Everyone is talking about how to reduce our meat intake, eating more vegetarian (or meat-free) meals and why it is so important.

Doctors talk about eating less red meat, the media is creating hypes around Veganuary and Meat Free Mondays and our supermarkets are offering more and more alternatives to meat.

To start off with, two to three meat-free days (or meals, if that’s easier) are what you should be aiming for, with one day being fish and the others being vegetarian. This way you will learn about how to put together meals and how to look at your meal planning without making any radical changes straight away.

The big why

We are traditionally hunters and gatherers, so why the need to change a diet that seems to be made for us? The truth is, our hunting and gathering days are long gone. Our daily lives have changed drastically, as have our activities and our food gathering – or rather producing.

Eating a mix of meat, fish and vegetarian meals will obviously cut down on your meat intake, which also means a reduction in the diseases linked to meat, but it also diversifies your plate, makes your more aware of what your body actually needs, and it helps to reduce your environmental impact.

First of all, a lot of meat alternatives or simply meat-free meals have a higher nutritional value than our traditional meat and two veg recipes. This is due to the variety of products you will use, but also because the amount of protein we need is actually lower than people expect, and meat-free ingredients will cover this, along with other nutrients.

Eating less meat is also a way to help the environment as the meat industry is causing a fair amount of damage. We have covered this is the past in more depth, but the industry requires a lot of land, more than others, because we require crops to feed the animals, then all the water needed for the crops and later for the animals, as well as all the waste at each stage, plus greenhouse gases. Overall, almost all alternatives are better for the environment.

Core ingredients for a veggie dish

No need to break out the tofu, don’t worry. Unless you want to try tofu, that is. In which case we recommend trying a marinated one and pan-frying it as tofu in itself doesn’t have a lot of flavour.

Before you try all of this though, there are plenty of other options. Most vegetables are more filling than you think, and can easily make up a meal. As for the protein (the small amount you actually need), it could be in an egg or milk product that goes into the sauce, a dip, or in the preparation of the meal, or as nuts on a side salad.

So first of all, think of the veggie dishes you know, such as ratatouille, which is courgette, pepper and tomatoes in a tomato sauce, with optional rice, and add feta on top to make it extra yummy. This is a good example of a meal that doesn’t contain any meat, and is popular and filling.

A vegetable curry (with cauliflower for example) is another staple that requires no meat to be a full meal.

To make your meals even more nutritional and filling, start getting to know your beans and pulses.

Easy ones are black and kidney beans, lentils and chickpeas. They can easily be added to any soup or one pot recipe, for example, in a minestrone, to make a chilli or curry.

Any tinned beans can be drained and are ready to use, or you can wander into the dried ingredients aisle and you will find plenty of other options of beans and legumes. Most of them are very easy to prepare; simply soak them overnight and then cook them.

A great one to try is the soy bean. Cook it from the dry bean and voilà. They have a slightly nutty aftertaste and work well sprinkled on salads, but also on warm dishes, or roasted in a pan like pine nuts.

To add new flavours to your meals, play around with new spices such as chillies or ginger, but especially with fresh herbs as they will add freshness to your dishes.

How to get into it

If at first doing full meals is daunting, start with lighter meals such as salads and sandwiches, which can be very varied even without meat: think of dried fruit, different types of lettuce or even cabbages, croutons made from different breads, a mix of raw and cooked veg and spicy vinaigrettes to make it interesting.

To get to grips with your beans and lentils, the trick is to try them in small quantities and in different ways before making up your mind as to what you prefer.

Some may make a great meal (such as a 3-bean-chilli or lentil soup), others may be easy to add to a salad or dish to get extra nutritional value. Finally, before you decide to move on from a bean or pulse because you think it isn’t for you, try is as a dip. Fun fact, almost any bean makes a good dip: Cook it, blend it with a bit of salt and pepper and garlic, and then season to taste with other spices. It’s a great source of protein and makes for a filling and healthy snack if you have it with some crackers and vegetables.

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