutrition.
Growing plants and feeding them to meat animals uses more water, fuel, pesticide, and fertilizer, per calorie of person-food, than just eating the plants ourselves. The waste products of meat animals pollute our drinking water. The use of antibiotics on meat animals contributes to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can kill people.
Yes, there are safer ways to raise meat (see how contributor Lori does her part).
Yes, there are places on Earth that are great cattle pastures but aren’t suitable for growing plants that people can eat.
Yes, there are nutrients in meat that are scarce or unavailable in plant foods.
But with too many people eating more meat than they need nutritionally, the demand for meat is exceeding the supply of responsibly-produced meat, threatening the health of our whole world.
Becoming Vegetarian for Lent
My partner Daniel and I became concerned about these issues 15 years ago and decided to give up meat for Lent. We wanted to learn what six weeks without meat would do to us personally.
Would we notice any difference in our health or body function? What would we eat instead? How would we feel about meat after we finished the project?
You can read our meatless-Lent diary here.
You’ll see that, back in 2002, we ate more convenience foods and a generally less healthy diet than we do now–but still, we got by without meat pretty easily, and we felt fine aside from a brief winter illness that we probably would’ve gotten anyway. I also recovered perfectly from a minor surgery (previously scheduled) that involved some blood loss.
We chose to challenge ourselves by giving up fish as well as the flesh of land animals. Traditionally, fish is not considered meat for fasting purposes. Here’s Katie’s explanation of the Catholic tradition of Lenten fasting.
Catholics fast during Lent, not only from meat on Fridays, but hopefully from other vices or food that will make them better people as well, as a form of voluntary sacrifice. We follow the example of Christ, who sacrificed His whole self, and the practice of fasting bears many physical, spiritual and mental fruits as well, such as a deeper prayer life, uniting our suffering to Christ’s to magnify our prayers, helping us become masters of our will (deeper self-discipline), and becoming closer to the poor.
Yes, it’s very countercultural and seems almost counter-intuitive…but I assure you it’s far from it. I hope your Lent this year is a holy time to deepen and strengthen your relationship with God and your family!
Whatever your religious beliefs, fasting can help you learn the difference between what you want or are used to having, and what you truly need. It’s a way of changing your habits temporarily, and it makes a difference in your impact on the world.
I hope you’ll try eating less meat for Lent and learn which meat-reduction strategies work for your family. (Even if Lent means nothing to you personally, it’s a popular time to fast from meat, which means supermarket and restaurant specials on seafood and vegetarian food!).
3 Easy Ways to Reduce Meat in Your Diet
1. Incorporate meat in only one meal per day
Eating two vegetarian meals per day will increase your vegetable intake and help you reduce your weekly grocery bill.
2. Eat smaller portions of meat
The easiest way to do this is in meals where cut-up meat is mixed with other foods, like casseroles, burritos, chili, or stir-fry. If you’re serving a piece of meat with side dishes, make each person’s portion of meat smaller than usual, and add another vegetable or bean side dish to the meal.
3. Serve only one animal protein in each meal
Instead of bacon cheeseburgers, have hamburgers today, grilled cheese sandwiches tomorrow, and BLTs the next day.
Making the Less-Meat Diet Permanent
After our Lenten experiment, Daniel and I never returned to eating as much meat as we used to eat. However, we never changed to a completely vegetarian diet, either. We still eat fish every week or two. We sometimes eat meat in restaurants or in other people’s homes. Daniel says the big change for him has been from thinking of meat as a normal, everyday food to meat as a “feast food” to eat only once in a while.
We’ll take meat to prevent it from being thrown away–because all the resources that went into raising an animal for meat will be wasted if nobody eats it. If we feel a craving for a particular meat, we assume that our bodies know what they need.
Our health has been the same or better than it was when we ate more meat–but it’s hard to separate this dietary change from our shift to more vegetables, more whole grains, and less “vegetable oil” and artificial ingredients, which was in progress at the same time.
Our digestion is smoother and skin is healthier. I noticed a reduction in menstrual cramps when I reduced meat, and that’s also when my fingernails became stronger and stopped having the white spots that I’d noticed since childhood.
Eating Less Meat as a Family
I craved meat a little more often when I was pregnant. I was dizzy throughout my first pregnancy, which was blamed on low blood pressure; I also had mild but persistent anemia.
When I was expecting my second child and seeing a different midwife, she was more concerned about these symptoms than the first midwife had been, and when I was getting more anemic after several weeks of eating more meat than I wanted and taking double iron supplement, she sent me to a hematologist.
