Thursday, September 8, 2016

More Thoughts on Food: On Being Mostly Vegetarian

Avocado Toast, Cucumber/Tomato Salad, Pickled Beet Salad

A little over a year ago I wrote a post all about my complex feelings around food, plus a reading list. Well, recently I've been diving a (very little) bit into my next book club book: How Not to Die: Discover the Foods Scientifically Proven to Prevent and Reverse Disease by Dr. Michael Gregor. Perhaps I should wait until I actually finish the book before writing on the topic, but even the little bit I've read has dragged up so many of my foodie issues. That, and the fact that I'm finally (finally!) able to eat a little bit more normally, means that food is on the brain, and so here I am, writing about it all over again.

In that post last year, I mentioned my anxiety over choosing a healthy, daily diet for my family. I'm a fairly avid blog reader, I follow all sorts of cooking blogs as well as "lifestyle" blogs, and I tend to get super anxious when I read about other people's super committed diets to Paleo, or Whole30, or Extreme Raw Veganism, or whatever. But I'm becoming more and more confident in the pattern our daily family diet is developing. Using extremely unscientific methods such as experimentation, trial and error, gut instinct, and a smattering of what is probably biased research, I've decided that the best overall diet for our family (re: my shopping and cooking style), is to be about 90% vegetarians. We will never, ever be 100% vegetarians because: bacon. Also, barbecue. (And we will never, ever be vegan because: cheese).

However, over the past few years we have cut way, way back on our meat consumption. This pattern almost started out accidentally, but then we felt so good about it that it has now become a conscious choice. Here are my reasons for being mostly vegetarian:

1. Meat is expensive. This is actually how we started becoming accidental vegetarians. During our Law School years, when I was working my hardest to keep our grocery budget at its cheapest point possible, I stopped buying meat because we didn't have a really great source for quality, affordable meat (I love Aldi with a passion, but our Chicago Aldi's meat selection was a little sketchy to say the least, and quality meat at other stores was out of our price range). But we did have this awesome local produce store (oh, how I miss you, Hyde Park Produce!) that sold all sorts of great, fresh veggies for super cheap, so I started buying and cooking with more vegetables purely as a way to cut down on our food budget, but then discovered the following amazing benefit:

2. Veggies are faster and easier to cook with. Now, this may not be universally true for everyone or every meal. After all, when it comes to fresh veggies and fruit, there is a fair amount of washing and peeling and dicing and whatever that can take up lots of time. But, at least for the way I cook, I found vegetables to be way less stressful. No more trying to remember to defrost meat in time (oh, how I loathe defrosting meat)! No more trying to cut up raw meat (ugh)! No more guessing about whether meat was cooked to the right temperature, or was overcooked, or too dry, or marinated long enough, or not seasoned enough! No more worrying about bacteria, or safe-handling, or keeping cutting boards separate, or whatever! For me, cooking daily with meat was more stressful and demanding than simply cooking with vegetables.Meatless meals were just easier.

3. It feels good! When you start replacing meat with more veggies, it's obviously more healthy, and we felt the difference. Maybe it's all psychological, but whatever. Now when we eat too much meat, it feels heavy and uncomfortable. When we stick to our vegetarian meals, it feels good.

4. The research backs it up. By this, I mean the little bit of research I've done seems to indicate that our 90% vegetarianism is an okay way to go, health-wise. Humans are omnivores, and meat is technically not unhealthy, so we're okay with not cutting meat out entirely. But some research shows that it does seem to be better to eat meat in moderation. So we still have a meat heavy meal once or twice a week (usually on Sunday, usually fish or chicken), and we still enjoy our meat when we go out to eat occasionally. But for our every-day meals, we try to stay vegetarian. (I'm very glad to find that so far, Dr. Gregor seems to support me).

5. Word of Wisdom. Mormon thing here, but technically eating meat sparingly is a scriptural commandment for us (albeit one that we tend to gloss over as a culture).

6. It's environmentally and ethically responsible. I know for most hardcore vegetarians, this is their numero uno reason for choosing this diet. Judge me how you want, but I'd be lying if I didn't admit this is a pretty low motivation for me. Honestly, budget and health concerns are much more important to me, but every time I read about how gross and disgusting commercial meat production is, or how cow methane is a huge contributor to global warming, or whatever, I feel just ever so slightly more justified and motivated to stick to this diet of moderate meat consumption.

