To help reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, opt for more plant-based dishes, such as Maple Roasted Tofu with Butternut Squash and Bacon (clockwise from top); Quinoa Bowl with Crispy Brussels Sprouts, Eggplant and Tahini; and Mushroom Bourguignon.
Vary the types of beans you eat to make meals more interesting.
For all of my adult life, I’ve reveled in rare rib-eye steaks and oozing Camembert. I won’t let go of my drumstick until I’ve gnawed off every bit of cartilage and golden skin, and it’s best to not even talk about bacon so crisp that it won’t bend for that first porky bite.
Yet over the past few months, I’ve cut way down on my lamb chops and grilled cheese sandwiches. And if you’re a meat-and-dairy eater who aches over the environmental state of our planet, then you might be thinking of doing the same thing.
It started in the spring, when my colleagues Julia Moskin and Brad Plumer teamed up to report on how our food system is contributing to climate change. The results were crystal-clear and deeply depressing. Meat and dairy production alone accounts for 14.5% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions — as much each year as from all cars, trucks, airplanes and ships combined. It’s a staggering statistic.
Becoming vegan would be the most planet-friendly way to go, followed by going vegetarian. In my case, those diets would be a professional liability, and to be perfectly honest, I don’t know that I’ve got the willpower to stick to either one. I love meat and dairy too much to give them up entirely. But eating less of them — that I can do.
So how much meat and dairy should we eat? And if we reduce our intake severely, should we worry about getting enough protein?
According to Marion Nestle, an author and professor emeritus of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, if you are getting enough calories, then you are getting enough protein. (That is, unless you are an elite athlete.)
“People are very concerned about protein, but it’s a nonissue,” she said. “It’s in grains; it’s in vegetables; it’s everywhere. It will find you.”
With that anxiety abated, I turned to setting a concrete goal: a balance of plant-based versus meat-and-dairy meals to strive for every week.
After some mental calisthenics, I landed on trying to limit myself to two to three meals that include meat, seafood or dairy per week, and thrice-daily splashes of milk in my tea (nonnegotiable if I want to retain my sanity). I figure this is about a 40% reduction from the six to eight meaty, cheesy, anchovy- and yogurt-laden meals I had been eating weekly. (The rest were already meat- and dairy-free, and I don’t typically eat breakfast.)
Another way to strategize is to try keeping the daily mix of what you eat to 80% plant matter and 20% meat, dairy and seafood. (Going vegan all day, then having a small amount of meat or cheese with dinner is one way that people make this work.)
For my meat allotment, I’ve focused more on chicken, pork and local seafood (especially mollusks), which are generally less taxing to the environment than beef and lamb, both of which are now relegated to special-occasion status.
What follows is my personal guide to eating less meat, and dairy, too.
1. Eat beans and more beans
We are a family of bean lovers, so adding more of them to our weekly menu makes for happiness all around. To keep us from getting bored, though, I’ve widened the net, seeking out less common varieties, such as brown-dappled Jacob’s Cattle beans and purple-swirled Christmas lima beans, along with my usual roster of chickpeas, lentils and cannellini.
I’ve also changed the way I think about chili, one of my go-to bean-based meals. I used to add a small amount of ground meat to my chili pot as a matter of course, unless I was making a specifically vegetarian chili. Now, I usually skip the meat — save for the occasional spoonful of bacon grease or lard for richness — and I don’t miss it.
Beans are also excellent stand-ins for meat in certain recipes, such as using chickpeas in a riff on Indian butter chicken, and filling tacos with black beans instead of pork. And there’s an entire universe of dals that I’m continuing to explore.
2. Turn to high-protein
grains (pasta counts!)
Yes, there’s quinoa, the quick-cooking staple that fills many a grain bowl. But there’s also kamut, teff, millet, wild rice, buckwheat, cornmeal and even pasta. Grains have a lot more protein than we often give them credit for, along with a host of other vital nutrients, especially when we eat them whole. (I’ll always have a soft spot for white rice, though, whether it’s steamed sticky rice, or basmati pilaf, or Carolina long-grain rice cooked into pudding.)
Grain bowls make diverse, ever-changing meals that I can throw together from whatever is in the fridge, anything from leftovers to condiments or both. These days I find myself putting together a grain bowl at least once a week, topped with roasted vegetables and some kind of savory sauce to bind everything together. These bowls never get boring.
But within this category, pasta is my first choice, and I adore it in every incarnation. And using toasted breadcrumbs in place of Parmesan keeps the dairy quotient down, too.
3. Elevate your tofu game
Whether pillow-soft and fluffy or crisp-edged and browned, tofu is always welcome on my plate. This is not the case for the rest of my family. The trick in our house has been to pair tofu, which has a relatively neutral taste, with ingredients with pizazz — the more umami-intense, the better. Miso, soy sauce, mushrooms, hot sauce and fermented black beans do a lot of the heavy lifting.
Another strategy is to mix in a small amount of meat — ground chicken or pork, or a little bacon — to add a large amount of flavor. Cooking it all on a sheet pan makes for an easy weeknight meal.
4. Embrace nuts and seeds
Whether toasted and chopped so they’re satisfyingly crunchy, or puréed and seasoned to become alluringly creamy dressings or sauces, nuts and nut butters are a great way to round out a plate of roasted, steamed or raw vegetables.
But what I really want to talk about is my newfound love of homemade vegan cheese. The best recipes I’ve tried are made from cashews, ground up with nutritional yeast and all manner of seasonings (smoked paprika, garlic powder, oregano), and then set with agar powder.
No, they don’t taste anything like actual cheese. But when I rush home, ravenous and stressed after work, and there’s some in the refrigerator that I can heap onto my Wheat Thins and nibble with my glass of wine, I don’t miss Stilton nearly as much as I’d feared.
5. Consider plant-based meats
There’s no denying how processed most vegan meats are, loaded with unidentifiable ingredients, but they do scratch the itch for burgers and meatballs. And plant-based sausages remind me of kishke, a traditional Jewish and Eastern European sausage made with beef and bread or grains, in a very good way. These products are often a starting point for people who want to cut down on their meat intake — and, with some brands, once that faux burger patty is stuffed into a bun and loaded with condiments, it might be hard to tell the difference.
6. Make every bite of real meat count
Now that I’m eating less meat, every morsel needs to hold its own. Which means I’m less likely to bother with a chicken breast when a smaller amount of Italian turkey sausage, sautéed until crisp and strewn over my spinach salad, delivers more oomph.
Or how about duck confit? Assertively flavored cured pork — bacon, salami, prosciutto — add salty brawn to roasted vegetables and grains, pastas and salads, and a little goes a long way.
Then there’s good, concentrated broth, whether it’s bone broth or otherwise. Using beef broth in mushroom bourguignon contributes tons of savory character without adding meat.
And making bone broth from scratch with the leftovers of a meaty meal helps, at least a tiny bit, with the severe problem of food waste in this country. But really, make it because it tastes good.