It’s time to give plant-based eating a try
Your family won’t miss the meat and it’s better for you
Lately, it seems like everyone — from Burger King to celebrity chefs — is touting plant-based foods. And for good reason. Research has shown that eating less meat is better for our bodies and better for the environment — and better for our wallets, too.
“Plant-based” is the trendy term for vegetarian, i.e., it encompasses foods made with plants versus animals.
Before you start buying everything labeled “plant-based” at the grocery store, though, develop a buyer beware mentality. Any food manufacturer can easily call foods such as potato chips, peanut butter, and sugar-filled cereals “plant-based” because they don’t include any meat products.
If your goal is to cut back on meat for your family’s overall health and wellness, it’s important to read labels and to stick with the healthy stuff: fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts, and the like.
“Eating a plant-based diet is beneficial in a myriad of ways, including a lower environmental impact, lower risk of heart disease and some cancers, lower risk of children developing Type 2 diabetes, and a higher intake of important vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytonutrients,” said Stacey Hamblett, a professional plant-based chef, holistic nutritionist, herbalist, and integrative wellness advocate located on the Seacoast.
The beauty of plant-based foods is that they are easy to incorporate in your family’s weekly diets because of how versatile and easily accessible they are. Even replacing two or three meat-based meals a week with something vegetarian can benefit you, your family, and your budget — no matter the varying palates in your household.
“A plant-based diet can mean different things to different people,” said Tiffany Calcutt, MBA, RDN, LD, President and Founder of Harvest Nutrition & Wellness, LLC, based in Peterborough.
“I look at this newer terminology as a spectrum, ranging from a diet that is semi-vegetarian to a vegetarian diet that has no meat or fish but includes dairy and eggs, all the way to a diet that is vegan.”
Plant-based foods have come a long way over the years, and now it’s easier than ever to trick even the most passionate of carnivores into not missing the meat. Beans and lentils, for instance, provide a satiating alternative to animal proteins. Quinoa is chock-full of protein and fiber, and adds plenty of heft to any dish.
“There are several sneaky ‘meat extenders’ — plant-based substitutes that can be added to meals such as tacos, meatballs, lasagna or burgers, without depriving folks of the meaty taste they may love,” Calcutt said. “For example, instead of using two pounds of beef and pork to make a meatloaf, one could substitute in one pound of mushrooms and begin by cutting back on the meat.”
All of these ideas to incorporate more vegetarian foods in our diets sound great for the adults, but we all know who the toughest of critics at the dinner table are — the kids. How can we get them on board with a diet that includes fewer hot dogs and more beans?
“I have found that kids love learning about (and eating) plant-based foods when you teach them to garden and cook,” Hamblett said. “Let them plant a summer garden filled with herbs, leafy greens, carrots, beets, and more, and get them involved in the kitchen. You will be surprised when they ask to make a salad and even to add parsley to it (I have witnessed it).”
Calcutt agrees that it’s important to empower kids with choices especially given their unique preferences. Calcutt loves making Buddha Bowls for kids, where one cooks a grain, such as brown rice, and then sets out numerous toppings to mix in. Think tofu, avocado, broccoli, etc.
“Then everyone gathers around the bowls and plops in what he/she wishes. Everyone’s bowl will look different and all tastes can be met,” Calcutt said.
Despite the many positives with incorporating more plant-based foods in your diet, there are also some risks to consider — especially if you decide to go fully meat-free.
For instance, soy, found in tofu and plant-based “meats,” can mimic the activity of estrogen in the body, which could increase your breast cancer risk and cause other health issues in some, so it’s important to read labels and check with your doctor.
You also need to ensure that your family is eating a well-balanced diet and getting the proper nutrients that all of your household’s different bodies need.
“It’s important everyone obtains adequate calcium, vitamin D, B-12, iron, and zinc — nutrients which many animal products such as dairy and red meat deliver readily,” Calcutt said. “These needs can easily be met with proper knowledge of alternate food sources and/or supplementation.”
Adding more plant-based foods and meals to your family’s regular repertoire can be easy, beneficial, and budget-friendly. Just be sure to eat the right plant-based foods so your family is getting the dietary benefit it deserves.
“In my professional opinion, there are no drawbacks to eating a plethora of plant-based foods,” Hamblett said.
Meatless recipes to try at home
Lovin’ It Lasagna
Recipe courtesy of Tiffany Calcutt of Harvest Nutrition & Wellness, LLC.
Yields: 8-10 servings
A pound of lasagna noodles (bonus points for whole-wheat variety)
24 ounces marinara sauce
A pound of extra-firm tofu
1¾ cups shredded cheese (recommended: equal parts Mozzarella and Parmesan, with ¼ cup set aside for topping)
Crushed red pepper, Italian seasoning, and/or salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 375°F. Cook pasta according to package instructions. Drain and set aside. Note: there will be leftover noodles, which make for a handy quick snack or lunchbox addition.
Place tofu in blender with egg and optional seasonings. Pulse or mix until it’s a ricotta-like consistency.
Pour small amount (1/4 cup-ish) of sauce into 9×13 baking dish and spread out. Construct first lasagna layer as follows: Place four noodles on bottom, top with half of tofu/egg mixture, then sprinkle ¾ cup cheese, followed by ½ of remaining sauce. Repeat with second layer. Finally, place four more noodles on top and sprinkle with last ¼ cup of cheese.
Cover with foil and bake for 25 minutes. Uncover and bake for 5-10 more minutes or until golden on top. Let rest 15 minutes before serving.
Note: Adventurous families can also blend several handfuls of raw baby spinach in with the tofu for a “spring green” lasagna filling.
The texture and taste of this lasagna is no different than your favorite family recipe, but the nutritional value is far superior thanks to protein-rich tofu that replaces ricotta cheese. Never tried tofu? Here’s the perfect way to incorporate it into a meal where no one except the chef knows.
Quick & Easy Cold Soba Noodles
Recipe courtesy of Chef Stacey Hamblett.
Yields: 1 serving
1 bundle of your favorite soba noodle (I love Organic Planet)
¼ cup frozen peas
¼ (or more) cup of fried tofu (I have this on-hand so I can just eat it as is with soy sauce and tamari, or to pop into meals. Always found in fridge at Asian Markets.)
½ cup chopped bok choy
2 tablespoons chopped cashews
1 green onion, chopped
Handful of fresh cilantro, chopped
1 tablespoon sesame oil
2 tablespoons soy sauce (I prefer tamari)
1 teaspoon agave
¼ of a lime, juiced
Optional: sliced jalapenos or a sprinkle of crushed red chili pepper flakes
In a small sauce pot, bring about 3 cups of water to boil. Add soba noodles and the frozen peas. Cook about 3 to 5 minutes or until noodles are al dente. Drain and rinse with cool water.
Add sesame oil, soy sauce, lime and agave, and stir to cover noodles thoroughly. The noodles will soak up the dressing, so don’t worry if it looks a little “soupy.”
Add the rest of the ingredients and season to taste. Place in fridge overnight so you can enjoy how the flavors have come together the next day.
Michelle Lahey is a food writer who has been writing about (and eating) food in New Hampshire for over 10 years. Outside of food, you can find her sipping on a good IPA, correcting other people’s grammar, or hiking in the White Mountains.