A vegetarian lifestyle is a personal decision and does not need to be a permanent or all-in decision.
There are many ways to incorporate vegetarianism into your life. Your health and the planet will say thank you. There are many reasons to choose a vegetarian lifestyle including personal preference, health concerns, dislike of animal products, ethical reasons or environmental reasons. Here are 3 easy vegetarian recipes to try if you are trying to go vegetarian or if you want to just cut down on your meat consumption.
Good for Your Body, Good for the Planet
More people are becoming vegetarian, semi-vegetarian or vegan, or simply reducing animal consumption. Nonmeat-based diets are growing in popularity for many reasons. Among them are baby-boomer consumers’ quest for something new and healthy; Generation X and Y’s concern about the environment; and many people’s interest in the incorporation of ethnic cuisines, such as Indian and Thai, which use many vegetarian ingredients.
Eating fewer animal-based foods has long been associated with helping to prevent many types of disease. Also, raising animals uses land, water and food sources that could go directly to humans instead. And vegetable-based diets can be simply delicious.
Whatever the reasons, according to a 2012 National Restaurant Association poll, vegetarian cuisine is one of the fastest-growing cuisines in the U.S. and Canada.
A vegetarian lifestyle does not need to be an all-or-nothing commitment. Choosing vegetarian meals just a few days a week will contribute to your health as well as the health of the planet.
You Say Tomato
When we speak about being vegetarian, we use an umbrella term for all people who exclude some or all animal products from their diet. There are many categories of vegetarians.
- Flexitarians tend to be vegan or vegetarian many days of the week, with some omnivore—meat, dairy and seafood—choices a few days a week.
- Lacto-ovo vegetarians exclude animals from their diet, but include animal products, such as cheese, sour cream and yogurt made from cow, goat or any other kind of animal milk.
Lacto-ovo vegetarians will accept animal products they perceive do not harm or cause an animal to suffer.
- Vegans exclude meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy and honey from their diets and fur, wool, leather and animal-tested products from their life.
Why do vegans not include dairy or eggs in their diet? After all, the animals are not killed to obtain them, you say. Many vegans will tell you just because an animal is not killed doesn’t mean it doesn’t suffer. Most vegans are dedicated to animal rights, which would include forcing animals to produce food and be shackled in miserable conditions.
Vegans may also point out that not only do food-producing animals suffer from genetic engineering, injections of hormones and chemicals, and the diseases of animals raised in close quarters, these things could also harm the person eating those animals.
- Raw foodists are vegans who prefer not to cook their food. A theory was proposed by a physician in the 1950s that heating food beyond 118 degrees Fahrenheit destroyed the nutritive and health-giving effects of most foods.
Raw foodists vary the texture of grains by sprouting or soaking them and by sun-drying fruit and vegetables. There are many raw food restaurants, ranging from lunch spots to high-end dining establishments, including some owned or advocated by media and entertainment celebrities.
Raw food menus are not just all about salad. Cashews can be prepared to simulate butter, cream, cheese and even pasta in dishes. There are raw food pizza, pasta, sandwiches and even brownies.
- Fruitarians are vegans who will not destroy a plant to eat it. Many Jains, a branch of the Hindu religion, are fruitarians. Over thousands of years, Jain cuisine has evolved to include delicious and savory foods that don’t need any meat, dairy, seafood or even root vegetables for their preparation.
Health and Happiness
Millions of people around the world have chosen some version of a vegetarian lifestyle.
Groups of people, including practicing Buddhists and Seventh-day Adventists, as well as populations that do not have regular access to meat, dairy or seafood eat a plant-based diet. These groups of people traditionally have lower incidences of many diseases, including certain types of cancer, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, osteoporosis and kidney disease.
Additionally, many studies over the years have demonstrated limiting or eliminating animal products from one’s diet may lead to lower cholesterol, increased bone strength, less stress and strain on the liver and kidneys, and improved general nutrition.
Therefore, eliminating animal products from one’s daily diet may be a step in the direction of health and happiness. It could also support better food distribution to people.
When an animal is raised for food, the animal needs to be provided with food and water. The majority of the U.S. soybean crop, for instance, goes to feeding animals. Many people say we could cut out the cow and use soybeans as a crop for human consumption.
Soy milk is a healthy beverage, and is used to produce soy yogurt, soy sour cream and soy cream cheese. Tofu, another soy product, can be used in place of meat, and soybeans can be eaten as a vegetable, whipped into a butter (much like peanut butter) and even roasted to make a crunchy snack.
A recurring theme in many news stories is children who go to bed hungry. If we want to think about starting to resolve childhood hunger, we can consider that, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, one acre of farm land can grow about 200 pounds of beef or about 15,000 pounds of potatoes.
If we weigh this information, we notice we can feed more children, and feed them healthy diets, if we aim for more plant-based foods.
What About Protein?
