More and more people are considering a plant-based diet, whether it’s to eat lower on the food chain or fewer calories, trying a vegetarian diet can be very healthy, if done properly. You don’t need to cut out meat completely, but you can begin with simple diet changes.
Here, experts provide tips for a smart shift to anything from a one-day-a-week meatless meal to a complete plant-based diet transformation.
BEFORE YOU START
KNOW YOUR WHY
“Think about the reasons why adding more plant-based meals to your menu is important to you,” says Sharyn Saftler, MPH, RDN. Do you want to better your health or maybe create less environmental impact and promote good animal welfare? Spend time thinking about the real purpose behind your decision. Saftler says doing this helps you stay focused on your new plant-based adventure.
FOCUS ON THE EASIEST MEAL
“Maybe it’s breakfast for you,” says Saftler. This can become the one meal a day you go meatless. “You don’t have to start with one whole day of meatless meals if that sounds like too much,” she says.
“The number 1 most important thing for people when starting to include more plant-based meals in their diet is that they feel confident in cooking this way,” says Catherine Brennan RDN. “Otherwise, it won’t be sustainable.” Arming yourself with delicious vegetarian recipes can make you eager and motivated to begin — and start you with the self-assurance you need.
EASE INTO CREATING PLANT-BASED MEALS
BUILD YOUR MEAL IN A STRATEGIC MANNER
Saftler says to follow this pattern: Start with a plant-based protein, then add grains or vegetables like potatoes or eggplant, next add a dark leafy green, and finally flavor the meal with herbs and spices like cumin or paprika and toppings like avocado or salsa.
SAY YES TO BEANS
Jessica Jones, RD, and Wendy Lopez, RD, of Food Heaven Made Easy, say you can use beans as a taco base, in salad or pureed into a dip.
For those who find the adjustment to vegetarianism challenging, starting your meal with bean soup can help, says Shari Portnoy, MPH, RD. “It is both filling and full of protein.”
SWAP INSTEAD OF ELIMINATE
“You want to replace meat products with vegetarian protein sources,” says Tyffanie Ammeter, MS, RDN. For example, when you cut out chicken, swap the meat with beans or tofu to ensure you get enough protein in your diet.
“Often, when switching from meat-based entrees to plant-based meals, the fat content decreases dramatically,” says Sarah Skovran, RDN. Her clients often said they were hungry when switching to a plant-based diet, “even when they were sure they were eating enough food.” By adding healthy fats like avocado, seeds and nuts, you can fix your hunger pangs.
If you find yourself really missing meat, try satisfying your craving with a new flavor profile: umami. Chefs consider umami the fifth taste, “along with sweet, salty, bitter and sour,” says Skovran. She recommends adding an umami source to your food — examples include cooked mushrooms, balsamic vinegar, soy sauce and aged cheeses (if you still eat dairy products).
TRY A TRANSITIONAL “MEAT”
Auslander Moreno, MS, RDN, says organic tempeh contains all essential amino acids with the “added bonuses of fiber and probiotics to nourish your gut.” With a mild flavor, you can coat tempeh in hot or buffalo sauce as a substitute for wings.
TAKE SOME SHORTCUTS
LOOK FOR DEALS
“Some grocery stores now participate in Meatless Monday,” says Beth Auguste, MS, RD. She recommends taking advantage of special offers similar to the $8 fill-er-up salad bar deal at her local market.
FILL UP ON PROTEIN AT SNACK TIME
Auguste suggests options like roasted soy nuts, roasted edamame (yes, they are different, she says), steamed edamame and dry roasted chickpeas.
“If you are including dairy and eggs in your plant-based meals, you can always use Greek yogurt, cottage cheese and/or eggs as your protein source as well,” says Saftler.
SNEAK IN MORE VEGETABLES
“I love adding veggies to things like burritos, and even as the toppings on my pizza,” says Jones. Lopez and Jones say you can make cauliflower rice by simply pulsing the vegetable in a food processor until it resembles rice. In addition, vegetables also make for a healthy smoothie and soup base.