If you love meat but hate its impact on the environment and how animals are raised, how can you limit your meat consumption without going vegetarian? Learn what’s working for our “flexitarian” diet and how to transition to less meat.
Most of the advice on the Internet about how to transition to eating less meat is either too vague or too militant. It’s either go Meatless Monday or Weekday Vegetarian and eat a “plant-based diet with meat” (what does that mean?). Or it’s “go vegan or GTFO!!!”. But what if you need more tactical advice than “don’t eat meat on Mondays” and you’re tired of being evangelized?
This article is for people who are NOT vegetarians or vegans but want tips on how to limit meat consumption.
I promise I will NOT convert you to veg*anism in this article (I find the term veg*an so funny). I will share that’s worked for us to avoid food boredom, bingeing on carbs, and going to bed hungry, which have been the three biggest challenges when we began eating less meat about 3 years ago.
Make Vegetables Taste Good
People eat a lot of meat because that’s what they are used to. It’s tough to change your habit if the new foods you’re eating taste bland and boring. Plus, meat has an unfair advantage because of all the savory glutamates that make your mouth water.
If you’re going to replace meat with vegetables, beans, and grains, the biggest hurdle is to make these dishes taste good. To make your veggies taste good:
- Learn to use ingredients packed with glutamates to replace the umami flavor from meat.
- Adequately salt your vegetables to give them flavor. Season your vegetables with salt, pepper, and fresh herbs before roasting. Salt your water before boiling vegetables
- Slather your boiled or steamed vegetables in delicious fats, including olive oil, salted butter, coconut oil, and many other tasty fats (like delicious duck fat)
- Avoid overcooking your vegetables. When they are soggy and limp, even the best salts and oils will not make them appetizing. Steam for a maximum of 5 minutes (often less for tender vegetables) and remove from the heat.
- Learn to cook beans. I used to only buy canned beans because I thought it was easier. Once I learned to cook beans on the stovetop and using an Instant Pot, I started flavoring my beans with bay leaves and half an onion. They are much tastier than canned beans.
- Stock your kitchen. If you don’t have vegetables, beans, and tofu on hand, it’s too easy to order takeout food. Or fry that beef patty in the freezer because it’s ready to go. Mini batch cooking and meal planning help here.
- Be conscious not to replace meat with potatoes, rice, noodles, and other easy-to-cook starches. Because they are delicious, I tend to overdo them to fill me up, especially when there is a gap left by reducing meat consumption. To avoid this, we try to only eat carb-heavy meals on the weekends.
Treat Meat Like A Spice
Spice. Condiment. Sauce. Accent. Flavoring. Side dish. Whatever you want to call it, the idea is to use meat as a flavoring instead of the focus of your dinner.
This is how many cultures cooked before the world became so wealthy that you could eat filet mignon daily. It’s a nightmare for my vegetarian and Kosher-keeping friends who visit China and find pork broth along with other sneaky meat-laced ingredients in their meal. But you can leverage these cooking strategies honed in Asian cuisine to add meat like a spice or condiment to flavor your food.
- Thinly slice meat and add it to hot oil with your aromatics before stir frying vegetables. Meat is so flavorful that it can enhance an entire wok of veggies if you put it in at the most strategic with the aromatics.
- Make meat sauces and serve them on top of a big plate of roasted vegetables, leafy salad greens, or with noodles.
- Fry bacon and shred it into small pieces to top your salad and soups for added flavor without devouring half a dozen slices of bacon.
- Cut ham into thin strips and add it to your curried lentils.
Make Your Wallet Cry
We make an effort to eat grass-fed, pasture-raised whenever we buy animal products. Does this mean we are perfect? Heck no. We still eat an egg roll that’s probably made with CAFO pork.
However, spending significantly more on grass-fed meat forces us to decrease portion sizes. Instead of a rib-eye steak each, Alex and I routinely split a steak. Sometimes, we split the steak into thirds, so he can take leftovers for lunch. Plus, because grass-fed meat is so pricey, we never waste a bite. Speaking of waste…
Use Every Bit, Nose to Tail
Focusing on not wasting food is just as important as eating less meat. This comes as a two-pronged strategy:
- Keep leftovers and spruce them up for subsequent meals
- Learn to cook the less desirable meats
Last Thursday, I took my leftover pho noodle soup home because Chez Thuy always serves huge portions. With additional bean sprouts and rice noodles from the Asian grocery store, we stretched 1 bowl of beef pho special into 4 meals. I froze the leftovers to make sure they didn’t spoil and defrosted once I had all my ingredients ready.
A few months ago, I took home a catering-sized tray of Chipotle steak cubes after a conference when they were about to be tossed into the trash. We packed them into Ziploc baggies and froze them. I routinely defrost a bag and enjoy it with ratatouille or steamed veggies. It makes a very quick and tasty dinner.
