Meat-Free Diets: How to Go Vegetarian

Quitting meat delivers big payoffs. The decision to go vegetarian eliminates animal cruelty, protects the planet, and can also rid your diet of several grossly unhealthy foods. But how much effort does it take to ditch meat? It turns out to be shockingly easy—especially after you read the advice I’ll share here.

Maybe at some point you’ll also want to quit eggs or dairy products, but for now here’s easy-to-follow advice on how to stop eating meat.

Given the explosion of vegan meat offerings in recent years, quitting meat takes remarkably little effort. Never before have food companies offered so many satisfying meat alternatives. There are literally hundreds of vegan meat products available in every shape and form. You can find delicious vegan burgers, sausages, deli slices, bacon, nuggets, and more. Supermarkets carry all of these products, and if you go to a good natural foods store you’ll find an even better selection.

As you begin to explore vegetarian meats, remember that what’s true for meat products is not true for vegan meats. Most brands of animal-based sausage, bacon, and hamburger taste pretty much the same. By contrast, the textures and flavors of vegan meats vary immensely from product to product. So try every brand you can, and you’ll quickly discover several you consider sensational. We’ve got links to most of the top brands, plus vegan cookbooks that emphasize meaty dishes, on our vegan meat page.

The Three Sorts of Vegan Meats

Given the hundreds of packaged vegan meat products available, you may feel overwhelmed by all the options. So let me simplify things for you. You may find it helpful to break down vegan meats into three broad categories, which I will here call: meat alternatives, plant-based meats, and cultured meats.

Let’s review each of these categories.

Meat Alternatives

For well over two thousand years, countless monks living throughout Asia and India have abstained from meat, often for reasons related to karma or non-violence. To get adequate protein, they’d often rely on two soy foods called tofu and tempeh.

Both tofu and tempeh are great in stir-fries, or roasted alongside vegetables. They won’t ever fool anybody into thinking they’re meat, but they don’t have to. Tofu and tempeh offer delicious textures and flavors in their own right, and many meat eaters end up preferring these foods to their burgers and chicken.

Our tofu and tempeh guides cover a multitude of preparation methods for each of these versatile foods. To start, though, the easiest way to prepare tofu is to slice it into cubes, pan fry until it starts to turn golden, and then add it to your next stir-fry. Tempeh is even easier to prepare. Just marinate in a little soy sauce and then pan-fry on each side. Then put it on a bun with your favorite burger toppings.

Some monks also eat seitan. This food is produced from a stretchy protein called gluten, that is naturally present in wheat. It has a nice flavor and a much meatier texture than tempeh or tofu. It’s a fantastic beef replacement in a bowl of Texas-style chili, and vegan chilis have even won meat-based chili cookoffs.

While seitan is essentially 100 percent wheat protein, textured vegetable protein (TVP) is seitan’s soy-based counterpart. Butler Soy Curls and Bob’s Red Mill TVP are two popular brands. You’ll need to soak your TVP for a few minutes, and then you can use it in place of beef in stews, chilis, and stir-fries.

Two Unlikely Meat Alternatives: Mushrooms & Jackfruit

When it comes to exploring various meat alternatives, we’re not done yet. Mushrooms can hit the same texture and flavor buttons as meat. Portobello mushroom caps are about the same size as hamburger patties. Just discard the woody stem and fry on both sides, Add some grilled onions and perhaps some sauteed minced garlic, drizzle on a little soy sauce, then add your favorite burger condiments.

Also, give shiitake mushrooms a try. You can cut up the caps (once again, discard the woody stem), and saute in oil. Shiitake is a Japanese mushroom that grows on logs. You find its flesh firmer possessing a meatier texture than most other mushrooms.

And finally, there’s jackfruit—an enormous, spiked, intimidating fruit from the tropics. Unripe shredded jackfruit flesh, sauteed with your favorite spices, takes on texture and appearance of pulled pork. In Mexico, jackfruit prepared this way is becoming increasingly popular as a vegetarian taco filling.

Plant-Based Meats

The 1960s counterculture introduced the vegetarian concept to millions of people. To satisfy this emerging interest, food companies released a variety of mock meat products. Veggie burgers and hotdogs came first. Later on came a growing variety of other popular meaty foods from meatballs to chicken slices.

In the modern plant-meat industry, companies usually choose one of two very different approaches. Some make every effort to replicate the flavor and texture of meat. The Impossible Burger goes so far as to “bleed” just like a regular hamburger.

This degree of resemblance freaks out some vegetarians, who get squeamish about vegan products that can’t be distinguished from meat. So an entire sector of the plant-meat industry makes no effort to formulate products to closely resemble animal meat. Instead, they simply want their products to taste delicious in their own way. The thinking here is: why make something that tastes just like meat when you can make something that tastes even better?

Field Roast brand sausages embody this approach. Unlike some other vegan sausage brands, Field Roast doesn’t taste at all like pork sausage. But even if you love meat, you’re likely to prefer Field Roast.

Everybody’s tastes are different. Try as many vegan meat brands as you can, and you’re certain to find ones you adore. And with every such discovery, any remaining animal-based meats in your diet will be squeezed out.

See our vegan meats page for a list of top brands, plus links to detailed coverage for burgers, sausages, and other popular varieties of meat alternatives. Finally, be aware that some plant-based meats contain egg whites or other animal products, although a substantial and growing majority of these foods are vegan.

