11 Learnings from 11 Vegetarian Years

In quarantine, days blend together and weeks seem to crawl and fly by at the same time. This is making it less surprising that a year ago, I was celebrating 10 years of being vegetarian and had big plans for a (catchier) blog post on it. In the way I’ve only heard grandparents say, I blinked, and now here we are a year later.

Before I start with what I’ve been sitting on for a year, I want you to know I’m not going to ask you to be a vegetarian. Breath out a sigh of relief. Everyone who is pretending they weren’t worried about that, you exhale too. If quarantine has taught us anything, it’s that shaming or “shoulding on yourself” isn’t an effective call to action or motivator.

We don’t need a few people to be hardcore vegetarians or vegans. What will have even more impact, is EVERYONE eating less meat. Not a few people doing it perfect, but everyone doing it a little bit better.

It is, however, a time where we have heightened awareness of how small actions we make have big ripples to our family, communities, and world. That little twinge of inspiration, responsibility, and empowerment that allowed you to make a mask or change your grocery store behavior, that’s what I hope you walk away with.

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May 17, 2019 Cheersing to my 10 year anniversary at Art-a-Whirl

Quarantine is also a time where you have nowhere to be so you can read this, and Netflix will still be waiting for you.

For the sake of this conversation, a few terms I’ll use as I’ve explored all of these “diets,” with pescetarian being what works best for me.

  • Vegetarian: Do not eat red meat, poultry, seafood, anything considered “meat.”
  • Pescetarian: Same as above but eats fish/seafood (salmon, tuna, shrimp) but likely still eats mainly vegetarian
  • Vegan: Does not eat any animal by-products. No meats mentioned above, dairy, eggs, gelatin, and sometimes honey.

In May of 2009, my high school Current Events class watched some footage on the meat industry (mainly fast food) and how the animals are treated. As a lifelong animal lover, I was horrified by what these animals were enduring so that I could have meat in my diet, mainly out of habit.

The treatment of animals, with the addition of the toll the meat industry takes on our environment, amplified by the fact that I didn’t really care about meat, began my first day of vegetarianism on May 17, 2009.

I think the only way this choice could have stuck this long was from it being unequivocally my own decision, and the same is true for you.

Whether this propels you into a meatless decade, or makes you think more about your next meal, I’ll be thrilled. Reason being, if I said the only solution was being vegan, the majority of people (likely including myself) would say, shoot looks like I won’t be part of the solution…

I also take this approach because I can tell you after 11 years of being vegetarian it isn’t always easy. Having a less diverse diet has led to some digestive issues, and has called for a lot of trial and error of what my body needs (a large part of why I was technically vegetarian for four years, and pescetarian for the last seven).

In my opinion, this is a matter of quantity over quality. That’s how eating less meat becomes a cultural norm; and calls for grocery stores, restaurants, and the marketplace adapt to different demands.

I know you’ve heard why this matters, so I’m going to cover that with a selfish lens (if selfish is motivating, embrace it) and how to do it.

Why eat less meat and what’s in it for you-

  1. Your Health & Wallet If you’ve grocery shopped, you won’t be surprised meat is an expensive habit. It saves money in the long run too, by being significantly better for your health. A meat free or less meat diet has been shown to lower cholesterol, blood pressure, body mass index, along with lower risk for diabetes, chronic diseases, and cancers.
  2. The Environment For every one pound of meat you purchase, it took 2,400 gallons of water to create it. As large of a problem as our climate crisis is, I like having a tangible way I know I am helping, while other changes may be harder to make.
  3. The Animals Simply put, any hormones or antibiotics intentionally put into livestock, or waste/bacteria they unintentionally ingest, goes into your food. As eating clean and clean products becomes more and more top of mind, looking at how clean the source of your food is is often overlooked.
  4. Other People Even outside of COVID-19, meat packing plants are dangerous for employees and take a large toll on the nearby communities. By knowing where your meat comes from, you’re investing in the well-being of the essential workers that make your meals possible, and how safe those meals are.

How to eat less meat, with more purpose-

1. Don’t recreate the wheel: Instead of viewing less meat as a change to everything you’ve been doing, look at is as making substitutions. Write down all of your favorite meals/recipes and look for swaps that could be made. My favorites-
  • Substitutes for ground beef: Limiting red meat in one’s diet is getting more and more popular, making Gardein’s beefless ground and their meatless meatballs a super easy and impactful swap. I also love impossible burgers and their italian sausage. I try to always order impossible burgers in restaurants so they continue to be carried!
  • Substitutes for chicken: Two options that aren’t super high in protein but are great for taste are using jackfruit (easiest place to get it is Trader Joe’s) which can easily mimic pulled chicken or pulled pork. One product I like are Morning Star’s buffalo “chicken” patties, though the protein count is a bit low.
  • The deal about tofu: Chances are you’ve made tofu without really knowing what was going on, or god forbid, tried it raw…try to suppress that memory and try this again. Tofu is the easiest protein to manipulate the flavor to match any recipe, and as a result is a grocery staple of mine. It’s also super affordable (usually a block will be $2 or less, which will be enough for at least 3 meals). Here’s a great recipe for how to PROPERLY make tofu!
  • The Minneapolis-based Herbivorous Butcher probably deserves its own blog post, but I’ll just leave you with the link for now. My favorites are the maple sausage, sriracha brats, korean ribs, and vegan cheese! Online deliveries are available anywhere in the US 😉

2. Meatless Mondays: Start with one day, one meal. Meatless Mondays have become so popular, there’s no shortages of recipes out there. You might do meat-free dinners on Monday, then to all meals on Monday, etc. Many popular bloggers, like Half Baked Harvest, now have vegetarian sections to help you out. And of course, Pinterest won’t disappoint.

