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Meatless meals growing in popularity

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I consider myself a vegetarian.

It’s the easy response when someone notices that I don’t eat meat. But truth be told, I eat dairy, eggs and seafood. So technically I’m a pescetarian, which sounds like a religion, so I stick with “vegetarian.”

My diet is simple: I eat what I want. More often than not, my preference leans toward vegetables and other plant foods.

A growing trend

According to the Vegetarian Resource Group, only 5 percent of Americans define themselves as vegetarian or vegan, but interest is growing. People are looking for ways to change up their diet to feel better and improve health.

A plant-based eating pattern may be the most effective and delicious way toward a healthier body weight, lower blood pressure and improved blood sugar control. The reason for this includes a higher intake of fiber and a lower intake of saturated fat.

Healthfulness aside, committing to “never eating meat again” can be too restrictive for some people. Instead, a shift to a plant-based eating pattern, the foundation of a vegetarian diet, offers flexibility by changing the proportions of what’s in your diet so the majority comes from plant foods.

If this sounds inviting to you, here are some satisfying tips to try:

Ease into it by modifying meaty recipes you already know. Lentils in place of ground beef in meatballs, lasagna with zucchini and eggplant, and tempeh tacos instead of chicken.

Bulk up meals by adding veggies where you can. Pack in flavor by spreading hummus, avocado or pesto on sandwiches instead of mayo and cheese.

Go meatless once a week to get comfortable creating vegetarian meals. If you’ve already jumped on the global Meatless Monday movement, increase the number of meals you prepare. Find recipes at

Try new vegetables weekly. This is a perfect time of year to explore local produce at the growers’ markets. Talk with the farmer about the tender arugula and crimson beets, and how to best prepare each. Some farmers even offer recipes.

Concentrate on flavor. Spice and seasonings can liven up any dish. Build up meatless momentum and explore cuisines of the Middle East and India, where vegetarian meals are common.

Plan well

Protein is synonymous with animal foods, but it’s a misconception that vegetarian diets fall short. Plant foods have protein too, and even small amounts add up.

Some stand out as worthier sources: legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains. A handful of these are complete proteins, providing all nine essential amino acids, just like meat and poultry: quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth and soy.

It’s the total protein package that matters and plants deliver protein with more fiber and less fat.

The easy way

Putting all this advice together can be a challenge when you enter the unfamiliar territory of less meat on the menu.

Here are some ways to redefine the focus of the meal:

  • Love legumes. White beans have more calcium. Lentils provide nearly twice as much iron as beans. Canned are fine, just rinse them well to reduce sodium. Add to salads or soups, and blend them up. Toss lentils with a bunch of colorful, finely chopped vegetables, red pepper flakes and vinaigrette, and stuff the salad in a pita.
  • Broccoli, bok choy, cabbage, mustard greens and kale can be prepared numerous ways with simple flavorings and provide calcium and omega-3 fats.
  • A plant protein standard, tofu, is also a terrific source of iron, zinc and calcium. Because it takes on the flavor of whatever it’s cooked with, it can be used in sweet or savory dishes. Use the firm variety to sauté, bake or grill and the silken tofu for soups and chocolate mousse.
  • Offering a firmer meatier texture, a half-cup of tempeh has 15 grams of protein, and like tofu is also a source of iron, zinc, calcium and omega-3 fats.
  • Nuts and seeds are tiny packages that pack a lot of nutrition. They are rich in fiber and healthy fats. A quarter-cup serving also helps meet zinc requirements.
  • Almonds and sesame seeds offer the most calcium. Walnuts, hempseed, chia and flaxseed are rich in omega-3s. Good as portable snacks, even better toasted and tossed on veggies.

Put it into practice

As you fire up the grill this season, make room for more plant-based proteins and colorful veggies. Grill artichoke halves and cabbage wedges and serve with a spicy dressing. Consider alternatives to meat, such as seared cauliflower “steaks,” grilled tofu and a marinated Portobello mushroom burger.

Beyond merely meeting nutritional needs, a plant-based diet offers many health benefits and eating more vegetarian meals can be an easy and delicious way to explore new foods and flavors.

Grilled Tofu

1 14-ounce package extra firm tofu, drained

1 teaspoon fresh minced gingerroot

1 tablespoon minced garlic

2 teaspoons brown sugar

2 teaspoons sriracha sauce (more to taste)

3 tablespoons lime juice

2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce

1 teaspoon sesame oil

2 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper, to taste

Preheat grill to high. Brush and oil the grill grate.

Slice tofu into 6 thick slices. Place each slice in a baking dish and cover with a towel. Pat tofu dry well.

In a small bowl, mix remaining ingredients. Pour ¾ of marinade over tofu slices and let sit at least 15 minutes.

Arrange the tofu pieces on the grate, and grill over low indirect heat until nicely browned with grill marks, 2-4 minutes per side. For a cross-hatch pattern, turn tofu 90 degrees halfway through grilling each side.

Remove from grill and top with remaining marinade. Serve immediately with veggie kabobs, tabbouleh salad and fruit.

Jennie McCary, MS, RD, LD, is an Albuquerque-based dietitian practicing in worksite wellness, family nutrition and private consulting. She is a member of the New Mexico Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and can be reached at