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What I Learned as a Vegetarian

Oven-roasted mushrooms and asparagus.

This post is long overdue. Well, as you know, Easter came — and with it a ridiculous brunch featuring bacon, ham, and several roasts. After six weeks of abstaining from all meat, it was surreal stabbing into a slab of prime rib (thankfully, there were mimosas to go with it), and I couldn’t really eat it. More than anything, I just felt my usual brunch-is-so-wasteful guilt — but times ten.

Still, it’s been nice to be a carnivore again, mostly because I don’t have to think quite so much about what to make for dinner; I never realized how much I depend on chicken in my mealtime repertoire.

Anyway, I wanted to share some of the things I discovered by giving up meat for 40 days.

Even though I was training for a marathon and really depleting my energy stores, I never felt especially hungry or weak due to my lack of meat. I think it’s a myth that we truly need meat for optimal nutrition — even protein. (My kids loved the Greek yogurt and almond butter smoothies I made for breakfast.)

It’s a fun challenge to experiment with substitutes for things like taco meat (add a little cornmeal to your beans before mashing) and chicken salad sandwiches (egg salad with curry powder and olive oil mayo on toasted Ezekiel bread, mmmm). Since the pasta-rice-potato rotation got old very quickly, I was forced to be creative with main dish veggies — like my favorite oven-roasted eggplant — and protein-packed vegetable soups like this one.

I also found that having limited choices is easier in a way, especially at restaurants, where three vegetarian options is about the norm.

My overall impression is that eating less meat is a really good idea — for your family’s health, for the environment (cows being one of the main sources of greenhouse gasses), and for your wallet. And it’s actually pretty easy to do. Here are a few tips for becoming a less-meatatarian:

1. Start by going veg one day a week. You’ve probably heard of Meatless Mondays, but if Mondays don’t work (maybe that’s the day you’re eating leftover roast chicken from Sunday dinner), then pick another day. It can be a different day each week. If once a week freaks you out, go for once every other week.

Arugula with avocado and roasted potatoes.

2. Instead of focusing on the meat you can’t eat, focus on all the delicious foods you can eat. This time of year, the vegetables are especially enticing. I recommend visiting the farmer’s market or join a CSA; you’ll be drooling over all the gorgeous produce you’ll get. And don’t forget super satisfying starches like pasta (I know, how could you forget pasta?), sushi rice, and roasted new potatoes. An arugula salad topped with warm roasted potatoes and a lemony vinaigrette is definitely as delicious as a chicken breast.

3. Eat real food. I’m not a big fan of fake meat. It’s usually very highly processed, full of salt, and made from weird things like hydrolyzed soy protein. I know I might sound a little harsh, but I bet we can all live without sausage patties for one day a week.

4. Try new recipes. There are some good vegetarian recipes here (Have you tried the farro risotto yet? Italian Vegetable Soup?), but beyond these, definitely branch out and try some new stuff. If you still equate vegetarian cooking to the starchy funkiness in the Moosewood cookbooks, I suggest treating yourself to a new(er) vegetarian cookbook, like The Complete Italian Vegetarian Cookbook or Mark Bittman’s encyclopedic How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. Both of these books are very inspiring and are well used around here, even on our meat-eating days.

5. Enjoy what you’re eating. It’s okay to feel a little deprived once in a while, but you shouldn’t be miserable. Plant-based foods can be every bit as satisfying and delicious as meat, even more so when you think about it. All it takes is a little positive spin — and of course some tasty recipes. While a pile of steamed kale might not satisfy your cravings, maybe some delicious oven-roasted mushrooms would? Not feeling inspired by your pot of pasta and summer squash? Toss it with some cheesy basil pesto. The fruit bowl isn’t enticing you? May I suggest making (fresh strawberry) lemonade?

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