Tough Cuts & Offal
When buying grass-fed, it helps to buy less desirable cuts. For example, coq au vin and beef bourguignon are fancy French dishes now but they have humble rustic origins. Coq au vin is made with a tough old rooster and beef bourguignon with chewy beef chuck. They require hours of braising to become tender. Shank and brisket also overlooked because they require patience and know-how to cook. You can take advantage of the cost savings by learning to braise and cook meats that require effort.
Offal is also a great option for the nutrients because it tends to be packed with iron, folate and vitamin B12. They are cheaper cuts so your wallet will thank you. Plus, it reduces food waste because organs are so unpopular. They likely end up in your hot dog or ground beef but you can help reduce food waste by opting to buy and cook them.
Finally, I like to keep bones leftover from roasting a chicken or a beef roast to use for making stock along with mirepoix and root vegetable scraps. That’s how the extra umami beef broth came about, from leftover bones after my brother-in-law’s birthday dinner.
I don’t agree with people who say you should change your mindset to skip meat substitutes and eat plant-based vegetarian food. If eating Beyond Meat and the Impossible Burger make you happy, as it does with my vegan-now-vegetarian friend Lindsay, go for it. I enjoy them rarely because they are very expensive. But they taste fantastic. I enjoy Buddhist vegetarian fake meats and meat substitutes from Trader Joe’s. It helps us add variety to the beans and tofu dishes.
We cook plenty of tofu dishes. The protein-packed tofu helps us say full for a long time. Plus, there are so many types of tofu that it’s almost impossible to get bored.
But we also use tofu as a sneaky way to stretch meat stews, chili, curry, and meat sauces. I routinely add tofu cubes alongside cubed chicken thighs in stir fries. I add crumbled tofu to taco meat, Kari’s shiitake meat sauce, and any other recipes calling for ground beef, lamb, or pork.
Tofu is bland and spongy. Therefore, it quickly absorbs the meaty flavors and blends in beautifully. Tofu is usually much cheaper than meat, which makes it fantastic for stretching expensive grass-fed and pasture-raised meats when your budget is lean.
When I make a stew, chili, or chicken pot pie, I stuff it with frozen peas, corn, and carrots that bulk up the dish without impacting the flavor. You’ll get extra roughage without trying and it stretches your meat.
If I’m eating at a restaurant, I also check out the vegetarian options before looking at the meat options. For some reason, the veggie option is usually last on the menu. Based on the psychological effect of framing, I give myself a chance to make the vegetarian option my “default” option and compare any meat choices to it instead of first choosing a meat dish and then determining whether I’d like the vegetarian dish instead.
It might sound weird but I substitute meat with meat or other animal products.
We know that producing beef, lamb, and goat emit the most emissions. I choose what type of meat to eat following this logic:
beef > lamb > pork > fowl (in order of emissions)
We substitute turkey and chicken in place of beef when possible. That means ground chicken instead of ground beef for chili. Turkey jerky instead of beef jerky.
You can also opt for eggs and seafood as protein-rich options instead of red meats. A well-fried egg on top of noodles or a bowl of rice is a treat.
Having delicious sauces and condiments makes EVERYTHING taste better. It not only fights food boredom but also gives you something to look forward to. Slather delicious sauces over any beans, tofu, lentils, and vegetables (because, let’s be honest, sometimes they are bland and boring) and you won’t be worrying about missing out on any meat. Here are our favorite sauces to accompany our meals:
- Lao Gan Ma (spicy and full of salt and MSG)
- Homemade peanut butter sauce
- Aged balsamic vinegar
- Malt vinegar with fresh garlic
- Mexican hot sauce
- BBQ sauce
- Soy sauce
- Seasoning (soy) sauce e.g. Golden Mountain
- Toasted sesame oil
- Fancy olive oil
- Sichuan pepper oil
- Tartar sauce
- Homemade mayonnaise
- Spicy Mayo and Aioli
- Fermented soybean paste (I know, sounds gross but you have to eat it right)
- Za’atar in olive oil
- Spicy pickled mustard greens (there is a lot of MSG)
- Homemade salad dressings
How to Avoid Being Hungry
The biggest hurdle for us switching to eating less meat was getting hungry in the middle of the night. If you hear your significant other stomping around the kitchen looking for a midnight snack two nights in the same week, you know that the new routine isn’t sustainable. We discovered three strategies to beat back the hunger:
- Eat popcorn after dinner with generous amounts of butter
- Drink a glass of milk (or in Alex’s case half and half) or chicken bone broth (plenty of protein) before bed
- Serve a lot of protein and fat during dinner (easy to do if you use sauces that are high in fats and/or protein like peanut butter and olive oil)
Eating is a very personal choice that is wrapped up in culture, habits, emotions, and politics. It can be a struggle to balance being an omnivore who thinks about food more than 12 hours a day and a fair-minded steward of the planet.
We are still beginners in learning how to satisfy our tastebuds, enjoy meat without too much guilt, and avoid eating carb-heavy meals.
Do you have any tips on how you are eating less meat with becoming vegetarian? Please share in the comments below.