Many meat eaters can’t imagine how one can get enough protein without consuming animal products. Up until several years ago, protein planning or protein combining was thought to be essential for vegans. The two-minute explanation of this is as follows: Essential amino acids, found in proteins, are necessary for growth and repair of tissues and muscles, and for the formation and maintenance of a healthy immune system. Animal proteins contain all the essential amino acids while plant proteins each contain some of them.
It was thought if you didn’t eat any animal products, you conscientiously had to combine plant foods, such as rice plus beans or lentils plus pasta, in order to guarantee the intake of complete proteins. We now know as long as you eat a variety of nutritious foods each day, you’ll get the proper protein intake.
Just as omnivores, or people who include every type of food product in their diet, can follow the food-guide pyramid without eating specifically calculated foods, so can vegans, as long as they are eating a varied, well-balanced, nutritious diet.
Vegans shouldn’t live just on apples and broccoli; they need to throw in some soy milk, hummus or a bean burrito, too. Soy is an almost-complete-protein food. Soy milk, edamame (fresh soybeans), tofu or soy burgers can add a lot of protein to the diet.
You can get all your needed iron and calcium, as well, without eating meat or dairy. Beans, nuts and seeds are good sources of iron and calcium, as are fortified hot-and-cold cereals, fortified soy milk, tofu processed with calcium and dark-green leafy vegetables, such as Romaine lettuce, spinach, kale, Swiss chard, bok choy and collard greens.
Get Your Chew On
Thanks to innovations in vegetarian food production, you can do without meat while enjoying the taste and chew factor similar to that of meat.
Meat alternatives are not new. A product called soybean meat was introduced to the U.S. market in 1922. Protose, a combination of soy, nuts and grains, was marketed in the 1930s. In the 1950s, Loma Linda Foods developed meat alternatives for members of the largely vegetarian Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Today’s choices are far more sophisticated than soy meat and its milk, and today’s markets offer a variety of meat alternatives made from any combination of soy, wheat, nuts, cooked grains, mushrooms and beans. Tofu; soy meats; seitan, which is made of wheat gluten; tempeh, or fermented soy; and portobello mushrooms are good stand-in ingredients for beef, chicken and pork.
There are meat alternates for both the creative and the sedate cook. Tofu, for example, can be purchased in several textures. Extra-firm tofu can be cut and grilled, baked or barbecued just like meat. The same goes for seitan and tempeh. Tofu is bland, and seitan and tempeh have a mild flavor. All three need some assistance in the sizzle area, so experiment with seasonings and marinades. One fast and simple marinade is oil-and-vinegar dressing. Or place your tempeh or tofu in a baking pan, cover with savory marinara sauce and bake.
If you don’t have time for creativity, firm tofu, seitan and tempeh can be purchased already flavored, as in Southwestern, curry and barbecue styles. It’s easy to put together mixed vegetables with some Southwestern seitan steak or curried tofu steak. Flavored or not, remember to treat tofu, seitan and tempeh as you would any meat product. Store and hold them at the same temperature as you do for meat.
Portobello mushrooms have become a mainstay of nonmeat entrees. Portobellos are chewy and tough, in a good way, and mimic the texture of meat. Marinate the caps—discard the stems, as they are tough, unless you are making a stock—in Italian dressing and grill or bake them, or slice them and put them in a stir fry.
If you don’t have time to mess with fresh portobellos, several companies sell already marinated or breaded mushrooms.
Many vegan ingredients are shelf-stable, meaning they don’t need refrigeration, and are convenient to keep in the cupboard for culinary emergencies. Soy, rice or almond milk, and tofu can often last for one year without refrigeration, as long as they are not opened. Nondairy milks can be used for cereal and coffee, as well as for baking and stirring into sauces. You can even use nondairy milk for that can of tomato soup.
Silken, or soft, tofu can be used to make great smoothies, be put in a blender with fruit, poured into a pie shell, refrigerated and served as a cheesecake. It can also be flavored with chocolate, vanilla, banana or coffee, refrigerated and served as a pudding or mousse. If you run out of dairy sour cream, you can combine silken tofu and a little bit of lemon juice or white vinegar to create a nondairy sour cream.
Firm tofu can be marinated or seasoned just like your favorite meat dish, and grilled, baked or used as an ingredient in casseroles or soups.
Whether you believe eating cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, fish, lambs and all other animals that are turned into food every day is ethically right for you or not—there is no doubt raising animals for food results in a great deal of environmental pollution. This practice also diverts water sources and plant foods from humans to animals.
Some people remain vegetarian their entire lives, while some are vegetarian for long periods of time, returning after brief omnivore sojourns. Others are semi-vegetarian, coming and going on the vegetarian lifestyle.
No matter what, consuming fewer, or no, animal products is not only one way to benefit your own physical health, it is a way to say thank you to the planet and to help it begin to heal. The animals will thank you, too.
If you’d like to make any of your regular recipes vegetarian, simply swap out dairy and meat for vegetarian ingredients.
