For all of my adult life, I’ve reveled in rare rib-eye steaks and oozing Camembert. I won’t let go of my drumstick until I’ve gnawed off every bit of cartilage and golden skin, and it’s best to not even talk about bacon so crisp that it won’t bend for that first porky bite.
Yet over the past few months, I’ve cut way down on my lamb chops and grilled cheese sandwiches. And if you’re a meat-and-dairy eater who aches over the environmental state of our planet, then you may be thinking of doing the same thing, too.
It started in the spring, when my Food colleague Julia Moskin teamed up with Brad Plumer from The New York Times Climate desk to report on how our current food system is contributing to climate change. The results were crystal clear and deeply depressing. Meat and dairy production alone account for 14.5 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions — as much each year as from all cars, trucks, airplanes and ships combined. It’s a staggering statistic.
I’d always considered my food choices to be outside the problem. I get a local farm box of produce every week, and frequent the farmers’ market for more vegetables, as well as grains and ethically raised meat. I limit seafood that’s not sustainable, and when I do shop at a supermarket I mostly fill my cart with organic whole foods that are not highly processed (the occasional bag of Cheetos aside).
Evidence is piling up, though, that this isn’t enough to make an impact. Only drastic changes will make a difference. The World Resource Institute, an environmental research group, recommends that wealthy nations cut their beef, lamb and dairy consumption by 40 percent to meet global emissions goals for 2050.
Becoming vegan would be the most planet-friendly way to go, followed by going vegetarian. In my case, those diets would be a professional liability, and to be perfectly honest, I don’t know that I’ve got the willpower to stick to either one. I love meat and dairy too much to give them up entirely. But eating less of them — that I can do.
On the upside, eating less meat and dairy means there is more room on my plate for other delectable things: really good sourdough bread slathered with tahini and homemade marmalade, mushroom Bourguignon over a mound of noodles, and all those speckled heirloom beans I keep meaning to order online.
So how much meat and dairy should we actually be eating? And if we reduce our intake severely, do we then need to worry about getting enough protein?
According to Marion Nestle, an author and professor emeritus of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, if you are getting enough calories, then you are getting enough protein. (That is, unless you are an elite athlete.)
“People are very concerned about protein, but it’s a nonissue,” she said. “It’s in grains, it’s in vegetables, it’s everywhere. It will find you.”
With that anxiety abated, I turned to setting a concrete goal: a balance of plant-based versus meat-and-dairy meals to strive for every week, like my daily 10,000 steps (or should it be 15,000?), translated into broccoli and burgers.
After some mental calisthenics, I landed on trying to limit myself to two to three meals that include meat, seafood or dairy per week, and thrice-daily splashes of milk in my tea (nonnegotiable if I want to retain my sanity). I figure this is about a 40 percent reduction from the six to eight meaty, cheesy, anchovy- and yogurt-laden meals I had been eating weekly. (The rest were already meat- and dairy-free, and I don’t typically eat breakfast.)
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Another way to strategize is to try keeping the daily mix of what you eat to 80 percent plant matter and 20 percent meat, dairy and seafood. (Going vegan all day, then having a small amount of meat or cheese with dinner is one way that people make this work.)
For my meat allotment, I’ve focused more on chicken, pork and local seafood (especially mollusks), which are generally less taxing to the environment than beef and lamb, both of which are now relegated to special-occasion status.
Of course, none of this is in any way a novel approach. The concept of flexitarianism has been around since the early 2000s, and it’s a central tenet in much of Michael Pollan’s writing. But somehow the term seems timeworn, and not at all evocative of the pleasures of the table.
I like to loosely think of my approach as mindful meat-eating. Now, when I do simmer up a pot of beef short ribs (or smear cream cheese on my bagel, or go for sushi), I’m thoughtful and deliberate about it, which makes it taste even more delicious, seasoned with anticipation.
And while the days of absent-minded chicken Caesar salads and oblivious cheese-and-cracker munching are for the most part over, the likes of avocado toast, salted cashews and popcorn covered with coconut oil and nutritional yeast can fill the void.
What follows is my own personal guide to eating less meat, and dairy too, with tips, strategies and plenty of recipes.
1. Eat Beans and More Beans
We are a family of bean lovers, so adding more of them to our weekly menu makes for happiness all around. To keep us from getting bored, though, I’ve widened the net, seeking out less common varieties like brown-dappled Jacob’s Cattle beans and purple-swirled Christmas lima beans, along with my usual roster of chickpeas, lentils and cannellini.
I’ve also changed the way I think about chili, one of my go-to bean-based meals. I used to add a small amount of ground meat to my chili pot as a matter of course, unless I was making a specifically vegetarian chili. Now, I usually skip the meat — save for the occasional spoonful of bacon grease or lard for richness — and I don’t miss it.
Beans are also excellent stand-ins for meat in certain recipes, like using chickpeas in a riff on Indian butter chicken, and filling tacos with black beans instead of pork. And there’s an entire universe of dals that I’m continuing to explore.
