How to Eat Less Meat (Without Missing It)

These simple tips will help you incorporate more vegetables and plant-based ingredients into your meals.

Julia Gartland
Julia Gartland

The popularity of a plant-based lifestyle is on the rise, and for good reason. The benefits are too many to count. Reducing meat intake is guaranteed to boost the health of our bodies—and the planet we inhabit. In addition, phasing out meat (and even dairy and eggs) is a huge win for animals. Luckily, it has never been easier to eat less meat. Plant-based foods, from healthy fruits and vegetables to plant-based meat alternatives, are more accessible than ever. You'll notice them on the shelves at the supermarket and on the menus at your favorite restaurants.

The best part is, there's no right or wrong way to embrace a life with less meat consumption. We spoke to experts to learn how to get started, including which sources of protein are the best substitutes for meat, and how to avoid common mistakes. Whether you want to go vegan for the animals or just want to make some health-related changes in your diet, consider this your guide to getting started and feeling full and satisfied on your meatless journey.

Meet Our Expert

  • Lauren Manaker, MS, RDN, LDN. CLEC, an award-winning registered dietitian, author, and owner of Nutrition Now Counseling

  • Jess Damuck, recipe developer and author of Health Nut: A Feel-Good Cookbook

  • Joanne Molinaro, New York Times best-selling cookbook author and creator of The Korean Vegan

Related: 26 One-Pot Vegetarian Recipes to Add to Your Weekly Dinner Rotation

The Benefits of Eating Less Meat

Personal Health

Personal health is often the jumping-off point for those who embrace a plant-based diet. Data shows that eating plant-based leads to both short- and long-term health and longevity. According to Lauren Manaker, MS, RDN, LDN. CLEC, a registered dietitian and nutritionist, eating plant-based can contribute to improved gut and heart health, lower blood pressure, and even a reduced risk of chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and certain cancers.

While it requires some planning, it’s entirely possible to get all of the nutrients that are normally found in animal products, such as B12, iron, choline, and omega-3 fatty acids from plant-based sources. B-12 can be found in nutritional supplements, but also in low-fat milk and yogurt, fortified cereals, and nutritional yeast. Ingredients like lentils, quinoa, and spinach are rich in iron, and Manaker points out that you can even enhance iron absorption by pairing those foods with ones that are vitamin C-rich, like oranges and bell peppers. Choline is crucial for brain health and can be found in a variety of soy products, as well as quinoa and Brussels sprouts. Omega-3 fatty acids can be incorporated with foods like walnuts, flax, and hemp seeds.

The Environment

In addition to personal health goals, reducing your meat and dairy intake can have a significant impact on the environment. According to the National Institutes of Health, transitioning to plant-based diets "has the potential to reduce diet-related land use by 76 percent and diet-related greenhouse gas emissions by 49 percent." Livestock, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, are responsible for almost 15 percent of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.

Ending World Hunger

Plant-based diets provide a long-term solution to hunger among our planet’s population. National Geographic outlined a five-step plan to feed the world, and one of these steps was to significantly shift our diets. "It would be far easier to feed 9 billion people by 2050 if more of the crops we grew ended up in human stomachs." Currently, about 36 percent of the world’s crops are fed directly to livestock.

Animal Welfare

​​Factory farms, also known as CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) produce 99 percent of the meat consumed in the United States. The animals affected by factory farming are a crucial part of the conversation; they live the vast majority of their lives in wire cages or unsanitary windowless crates. Additionally, factory farming is quite literally making us sick. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have issued warnings that "three out of every four new or emerging infectious diseases in people come from animals."

You know you want to eat less meat, but how should you begin?

Start Small

As with any new habit, going cold turkey (for lack of a better word) isn’t usually going to work out in the long term. Incorporating more fiber and plant-based protein into your meals is a habit that takes time to form.

Rethink Portions

The best place to start is by rethinking portions, says Jess Damuck, author of Health Nut: A Feel-Good Cookbook, a new cookbook filled with vegetable-centric dishes. "Thinking of meat as part of the whole meal instead of the main focus helps shift to a more plant-based way of eating that is totally satisfying," she says. This might mean a handful of crumbled feta on top of a hearty grain bowl, or a nourishing salad topped with a small amount of lean protein. If you want to take it a step further, start swapping the meat for plant-based alternatives. Damuck loves to use jackfruit or mushrooms in place of shredded meat for tacos—both have a relatively neutral flavor and a similar meaty texture.

Add New Foods as You Remove Meat

Joanne Molinaro, a New York Times best-selling cookbook author and creator of The Korean Vegan, says her best advice for starting small is to add something new for everything you subtract. Let’s say you start by eliminating red meat. Use that as an opportunity to replace it with a new ingredient you’ve been wanting to try, like chickpeas or an exciting new variety of mushrooms. Molinaro notes that it doesn’t even have to be a specific food—it could be an entirely new cuisine: "When I went plant-based, I used it as an excuse to try more Indian, Ethiopian, and Korean food."

Try One Meal a Day Without Meat

Another good way to start eating less meat is by removing it from one meal a day. This might mean substituting your breakfast sausage with a plant-based copycat or swapping fried chicken for oyster mushrooms, which have a similar texture. From there, you can work your way up to going meatless for one entire day of the week, and build from there.

