6 Ways to Cook with Less Meat (but Better Meat)

by Katherine Sacks


What if we said you could feed a family of four with one piece of bacon? It’s not hard to eat less meat. When you adopt the strategy of cooking less meat, but better meat, it’s totally doable.

The news is out: Americans eat way too much meat, a whopping 222 pounds per person each year. That’s more than 800 quarter-pound hamburgers. And most people are eating the very worst kind of meat. Industrial meat production is inhumane for animals, pollutes waterways and soil and is a major contributor to global greenhouse emissions. A 2018 UN report suggests Americans reduce beef consumption by 90 percent, and as Professor Peter Smith at the University of Aberdeen recently said, “We know food choices are very personal, and that behavior change can be difficult to encourage, but the evidence is now unequivocal we need to change our diets if we are to have a sustainable future. The fact that it will also make us healthier makes it a no-brainer.”

But we’re not saying you have to give up that bacon. Learning how to eat less meat starts with choosing meat that is produced in a better way. There are livestock farmers raising animals sustainably, managing their land to reduce the effects of greenhouse gases, treating animals humanely and providing a better and safer working environment. Yes, those high standards often come at a higher price, but that’s where the “less” comes in. Pop quiz: Would you rather have five pieces of cheap, flavorless, unhealthy bacon, or one piece of really, really good bacon that you used creatively to flavor an entire dish? By purchasing pasture-raised meat, you’ll not only be making a better decision for the environment, but you’ll also be rewarded with better flavor and meat that’s possibly even better for you. Which means you don’t need as much to get the same punch of flavor.

Not sure how to shop for better meat? At the grocery store, look for labels like Certified Grassfed and Animal Welfare Approved. You can also seek out locally produced meats at the farmers’ market or in a meat CSA, where you can also find these labels and be able to talk directly to the rancher about their practices.

Not sure how to adjust your diet to eating less meat? We’ve got you covered. Here are six ways to turn that “less meat, better meat” into dinner.

Use Meat as a Flavoring Agent

Think about using a small amount of sustainable, pasture-raised meat as a way to flavor your meals. Get started by going the blended route: cut the amount of ground meat in a recipe to a quarter, replacing it with chopped mushrooms, zucchini, eggplant or another vegetable. This is great for meatballs, burgers and meat-sauces. Then try using smaller bits of meat, like smoked turkey or ham hocks, to flavor a vegetable-centered meal. You can make spaghetti carbonara with just three ounces of bacon, which means the typical 12-ounce package can stretch into four meals. One ham hock can be used to make soup for 12. A few slices of crisped prosciutto can top a salad that serves four, leaving the remainder of a six-ounce package for another meal.

Make Vegetables the Biggest Portion

Although high-protein fad diets would have you believe otherwise, the dinner plate doesn’t need to be a big piece of meat with vegetables pushed to the side. Instead, cut your typical meat serving in half. If you usually serve two chicken thighs per person, cut back to one. Choose skinnier pork chops. Flatten smaller portions of meat with a mallet to give the illusion of larger servings (after all, we eat with our eyes).

Then double (or triple) the vegetables you’re eating alongside that smaller portion of meat. Many vegetables are high in filling fiber — including carrots, broccoli and beets — which will leave you satisfied without a big piece of meat. Instead of beef steak, make cauliflower steak, served with a side of salami-specked pasta salad. Instead of , make eggplant parmigiana, using a small bit of ground meat in the tomato sauce.  Mix lots of vegetables, like chopped celery, cabbage, cucumber and radish, into chicken salad to cut down the amount of chicken you use.

Get Protein from Other Sources

Many people equate meat with protein. Since most people in this country already eat nearly double the daily recommended amount of protein, giving up some of that meat is not a health concern (for most consumers). And there are plenty of non-meat sources of protein. Pantry items like beans, lentils, quinoa and nut butters, all contain good amounts of healthy protein, as do vegetables including spinach, broccoli and potatoes. There are also meat replacement options such as tofu and tempeh, which can not only mimic meat’s texture in some cases, but also provide good amounts of protein.

Focus on More Sustainable Meat Sources

When it comes to beef, chicken and pork, swapping out industrial for pasture-raised options is the first step. An additional approach is to choose more sustainable meat and fish species. The largest animals — cows and pigs — require a lot of food, energy and resources to raise, and because they are the most popular meats, these are most likely to be industrially produced. Instead, think about eating lower on the food chain, by focusing on smaller animals like goat and rabbit. When it comes to seafood, skip salmon, tuna and swordfish and choose small fish like sardines, anchovies and oysters. Another option is purchasing unpopular offcuts — items like offal or fish collars — which are often tossed.

Swap Vegetarian Versions of Your Favorite Dishes

Just because you are eating vegetarian, doesn’t mean you have to skip your favorites. Mark Bittman’s cookbook “Dinner for Everyone,” offers suggestions for how to turn classics veggie, including recipes for coq au vin and meatloaf. Bryant Terry’s “Vegan Soul Kitchen” (and several of his other cookbooks) offers meat-free versions of traditional African-American southern recipes, like gumbo, Hoppin’ John and collard greens.  Is your favorite dinner a bowl of chili? Turn it vegetarian by using lentils or mushrooms. Craving a burger and fries? Try one of these flavor-packed vegetarian versions.

Add Meaty Flavor

Instead of cooking with meat, call on the power of umami to add that satisfying rich flavor. This way, when you eat less meat, you won’t miss what you’ve cut out. Miso paste and soy sauce are great as a marinade for vegetables, while sun-dried tomatoes and caramelized onions can add a sweet, funky flavor to rice, pasta, gratin or other dishes. Mushrooms are packed with umami: use dried porcinis to add a kick of earthiness to soup or top just about any dish with roasted mushrooms. Looking for a smoky punch of flavor? Smoking or grill vegetables helps give them a robust depth of flavor. You can also use spices like smoked paprika and chipotle chili to add a little smokiness to your food.

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