Meat or something vaguely like it has been making headlines as reports of "pink slime" relieve the nation of its collective appetite. But the real and far bigger story where meat is concerned isn't what we're eating, it's what we're not eating. Here's how you can (and why you should want to) serve up some meatlessness for you and yours.
A few weeks ago, we talked about "peak everything," a new era in which we'll use less of a lot. Now we can add meat to the list. According U.S. Department of Agriculture data compiled by the Earth Policy Institute, America has already passed "peak meat." From a high of 184 lbs. consumed per person in 2004, we've fallen to a projected 166 lbs. per person in 2012, a 10% drop in eight years.
There are a lot of reasons why we're eating less meat, but the most important is that we're simply choosing to do so. In fact, one of the biggest cultural trends in 2012 is expected to be something called flexitarianism, the substantial reduction (but not complete elimination) of meat in our diets.
That's one heaping helping of delicious news because meat production requires huge amounts of water, land, and feed, and produces copious quantities of wastes and greenhouse gases. And that's not even addressing the ethical issues involved in factory farming. Meat is, to put it mildly, not the most sustainable food source on the planet.
Nor is it the healthiest. Aside from the drugs industrial producers typically administer to animals, red meat has been linked to colon cancer, and a new study from the Harvard School of Public Health finds that meat consumption increases the risk of death by 13-20% depending on the product in question.
These are all big basted bummers, and they're why we've cut back at my house and chosen to go flexitarian ourselves. We still indulge, but our meals are increasingly vegetarian, and we don't miss the meat when it's absent. Here's how we do it and how you can keep the meat lovers in your own family happily and more healthily fed:
- Explore the amazing world of beans. They're a cheap, tasty source of high quality protein with which you can do almost anything. I love the cookbook Bean by Bean.
- Make veggie-burgers. I've mentioned my affection for the hearty recipes in this cookbook before.
- Eat fish. It's a satisfying main-course as long as we shop for it sustainably.
- Experience the joys of canned salmon. Fresh non-farm-raised salmon is pricey but wild-caught in a can is not. Add it to salads, make untuna salad, or fry up some salmon patties by combining it with egg, breadcrumbs, small potato chunks, and herbs.
- Try commercial meat substitutes. We don't rely on these as they're pretty processed, and we're a whole-food family, but manufactured products can fill the occasional gap. We mix Gimme Lean brand "beef" with egg, breadcrumbs, and herbs for a killer meatball you'd swear is veal.
- Go for the soy. There's some debate about the wisdom of eating too much soy, so moderation is key, but foods like tofu and tempeh can take on all kinds of flavors and make great meals.
- Have breakfast for dinner. Meatless quiche or frittata entrees are as savory as they are filling and nutritious. Ditto diced hard-boiled eggs on salad.
- Get some vegetarian cookbooks. My family's journey toward flexitarianism wouldn't have gone anywhere without inspiration from others. So browse your favorite independent bookseller and pick some cookbooks that look good.
Taken together, these ideas can move your family toward a healthier flexitarian way to eat. Even one dinner a week makes a difference. Start there and work up to whatever level of meatlessness works for your family. Done gradually, the hardcore carnivores at your table won't even notice that they're helping to save the planet and even themselves.