Photo by Adobe Stock/okkijan2010
It’s been a little longer than I anticipated, but I’m back for another blog post for the month of March! And with this post, it’s time to unpack the experiments with my weekly meat consumption. In my last blog post, I not only laid out the goals I had for reducing my ecological footprint, but I also listed four concrete steps on how I’d start to do that. For the last couple months, I’ve worked on the first goal: reducing how much meat I eat. Now it’s time to share how it all went….
Why was it important to me to lessen my meat consumption? According to the Global Footprint Network (the main source I’ve been using after taking the Ecological Footprint Test), nine percent of our anthropogenic carbon emissions (emissions due to human activity) is due to global livestock processing. Animal agriculture takes a large toll on resources (water, land, food), and depending on where you live, it can take a lot of transportation (and carbon emissions) to ship meat across the country. Even trying one new vegetarian recipe per week, or per month could help put us on the path to a more sustainable planet.
To reduce my meat consumption, my plan was to first track how much meat I ate on an average weekly basis, before going out of my way to decrease it, just to give myself a feel as to where I was starting. Once I recorded that, I planned to slowly reduce the amount of meat each week based on that number. My goal was to eat four meals (or less) with meat in them each week. The process of meeting that goal was slow-going, but it really made me think more about how I planned my meals. And ultimately, that planning reaped some positive rewards.
Photo by Adobe Stock/Brent Hofacker
Experimenting in the Kitchen
In my first week, I noticed that meat was sprinkled throughout my diet a lot more than I had anticipated; usually, I ate meat in a meal at least once a day. It was in the small meals I didn’t think about: soups, stir-frys, salad toppings…. Even though it wasn’t the main ingredient, it still found its way into my meals. And mainly that was because I was relying on it as my source of protein, obviously. I knew that the chicken on my salad couldn’t be removed without finding a suitable substitute that offered protein to keep me energized across the day.
Nowadays there is an over-abundance in meat substitution recipes on blogs and social media sites. I didn’t have to look far. One of the foods I ventured into to substitute chicken in some of my meals was tofu. It’s usually the first food people think of, but it was always a food that… honestly grossed me out a bit. But since college, I’ve begun to be more curious about it, as one of my best friends and roommate of four years was a vegetarian. I saw her cooking tofu in ways I hadn’t thought about and incorporating vegetables and protein sources in replace of meat. So when I went to the grocery store to pick up some tofu, this time I didn’t feel as intimidated.
I had read about how people can make tofu in ways that appealed to pickier eaters. For me, my problem was the texture. I didn’t want to bite down on a soggy, wet piece of tofu in my salad or soup. What was great was that there was a selection of different firmnesses in the store that I could choose from; as a beginner, I bought the “extra-firm” kind, so it wouldn’t easily fall apart on me.
After experimenting several times with tofu, I found that my favorite way to incorporate it into my dishes was by chopping it into sugar cube-sized blocks; tossing it in sesame oil, soy sauce, and sesame seeds; and cooking the batch in the oven. They came out warm and crispy with a great flavor, and I threw them into stir-frys, homemade miso soup, and Buddha bowls. I found I didn’t miss the sautéed chicken when the tofu was seasoned and cooked like this.
Another protein source I utilized more were seeds and nuts — particularly chia seeds and almonds. As I planned my meals, I naturally started drifting into better portion control, measuring out my servings instead of heaping things into bowls willy-nilly. It was necessary when I used nuts as a protein source, since that also comes with higher fat content. I utilized chia seeds in smoothies, oatmeal, parfaits, and even soups. My favorite was a butternut squash soup I made, which I thickened with chia seeds. Suffice to say, that kept me full for hours.
Photo by Getty Images/InaTs
Results and Reflection
There were several challenges throughout these weeks, however. I found that some days, and some weeks, were easier to plan and track and stay true to than others. Some weeks were filled with long work days, busy nights, and hustling weekends, and when I couldn’t find the time to meal prep, my easy way out was to grab some protein through meat. I bought chicken rice soup, defrosted and baked chicken or turkey, or ate out and got meat in my meal. It was easy and didn’t make me think much about the process. Other times, my vegetarian dishes flopped — badly. The first time I tried to make miso soup, my tofu started falling apart, my miso-to-water ratio was off, and I added way too much zucchini as an added ingredient, which made the soup taste less like miso and more like flavorless, soggy veggies. The natural solution, I decided, was to change my go-to protein substitute. One of the fun substitutes I found was homemade nuggets made from chickpeas, vegetables, and coated in bread crumbs and baked. If I had those instead of processed chicken nuggets, then even on my busier weeks, I could know that I’m eating homemade, vegetarian “fast food.”
Besides realizing that this change of eating would require more planning, I found that ultimately there were many more rewards than setbacks. I’m in a fortunate position where my job requires me to be researching and reading and learning about food, nutrition, and health, but I loved how the information I found was easily accessible to everyone. I just had to find the time to sit down, read, take some notes, and experiment. And when I found a dish that worked for me, it was a triumphant feeling. Throughout this whole process, I would’ve been much more lost without the internet to guide me. I was increasingly thankful to all the pioneer cooks, bakers, and experimenters who provided so many meatless, colorful, and nutritious recipes to try — which in turn encouraged me to experiment with what I was learning. Plus, my grocery bills dropped when I bought beans, produce, nuts, and tofu instead of pounds of meat every week — which for a recent college grad is definitely an incentive.
As the weeks continued, I found that I was spending less time worrying or analyzing my meals and instead just doing it; it was becoming a habit to decrease my meat. By the end, I was able to successfully decrease my meat intake to four meals a weeks, and sometimes I went a week without any meat at all, which was an exciting milestone for me. I think the biggest thing I realized with researching these recipes was that it’s not the end of the world if I have to give up some meat-filled meals. Food is such an intrinsic part of our lives and our cultures and our histories that sometimes it’s hard to say good-bye to something we’ve known all our lives. But I’m looking forward to experiencing and sharing new recipes and ways of living. And if I take it in baby steps, I think it won’t feel like I’m giving something up — rather, that I’m gaining something better.
So I still eat meat; I’m not sure if I will ever decide to become a full-time vegetarian or vegan (but kudos to those who do!) But I’m excited that this experiment put me on the right track. With this blog post, thus concludes my conscious tracking of meat. Hopefully, this will settle into more of a habit (fingers crossed!) as I move into the next goal for shrinking my ecological footprint: my garbage waste. Truthfully, this is the biggest goal to meet for myself. I will be detailing more about this in the next blog post. For now, I hope this post inspires you to try a new meatless dish this week. Don’t be afraid to have some fun with cooking new creations!
Want to start this series from the beginning? Learn more about my ecological footprint journey in Tracking Our Ecological Footprint.