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4 ways eating less meat can be good for you and the planet

Dad, cookbook author and chef Joel Gamoran shares his favorite tricks to eat less meat and more plants.
How to start eating less meat
Here's how to start eating less meat without sacrificing flavor (or going hungry).TODAY illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TMRW

One of the simplest ways to better our own bodies and the planet at large is to reduce our consumption of meat, according to the Planetary Health Diet developed by international scientists. But for many people, this culinary switch is easier said than done. The U.S. Department of Agriculture found that Americans continue to eat significantly more meat than is recommended by dietary guidelines.

Let's be honest: The thought of drastically changing your diet can feel overwhelming when you are used to eating a certain way, whether that's social, cultural or just plain habit. But making even a few small changes to reduce meat intake can be easier than you'd expect, especially when a motivational chef and food scraps connoisseur like Joel Gamoran gets involved. With these tips, even the most dedicated carnivores (you know, the ones who say, "it's not a meal without meat") will soon be savoring their plentiful plant-based plates.

So let's dive in to Gamoran's simple guide to cutting down on meat, and toast to a healthier body and planet!

What are the first steps to take to eat less meat?

  • Look at meat as a condiment or the side dish, rather than the main: If you're used to your dinner plate having a fist-sized portion of veggies and starches to accompany a big cut of meat, try and lower the meat portion to the size of your palm (about 3 to 4 ounces). "Make the sides the star of the show," Gamoran told TMRW. "Which, let's face it, they're the best parts anyway, right?"
  • Rely on your pantry: "Nothing is more cost effective or flexible than the pantry. Load up on lentils, chickpeas, rice, white beans," Gamoran suggested, especially for those who are used to eating animal protein. "All that stuff is going to be huge when it comes to satiating you and emulating the meatiness you're looking for."
  • Become a lover of umami: When it comes to spicing up some plant-based goodness, the chef says it's all about umami. "It's that fifth flavor that we all love. It's hard to put a finger on it but it makes you feel that richness," he said. "It's warm, it's robust, it's incredible, it's kind of caramely." Gamoran says to rely on foods that have this natural umami flavor — like soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce and mushrooms — when you want to give plants or grains that "meaty" taste.

What are some handy swaps for classic meat dishes?

  • Use mushrooms instead of chicken: "I'm a big mushroom guy. There's several mushrooms that are great to replace chicken on salads or on grain bowls," Gamoran told TMRW, adding that hen of the woods mushrooms are one of his favorites. "It literally tastes like chicken. You can find it anywhere; it's on Amazon. It looks like it has feathers, which is where it got its name."
  • Go hearty with potatoes: These starchy, versatile root vegetables make a really great centerpiece when you're craving something heavier. Gamoran advises browning them in the oven or on a pan so they get nice and crispy on top and tender inside with robust flavor.
  • Use lentils instead of ground beef: While any lentil does the trick, Gamoran loves using green or black lentils for their firmer and meatier consistency. When you want an easy dinner or lunch swap, lentil meatballs or meatloaf really do the trick.
  • Or add beans to your meat: For those not going all the way vegetarian, a great way to cut down on the amount of meat you eat is to integrate beans into ground meats (a half-meat and half-legume mixture). Ground chicken, pork and beef all taste great with lentils, pinto, kidney, black or any type of bean.
Sunny's Black Bean Burgers
  • Enjoy a nice cauliflower steak: "Cut vegetables in huge planks and treat them like a steak: Cut them large, marinate them and barbecue them," Gamoran said. "Get it nice and brown on the outside with some butter. If you you treat it like a steak, you're not missing a lot."
  • Parmesan makes everything better: Nonvegans can opt for a nice wedge of Parmigiano-Reggiano to amplify their vegetarian dishes. "It holds so many attributes that meat does: It seasons, brings richness, it's savory. Sometimes a fresh parm is all you need," Gamoran advised. The specific variation of this cheese sourced from the Parma region of Italy is also lactose-free (as is Cabot cheese), so even those with a dairy intolerance can enjoy it.

Rethink how you navigate the grocery store

"Everyone usually starts at the meat counter because we're used to planning meals around meat," Gamoran told TMRW. "Instead, when you're at the grocery store, start in the bulk or canned section. You'll find beautiful, canned lentils and legumes that make it so much easier to cook. Make this the centerpiece."

Next, the chef and dad said to "beef out" (no pun intended) your plant-based proteins by heading to the fresh produce section. Look at what's in season and what will go nicely with your pastas, rices, legumes or starches and fill up the cart.

Once you've hit dry/canned goods and fresh produce, then finally hit up the meat department if you feel like you need an accent at the end.

Waste less, save more and eat easy

Overripe Avocado Goddess Dressing
  • Save the fat from the meat: Jar the leftover fats after cooking meat (especially bacon) and save it in the fridge. Then you can cook vegetables or other plant-based foods in that smoky, meaty flavor without consuming a whole quarter-pound burger.
  • Freeze meat then slice it: "Freeze meat for 20 minutes. It gets harder so you can slice it razor thin," Gamoran suggested. This trick allows you to get smaller portions (which are easy to divide and store in the freezer until the next time you're ready for a carnivorous treat). Gamoran likes doing this to make a veggie-packed cheesesteak. The slices stored in the freezer are so thin you typically don't have to thaw them out before cooking, which makes weeknight meals extra easy. And you can enjoy them weeks or months later.
  • Buy meat that's on the bone: Instead of spending extra money on nicely trimmed chicken breasts, Gamoran says to always opt for the whole chicken. "What you can do is save the bones," he said. "Make stock and then you can freeze it and make beautiful chilis, soups, lentils, veggies and pastas to make them flavorful. All of a sudden these things feel like they have meatiness, but don't."
  • Save the scraps: "Most recipes ask you to get rid of your mushroom stems, but they're absolutely delicious, meaty and robust. Grind them into meatballs or burgers to make the meat go farther," Gamoran suggested. The chef and star host of A&E's "Scraps" also suggested saving onion peels. "Don't trash 'em. Dry them in the oven for 15 minutes at 200 degrees. Grind them up and make your own onion salt."

What are some of the greatest benefits of eating more sustainably?

Charred Cauliflower
  1. Produce more energy: "I'm not a doctor but I can tell you, when you cut back on meat and fat, it doesn't sit in your body as much," Gamoran told TMRW. "I have way more sustained energy after cutting back on my meat by half."
  2. Spend less money: "Without question, you're going to save money. Meat's expensive. Vegetables go much farther, especially if you're waste-free," the cookbook author vowed. "Approach beans and lentils the same way you do a flank steak and it'll do wonders for your pocketbook."
  3. Feel good about your impact on the planet: Many scientists, chefs and nutritionists agree that eating mostly fresh produce, plant-based proteins, fruits and grains with far smaller portions of meat is a significant way to help the planet and personal health. By finding ways to cut back on meat consumption, you can feel good about how it affects your health but also how it betters the planet and our way of living.
  4. Become a better home cook: Gamoran, who teaches cooking through his free online platform, Homemade, shared how learning to prepare more veggies and plant-based foods helps folks hone their cooking skills. "Making cauliflower that tastes like a steak, meatballs without meat. You're gonna become a better cook and learn how to flavor and marinate your food," the cooking teacher vouched. "You're just going to up your game."