We’ve been hearing it everywhere for years, from health gurus to documentaries to Medium articles — “stop eating meat.” But increasingly, reducing meat intake is less part of a special interest group and more the solution posited for several global problems we’re seeing right now — the burning rainforest, the dying earth, the billions of abused farm animals and increasingly polluted water resources across the United States, to name a few.
The sad thing is these situations aren’t hyperbolic, and the meat industry is directly linked to each of these problems. “Stop eating meat” can no longer be dismissed as a command from overzealous PETA members with their panties in a bunch. In fact, we probably should have been listening to them this whole time, at least when it comes to factory farming (don’t let PETA near your pets, though).
I’ve been interested in vegetarianism and veganism since 2012, when I saw the documentary, Food Inc., which problematizes factory farming, particularly in the United States. Due to various reasons, I haven’t been able to commit to quitting meat consistently.
Recently, though, I got a job in marketing, and part of it entails writing for big-name meat producers. Being up close and personal with the processes behind meat production has caused me to rethink my food choices and cut back on meat. Doing so has been a lot easier with changes to my approach and rethinking our perception of what eating less meat should look like.
Here’s what I’ve learned:
1. Don’t think about it as all or nothing.
Most calls to eat less meat (except Meatless Mondays) prioritize quitting meat entirely, which is a lot of pressure starting out and why so many people are dismissive of it. “I feel bad for eating it, but could never do that/give up a good steak/get my husband to do it” is a popular line I hear in response to vegetarianism/veganism.
It’s hard enough to break a bad habit, let alone give up something most of us have been doing our whole lives. Such a radical lifestyle change is rightfully intimidating, and even those who commit to it end up “relapsing.” In fact, an article by the Smithsonian revealed that 84 percent of vegetarians and vegans return to eating meat within a year. The same article included research stating that “ex-vegetarians outnumber current vegetarians by a ratio of three to one.”
Reasons for relapse included everything from health concerns and barriers to accessing specialty foods to sticking out from friends and lack of social support. But, I imagine another reason is it’s probably just too hard to go cold turkey and stay that way.
Although we might be convinced otherwise by sad documentaries, there’s no need to feel guilty about having trouble with radical change. If you think you can’t go meat-free, or if you’re one of these fallen vegetarians/vegans, there’s hope for absolution — reducing your meat intake without quitting it entirely.
Some call it “flexitarian,” some call it “semi-vegetarian,” and others call it “reducetarian.” All of these vary in regards to how much meat you actually eat, but regardless of label, the premise is simple: cut where you can, eat animal products in moderation.
(And, I’d like to add, not self-flaggelating when you do cave and mow down a mooing steak because you went cold turkey for too many weeks after spending two hours crying into your carrots while watching Eating Animals.)
I recently heard someone cheekily ask how this diet is different than any other mainstream, omnivorous diet. To me, it seems to include more deliberate, conscious, and consistent efforts to reduce the consumption of animal products. Meatless Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday, but maybe going ahead and splurging on lil’ smokies for the Sunday game. Trying vegetarian dishes at a restaurant where you’d usually get something that includes meat, but throwing down a burger when you feel like you’re either going to pass out or murder a cow yourself. Whatever trips your trigger.
The point: give yourself permission to eat meat while making a conscious effort to cut back on it. Make forgoing meat a choice, not an obligation.
2. Start small (and easy)
If you want to go into veganism all guns blazing, good on you, but if you’re anything like me, you’ll find yourself confused, hangry, and next in line for starring in Netflix’s Pinterest fails show.
I’m lazy and generally bad at cooking, and the thing I’m best at cooking happens to be meat. So, I had to get pretty crafty to figure out what would be filling and taste good while still being relatively easy to make.
This means I avoided Pinterest and recipe books like the plague.
I have a lot of recipe books leftover from past flings with meat-free diets, Forks Over Knives and Thug Kitchen (embarrassingly) among them. Some of the recipes are easy — tossing cauliflower in sriracha or buffalo sauce and throwing it in the oven for meatless wings, for example, is quite f*cking amazing.