When I can plan ahead, I like cooking all of my beans myself for better flavor and texture, not to mention the bonus of leftover bean broth from cooking, which tastes especially amazing if you add lots of salt and garlic to the bean pot. I always keep some of that broth in the freezer to use in soups and stews. If you love beans and don’t have a pressure cooker (either manual or electric), you should really consider getting one. It cuts the cooking time in half.
That said, canned beans are one of the greatest supermarket convenience foods, ever. My pantry is never without them.
2. Turn to High-Protein Grains (Pasta Counts!)
Yes, there’s quinoa, the quick-cooking staple that fills many a grain bowl. But there’s also kamut, teff, millet, wild rice, buckwheat, cornmeal and even pasta. Grains have a lot more protein than we often give them credit for, along with a host of other vital nutrients, especially when we eat them whole. (I’ll always have a soft spot for white rice, though, whether it’s steamed sticky rice, or basmati pilaf, or Carolina long-grain rice cooked into pudding.)
Grain bowls make diverse, ever-changing meals that I can throw together from whatever is in the fridge, anything from leftovers to condiments or both. These days I find myself putting together a grain bowl at least once a week, topped with roasted vegetables and some kind of savory sauce to bind everything together. These bowls never get boring.
But within this category, pasta is my first choice, and I adore it in every incarnation. And using toasted bread crumbs in place of Parmesan keeps the dairy quotient down, too.
3. Elevate Your Tofu Game
Whether pillow-soft and fluffy or crisp-edged and browned, tofu is always welcome on my plate. This is not the case for the rest of my family, who give it the side-eye whenever I serve it. The trick in our house has been to pair tofu, which has a relatively neutral taste, with ingredients with pizazz — the more umami-intense, the better. Miso, soy sauce, mushrooms, hot sauce and fermented black beans do a lot of the heavy lifting.
Another strategy is to mix in a small amount of meat — ground chicken or pork, or a little bacon — to add a large amount of flavor. Cooking it all on a sheet pan makes for an easy weeknight meal.
4. Embrace Nuts and Seeds
I could sing the praises of toasted nuts, nut butter and tahini here, but you probably already know everything you need to about them. Whether toasted and chopped so they’re satisfyingly crunchy, or puréed and seasoned to become alluringly creamy dressings or sauces, nuts and nut butters are a great way to round out a plate of roasted, steamed or raw vegetables.
What I really want to talk about is my newfound love of homemade vegan cheese (though I won’t turn my nose up at store-bought nut-based queso dip, either). The best recipes I’ve tried are made from cashews, ground up with nutritional yeast and all manner of seasonings (smoked paprika, garlic powder, oregano), and then set with agar powder.
No, they don’t taste anything like actual cheese. But when I rush home, ravenous and stressed after work, and there’s some in the refrigerator that I can heap onto my Wheat Thins and nibble with my glass of wine, I don’t miss Stilton nearly as much as I’d feared.
5. Consider Plant-Based Meats
There’s no denying how processed most vegan meats are, loaded with unidentifiable ingredients, but they do scratch the itch for burgers and meatballs. And plant-based sausages remind me of kishke, a traditional Jewish and Eastern European sausage made with beef and bread or grains, in a very good way. These products are often a starting point for people who want to cut down on their meat intake — and, with some brands, once that faux burger patty is stuffed into a bun and loaded with condiments, it may be hard to tell the difference.
Of the various kinds of vegan meats, seitan is my personal favorite. (A traditional meat substitute in Asia that’s made from wheat gluten, it’s the stuff of mock duck.) I truly enjoy seitan’s chewy texture and lightly earthy flavor. As vegan meats go mainstream and the competition gets fiercer, seitan sausages, taco crumbles and bacon are getting tastier — far more so than their old, bland health-food store brethren. Unfortunately, as much as my 11-year-old likes the idea of a plant-based meat with a name that sounds like the Devil’s, she doesn’t actually like seitan. More for me.
6. Make Every Bite of Real Meat Count
Now that I’m eating less meat, every single morsel of it needs to hold its own. Which means I’m less likely to bother with a chicken breast when a smaller amount of Italian turkey sausage, sautéed until crisp and strewn over my spinach salad, delivers a lot more oomph. Or how about some duck confit? Assertively flavored cured pork — bacon, salami, prosciutto — add salty brawn to roasted vegetables and grains, pastas and salads, and a little goes a long way.
Then there’s good, concentrated broth, whether it’s bone broth or otherwise. Using beef broth in mushroom Bourguignon contributes tons of savory character without adding any actual meat. And making bone broth from scratch with the leftovers of your blowout holiday prime rib helps, at least a tiny bit, with the severe problem of food waste in this country. But really, make it because it tastes good.
Recipes: Mushroom Bourguignon | Indian Butter Chickpeas | Meatless Meatballs in Marinara Sauce | Quinoa Bowl With Crispy Brussels Sprouts, Eggplant and Tahini | Maple-Roasted Tofu With Butternut Squash and Bacon | Roasted Vegan Sausages With Cauliflower and Olives | Black Bean Tacos With Avocado and Spicy Onions