There’s nothing necessarily wrong with loving a good steak every now and then—meat can be a great source of protein, iron, and other key nutrients. But there’s growing evidence that eating more plants and less animal products (particular red and processed meats) is better for your health, which explains why an estimated eight million people in the US are vegetarian.
“Recent studies have shown that a diet higher in plant-based foods and lower in animal products can protect against and actually reverse heart disease, substantially lower the risk of Type 2 diabetes, and reduce the risk of cancer. Not to mention the tremendous positive impact on the environment,” says Danielle Schaub, MSPH, RD.
However, if you’ve eaten meat your whole life, the thought of cutting back and eating more plant-based foods can certainly be daunting. How do you build your meals when the main feature—chicken, fish, pork, or beef—is suddenly off the table?
Thankfully, you can get many of the health benefits from reducing your intake, like swapping chicken for lentils and cauliflower steaks a few nights a week. Here are some expert-backed tips for eating less meat without feeling deprived.
1. Start with one meatless day a week
The popular day is Monday, but any day works. Instead of cutting out all meat cold, ahem, turkey, start by making one day of the week meat-free and see how you feel with that new routine. “All of your meals on this one day should be centered around plant-based foods,” Schaub says. Experiment with new recipes—it’s fun and you might even find your new go-to meals for those meat-eating days, too!
2. Order the meatless version of your favorites when you go out
Another way to ease into plant-based eating: When out at your favorite Mexican joint or burger place, skip the salads and order veggie-centric versions of your favorite dishes. “There is almost always a vegetarian substitute. If you’re always used to ordering the steak or pork tacos, try the vegetarian,” suggests Shira Sussi MS, RD, CDN, founder of Shira Sussi Nutrition and dietitian at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. “Whether at a restaurant or ordering take out, take a glance at the menu and you may be surprised something that doesn’t include meat actually sounds appealing,” she says.
Here are some more important things you should know if you’re considering going vegetarian:
3. Recruit a buddy
“Embarking on any sort of dietary challenge is difficult to do alone. A friend will help you stay accountable, and you can swap meal ideas and tips on all things plant-based,” Schaub says. You can do dinners together, share recipes, or just know that when you go out on the weekend you’ll still be able to split some bites at the table with someone in the same boat as you. (You can also join Well+Good’s Facebook group, Cook With Us, for a built-in community of supportive healthy foodies.)
4. Stock up your pantry with plant-based options
After all, you can’t cook vegetarian meals if you don’t have the staples. “It may feel like an initial investment up-front to buy some of these items, but having them in your pantry can make meal planning simpler and less foreign” says Sussi. Nab veggie sauces, meat substitutes like tofu or tempeh, tons of beans and legumes, hearty grains, and more to always have on hand at home.
5. Re-invent your favorite dishes and flavors sans meat
“In many of your favorite dishes, the meat can easily be swapped for a plant-based protein,” Schaub says. If you love beef tacos, try black bean tacos with so avocado and chopped veggies. If you love spaghetti and meat sauce, go for a hearty, dense lentil and mushroom based sauce instead—you’ll barely notice the difference! “If your favorite dishes are centered around an animal protein, there is most likely a plant-based protein that would make a tasty replacement,” she says.
And if you’re finding you’re missing the savory, distinct taste of meat…Schaub says you’re probably missing umami flavor, which is easily found in plant foods, too. “Mushrooms are a great example, and they can have a satisfying meat-like texture as well,” says Schaub. “Soy sauce, tamari, or coconut aminos create a umami flavor and can be used to season tons of plant-based dishes,” she adds.
6. Prioritize protein
A common concern with ditching meat is not getting enough protein. However, you can still meet your daily needs from plants alone as long as you’re combining proteins and putting enough on your plate, says Sussi. Meat doesn’t have to be the center of the plate. “It can be black bean tacos, pasta with a nut and herb-based pesto, or vegetables prepared with tofu in a savory sauce paired with brown rice,” she suggests. Switch things up, and play with flavors, including protein at each meal throughout the day. Check out these high-protein vegetarian foods for more ideas.