A former meat-lover shares her favorite meatless meals
My decision to eat less meat was not made for the usual reasons. I did it not because I’d read The Jungle, or Diet for a Hot Planet, or Eating Animals. No, I started eating more plants because of one thing: peer pressure.
At the time, I was living in Chico, California and working at a Barnes & Noble. In a matter of days, I learned that almost every one of my coworkers had adopted some form of a plant-based diet—Green Mondays, flexitarianism, veganism, you name it. What struck me was not only how many people had gone all in on plants but how thrilled they were with their decision. During breaks my new colleagues swapped meatless recipes and shared plant-based snack ideas. There was one day I’ll never forget when, in a moment of collective joy, everyone stood on their chairs to dance out their happiness on discovering that Oreos are vegan.
In spite of the enthusiasm for meat and dairy alternatives, my coworkers never pushed their beliefs on me or made me feel guilty when I ate a turkey sandwich. What they did instead was answer my questions about why they’d made the decision.
Taylor was a vegetarian transitioning to veganism because he’d read a lot about animal abuse in the food industry and couldn’t be part of it anymore. Danielle was a nutrition science major and believed plant-based diets are simply healthier. Adam was an LGBTQ+ activist who felt that if he was willing to make a difference for marginalized communities, he might as well minimize the suffering of farm animals as well. Maddie was a vegetarian because she just didn’t like meat.
Never shy about taking on a new challenge, I decided to do my own reading on the subject. But I was also really curious: how did my friends manage to feed themselves every day without starving?
just use the seasoning you know and love
I grew up in a Mexican-American household. Any grains or vegetables, like Spanish Rice, pinto beans, tomatillos, or nopales, were only there to play a supporting role for the main event of the meal—the meat. The smell of charred corn tortillas cooked over an open flame always meant carne asada, pork shoulder, or chicken thighs on the grill. As with many Mexicans and Americans, I’d grown up with the mindset that I couldn’t have a satisfying meal without meat taking up half my plate.
But my coworkers made me want to try. So I studied up on tofu, and discovered I really hate tempeh anything. I also realized the only way to make my plant-based experiment work was to somehow include my favorite Mexican-American dishes. The flavors I associate with childhood are based on spices like cumin and garlic and lime. By using the right seasoning I could replace slow-cooked jackfruit for carnitas and mince extra firm tofu for ground beef. If anyone asks how best to switch away from eating meat, I now just tell them to use spices you know and love.
The results of my lifestyle change speak for themselves. My grocery bill has fallen, my acne-prone skin cleared up, and I’m a more confident cook. I’ve also become an ardent environmentalist, which made it much easier to cook without meat after I left my job, and could no longer rely on the enthusiasm of my coworkers.
Just as they shared their favorite recipes with me, I’m doing the same for you. I’m not promising these meals will make you stand up on your chair, but they are a great starting point for anyone interested in eating more plants, and less meat.
My all-time favorite meatless meals
Note: These are not all vegan; a few include cheese, butter, or eggs.
I live off this pasta recipe because it’s easy to make after a long day, and most of the ingredients are in my price range. While the original version calls for zucchini and heavy cream, I opt for goat cheese to add the creaminess, and tang, and swap in whatever vegetables I have on hand.
Add a handful of your favorite pasta, quartered mushrooms, asparagus (or dark green veggies in season), and veggie stock. Let cook until pasta is almost al dente. Add peas, goat cheese, and parmesan cheese to mixture and allow to cheese to melt to create a sauce. Serve with a squeeze of lemon and parsley for some brightness. Once you get this recipe down, it’s easy to modify with what you have on hand.
I keep tahini in my refrigerator to make homemade hummus whenever I want but had a hard time using it in other meals. Then I found this gem of a recipe and fell in love with its strong yet bright flavor profile. Farro has become one of my favorite grains because it’s a complex carbohydrate and includes protein, fiber, and B vitamins —all of which are all important in a healthy plant-based diet.
Because farro does take a bit of time to cook—about 30 minutes or more depending on your cooktop— I like to make up big batches and use it in different bowls throughout the week. This is one of those entrees that tastes great when served, and is just as satisfying as leftovers. Try adding fresh cucumber, chickpeas, cherry tomatoes, kalamata olives, and feta cheese with the Lemon Tahini Sauce for a Greek Salad take on the original recipe.
I didn’t start eating sweet potatoes until I became a vegetarian. Now I can’t get enough of them. I use them in hashes, veggie burgers, and as the toast in avocado toast when I don’t have bread. But my favorite way to eat them is like an old-fashioned baked potato, only now I swap in high-protein lentils for ground meat and pinto beans.
To make this recipe, rinse one cup of lentils under warm water and set aside. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees F, pierce two to four sweet potatoes with a fork and bake for 45 minutes or until sweet potatoes give when pinched with tongs. While your potatoes are cooking, cook lentils in vegetable stock. When the lentils are just cooked, add some fire roasted, crushed tomatoes and let cook until lentils are soft. The best part are all the toppings you can add. Cheese, green onions, and roasted chickpeas for starters.
