1. Forget the protein thing. Roughly simultaneously with your declaration that you’re cutting back on meat, someone will ask “How are you going to get enough protein?” The answer is “by being omnivorous.” Plants have protein, too; in fact, per calorie, many plants have more protein than meat. (For example, a cheeseburger contains 14.57 grams of protein in 286 calories, or about .05 grams of protein per calorie; a serving of spinach has 2.97 grams of protein in 23 calories, or .12 grams of protein per calorie; lentils have .07 grams per calorie.) By eating a variety, you can get all essential amino acids.
You also don’t have to eat the national average of a half-pound of meat a day to get enough protein. On average, Americans eat about twice as much as the 56 grams of daily protein recommended by the United States Department of Agriculture (a guideline that some nutritionists think is too high). For anyone eating a well-balanced diet, protein is probably not an issue.
2. Buy less meat. How many ounces of meat is a serving? For years, the U.S.D.A.’s recommendation has been four ounces a person, yet most of us have long figured one-and-a-half to two pounds of meat is the right amount for four people. (Our per capita consumption of meat hasn’t changed much over the years, and remains at about a half-pound a day.) Change that amount, and both your cooking style and the way the plate looks will change, and quickly.
Remember that most traditional styles of cooking use meat as a condiment or a treat. This is true in American frontier cooking, where salt pork and bacon were used to season beans; in Italy, where a small piece of meat is served as a secondo (rarely more than a few ounces, even in restaurants); and around the world, where bits of meat are added to stir-fries and salads, as well as bean, rice and noodle dishes. In all of these cases, meat is seen as a treasure, not as something to be gobbled up as if it were air.
For many of us who grew up in the United States in the last 60 years, this is the toughest hurdle. The message (remember “Beef: it’s what’s for dinner”?) was in our psyche from before we could hold a fork. We may have vegetarian nights, or seafood nights, but when we have meat nights, there’s often a big piece of meat (or poultry) on the plate, with starch and vegetable to the side.
3. Get it out of the center of the plate.
You don’t have to jump into utterly unfamiliar territory; just try tweaking the proportions a bit. You might start by buying skinnier pork chops, or doling out smaller slices of steak .
Build the meal around what you used to consider side dishes — not only vegetables, but also grains, beans, salads and even dessert, if you consider fruit a dessert — rather than the meat. Nearly every culture has dishes in which meat is used to season rice or another grain. Consider dirty rice, fried rice, pilaf, biryani, arroz con pollo: the list is almost endless.
Similarly, there isn’t a country in the world that cooks legumes that doesn’t toss a little meat in now and then. And mentioning stir-fries and pasta dishes here seems almost too obvious.
But you need not go transcultural. When you make stew, soup or another dish with many ingredients, you make a decision about its main ingredient and about the quantity of that ingredient. If you think of meat stews or soups, chicken pot pie, even lasagna, you’ll quickly recognize that the decision to load them up with meat or to use meat as an ingredient of equal importance to the others is entirely yours.
The same is true when you’re grilling. Compare these statements: “We’re grilling a leg of lamb and throwing a few vegetables on there,” and “We’re grilling vegetables and breads, and will throw a few chunks of lamb on there.” Again, if you see the meat as a treasure, things change.
4. Buy more vegetables, and learn new ways to cook them.
If you’re a good cook, you already know you can make a meal out of pretty much anything. If you open your refrigerator and it’s stocked with vegetables, that’s what you’re going to cook. You’ll augment the vegetables with pantry items: pasta, rice, beans, cheese, eggs, good canned fish, bacon, even a small amount of meat. We’re not discussing vegetarianism, remember?
If you’re not a good cook, you have the opportunity to learn how to cook in what could turn out to be the style of the future.
5. Make nonmeat items as convenient as meat. There is a myth, even among experienced cooks, that few things are as convenient as meat. And while there’s no arguing that grilling, broiling or pan-grilling a steak or chop is fast, it’s equally true that almost no one considers such a preparation a one-dish meal.
By thinking ahead, and working ahead, you can make cooking vegetables as convenient as what in India is often called “non-veg.” Spend an hour or two during the course of the week precooking all the nonmeat foods you think take too long for fast dinners.
Store cooked beans in the refrigerator or freezer and reheat as needed, with seasonings. Keeping precooked beans in the freezer will change your cooking habits more easily than any other simple strategy.
Reheat cooked whole grains (the microwave is good for this) for breakfast with milk or dinner with savory seasonings. Wash tender greens and store in a salad spinner, covered bowl, or plastic bag. Most other vegetables can be poached, shocked in ice water, drained, and served cold or reheated in any fashion you like — sautéed quickly in butter, steamed, grilled or made into a gratin or something equally substantial.
6. Make some rules. Depending on your habits, it may be no bacon at breakfast; it may be no burgers at lunch; it may be no fast food, ever; it may be “eat a salad instead of a sandwich three times a week,” or “eat a vegetarian dinner three times a week.” It may mean meatless Fridays. It may mean (this is essentially what I do) meatless breakfasts and lunches and all-bets-are-off dinners.
7. Look at restaurant menus differently. If you’re cutting back on meat, there are three restaurant strategies. Two are easy, and one is hard, but probably the most important.
The first: go to restaurants that don’t feature meat-heavy dishes. It’s harder to go overboard eating at most Asian restaurants, and traditional Italian is fairly safe also.
The second: Once in a while, forget the rules and pledges, and eat like a real American; obviously you can’t do this every time, but it’s an option.
The third is the tricky one: Remember you’re doing this voluntarily, for whatever reasons seem important to you (or at least seemed, until you were confronted with the lamb shanks on the menu). Then order from the parts of the menu that contain little or no meat: salads, sides, soups and (often, anyway) appetizers. If all else fails, offer to share a meat course among two or even three or four people