It turned out that I was deficient in Vitamin B-12. As soon as I started taking a supplement, I felt a lot better, and my iron levels returned to normal. I have not needed a B-12 supplement when not pregnant. Dairy products, eggs, fish, and nori seaweed–all of which I eat regularly–contain B-12. I just needed a lot of it to grow babies, apparently.
Our 12-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter have been raised on a less-meat diet. They take a multivitamin and a fish-oil supplement. They’re both extremely healthy, tall for their ages, slim but not underweight, intelligent, strong, and well-coordinated, and they have healthy skin, hair, and nails–so they must be getting the nutrients they need.
Nicholas tested as mildly anemic when he was one year old; we started feeding him more beans, and his iron level went back to normal. Lydia has never been anemic.
What about Protein?
No, you don’t have to eat soy burgers or protein powder or fungus nuggets! With my 15 years of less-meat experience, I’ll help you figure out how to make satisfying meals that nourish your family and taste great, too, without breaking your budget!
The most important thing to remember is that most foods contain some protein, so it adds up over the course of the day. These example menus for vegans show how you can get plenty of protein by including beans, nuts, and/or whole grains in every meal–and substituting cow’s milk for soy milk in those menus would add a few more grams.
Most animal foods contain more “complete” protein–all 9 amino acids–than most plant foods, but if you eat a variety of plants, you’ll easily get all of your amino acids.
Beans, lentils, split peas, black-eyed peas, and even potatoes, corn, avocado, broccoli, spinach, and kale have complete protein or very close.
NutritionData.self.com is a great source of nutritional information on individual ingredients, packaged foods, and even some restaurant meals; look at the blue Protein Quality wedge to see which amino acids are in the food. Here are some tips for combining plant foods to get complete protein in one meal.
Some of the foods we think of as “vegetables” or “carbs” rather than “protein foods” actually contain quite a bit of protein. Frozen peas have as much protein per cup as cow’s milk. A baked potato or 1 cup of whole-wheat spaghetti has as much protein as an all-beef hot dog.
Lately it seems everyone’s discovering the benefits of high-protein snacks, like almonds or hummus, for maintaining your energy level. Every serving of protein in your snacks is one you don’t have to work into your larger meals!
Remember, too, that eating less meat doesn’t mean giving up dairy products or eggs (or even fish, if you’re not counting it as meat), so you can continue to get protein from those as well as your plant foods.
What Makes a Meal Satisfying?
Protein isn’t the only thing that makes you feel full. Fat, fiber, and flavor also play roles. If you reduce meat simply by taking the meat out and eating the rest of the meal, of course you’re going to feel like something’s missing!
You need to get enough calories, and not just by eating more white bread, ketchup, and pickles. Fill up your plate with vegetables and legumes, and use some fat in your cooking or in salad dressing–it helps you absorb nutrients as well as enjoy your meal and feel full.
Even a skinless, roasted chicken breast has 5 grams of fat. If you replace the chicken with beans or vegetables, that gives you some slack for adding fat to the meal without adding calories.
- Cook food in olive, sesame, or coconut oil .
- Sprinkle nuts or sunflower seeds on your food.
- Make a sauce or salad dressing with olive oil, nut butter, sesame oil, sour cream, or yogurt.
- Butter your vegetables or carbs!
- See Katie’s summary of fats.
I often hear, “Vegetarian diets are unhealthy, too, because of all the cheese.” Well, you don’t have to eat cheese at every meal! But cutting out meat does leave room for more yummy cheese in your menu.
Eating beans, peas, or lentils instead of meat increases the fiber in your diet. In addition to helping you feel full, fiber is great for your digestive tract.
If you haven’t been eating legumes, take them up gradually so your digestion can adjust: Start with legume-based meals about 3 times a week. Always rinse canned beans, because the liquid they’re canned in will give you more gas than the beans themselves. Soaking dry beans before cooking them will make them more digestible.
Obviously, a meal has to taste good to be enjoyable! Look at less-meat fasting as an opportunity to try new recipes with interesting flavors. Also, learn new ways to create the kind of savory flavors you get from cooking meat. I’ve got some specific tips on that in the next section.
Seriously, What’s for Dinner?
