The dinner table is quiet aside from the clinking of spoons. “Mmmmmmm,” my six-year-old son sighs blissfully. “Mommy, can I have some more cauliflower soup? Can you make it again tomorrow?” As I dish out another bowl packed with farm-fresh vegetables, I try to remain nonchalant. “Sure, hon.” But on the inside, I’m thrilled to bits about this rampant vegetable consumption.
We’re not vegetarians. Aside from cauliflower, garlic, onions, carrots, celery and potatoes, my soup is sprinkled with a little bacon and infused with a low-sodium organic chicken broth. In fact, no matter how compelling the reasons, it’s not likely we’ll ever become vegetarians. I might enjoy a supper of hot pasta with a fragrant, emerald dollop of pesto, but my husband is a meat-and-potatoes guy at heart. He sees that kind of thing as a side dish.
And yet I’ve become deeply concerned about our family’s meat consumption. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization has estimated that livestock production creates almost 20 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases. (More recent estimates say it could actually be more like 50 percent.) And eating meat, especially red and processed meats, has been linked to higher rates of heart disease and cancer. Even more worrisome, over the last 50 years society has linked affluence with bigger hunks of meat. As New York Times writer Mark Bittman wrote in 2008 in his groundbreaking piece Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler, “ The world’s total meat supply was 71 million tons in 1961. In 2007, it was estimated to be 284 million tons. Per capita consumption has more than doubled over that period.” Just cutting back, Bittman argues, could have a huge impact: “…Gidon Eshel, a geophysicist at the Bard Center, and Pamela A. Martin, an assistant professor of geophysics at the University of Chicago, calculated that if Americans were to reduce meat consumption by just 20 percent it would be as if we all switched from a standard sedan — a Camry, say — to the ultra-efficient Prius.”
Spurred on by such news, I’ve spent the past year quietly cutting back our meat consumption in favor of more plant-based proteins. While it’s been satisfying to reduce our carbon footprint and eat more healthfully, I didn’t expect how much fun the whole process would be. With a few smart strategies, I’m finding no one really misses all that meat.
If you’re interested in curbing your family’s meat consumption, Bittman’s website is a great place to start. It features great articles and recipes. There are different ways you can go—meatless meals a couple of times a week, or skipping meat with breakfast and lunch and then indulging at dinner. Personally, I’ve been trying a different tack, pushing meat from the center of the plate, as Bittman puts it, from most meals. I generally use meat as a flavoring, not unlike many traditional cultures around the world.
From my research and my mom-in-the-trenches experience, here are a few tips that have really worked in our house:
Find plant-based proteins your family likes; then tinker with your recipes to use less meat. In our house, my chili now contains more black beans and chick peas, less beef.
- Cut down on portions. Instead of one chicken breast per person, we grill one breast and throw it on top of a salad featuring hard-boiled eggs, steamed vegetables, nuts and homemade croutons and dressing.
- Experiment with food from cultures that traditionally use less meat. We like Asian stir-frys, mild curries, and all sorts of soups and pastas.
- Bacon (one or two strips) is one of my favorite ways to add flavor to otherwise meatless dishes.
- With meatless meals, add the feeling of luxury in other ways. Use fresh, high-quality ingredients, and add nice sides or dessert. If we’re having soup, for example, I might serve fresh whole-grain bread, and veggies and dip.
Finally, I recommend introducing changes gradually and not even mentioning there’s an experiment going on. Besides the potential good you’re doing for your family’s health and the environment, you’ll see taste buds adjusting quite nicely. If you all leave the table happy and well-nourished, no one will even remember how many ounces of meat they ate.