Eating vegetarian is a personal choice and it isn’t for everyone. However, many people find that reducing their meat intake not only improves their health, but that it also helps their wallet, as vegetarian protein foods are often cheaper than animal proteins. Plus, with climate change on the social conscience, new emerging data touts the earth-friendly benefits of reducing our dependency on farm-raised meats.
If, like me, you were raised on “meat and potatoes,” meatless meal planning may leave you scratching your head. And if your family is accustomed to having meat at every meal, they may be resistant to the idea. How can we overcome these obstacles?
First, let’s clarify what is defined as a “vegetarian meal.” It is a meal that does not include any meat, poultry, fish or other seafood. It may also exclude dairy and/or eggs. Lacto-vegetarians include dairy products in their diets, and ovo-vegetarians include eggs in their diets. A vegan meal excludes all forms of animal-derived ingredients, including eggs, dairy products, gelatin, honey, whey, etc. There are more options when preparing vegetarian meals compared with vegan meals since vegan diets restrict more foods.
Because meat and animal products are good sources of important nutrients like protein, iron, calcium, and vitamin B12, there is worry that a vegetarian or vegan diet may put one’s health at risk. This is a valid concern, especially if you are not familiar with how to get these nutrients from other sources. But there is no need to fret. With a little research and a proper planning, you can create nutritious, tasty vegetarian or vegan meals.
What are appropriate vegetarian or vegan substitutes that contain these nutrients?
- Protein: Vegan sources include nuts, seeds, soy foods (soy milk, tofu, edamame, tempeh), beans, legumes and seitan. Vegetarians may also choose to include dairy products and/or eggs.
- Iron: Legumes, many iron-fortified cereals, nuts (especially cashews), leafy green vegetables, and tofu are all vegan friendly options. Vegetarians may also include eggs.
- Calcium: Vegan sources include leafy green vegetables (kale, collards, broccoli, spinach) and fortified soy or nut milk. Vegetarians may also choose to include dairy products.
- Vitamin B12: Nutritional yeast, nori (dried seaweed), and shitake mushrooms are vegan friendly sources. Eggs and dairy products also contain B12, and may be included in some vegetarian diets.
Creativity in the kitchen
Vegetarian or vegan cooking can foster creativity in the kitchen. Broccoli and cauliflower can be grilled like steak, eggplant and mushroom can be sautéed to a “meaty” texture, and nuts (combined with a few other ingredients) can be ground down to a gooey, cheese-like consistency. The possibilities are endless, with more recipes being shared each day through platforms like social media.
Try starting with just one meatless meal a week. For recipe ideas, check out these yummy vegetarian dishes from the Phoenix VA!
For more information on vegetarian diets, take a look at this list of myths and facts. Also consider contacting your local VA dietitian (RD) for more information on vegetarian or vegan diets and assistance with meal planning to meet your goals!
Bethany Oxender, MS, RD, CSOWM, is a MOVE! Clinical Dietitian at the Ann Arbor VA Medical Center who specializes in weight management. Before finding her current home, she had the good fortune of learning from dietitians at the Cleveland Louis Stokes VA Hospital and Aleda E. Lutz VA Medical Center in Saginaw, MI. She is an active member of the American Nutrition and Dietetic Association, authoring multiple articles for their Food & Nutrition Magazine.