Which less-meat meals your family will enjoy depends very much on what kinds of foods you like to eat. Chinese, Indian, Middle Eastern, Mexican, and Italian cuisines include many meatless meals. Many are easy to adapt–for example, you can make Cashew Chicken with no chicken and more, or use your usual taco seasoning on beans (with some oil) instead of ground beef. Here are some other ideas:
How to Replace Beef in Meals
- Try these gluten-free Nutshroom Burgers! The taste and texture are really similar to ground beef. Even mushroom-haters like these.
- Mix mashed garbanzo beans into your spaghetti sauce. Seriously! Brown them first if you want a firmer texture. For a really indulgent spaghetti sauce, add cream cheese, too, and make this Chickicheesinara Sauce.
- Mushrooms sauteed in butter make any meal better! Some mushrooms have quite a bit of protein.
- Sloppy Joes are really good made with lentils.
- Combine beans with Chipotle Simmer Sauce for taco/burrito night.
- Make your own Mexican Style Black Bean Burger or American Beanwich.
Include Fish as your Protein
- Baked Fish with Clementines also works with other citrus fruits.
- Lemon Creamy Salmon with Tangy Greens is a full meal using affordable canned salmon.
- Tetrazzini can be made with canned salmon or tuna, leftover cooked fish, or no meat at all.
- Fishgiving Feast with stuffing, cranberry sauce, and all the holiday trimmings!
- You can get lots more ideas for pesco-vegetarian (no meat except fish) family meals in my menu posts.
Slow Cooker and Quick Vegetarian Dinners
- Black Bean Soup
- Sweet Potato Lentils
- Corn Chowder
- Honey Baked Lentils with sweet potatoes or winter squash
- Thickly spread hummus on bread and toast in the toaster-oven (or grill bread-side-down in a pan) to dry it out a little, then add your veggies.
- Egg salad, or tuna/salmon salad sandwiches.
- These shelf-stable pouches are surprisingly healthy and tasty.
- Pancakes for dinner with yogurt or cottage cheese and fresh fruit or cooked fruit sauce.
- High-Protein Pasta Salad, or roast some vegetables with a little nutritional yeast mixed into the oil (this gives the flavor of grilled chicken).
- Make veggie fries: Slice vegetables very thinly before roasting–or roast leaves like kale or chard, or even potato peels!–and use plenty of Real Salt.
You can also check out all of Kitchen Stewardship’s vegetarian recipes HERE.
Saving Money at the Grocery Store
Typically, meat is one of the most expensive items in the grocery store. It’s been so long since I bought any that I thought I’d better check out the prices. I found myself confused about where the meat section even is, because I’ve been ignoring it!
I found that it’s possible to get chicken at prices that, when you calculate the cost per gram of protein instead of per serving, are similar to cottage cheese, cheddar cheese, or even canned beans. But that’s the cheapest chicken, the stuff that’s injected with salt water and packaged in cling-wrap and polystyrene foam. Healthier, more sustainable chicken costs more.
Most cuts of beef and pork cost more than chicken, and again, the healthier versions cost more.
Never de-boned a chicken or worried you won’t know how to meal plan using a whole chicken? We’ve got you covered here!
Unsure of how to source affordable grass-fed beef…See my From Field to Freezer Guide.
Fish is relatively expensive, too. Last year, after reading several articles about families struggling to afford Lenten meals because fish costs more than the cheap meats they usually eat, I compiled 5 Fish-Free Family-Friendly Meals for Lent, all legume-based with low-priced ingredients.
Buying less meat and fish will likely save you money. You can put those savings toward buying food that’s better for you and the environment: sustainably-raised meat, better milk, pastured eggs, organic produce, whole grains, healthier sweeteners.
You choose which to prioritize. I tracked my family’s grocery spending in 2010. I found that we were spending $100 a month less than the USDA’s “thrifty” standard. Even while enjoying our share in a local organic farm, many other organic/natural foods, and some convenience foods.
I hope that eating less meat will make you as happy as it’s made me! Even if it doesn’t, trying it out for Lent will make a difference. I’ll leave you with this quote from the Good Friday entry in my 2002 meatless-Lent diary:
Tonight’s church service was bleak, with readings about the terrible things that modern human society is doing or allowing to happen. One of them was about the environment. It forced me to think about how huge this problem is, how many human beings are in this world and how many things we’re doing wrong, how I’m complicit in it by being a part of this society and this economy at all. [Giving up meat for Lent] and everything else I’ve done are just tiny drops barely denting the surface of the ocean. It’s hard to feel so small and powerless and to know that there’s so much wrong. But it’s important to think about it sometimes.