What I learned living meat-free for a year
10 Tips for Living a Plant-Based Lifestyle
A year ago, I stopped eating meat. I was burned out on cooking, I had just had our second son, and nothing tasted good anymore. I had read a lot about plant-based diets and was curious about giving it a try. I tend to be an all or nothing kind of person, at least in the short-term, when I am trying to institute change in my life.
When I was trying to pull back on my gluten intake, I abstained from it for a few months to break the habit of my go-to snacks and meals. I decided to do the same with meat.
However, this time was a little different. I now had a toddler and somewhat picky eating husband to cook for. And honestly, I was a little confused as to where to start.
So I did the easiest thing I could think of: I reached out to my vegetarian friends. And I went on Pinterest. Seriously, that place is a wealth of knowledge. I got a lot of great feedback. As I was researching and talking to my husband about making the meatless switch, he had a few conditions: no tofu, seitan, or imitation meats. Mainly, I couldn’t make anything that was one thing pretending to be something different. Ok, no issue there (*eye-roll*).
Honestly, it was a bit of an uphill journey at first. I had a hard time finding balance and satiety in the dinners I made. Looking back, I feel like we ate so many heavy, cheesy casseroles in those first few weeks. Not ideal for managing my postpartum health. But, after some trial and error meals, I figured it out. It was quite a balancing act, figuring out how to make vegetarian dishes that I enjoyed (any sort of rice/bean bowl) and dishes that the husband and kids enjoyed (cheese, sour cream, roasted vegetables, etc). Each week, meal planning involved a combination of these meals to satisfy my need for cruciferous vegetables, brown rice/quinoa; and my family’s desire for heavy, “meaty” dishes. And it got a bit more complicated when the baby started eating solids.
It turns out that there is a long list of foods that my family doesn’t like to eat, that I do, that are pretty necessary for living a vegetarian lifestyle. For example, high protein vegetables that tend to be dark and green are not exactly at the top of the list for kid food (at least not my kids and “kid” husband). This meatless year has been fun, an adventure in the kitchen, and a great way to test out new foods, textures, flavors, and cooking methods. But lately, I’ve missed meat. My toddler asks for it, and my one year old has never had any before. So, we are welcoming it back into our lives.
One of my dietician friends, Megan, has said, “a plant-based diet doesn’t mean no meat. It just means less. You put the vegetables and grains first and treat the meat as a side-dish-not a requirement” (you can read more from her at The Green Beet - honestly, we all need dietician friends-even health coaches-there's plenty of room at the table). I really like this idea. I am treating this past year as my period of all or nothing so that I could find the balance I aspire for.
As I look back on the past year, I want to share my top 10 tips for a Plant-Based Lifestyle:
Plan 1-2 meat-free meals a week: Taking meat away completely can be a HUGE undertaking and super overwhelming. Take a look at a few plant-based blogs for inspiration and choose one or two recipes to start with. You can find some of my favorites here:
Make the same meals but take out the meat: This is what I did at first. If I had a pasta dish or lentil dish that I usually added ground turkey, beef or shredded chicken, I just left it out. A great example of this is the masala recipe. Every time I have made it, I’ve made it with sliced chicken. But when I removed the chicken, we actually enjoyed the flavor and textures more.
Utilize high protein grains and legumes: You would be surprised how filling a meal can be that has beans and lentils in them. Different types of lentils have different textures to meet your needs. Red and green lentils are going to break down a bit more, so you can use them as a binding agent if you’re trying to make meat-free “meatballs). And black lentils are going to hold their shape better. They taste amazing in salads and add a meat-like texture. Black beans can also be used for these same purposes. Other options are different grains like farro, quinoa, oats, barley, sorghum, wild rice. All of these provide a nice flavor, plant-based protein, and can make a meal feel heartier and more filling.