Explore Plant-Based Proteins

Some plant-based foods, like whole grains, beans, and legumes, might already be staples in your cooking. It’s easy to forget, but these are each great sources of plant-based protein that will keep you full and satisfied. Even certain vegetables, including broccoli, peas, corn, and potatoes, have a decent amount of protein in them.

Tofu and Tempeh

If health is your priority, tofu and tempeh are great soy products to turn to. They are high in protein, low in fat, and rich in essential vitamins and minerals. Tofu comes in a variety of textures—some (like firm and extra-firm) are ideal for tossing into a stir-fry or crumbling up into a tofu scramble, and others (like silken) are perfect for blending into smoothies or creamy desserts. Tempeh has a slightly nuttier flavor than tofu because it is made from fermented soybeans. Once steamed to soften the blocks, tempeh is perfect for marinating and cooking however you please. You can cut it into planks and sear them or crumble them to use as a ground meat substitute.

Related: Your Guide to Tofu: These Are the Main Types You'll Find at the Grocery Store and How to Enjoy Each of Them


Seitan is incredibly high in protein. It’s on equal footing with lean meat like chicken breast and has about 21 grams per serving (as opposed to tofu, which has 8 grams). Seitan is made using vital wheat gluten, a product made by extracting gluten from wheat flour. It is used to make plant-based deli meats, which can be piled onto all of your favorite meaty sandwiches. It’s also sold in several forms, from nuggets to crumbles. Crumbles have a surprisingly similar texture to ground chicken or beef, so we like to use it to fill tacos. The bite-sized nugget portions can be battered and fried. Their chewy texture is reminiscent of chicken wings—just add your favorite sauce.

Plant-Based Meat Substitutes

Plant-based meat substitutes, like Impossible, Beyond Meat, and Field Roast, are aptly named. It really does seem impossible that the texture and flavor are so similar!

Ground meat: Plant-based ground meats are a 1:1 substitute for ground beef, so you can use them for hearty chili recipes, meat sauce for lasagna, and your other go-to ground meat recipes.

Sausages: These brands also make plant-based sausages that are dead ringers for the meaty originals. Try the patties in your next breakfast sandwich or anywhere you’d usually use sausage links. Keep in mind that these plant-based meat alternatives are often processed, but are not more or less healthy than their animal product counterparts. In fact, Impossible beef has 40 percent less total fat and 33 percent less saturated fat than 80/20 ground beef per serving.

Get Creative with Vegetables (and Nuts)

Manaker notes that many Americans eat far more meat than recommended, and as a result, aren’t getting enough fiber in their diets. Rethinking the way we structure our plates by putting vegetables first is an important step in eating less meat.

Mushrooms: "We’ve all heard of Taco Tuesday, but what about Mushroom Monday?" asks Manaker. Leaning on mushrooms instead of meat can offer a complementary texture with far less fat than animal products. Portobello mushrooms can be used instead of burger patties; maitake mushrooms can be given the BBQ treatment and piled onto brioche buns; cremini mushrooms can be minced and turned into vegan meatballs; and lion’s mane mushrooms can even be used to make lobster rolls or seared and sliced like a steak.

Eggplant: Molinaro likes to substitute eggplant for short ribs. The porous texture of the vegetable means it soaks up delicious marinades (her favorite is Korean BBQ sauce) and slices become meaty and chewy when slow-braised.

Walnuts: Another of Manaker's favorite plant-based ingredients is walnuts. When pulsed in a food processor and simmered in water with some onion, garlic, and cumin, they make a great substitute for taco meat and boost your intake of omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, protein, and antioxidants.

Putting the focus on ingredients like this will automatically help you eat more fiber, plant compounds, and important nutrients.

Overcoming Common Challenges

These are some issues that arise when starting a new plant-based diet—and how to avoid them:

  • Not feeling full: When planning plant-based meals, focus on protein. This will help make sure you don't feel unsatisfied after dinner. If you're used to eating meat most days, make sure you're getting a similar amount of protein from plant-based sources. Look to foods such as seitan, beans, and plant-based meats as your go-to ingredients.

  • Meat cravings: The best way to curb meat cravings is to start small. If you go from eating meat every day to a full menu of tofu and legumes, it’s unlikely you’ll end up sticking to your plant-based diet. Incorporating plant-based ingredients into your meals over time, and reach for foods that taste similar to the animal-based items you already love, like Impossible ground meat or Beyond breakfast sausage.

  • Running out of time: The answer is meal prep! If you set yourself up for success at the beginning of the week, you won’t run into any excuses by Wednesday.

  • Nutritional concerns: Planning ahead is also the way to avoid nutritional concerns. You’ll need to make sure you’re hitting all of your nutritional goals when planning your menus—this includes both macro and micro-nutrients. If you’re transitioning to a plant-based diet and find yourself struggling, Manaker suggests consulting a dietitian to ensure you’re getting all of the nutrients your body needs.

  • Awkward social situations: If you're going out for a special dinner and want to stick to your plant-based diet, the best thing you can do is check the menu ahead of time. Many restaurants will have a handful of vegetarian or vegan options, and even if they don't, they can often be made plant-based with a few minor changes. If you have a say in where you’re eating, Indian, Ethiopian, Korean, and Thai cuisines are just a handful that happen to be very accommodating to meatless eaters. And if no meat-free main option can be arranged, have a healthy snack ahead of time and enjoy the meatless side dish options so you won't feel hungry at the end of the night.

Read the original article on Martha Stewart.