My fear before committing to a plant-based lifestyle was that it might get boring. So I decided to challenge myself by taking on risotto, which I’ve always found intimidating. What I like about this recipe is the way it substitutes arborio rice with brown rice, which I think enhances the flavor, especially when simmered with mushrooms. The result is a wonderfully earthy and nutty risotto so decadent you won’t even notice it doesn’t contain meat.
Feel free to play around with the ingredients. To make this dish vegan-friendly, use coconut butter and nutritional yeast to achieve the same creamy flavor. I recommend adding peas for small bursts of sweetness.
This meal is for those nights you need comfort food, and fast. The mushroom stock adds a depth of flavor that mimics chicken pot pie. Load in carrots, onions, celery, and whatever other veggie you want. One of my favorite hacks is making a puff pastry bowl instead of using ramekins or a large casserole pan. Cut pre-made puff pastry into large triangles—don’t poke holes in it!— and bake in the oven according to packaging instructions. The puff pastry will rise quite a bit; let the triangles rest after you take them out of the oven. When cool enough to touch, cut a large hole in the middle of the triangle and add the pot pie filling. Toss parsley on top for extra herbaceous goodness.
This recipe introduced me to rice noodles, fish sauce, and Thai basil. I love the way it layers on flavors and textures and never get tired of making it. Best of all, this recipe comes together in 30 minutes, with plenty left over for meals during the rest of the week. If you have extra firm tofu on hand, make some extra sauce and let the tofu marinade for up to an hour. Then add it to the recipe for some extra protein.
If you want to impress your friends and family with a seemingly complex dish, shakshuka is the way to go. It’s a North African dish that uses a spicy, complex tomato sauce to cook eggs over easy in a large pan. My favorite way to eat it is with crusty bread you can use to dip into the runny egg yolks and sop up the tomato sauce. This version adds some butternut squash, a great source of Vitamin A and C, fiber, and magnesium.
You can serve shakshuka for breakfast, lunch, or dinner and it will still win compliments for its intense flavor. If you want to save some time before making it, prep and par-roast your butternut squash in advance.
Vegetarian meatballs can be hard to make and many of the recipes out there are sad and disappointing. I know, I’ve tried them. But chickpeas and mushrooms turn out to be the perfect combination when it comes to creating a meatball that stands up to sauces without breaking down. This recipe features a soy-honey glaze, which is fantastic. But feel free to substitute the glaze for spaghetti sauce or pesto.
This is a vegan dish I pull out for friends who’ve given up dairy, and I’ve got a number of them. This recipe relies on pantry staples and whole coconut milk for that creamy, colorful, and flavorful curry sauce. Don’t forget to make some basmati rice and add cilantro to round it out.
I’ve changed up this recipe a few different ways but my favorite variation is replacing the spice mixture with pre-made green curry paste, adding sauteed onions and bell peppers, and serving garlic roasted golden cauliflower rice.
I eat lots of spinach to deal with my anemia so Costco is where I buy it. When I can’t get through my stash fast enough, recipes like this one salvage my sad, wilted spinach. Stuffed shells have a reputation for being time-consuming and difficult to make, but I try to keep it fun. I turn on music, invite friends to help stuff the spinach. If you’ve got kids, I’ve seen them get pretty excited about stuffing the shells in the spinach, mushroom, and ricotta stuffing. Best of all, this recipe freezes well and can serve as a last minute dinner with friends during busy weeks.
11. Soft Pinto Bean Tacos with Qūeso Fresco and Pico De Gallo
This was one of the very few recipes from my childhood I didn’t need to change to work with my new plant-based lifestyle. I remember my Mom making a large pot of beans at least once a month on Saturdays while we were cleaning the house with music blaring through the house. The smell bay leaves permeated the house, promising a filling meal after a long day of chores. A bowl of soft pinto beans, crumbled with qūeso fresco and topped with pico de gallo and diced avocado served with charred corn tortillas, was the foundation of my childhood.
Take a large stock pot to a sink and add 4-8 cups of pinto beans, depending on how much leftovers you want. Add water to the stock pot until there is about two inches of room for the water to boil. Don’t worry if it looks like too much water—the beans will soak up most of the water. Put the stock pit over low heat and let cook for up to eight hours or until the beans are soft. Store cooled leftover beans in the fridge for up to a week or freeze for up to nine months.
To make the pico de gallo salsa, add diced tomato, red onion, lime juice, cilantro to a medium sized bowl. Mix throughly, salt to taste and set aside. Serve in a bowl and add pico de gallo and additional garnishes like crumbled queso fresco, Mexican or diced avocados. If you want to try a new ingredient, I highly recommend adding roughly diced nopales, or pickled cactus, to your pico de gallo mixture.