Diets: Make it Meatless

More households are adding plant-based meals to their diets and are reaping the benefits.

You wouldn’t expect the organizer of the Delaware Burger Battle to have a host of vegetarian recipes up her sleeve, but JulieAnne Cross is hardly predictable. The Stanton-area resident occasionally goes vegetarian partly to spark creativity in the kitchen. 

“Cooking is an outlet for me,” says Cross, who initially delved into plant-based dishes to please vegan guests at potluck dinners. Then she went on a mission to make tasty meals without the usual tofu or seitan, which is made from wheat gluten.

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Cross is in good company. Chef Candace Roseo, who owns BellaVista Trattoria & Pizzeria in Pike Creek, cooks meatless meals for her family at least two times a week. Kathy Foster of North Wilmington goes meatless three to four days a week—“more often if we can,” she says.

Even Matt Reardon, a chef at Nage in Rehoboth Beach—who will be the chef at the Crooked Hammock Brewery Bar & Grill in Lewes when it opens—regularly goes meatless, particularly when produce is at its peak. “I have my own vegetable garden at my home, and I’m always trying to figure out new ways to make meals from what’s available in my backyard.”

These Delawareans are part of a national trend. According to a poll by the Vegetarian Resource Group, 47 percent of respondents said they eat at least one vegetarian meal each week, and one in four people says he or she is trying to eat less meat. Credit such bestselling books as “VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00 To Lose Weight and Restore Your Health…For Good,” by former New York Times columnist Mark Bittman.

Like Bittman, many people reduce meat consumption for health reasons. A college nutrition course that Foster’s daughter took really “got the ball rolling” in her home, she says.

K.L. Montgomery of Georgetown, author of “Fat Girl,” went mostly vegetarian in part to mitigate damage from years of yo-yo dieting. She’s also concerned about the link between animal products and the increased risk of cancer and disease. What’s more, she says, factory farming is an “abomination.” Fellow author Crystal Heidel would agree. The Milton resident went mostly vegetarian overnight after watching the documentary “Hungry for Change” about the food industry.

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The increase in the number of people introducing more meat-free dishes into their weekly meal plan has given rise to the word “flexitarian.” Now listed in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word refers to someone whose mostly meatless diet occasionally includes meat or fish. There’s a more relaxed attitude. “We don’t judge people,” says Patricia Haddock, co-founder in 2012 of VegRehoboth. “We encourage meat-eaters to come and try our happy hours.”

The group for the past three years has organized the Rehoboth Beach VegFest. Nage has been an active participant. In 2011, the restaurant started Meatless Monday as a way to promote the vegetarian options that had been on the menu since 2006.

Dating to World War I, when the government sought to conserve staples (there was also a Wheatless Wednesday), the campaign was revived in 2003 by health advocate Sid Lerner in association with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for a Livable Future.

Josh Grapski, owner of Nage, says Meatless Mondays is also a vehicle for showcasing fresh, seasonal produce. Typically, there are six to eight menu items. “They are extremely popular,” he says. The five to eight vegan and vegetarian items on the regular menu have also gained ground. “In fact,” he says, “we are considering increasing our non-meat selections soon.”

However, if your meatless meals consist of triple cheese crust pizza or boxed macaroni and cheese, you might be negating the health benefits of going meatless. Here are some tips to help you introduce more plant-based meals into your weekly diet:

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Start small

“Give up meat for one meal a day or even one a week,” Montgomery says. “A lot of militant vegan types will shame people for not being 100 percent, but I think every little bit you can do to help the environment and animals is admirable.” Heidel recommends starting with Meatless Monday and adding a second day when you’ve adjusted.

Put the produce first

Cross buys fresh produce in the market before choosing proteins. She then builds the meal around the produce by Googling recipes using the vegetable as the search word. Keep your schedule in mind when buying fruit and vegetables, she adds. Cabbage can last awhile in the fridge, but certain lettuces and greens will not. If you’re afraid you can’t get to all of the produce that you bought, make a plant-based soup, she says.

Think outside the box

Foster and her daughter “pin” interesting recipes on Pinterest that go beyond the vegetarian fare laden with dairy or wheat. “There’s such a variety of foods you can make,” she says. “It’s not all grilled cheese and spaghetti.”

She also experiments with ingredients such as quinoa, Israeli couscous and pearl barley to make sure a dish has enough protein or fiber. (Quinoa, known as a “complete protein,” contains the nine essential amino acids that the body can’t make on its own.) “Don’t be afraid to try new foods and new combinations,” she says. Lentils are a great substitute for ground beef, says Heidel, who uses them in tacos.

Avoid the “starch trap,” says Robert Lhulier, executive chef at the University & Whist Club in Wilmington. Think of eating your “colors,” an approach espoused by Michael Pollan, author of “Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual.” The more color the more the beneficial phytochemicals.

Consider alternatives

Montgomery uses almond milk for drinking and baking. She even puts it in her coffee. She also uses Earth Balance’s vegan spread instead of butter. “There are wonderful vegan products out there,” she says.

Instead of the usual red sauces for pasta, Candace Roseo of BellaVista Trattoria at home might use a sauce made with cooked butternut squash or broccoli.

Snack smart

Foster keeps baby carrots or snap peas in the vegetable bin for snacking.

Eat ethnic

In many cultures, meat or chicken was a special treat and not part of a daily meal, says Roseo, whose husband was born outside Naples, Italy. Even at a seven-course meal, only one dish might include meat, she says. “It’s a different way of eating.” Roseo, who grew up on tuna noodle casserole and microwaveable foods, got into fresh foods while in college. She began cooking more meatless dishes when she met her husband, who was unaccustomed to the American meat-and-potatoes routine.

While it stands to reason that Italian dishes are in her meatless collection, she also makes plant-based Asian, Indian and Spanish dishes. Beans and lentils are staples.

Nearly every culture has some form of ravioli, she says. Stuffed peppers, which also appear in many cuisines, make for another satisfying but meatless meal.

Reduce portion sizes

If you only go meatless on occasion, consider reducing your protein portion size. Health-conscious restaurants have reduced the size from 8 ounces to 6 ounces or less and increased the size of vegetables and fruit, Lhulier says.

Avoid guilt

Reducing your intake of meat has clear health benefits. But you don’t need to be all in or all out. Shrimp and crab are Montgomery’s favorite foods, and she lives in Sussex County, where crab is plentiful. It’s hard to resist.

Foster can’t envision a totally vegetarian lifestyle. “I love my veggie-based recipes, but we also do like fish, chicken, cheese, etc.,” she says. “We also like bacon. So, I think we’re right where we want to be.”  


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