But as well-intentioned as these recipe books are, when you encounter recipes in which you have to grind up cashews and mix them into some yeast you’ve never heard of and hope it magically tastes like cheese when you throw it on some noodles, it’s easy to feel both hopeless and discouraged.
Don’t start with those recipes. It goes with the idea of not going cold turkey. If you want mac and cheese, just make some fucking mac and cheese. If you want a vegan dish, make something that resembles what you’d usually eat enough that you’ll be able to stomach it, but something you won’t expect to replace your favorite staple dish. Or, make something that’s its own thing and see it as its own thing. I felt extremely better, for example, when I didn’t expect cauliflower to taste like chicken and just accepted that cauliflower tastes like cauliflower. Even sriracha can’t change that (although it certainly does enhance it).
Like many other things in life, lowering expectations helps one avoid crushing disappointments.
You don’t have to lower the bar forever. You can work up to creating vegan masterpieces by achieving small successes in the meantime. Ideally, that will prevent you from regressing to your carnivorous tendencies in the same meal from which you’re trying to cut animal products.
But, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t step out of your comfort zone.
Part of the initial hiccup in my meat-reduction journey was I already held the assumptions that everything I tried was going to taste bad and my life was going to suck. Before my crisis of conscience at my current job, I basically saw meat as the only acceptable food group.
I was setting myself up for failure because, like many people who want to cling to their meat-eating ways, I assumed it wouldn’t work before I even tried a vegetarian dish (or ate a carrot stick).
Don’t do that.
Instead, see cutting back on animal products as a kind of adventure, as a new possibility for discovering food you like (or appreciating the food you already like a little more). Once I used this mindset, I had fun going meatless (even when a recipe went awry) and found a wide range of meal possibilities that I genuinely enjoyed. It felt kind of like I was part of this “foodie” trend I keep hearing about (although I was less on Team Cronut and more on Team Fried Mushrooms). And, it helped me start to see “meatless” as more than a side dish.
Which brings me to my next point.
3. Find something meatless that you can genuinely enjoy as a main dish.
If you’re really committed to eating more meatless meals, you can’t eat vegetables in the same way that you eat meat and expect it to work. If you like broccoli, for instance, you can’t just cover it in shredded cheese and eat a half-pound of it only so that you can be full for the next hour. It’s going to kill broccoli (and probably cheese, too) for you.
Instead, get you a potato, some vegan butter and sour cream, and throw the broccoli on top of it with some salt and pepper and voila, great main dish. Pair it with bread for added carbs (read: energy) or candy some carrots and warm ’em up for a dessert-like-but-still-somewhat-healthy finish.
Some vegetables, like potatoes, sweet potatoes, asparagus, or zucchini can make great main dishes, if you like them (or can tolerate them enough to trick your tastebuds into thinking you like them).
However, there are also several dishes that you can make vegetarian simply by leaving the meat out of them.
Not necessarily a novel idea, but one we tend to forget about when we’re lost in the land of vegan recipes. We might see meat as the star of the show in our favorite recipes when in some, it’s just another ingredient.
Pasta, chili, soups (substitute vegetable stock), kabobs, sandwiches (looking at you, grilled cheese and bacon), casseroles, burrito bowls, and breakfast foods all taste great sans meat, and unlike many vegetarian dishes, leaving out meat actually saves a step rather than adding one. So try it!
4. If you like seafood, use it in place of a meal in which you’d otherwise eat meat (in moderation, of course).
There’s no getting around it — part of the appeal of meat is its texture and density. You might be able to use cheese to get by, but if you like fish/seafood and feel less guilty about eating it than, say, red meat or pork, I highly recommend picking up a slab of fish to cook up when you just really want some meat.
I know this is probably controversial given our overfishing problem, but again, I’m not telling you to eat tuna every day, and of course, you should be conscious of the companies from whom you buy. But, swapping out beef, pork, or chicken and opting for seafood is a way to get the meaty texture that other meats provide without the animal cruelty or increased carbon footprint (generally speaking) that comes along with it.