But, while I have all of these reasons to stick to our mostly vegetarian diet, I'll admit that it isn't always easy. Our modern American food culture kind of revolves around meat, and finding a good collection of cheap, satisfying, convenient vegetarian meals to stack my meal planning calendar with hasn't been easy. So, for the benefit of anyone else out there interested, I'm sharing a few tricks and tips I've picked up along the way (and a few links to my favorite recipes).

Tip 1: Turn Multiple Sides Into a Meal Honestly, eating vegetarian has meant entirely re-framing what dinner can look like. Even really good veggie recipes usually tout themselves as a side, and mentally it's a little hard to think of vegetable dishes as sustaining main courses (depending on what they are), so what I often do is serve a meal of multiple side dishes, like a couple easy salads with some roasted veggies, or something. Take for instance, the meal pictured above: the ubiquitous avocado toast with a cucumber/tomato salad, and a pickled beet salad. All together, it's enough to fill you up for dinner (with generous helpings of seconds, naturally).

-Marinated Beet Salad
-Avocado Tomato Salad

Tip 2: Eggs! Ah, eggs, another reason I could never go vegan. Going vegetarian means actively finding alternate sources of proteins, and eggs are amazing! I didn't love eggs growing up, and I didn't start loving them until I stopped thinking of them as a breakfast food and started thinking of them as a dinner food. Now I love, love, love eggs, and especially meals that center around eggs. (My mom freaks out about cholesterol and refuses to eat whole eggs, so I don't know, not a health expert here, maybe eggs aren't the healthiest way to go, but my own biased research has reassured me that my family's high egg consumption is probably nothing to worry about). I've been a bit distressed at the rising cost of eggs in my area in recent years, but even so, eggs are still waaaaay cheaper than almost any type of meat I could be serving, so it's a budget win as well. Here are some of my favorite egg-centered meal recipes:

-Eggs with Sweet Potato Hash
-Fried Egg Tostada
-Scrambled Eggs (like Julia Child taught me how to make them) over toast

Tip 3: Beans Oh, I could write an entire post devoted to my love of black beans! Is this weird? I know it's weird. No one else seems to love black beans the way I do. But in the pursuit of alternate and filling sources of protein, beans (especially black beans) have risen to the top of my favorite foods. Considering how many cases of canned black beans we go through in a month, I should probably just invest in bulk dry beans and can my own, but, lazy. I even use beans as a replacement for meat in many of favorite recipes (usually of the tex-mex southwest variety). Now, I used to be a bit self-conscious about how much we eat beans. I wasn't sure if they were actually all that healthy (after all, none of the recent fad diets seem to be promoting beans). But my own (biased) research has reassured me again that beans are not just a great source of protein, but relatively healthy as well, so I'm calling it a win. Oh, and for those less fortunate members of our household who struggle with the gaseous side-effects of beans (and who shall remain nameless to protect their innocence), we simply invest in Beano in bulk and go on our merry way. It works in the end.

(For recipes involving black beans, see nearly every other recipe linked to here.)

Tip 4: Soup How I envy those of you who are currently entering soup season. I love soup so, so, so, much. Soup is also one of the easiest ways to make hearty vegetarian meals that actually fill you up. Unfortunately, the weather here in Houston being what it is, I rarely feel like making soup. But throughout the winter months, I'll check the weather forecast every time I meal plan, and if the temperature ever drops below 70, I put soup on the menu. Here are some of our favorites:

-Sweet Potato and Black Bean Chili
-Corn, Jalepeno, and Sweet Potato Bisque

Tip 5: Main Dish Veggies There are a certain class of vegetables that are hearty enough to stand as main courses on their own, if prepared the right way, like squash and sweet potatoes. In recent years I have developed a love for sweet potatoes to rival my love of black beans, they are a meal-planning staple around here. Squashes (especially acorn and spaghetti) are big favorites around here too, but usually are a little too expensive out of season.

-Chipotle Spaghetti Squash Taco Stacks (I omit the meat suggested in this recipe, it lacks nothing without it. Also, if you read through this recipe, it sounds very strange at first, but trust me, it is incredibly delicious, if you like the chipotle flavor, that is.)
-Chipotle Sweet Potato Burrito Bowls (I may have a thing for chipotle)
-Stuffed Sweet Potatoes (I omit the turkey in this one too, and it also lacks nothing)

Tip 6: Salad This one is a no-brainer, right? If you load them up with enough veggies, throw in some protein sources (like black beans! or eggs!), and add a tasty dressing, even salads become a satisfying main course (and no guilt about seconds!).