Cultured Meats

Products like the Impossible Burger come so close to hamburger that they can easily fool life-long meat eaters. But whole-muscle meats like steak will never be replicated by plant-based technologies. Luckily, for meat-eaters with inflexible palates, help is on the way.

Over the past decade, food companies have poured tens of millions of dollars into trying to crack the most daunting problem intersecting the fields of food science and biology: How can we produce meat, down to real animal cells, but without raising and slaughtering an animal?

Thanks to a handful of breakthroughs, we’re almost there, and the first commercial products are just starting to hit the market. This stuff won’t be cheap or widely-available for many years to come, but if what you want to eat is meat—but you care about animal rights or don’t want to pay for cruel farming practices—cultured meat will be the only way to bypass slaughter.

Some vegans may find this stuff outright repulsive, but anyone who wants more cruelty-free options ought to see this category as holding immense and unique promise to animal protection.

Cooking at Home

Plenty of new vegetarians were never all that fond of meat in the first place, and therefore aren’t looking to cook meaty-tasting but vegetarian meals. If you want to remove meat from your cooking, a good vegetarian cookbook will offer great help.

Even if you don’t presently intend to quit eggs and dairy products, I suggest purchasing a vegan rather than a vegetarian cookbook. When I quit meat I learned a bunch of vegetarian recipes, which I later had to abandon once I decided to go vegan. My experience would have been so much easier and more fulfilling had I jumped straight into primarily vegan cooking.

I regularly update my vegan cookbooks list with the best new titles. You may also want to check out my guides to various veggie-friendly cuisines. Indian and Italian food in particular offer an unsurpassed variety of exquisite meat-free dishes. And I don’t think any cuisine is more accessible to a novice vegetarian cook than Mexican food—so many classic Mexican dishes are dead-simple to make.

But what if familiar meaty flavors are exactly what you’re seeking—or if you’re cooking for someone who adores meat? Luckily, there are several vegan cookbooks specifically geared to devout carnivores:

The people behind Field Roast and Impossible Foods have also published cookbooks featuring a multitude of ways to prepare their various vegan meat products.

Eating Out

You won’t have any problem finding meaty vegan foods when dining out. That’s especially true where fast food is concerned, since nearly all the top chains have recognized that the meat-free market is too big to ignore. Standout choices include Burger King and White Castle, both of which feature the Impossible Burger on their menus.

If you like Mexican food, you’ve got great options. Chipotle Mexican Grill, Qdoba, and Del Taco all offer a variety of sensational vegan burrito fillings. And Taco Bell is famous for having a mostly-vegan menu as long as you avoid items containing meat, cheese, or sour cream.

No matter where you live, chances are you’ve got at least one superb vegan dining option nearby. See our vegan restaurants guide for advice on how to discover the best meat-free options near you.

Stepping Stones to Going Meat-Free

Going vegan obviously demands a greater commitment than merely eating meat-free. But the same strategies that work for one work equally well for the other. In both cases, you can edge towards the diet you want, shifting a little closer week after week.

In particular, the most useful step I took towards a vegan diet was when I decided to eat exclusively vegan at home. If you’re not ready to remove all meat from your diet, consider resolving to never again bring meat into your kitchen. In no time, you’ll be expanding your repertoire of meat-free dishes, especially if you get ahold of some vegetarian cookbooks that cater to your favorite meals and cuisines.

Another approach that has helped multitudes of people is Mark Bittman’s Vegan Before 6:00 plan, where he observes a completely vegan diet up until his dinner meal, and at that point eats whatever food he wants. It’s easy enough to convert Bittman’s idea to Vegetarian Before 6:00, and thereby eat meat-free meals at least two-thirds of the time.

If these ideas appeal to you, I offer several other partial commitments in my “How to Go Vegan” guide, all of which are simple enough to modify for the sake of going meat-free.

Go Fish-Free Too!

Many people who decide to stop eating meat continue eating fish. Oftentimes, they’ll cut out the fish years later and wish they’d done it sooner.

It’s natural for people to identify less with fish than with land animals. Many people additionally assume that fish lack sentience and the capacity to suffer. But there’s strong evidence that fish indeed feel pain, and there is likewise no question that the various methods used to catch fish are brutally inhumane.

What’s more, the fishing industry systematically lays waste to huge portions of our oceans. Efforts to curtail overfishing are widely countered with fraud. Fish farms might seem a sustainable alterntive, but they can in fact be worse than ocean fishing in many important respects. You can read more about these issues on our page titled: The Many Reasons to Avoid Fish and Seafood.

A growing number of vegan fish alternatives are hitting the market. Gardein’s convenient and delicious “Golden Fishless Fillets” deserves a special shout out.

No Willpower Required

Quitting meat has always been easy, but now it’s easier than ever. Every month sees the release of delicious new vegan meat products.

I consider the single most important piece of advice for new vegetarians and vegans to be crowding rather than cutting animal products out of your diet. That is, don’t try to cut meat out of your diet through willpower and sacrifice. Instead, make an effort to try several new vegetarian foods a week. The ones you like will become a regular part of your diet—automatically crowding out the meat and other animal-based foods you’re ready to leave behind.

The quality and variety of vegan meats coming to market gets better year by year. So try as many of these brands as you can. In no time you’ll be taking greater pleasure from your food than ever before.

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