You might have heard about the Meatless Monday movement, where people eat vegetarian one day of the week. It has a three-fold benefit of saving money, improving your health, and being good for the environment. A rice and bean meal can be both delicious and cheap. Reducing calories derived from animal products is associated with lower rates of cancer, heart disease, and obesity (and of course medical bills are not cheap, so prevention is frugal too). Also, most vegetarian foods use a fraction of the water and energy required to produce meat. Even if you eat out all the time, vegetarian meals are often still cheaper and healthier.
While I do not personally go meatless every Monday, most weeks I cook at least one vegetarian meal. When I first started, I saw a significant decrease in my grocery budget. It is hard to say how much I have saved because I concurrently was working on couponing and stock piling skills too. But it probably accounts for at least a 10-20% reduction in my food spending. I can pick up a 1 lb bag of lentils for a little over a dollar, add some onion and spices, cook until done, toss in some spinach (fresh or frozen), and voila – dinner for under 40¢/serving with very little work. Even if I toss some cheese or feta on top (purchased on sale with a coupon ) and serve with rice or toasted bread, it is still an incredibly inexpensive meal.
Cooking Vegetarian Meals
Mmm . . . vegetarian fajitas!
To get started, check out the Meatless Monday website for some great free recipes. You will find some delicious twists on your basic meals such as lasagna and burritos, as well as recipes for ethnic foods. When I made a vegetarian and a regular lasagna for friends, guess which was gone first – the veggie one, even though only one vegetarian was present.
Learning to cook vegetarian does take some practice. You have to discover how to create savory flavors and richness using vegetables instead of meat. Human taste is incredibly complex and varies person to person, but for the sake of simplicity, the basic tastes can be divided into these categories: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, unami, and possibly fat. When glutamate (a component of many proteins) receptors on the tongue are activated, you taste unami or savory. Tomatoes, mushrooms, cheese, avocado, beans, and nuts stimulate these receptors, just like meat, so incorporate them into your vegetarian meals. Also use lots of fresh ingredients and be careful not to overcook produce – that way your dishes will disappear as fast as my lasagna did.
Is dinner not complete without some meat? Try meals which use meat as a side dish or flavoring instead of as the entree. You get some of the delicious flavors and richness, but still consume a mostly plant based diet. Thomas Jefferson was on to something when he described eating meat “as a condiment to the vegetables which constitute my principal diet.”
It took my mother several years to get my dad on board with occasional vegetarian meals. She started with stir fries consisting of mostly vegetables with some tofu and shrimp (or other meat). Even meat based dishes can be made “meat- lite.” For meatloaf I mix equal amounts of ground beef, tofu, and chopped mushrooms, then adding the typical ingredients – dry oatmeal, egg, onion, and seasons – to the mix. I often make 2-3 batches worth and freeze the extra. There are some great cookbooks for making low meat meals. My favorite is Almost Meatless: Recipes That Are Better for Your Health and the Planet. I got so many great ideas from this book and absolutely love the Springtime Spaghetti Carbonara recipe.
Taking Meatless Mondays a step further to a flexitarian diet nets you even greater benefits, while still avoiding the health issues associated with nutritionally incomplete vegetarian diet. (It is possible to have a healthy, complete vegetarian diet, but you need to know what foods you can get various vitamins and amino acids from.) Being flexitarian has rapidly grown in popularity – there is even a large facebook group dedicated to it and blogs filled with low meat and dairy recipes. This is also part of the diet advocated by Michael Pollan in his book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. Whether you eat meat only occasionally or use only a small amount of meat in most meals, you can be a flexitarian