How to create a healthy meal plan with less meat

I was vegetarian for nine years. During the meat shortage, here’s how I’ll avoid the mistakes I made then.
Vegan bowls with various vegetables and seeds, high angle view
Despite the health halo associated with vegetarian eating, it’s still possible to miss out on balance in your diet — and the full spectrum of nutrients.Getty Images stock

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By Dana McMahan

While only about 5% of Americans would call themselves a vegetarian, according to a 2019 Gallup poll, many of us may be turning to a more plant-forward lifestyle as coronavirus-related meat shortages continue. I’ve been fortunate so far in my community to have a couple of local butcher shops that are still reasonably well stocked. But knowing that meat could become more expensive and harder to find, I’m already rethinking how I’m planning my meals. I want to avoid repeating the mistakes I made during the nine years I was a vegetarian. Back then, I wasn’t eating meat, but my diet mostly featured the three Ps: pizza, pasta and panini — all made from processed white flour.

It could be tempting to fall back into that (admittedly delicious) — but not especially nutritious — trap of refined carbs, so I sought advice from Jess Dang, the founder of the meal planning service Cook Smarts, and Bonnie Taub-Dix, a registered dietitian and author of “Read It Before You Eat It — Taking You from Label to Table.”

Despite the health halo associated with vegetarian eating, it’s still possible to miss out on balance in your diet — and the full spectrum of nutrients, as I was during my years of vegetarianism.

“I've been in practice for a very long time and I've seen patients who think that a 'vegetarian diet' — and we'll put that in quotes — is a great way to lose weight,” said Taub-Dix. “And what happens is they wind up having a giant bowl of white pasta with lots of melted cheese on it.” You can also eat sugary desserts on a vegetarian diet, she pointed out, so even though the diet may not involve animal protein, it doesn’t necessarily mean it'll help you lose weight — or that it’s nutritious. Getting a variety of nutrients is key. “That really should be more what your goal is,” said Taub-Dix.

If you cut something out of your diet that has nutritional value, she said, like meat, you should “replace it with something that has a similar type of nutrient profile.” If you replace meat with spaghetti, “you're not exactly getting the same [nutritional] value.”

Dang explained that one way to be successful is to start with proteins you already love that happen to be vegetarian. For example, if you love black beans, look for a variety of black bean recipes. “Black beans will taste totally different in tacos spiced with cumin, coriander and chile powder than they will mashed with sweet potato and rice in a veggie patty,” she said.

Be open-minded to different possibilities

If you want to explore cutting back on meat, but you — or someone in your family — dislikes some of the more common vegetable proteins, Dang recommends trying them prepared a few different ways before giving up on them entirely. “Crispy air-fried chickpeas may appeal to someone who dislikes soft chickpeas in salads,” she said. “Not crazy about stir-fried tofu? Try it in soups, marinate and bake it or coat it in cornmeal and pan-fry — then decide. Similarly, there are many different varieties of lentils, so if you don't like green lentils, don't just assume you dislike red lentils too.”

And if you haven’t tried faux meats in a while, they’ve come a long way. Keep in mind, said Dang, that many of these products are still processed foods, “so do take that into consideration.” For those who are looking for veggie products with the texture of meat, she noted that members of Cook Smarts “rave about the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat patties, in particular.” Take heed though: although these burgers have been known to fool people, “for most vegetarian and vegan products,” she said, “don't expect them to taste just like their meat-based counterparts. Think of them as tasty foods in their own right, rather than expecting them to be something they're not.” (That said, honestly sometimes they taste better. I would take a local vegan restaurant’s faux riff on Arby’s roast beef sandwich made with hickory smoked Tofurky rather than the “real” deal any day.)

It’s not all or nothing

A shortage of meat doesn’t mean you have to flip a switch and go vegetarian overnight. It can end up being the best of both worlds. When I was a vegetarian, I did miss the flavoring you can get from meat products like bacon grease or a bone-based stock. If you’re not opting to go all-in and just need to make the meat that’s available stretch further, it’s more about changing how you approach it, Taub-Dix said.

Think of the animal protein as being the supporting cast with the veggies playing the starring role on your plate, said Taub-Dix. “So, you know, maybe a little bit of animal protein, carbs, over a big dish of all kinds of mixed veggies on a bed of quinoa or pasta.”

A favorite in this spirit in our house is a rice bowl with miso marinated flank steak. We tend to use less steak than the recipe calls for, but we load it up with more carrots — and add eggplant. A big salad (of anything and everything you want to throw in) also easily moves meat from top billing to tasty addition.

A time for planning

If you’ve always meant to give meal planning a go, a meat shortage and diet change may be just the kick-start you needed. Back when I was vegetarian, I probably made a lot of those bowls of pasta because it was on hand and easy. Planning ahead will keep you from making choices you regret later, Dang said. And it doesn’t have to be painful. “Make double batches of quinoa, vegetarian chili, veggie burgers, hard-boiled eggs or other vegetarian proteins or dishes you're preparing so that you have some easy go-tos when you're in a rush — or just don't feel like cooking,” she said. Doubling whatever you make for the freezer is another scenario where the payoff is definitely more than worth the effort.

And hey, if I do fall back on my old standby pizza as a vegetarian dinner, it doesn’t have to be such a nutritional loser. Quarantine cooking can fire up the creativity, after all. I found that leftover strained and mashed black bean soup made a delicious topping for socca (garbanzo flour) flatbread pizza, for a meatless dinner that didn’t fall into my old traps.