If you’re concerned about the environment, you can offset your impact on the problem by choosing less common types of fish, only buying what you need, buying local, or calling up grandpa to see if he’ll share some of his last beloved catch with you. There is even an app for finding fish caught sustainably. To me, eating seafood occasionally in place of other meat is more sustainable than continuing to eat farm-raised meat in the ways we currently eat it. Read this article for more information on how to eat seafood sustainably.
And, if you’re genuinely concerned about helping the ocean, stop using so much godd*mn plastic.
5. Try a meat substitute (yes, I’m serious)
I know, I know…they’re not natural, we don’t know what they’ll do to our bodies, they can be just as unhealthy as meat, etc. etc.
But let’s face it: Drinking milk from other species isn’t natural, nor is churning it, letting it sit and mold, and then eating it. Killing millions of animals daily isn’t natural. Chicken nuggets (or “tenders”) and hotdogs certainly aren’t natural.
I’m willing to bet that the majority of Americans consume multiple unnatural ingredients on a daily basis. Not to mention, a lot of meat — especially if you consider just how much of it we eat — can be pretty unhealthy.
Today’s meat substitutes taste good enough that well-established beef producers worry about losing customers and big-name fast-food chains like KFC and even McDonald’s — chains responsible for many-a-cow-and-chicken death — have added the imposters to their menus. Celebrities, such as Oprah, and athletes have endorsed Beyond Meat or Impossible Meat because of the good taste and the high amounts of protein.
I’m somewhat of a meat substitute connoisseur because I believe that with our continuous advances to technology, we are eventually going to produce something that actually tastes like meat. When I tried Beyond Meat, I anticipated some weird chemical flavor like Boca or, God forbid, Tofurkey. It tasted somewhat different than beef but is literally the closest-tasting thing to beef I’ve had that isn’t actually beef. It smells a little weird cooking, so I tend to eat it at restaurants, but the sausages are very hard to tell from regular bratwursts or Italian sausage and smell fine when cooking.
If you’ve considered trying meat substitutes like these but have freaked out because you think they’re Frankenburgers, you can rest assured that eating them once probably won’t do much worse to your body than whatever they’re imitating. You don’t have to eat Beyond Meat or an Impossible Burger for every meal, but eating those products occasionally can help you work toward your goal of reducing your meat consumption.
6. Don’t care so much about what other people think
While it may seem like cutting out meat is on-trend and acceptable, if you tell those around you that you’re trying to nix meat from your diet, chances are you’ll be met with some type of protest. I would hope your friends and family would be encouraging, and maybe a few in your circle secretly share the same goal.
At some point in your journey, though, you’ll probably get an “oh great! I could never do that,” or “I tried that once,” which will make you doubt your abilities to follow through or reinforce your efforts as a phase. Some people will probably think you’re lame, and if you have a spouse and children on the meat-eating train, you can definitely expect resistance. If you’re a guy, you might be perceived as less manly, and if you live in the U.S., someone will definitely think you’re less American (since all we do here is tote guns and eat beef straight off the cow, raw).
I say this not to discourage you, but to remind you that we tend to cling to tradition, and meat is often quite literally at the center of it (hi, Turkey Day). So, those around you might not be as onboard as you’d like, and, while you can arm yourself with facts, documentaries, and PETA pamphlets, it’s also good to give yourself permission to go against the grain and do what you want to do just because you want to do it.
You don’t have to have a reason to not want to eat something. You can avoid eating it simply because you don’t want to. People who forgo other foods hardly get as much flack as people who forgo meat.
Dessert? Oh, you have so much willpower!
Peas? Oof, yeah, they do kind of suck.
Brussels sprouts? Hated those since childhood.
Dairy? Yeah, sucks, you probably get diarrhea.
Clearly, we have some progress to make. The point is, you deserve autonomy and choice in all aspects of your life, as do the meat-eaters around you. There’s nothing wrong with telling them to keep their eyes on their own plate.
In the end, just do you.
What going meatless or less-meat (see what I did there?) really comes down to is what works best for you given your circumstances, dietary needs, access to alternatives, and a whole slew of other factors. Don’t let others shape your food choices for you. Exercise agency. Be realistic. Forgive yourself for slip-ups.
And maybe — just maybe — you’ll be able to stick with it.