-Spring Roll Salad (Okay, this recipe is technically for Spring Rolls, not a salad, but I usually find it easier to chop up the lettuce and throw all the toppings on, dress with any of the dipping sauces, the sriracha mayo being my favorite, and call it a meal. A delicious meal.)
-Massaged Kale Salad
-Southwest Quinoa Salad

A Note on Grains: So, I've found that another easy and cheap way to fill up my family for dinner is to simply serve a whole lot of grain, unfortunately usually of the refined and highly processed variety (pasta, rice, etc.). While nobody in my family (currently) suffers from a gluten intolerance, and I have no reason to believe that grains are inherently unhealthy for us, just like meat I believe this is an area where type, quality, and quantity matter. I'm slowly working to reduce our reliance on refined and processed grains, and replace them with higher quality whole grains, but this has been an area of struggle for me. I absolutely love quinoa, but it's so much more expensive than white rice that I just haven't been able to use it as a complete substitute yet. And I'm sorry, but you will pry a good quality French bread out of my cold, dead hands. And a good fluffy dinner roll is my husband's food love-language. This is an area where we will just always have to be moderators rather than abstainers. But it's a good goal for us to work toward.

Okay folks, has this been enough rambling on about vegetarian stuff? Well, there might be more about this coming the more I get into this book. Also, I'm just a little bit excited about getting back into the groove of our vegetable-heavy meals after three months of the morning-sickness-not-cooking-anything-survival-mode diet, so it's just a thing right now. And, as a warning, this reintroduction into the world of meal-planning has led me to explore some of the more dusty corners of my Pinterest archive which means I've found a few more recipe links that, unfortunately, are no longer active (remember this post from last summer?). So, while I promise this is NOT going to turn into a food blog (um, my food photography skills just can't support that), I'm afraid I will be using this space to post a few of my (veggie-friendly!) recipes that I happily still remember, but unfortunately no longer reside on the web. So you can look forward to that over the next few days (weeks? undetermined length of time).

And please! If you have any vegetarian-friendly meal favorites of your own, hit me with them! I'm open.

(Also, please note, I'm not a dietitian, doctor, or expert of any sort on any of this stuff. It's all opinion based on my own narrow research and experience. I'm in no way trying to promote this as the end-all-be-all of healthy diets that every person should adopt. Just sort of rambling my way around all this stuff. Carry on.)


  1. Most of our vegetarian meals (when I make them, which isn't often) are the Tex-Mex variety. In fact, one of our favorite [just so happens to be vegetarian] meals is what I call "dippy dinner." Basically, it's all sorts of chip dips: homemade guacamole and black bean salsa, plus store-bought salsa con queso, or sometimes homemade 7-layer dip. Then we just eat chips and dip. It's yummy! Other than that--I guess sometimes our pasta is vegetarian, or grilled cheese and tomato-basil soup...hmmm. Yep, not much. At one point I was trying to make at least one vegetarian meal per week, but I have gotten away from that.
    By the way, if you want the black bean salsa recipe, it's a good one! :)Let me know.

    1. A "dippy dinner" sounds like so much fun! We do something like that for Christmas Eve (though it's more an American take on the smorgashboard, but still involves lots of dips), but I'd never thought to do it as a fun weeknight dinner. (And yes, obviously I want your black bean salsa recipe, please send along!)

    2. My Favorite Black Bean Salsa

      1 can black beans, drained & rinsed
      1 bunch green onions, chopped
      1 red, yellow, or orange bell pepper, chopped
      1/2 bag frozen corn
      1 bunch cilantro, chopped

      3 T. lime juice
      3 T. balsamic vinegar
      1/2 tsp cumin
      dash of salt

      Put all ingredients into bowl and mix well.

      Hmmm...maybe I'll have to make this today! Writing about it is making me crave it! :)

  2. Dr. Greger is the man. I loved "How Not To Die" but I'm pretty biased because I'm been trying to eat whole foods, plant-based for 2 years now and it's been total game changer for me. :) Because you like beans, you might like hummus quesadillas. Just spread hummus over a tortilla, sprinkle taco seasoning on the hummus with black beans, spinach, tomatoes, or whatever else sounds good and put another tortilla on top and cook on the skillet, flipping over to cook on both sides. This is good topped with avocado and salsa and served with Mexican rice. We also do a lot of stir fry with a peanut thai sauce or sometimes we just roast a bunch of veggies and chickpeas (with some salt/pepper and basil on them) on a cookie sheet and serve that over rice and some sort of hot sauce. Anyway, hope one of those sounds appealing. :)

    1. Um, yes, hummus has been one of my major pregnancy cravings this past month or so. I will have to try those quesadillas this week. Thank you!