An Encouraging Guide to Eating Less Meat

You don’t have to go full-on vegetarian to reap the benefits of a plant-based diet. Here are a few tips to help you eat a little less meat overall, from daily habits to easy ingredient swaps.

Sheet Pan Pizza with Roasted Cauliflower and Greens
Sally Vargas

When I was growing up, my dad didn’t consider dinner to be complete if there wasn’t meat on the table.

My own diet has evolved quite a bit since then. As a registered dietitian, I’ve learned the benefits of a plant-rich plate. Plus, two of my children are now vegetarians, which has pushed me to explore the culinary riches of meatless meals. I still eat meat and poultry, just a whole lot less than my parents did.

If you’re new to the idea, here are a few reasons why a more plant-based diet might be a wise move, and tips to get you started!

Simple Side Salad -- salad greens with hard boiled eggs and toast
Sally Vargas

Why Eat Less Meat

Lowering your intake of meat and poultry leaves more room for vegetables, beans, legumes, and other fiber-rich plant foods, which is not only better for your health but also an exciting entry into a whole new world of flavor and textures!

Let's look at all the benefits of eating less meat.

The health benefits: If you look at populations across the globe that live the longest with the lowest incidence of chronic disease, those populations tend to eat a lot less animal protein than the typical Western diet. Eating less meat means scaling back on a big source of artery-clogging saturated fat.

Along with more vegetables, beans, legumes, and other fiber-rich plant food, this collectively can add up to a decreased risk for heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure, and other diet-related diseases.

The environmental benefits: Another good reason to cut back on meat and poultry are the environmental benefits. Growing plants demands less water and emits less carbon than raising animals. And of course, there's the impact on animal welfare when you choose, say, a black bean burger rather than a ground beef one.

The budget benefits: Eating less meat may be easier on your wallet, too. A study in the Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition comparing a diet with and without meat found the former to cost nearly $750 more per year and delivered fewer servings of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

The 'new flavors and textures' benefits: When you take meat off the plate, with practice you'll develop an appreciation for the many ways vegetables, beans, legumes, and meat substitutes like tofu rise to the occasion and create exciting meals that are delicious and filling—no meat required!

Bowl of puy lentils
Sally Vargas

Will I Get Enough Protein If I Reduce My Meat Consumption?

The truth is that we Americans eat far more protein than we actually need and not enough of the vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytochemicals that are a natural part of plants. So, for most folks, the protein concern isn’t really a concern at all.

Plus, plant foods provide protein all on their own! For example, a three-ounce serving of whole-wheat pasta or half cup of cooked lentils delivers 12 grams of protein.

And don’t forget you can still enjoy the likes of eggs and dairy foods, which are also good sources of protein.

It’s Okay to Be Flexible!

Experimenting with a more plant-heavy diet doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. You’ll gain many of the benefits from eating less meat even if you don’t shift to an entirely vegetarian lifestyle.

It’s called being a flexitarian, which is effectively a mashup of vegetarian and flexible. The idea is to eat a mostly meatless diet, with room for a burger or roast chicken dinner when the mood strikes.

Vegetarian Bolognese in a bowl with a plate underneath and silverware. A drink, grated garmesan and ground pepper are to the left of the bowl.
Sally Vargas

How to Eat Less Meat: 7 Helpful Tips

If you’re interested in exploring a more plant-centric diet, consider any or all of the following strategies:

  1. Take it one meal at a time. Go meatless for one or two dinners a week. Meatless Monday is an excellent place to start. Allow your tastebuds to adjust and then build from there.
  2. Find vegetarian swaps for favorite dishes. You won’t miss the meat if you land on great recipes like Mushroom Bolognese, Vegetarian Shepherd's Pie, Vegetarian Lasagna, or Vegan Sloppy Joes.
  3. Go meatless before dinner. This is a concept popularized by cookbook author Mark Bittman, which he calls Vegan Before 6, or VB6. The idea is that breakfast and lunch are entirely plant-based, but come dinnertime, anything goes. You can read more about this philosophy in his book.
  4. Cut the amount of meat. Meals don’t have to be entirely meatless to make a difference. Replace some of the ground beef or turkey with other ingredients. Chopped sautéed mushrooms make a fine substitute for one-third of the beef in burgers; black beans can take the place of half the meat in chili and tacos, and cooked grains can be swapped for some of the meat in casseroles.
  5. Embrace tofu. If you’re slow to the tofu train, now might be the time to get to know this nutritious and versatile food. These Black Rice Bowls with Tofu and Veggies are a good place to start, as is this Vegetarian Pad Thai.
  6. Look for flavor makers. You may miss the umami that meat offers (like the lip-smacking quality of grilled pork), but you can get that same effect by relying on meatless sources of umami. You might be surprised what a hit of soy sauce, tomato paste, or miso can do for flavor. Add a Parmesan rind to a pot of soup for a savory kick. Try olives, capers, and Calabrian chiles to brighten vegetarian dishes.
Vegan pasta with cashew sauce and tomatoes

Erin Alderson

15 Terrific Meat-Free Meals

Ready to try a few delicious and filling meat-free meals? Here are 15 we love:

Recipes with a * next to them have photos in this post.