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Start meatless journey with subtle swaps in dishes

by Tribune News Service | January 18, 2023 at 4:00 a.m.
Mushroom Walnut Bolognese sauce is hearty even without the meat. (Nicole Hvidsten/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)

Unsure where to start? These tips can help pave the way to meatless eating.

Choosing to go meatless can be a challenge at any time of year. But winters can provide an extra hurdle, since overflowing baskets of garden-fresh produce are a distant memory.

But winter is also a time when things tend to slow down, both in life and in the kitchen. We can be more thoughtful about meal choices and shopping habits, eager to eat better and save money after a season of excess.

No matter what time of year you're making this lifestyle change, there's a tsunami of information. It can quickly get overwhelming. We've waded through experts' tips, cautionary tales and recipes to help you chart your own meatless course, whether you're aiming to remove meat entirely or just wanting to cut back.

Start with familiar territory. You probably have meals in your rotation that are already meatless (pasta primavera) or can easily become so. Make chili with extra beans and skip the meat. Craft a burrito bowl with roasted vegetables. Instead of a hamburger, sub a portobello mushroom or black-bean burger. Stir-fries or soups chock-full of vegetables are just as delicious as those with meat.

Go slow. It's best not to go cold turkey, so to speak. Several experts recommend a phased approach to meet your meatless goals. Hop aboard the Meatless Monday bandwagon and choose one meal or day a week to commit to being meat-free. From there, increase the frequency at a pace that's comfortable. Another tip: Start by eliminating red meat first, followed by pork, poultry and finally seafood.

Replace what you remove. The protein and calorie count is higher in meat than plants, so you'll need to make sure you're filling the nutritional gaps. Incorporate meatless forms of filling protein into your menus, such as sweet potatoes, legumes, nuts, seeds, quinoa, soy and dairy products (unless you're adapting a vegan diet). Be sure to read labels, too; foods you may think are plant-based might not be (Caesar salad dressing) and some plant-based foods are highly processed, negating the positive health effects of going meatless.

Make a plan. Menu planning will be worth your while. Plan not only dinners, but also breakfasts, lunches and snacks to make shopping easier and keep food waste down. Eating out? No problem. Most restaurants have meatless options or dishes that can be tailored to your needs, and the number of vegetable-forward and vegan restaurants in the Twin Cities is growing.

Try new foods. A meatless diet doesn't mean you're destined to a life of leafy greens. While salads are great, it's a big nutritious world out there. Take time to explore the produce section of your supermarket or co-op. Learn to make the most of what's in season, and while we all have our go-tos, incorporating new fruits and vegetables into your menu can be fun and challenging. Which leads to ...

Go recipe hunting. My family has learned to put up with my New Recipe Nights. Some of these test dishes earn a place in the regular rotation; others are quietly forgotten. But my enthusiasm never wavers. There's a wealth of recipes out there, and the cookbook section of a bookstore is a great place to start. Think about the approach and cuisine that works for you, and there's probably a cookbook for it. You can find vegetarian and vegan-friendly cookbooks, as well as titles dedicated to vegetables and meatless cooking in multicookers and air fryers.

The internet has endless recipes, but it can be overwhelming. Winnowing searches by ingredient or types of cuisine will help you pinpoint recipes to your liking. There also are several sites that have menus already planned or that will deliver meatless recipes to your inbox, including Meatless Monday (mondaycampaigns.org/meatless-monday) and chef and author Robin Asbell (robinasbell.com).

Use this as a learning opportunity. Sure, you'll brush up on the nutritional value of foods, ensuring that your meatless diet is rich in protein, calcium, iron and other vitamins and minerals. But it's also a chance to explore different cooking methods, spices and flavor combinations. It's like getting a bunch of new toys in your culinary sandbox.

Keep your doctor in the loop. As with any lifestyle change, make sure your medical team is aware of your goals. They, too, can often offer resources and support.

Next week: Taking the vegan plunge.

photo Mushroom Walnut Bolognese sauce. (Nicole Hvidsten/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)

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