Avoid pasta at all meals: A common misconception with a more plant-based diet is that you end up eating a lot of pasta. And honestly, this can be an easy way out. But you don’t need noodles to make a meal feel complete. There are a time and place for a good pasta dish, but multiple nights a week may leave you feeling heavy, bloated, and lethargic; especially if you’re eating white pasta. If you do choose to go the pasta route (and I do at least once a week), keep some whole-wheat pasta on hand. Or consider some gluten-free options like quinoa or brown rice pasta (but heads up, the leftovers are not going to be that great).
It’s not meat OR salad: Your options are really endless! Don’t feel like you just have to eat all the salads, all the time. I love a good salad as much as the next person, but if someone in your home is a non-salad eater (like my husband), then you may feel like you don’t have many options. But don’t shy away from using dark green leaves in your meals. This is where you can get iron, fiber, calcium, and a boatload of other vitamins and minerals necessary for good health. Consider adding these veggies to soup, with grains, or beans. Or serve a whole meal on a bed of greens (and they’ll never know they are actually eating a salad). One of my simple go-tos is wilting greens and then scrambling eggs. Greens shrink when cooked, so you can feed your family a lot of vegetables but it doesn’t look like it.
Avoid pre-packaged “vegetarian” meals: You’ve probably noticed that plant-based diets are pretty popular right now. And just like the gluten-free/dairy-free craze, food marketers are all about using these buzzwords to sell more of their products. But while a pre-packaged meal may be meat-free, it's most likely loaded with extra salt, sugar, and “natural” flavorings (tip: anything that says it’s full of natural flavorings, is not full of anything natural. It’s actually full of synthetic flavoring that is lab created to taste like natural flavorings. IF there are actually natural flavorings, the ingredients list will provide you with the actual flavors. If you’d like to know more about this read The Dorito Effect).
Explore seafood: Sometimes exploring a less meat diet can also mean exploring different types of animal protein. Fish is a great alternative to chicken or beef. And there are a lot of options that don’t have a strong fishy flavor. My family likes white fish, like halibut and cod. These are easy to find in your local grocery store. And don’t be dissuaded by frozen fish, it can often be the fresher option. Other great fish options are salmon, mahi-mahi, and shellfish. Fish doesn’t take long to cook and there are so many simple recipes out there, so it is great for a quick meal.
Meat as a side dish: Instead of going meat-free, consider simply using less meat. Can you believe that once-upon-a-time meat wasn't’ the star of a dish? It was simply a supporting character that families ate a few times a week. And pre-WWII, beef was the most common meat option. It wasn’t until we had a beef shortage during the war that families started eating more and more chicken. Since then the size of chickens and production has escalated so much that chickens only slightly resemble their predecessors from our grandparents (or great-grandparents) generation. Making sure that we purchase meat that is humanely raised, without hormones and antibiotics is a great way to ensure that the meat we are eating is the best option for our family and that we eat less (because the meat portions will be smaller).
Provide freedom of choice for your kids: One of the biggest things I made sure to do when my family decided to cut out meat was to not label my kids. If my toddler told me he wanted chicken when we were out to lunch or dinner that’s what he got. If he wanted a hotdog at the cookout, we gave him one. My biggest goal as a parent is to provide my kids with food options, not food cages. Exposing my kids to different ways of eating fosters acceptance and a love of food for the way it makes their little bodies feel. I am all about encouraging a healthy relationship with food. This is one of the key topics I like to teach and work with clients on.
Go nuts!: Before we went meat-free I always said I would NEVER eat a meal that had a nut alternative to dairy or meat. But here I am, eating those words. Some of my favorite meals currently have nuts as a base. I love the bolognese sauce I found with soaked cashews. It is so simple and rich. I don’t even notice that it’s made with nuts. And while we aren’t a dairy-free home, I have experimented with nut-based sour cream and homemade nut creamers. And both are delicious. The great thing about nuts is that they provide us with a ton of vitamins, minerals, fats, and protein. Integrating them into our diet has been relatively simple, and always delicious.
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