3. Start with breakfast: This is the easiest meal to eliminate meat from. If you’ve gotten in the habit of bacon or sausage, Morning Star has my favorite veggie sausage. Make a veggie egg bake, oatmeal (even if you prefer savory), yogurt parfaits, etc. and you’ll grow to not even miss it.
IMG_5352 4. Build-your-own bars: “I want to eat less meat but I can’t get my partner/family on board!” I credit my mom for coming up with this as she shopped, prepped, and cooked for our family with one lone vegetarian. Instead of changing the plan for everyone or making me something completely different, I would add a different protein. You can leave all toppings off in the same way to give everyone a say. Think fajitas, tacos, lettuce wraps, pasta, stir fry, pizza, salads, burgers, etc.
D944A899-D906-4D2E-8414-937B597A2406 5. Up your veggie intake: Instead of thinking as meat or protein as the “point” of a meal, center it around your vegetables. Aim to have vegetables take up half of your plate, with grains being 1/4 and protein 1/4. Treating protein as a supporting actor rather than the lead makes it easier to substitute the protein source.
IMG_1126 6. Look to Thai, Indian, and other Asian recipes: It might make you feel less trendy, but this is nothing new. Many Asian cultures have long relied on vegetarian recipes for religious or economic reasons. This means finding meatless recipes you love or recreating favorites from restaurants is that much easier!IMG_4495 7. Serving sizes are not created equal: This is where eating less meat refers to more than frequency. This is where nutrient packed veggies, like green peas, spinach, and broccoli, and grains (shown below) can add up to stretch a main protein source through more meals.
protein-serving-sizes 8. High protein grains: Changing your protein source or decrease portion size can call extra attention to what’s on your plate and how it’s serving you. I also often hear people are worried about not being full if they have less meat. This tip will help, my go-to grains are quinoa, farro, and brown rice; but there are many other protein packed options. This means adding farro to salad, making soups with quinoa, using buckwheat noodles for pasta or pad thai, etc. A little bit goes a long way.
9. Soup!: Another shout out to Mama Reed for this one. My mom would make soup for the family, but would split a smaller batch off for me before adding their chicken in. This is also an easy way to make something that lasts throughout the week, so you don’t have to go back to the drawing board every day. There is also countless vegetarian soup recipes, and I promise you the best one ever is shown/linked belowIMG_4621 10. Create more filling snacks: Staying satisfied throughout the day releases the need for protein-heavy meals. My go-to especially now that I’m working from home is making a smoothie in my magic bullet with a cup of spinach, 5 frozen strawberries, a scoop of protein powder, and almond milk. So quick! Here’s my recipe for chia pudding (protein powder is option, I like the texture that creates; you could use a yogurt instead). Last but not least, these amazing energy balls that my coworker called bites of joy 🙂
11. Embrace the challenge: Many of us have more time on our hands right now, and have saving money top of mind. Use this to your advantage by having fun trying new recipes, challenging yourself to stick to strict budgets while shopping, and embrace meal prep. While you might be thinking, wow Sarah really knows how to have a good time…I promise it is fun! Whip up a new recipe and meet friends for a picnic to see what they think. Here’s two veggie buffalo dips I trialed for the Superbowl a few years ago. Be patient and kind with yourself, progress is the goal- not perfection.
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Regardless of what you’re eating, I think the most important practice is expressing gratitude. Thanking any animals involved in making your meal possible, the farmers, any factory workers, store employees, so on and so forth. This practice becomes a lot easier and more meaningful when some of those steps are cut out, for example by shopping at a farmer’s market.

This is a practice I was challenged to face head on. When studying abroad in Rome, our Sustainable Foods professor (who is by no means vegetarian) said that in the States our meat looks like play-dough, there’s no connection to what you’re eating or what provided it. I had recently reintroduced seafood into my diet, and liked the anonymity and denial canned tuna offered. One of my first meals in Rome, I got a seafood pasta and it arrived with multiple creatures looking at me. I panicked. Over the semester, I learned to not hide from this but embrace it.

If I’m going to eat meat in any way, the least I owe these animals who gave everything to sustain me, is to give them my attention.

“We are the ones of whom it will be fairly asked, What did you do when you learned the truth about eating animals? … Whether we change our lives or do nothing, we have responded. To do nothing is to do something.” Jonathan Safran Foer

Author of Eating Animals and We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast

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