Easy Vegetarian Substitutes:
- 1 cup mashed, firm tofu for 1 cup ricotta cheese
- 1 cup soy, rice, grain or almond milk for 1 cup cow’s milk
- 2 tablespoons pureed, firm tofu for 1 large egg
- 1 cup soy yogurt or 1 cup pureed silken tofu with 1 tablespoon of lemon juice for 1 cup cow’s milk yogurt
- 1 cup soy sour cream for 1 cup cow’s milk sour cream
- 3 ounces unsweetened cocoa powder plus 1 tablespoon vegetable oil for 1 ounce milk chocolate
- 1 pound cubed firm tofu or 12 ounces crumbled seitan or tempeh for 1 pound ground beef
- 1 cup sorbet or tofu or rice ice cream for 1 cup cow’s milk ice cream
Veggie Burger Wrap
Makes one serving
Cook up an extra veggie burger or tofu dog (the recipe works just as well with tofu dogs) from dinner. This recipe can also be made the night before or prepared in the morning.
- 1 cooked veggie burger, diced
- 2 slices tomato, diced
- 1 slice onion, diced
- 2 teaspoons ketchup
- 1 teaspoon mustard
- 1/2 cup Romaine lettuce, shredded
- 3 slices pickle
- 1 6-inch tortilla or pita bread
1. In a saucepan, combine veggie burger, tomato, onion, ketchup and mustard. Heat on medium for 12 minutes or until warmed through.
2. Place lettuce and pickles on tortilla or pita. Spread veggie burger mixture on top of lettuce. Roll tightly and eat right away or pack for a portable meal.
- Mediterranean: Instead of ketchup, mustard and pickle, use 2 tablespoons of pizza or spaghetti sauce and 1 tablespoon sliced olives.
- Southwestern: Instead of ketchup, mustard and pickle, use 2 tablespoons salsa, 1 teaspoon chopped chilies or bell peppers and 1/4 teaspoon hot sauce.
- Middle Eastern: Instead of ketchup, mustard and pickle, use 2 tablespoons humus, 1 teaspoon mayo, 1 teaspoon sliced green olives and 1/2 teaspoon paprika.
- Barbecue: Instead of ketchup, use 2 teaspoons of barbecue sauce.
- Curried: Instead of ketchup, use 2 teaspoons mayo and add 1 teaspoon curry powder.
Almost Thai Spicy Peanut Pasta
Makes two servings
Make this dish as hot or mild as you like for a change-of-pace pasta.
- 4 ounces uncooked fettuccini or angel hair pasta
- 1/2 cup peeled carrots, cut into thin strips
- 1/2 cup thawed frozen peas
- 2 tablespoons vinegar
- 2 teaspoons red pepper flakes
- 1 teaspoon hot sauce
- 2 tablespoons oil
- 1 teaspoon soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon orange juice concentrate
- 1 1/2 tablespoons creamy peanut butter
1. Cook fettuccini according to package directions. Drain and set aside.
2. Steam carrots and peas until tender. Drain and set aside.
3. In a small saucepan, combine vinegar, red pepper flakes, hot sauce, oil, soy sauce, orange juice concentrate and peanut butter and cook on medium, stirring frequently, until smooth.
4. After cooking, whisk for a very smooth sauce.
5. In a medium bowl, combine pasta, carrots and peas and sauce. Toss to coat pasta. Serve hot or cold.
Basic Veggie Burgers
Makes 8-10 burgers
This is a great way to use leftover veggies. If you don’t have the tofu used in this recipe, you can substitute prepared and cooled mashed potatoes.
- 1 1/2 cups canned sliced carrots, drained (reserve liquid)
- 1 1/2 cups canned cut green beans, drained
- 1 1/2 cups cooked pinto or red beans
- 2 1/2 cups dry bread crumbs
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil or melted margarine
- 1 tablespoon dried parsley
- 1/2 cup ketchup or chili sauce
- 2 tablespoons silken tofu
- 1/2 teaspoon white pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon celery salt
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
2. Place carrots, green beans and pinto beans in a blender or food processor and puree until almost smooth.
3. Place mixture in a large bowl. Stir in remaining ingredients until well combined. If mixture is too thick, add some of the reserved carrot liquid; if it is too thin, add additional breadcrumbs.
4. Form mixture into burgers and place on nonstick baking sheet, or spray with vegetable oil spray.
5. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, or until thoroughly heated and lightly browned.
6. This mixture can instead be pressed into a loaf pan and baked as a loaf.
About the Author
Nancy Berkoff, RD, CCE, AAC, is a food technologist, registered dietitian and certified chef. She divides her time between food writing, consulting to the food industry and consumers, and food, nutrition and culinary instruction. Berkoff has had the opportunity to teach and consult about food in Europe, Asia and Central America, and is a freelance editor for the Vegetarian Resource Council (www.vrg.org).