I made the decision to stop eating meat about 10 years ago. The most difficult part about the change was the backlash I received from my family. The Swanks are a meat-and-potatoes family, so I grew up eating meat just about every meal. My few semesters of college I attended a private university not far from Newton. I remember seeing the salad bar for the first time. It was so bright and colorful and full of the largest varieties of fruits, vegetables, and other plant foods I had rarely seen in my life. I made the decision to focus my dietary habits around fruits and vegetables, while sticking to lean meats, mostly poultry and some fish. A few years later, as my girlfriend at the time and I grew closer, it was easy for me to transition into her fully vegetarian lifestyle. I thought I would miss eating meat but, as I was never really a fan of it in the first place, the transition was remarkably easy and quite fun.
Nutritional science abounds with evidence suggesting that plant-based diets are associated with myriad benefits to health. A well-balanced vegetarian diet has been linked to significantly lower risks of heart disease, stroke, obesity, and some forms of cancers. Vegetarians are less likely to use tobacco and more likely to use alcohol in moderation and engage in regular physical activity. I am not suggesting that every person on this Earth stop eating meet. Rather, I do suggest that everyone eats more of a plant-based diet. One that includes a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes while sustaining a moderate consumption of lean meats and sparing consumption of red meats and pork.
To challenge yourself to eat more of a plant-based diet, start with the concept of “Meatless Monday.” This is just as it sounds, do not eat any animal flesh for a whole day. Start with one Monday per month to see if you enjoy it, then add a Monday until you go meatless every Monday. A quick Google search will produce limitless meatless recipes. One very important piece of advice: If you get meat replacers like Morning Star veggie burger patties or meatless meatballs, do not expect them to taste like meat. That seems to be a big hurdle for a lot of people. Those products are quite delicious, but they will not taste like what you are used to.
You should expect a different texture as well, particularly when using tofu. Many people find that tofu is bland. Remember that tofu will take on the flavor of anything it is cooked with. Try marinating tofu for a few hours or overnight before you cook it. This will help pack a lot of flavor into every bite. Below is a recipe for Tofu Taco Salad I make quite often. Give it a shot for your first Meatless Monday!
1 tsp oil
1 medium onion, diced
2 cloves garlic
1 8oz block extra firm tofu
1 large red tomato, diced
½ Tbsp ground cumin
½ tsp chili powder
½ tsp ground mustard
½ tsp paprika
¼ tsp cayenne pepper (or less if you don’t like a lot of heat)
Salt & pepper to taste
1 15oz can black beans, drained & Rinsed
½ Tbsp fresh cilantro
Juice from 1 whole lime
Cut open tofu package and drain water. Place tofu between two layers of paper or cloth towels and gently press out excess water. Set aside. Heat oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. Add diced onions and garlic. Sautee until onions are translucent, about 5 minutes.
Mash drained tofu with your hands and add to the frying pan. Sautee with onions and garlic until tofu starts to brown. Add diced tomato, spices, and black beans. Heat to boil, then reduce to a simmer. Simmer about 10-15 minutes.
Add fresh cilantro and lime juice. Stir until well combined. Remove from heat. Serve over a bed of fresh spinach with your favorite taco salad toppings.
— Aaron Swank is a Kansas State Research and Extension Agent for Harvey County. Nutrition and Family Finance are his specialties. The Harvey County Extension Office can be contacted at 284-6930.