I'm sure that most of you know that lean meats, poultry, and fish provide an excellent source of protein, iron, and other essential nutrients. But did you know that you can still reap the benefits of these important nutrients without the meat? Eating meat-free is a wonderful way to expose yourself and your kids to other nutrient-dense foods that provide the same nutrition as meat, in a quicker, cheaper, and, often, healthier way. Choosing to cook without meat can be a huge time-saver if you're a busy Mom, like me. And if you know how to prepare a healthy meatless meal, it will likely be higher in dietary fibre, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants than a meal containing meat.
Going meatless, even if only once or twice a week, may help to decrease your risk of many chronic diseases, such certain cancers, heart disease, and diabetes type 2. Decreasing your meat consumption may even help you achieve a healthier weight. But it's not as simple as just removing the meat from your meal—creating healthy and balanced meatless meals requires some thought and planning. But trust me, it's worth it!
Step 1: Choose a protein-rich meat alternative
If you're removing the meat, poultry, or fish from your meal, you're also removing most of the protein from your meal. Protein is one of the three essential macronutrients in our food supply—it functions as the building blocks of our body tissues (muscles, bones, skin, and cartilage), as well as hormones, enzymes, and antibodies. Protein also helps to control your appetite, by keeping you fuller longer. Healthy protein-rich meat alternatives include: eggs, dairy products (milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, and cheese), beans, lentils, soy products, nuts, and seeds. Quinoa, a healthy whole grain product, also contains protein. Make sure the protein-rich foods make up about one-quarter to one-third of your meal.
Step 2: Balance your meal
It was once thought that if you chose a plant-based source of protein for your meal—such as beans, lentils, nuts or seeds—you needed to carefully pair it with a complementary source of protein—such as rice, quinoa, barley, tofu, eggs, or dairy—to render it a high-quality source of protein. Now we know that as long as you eat a variety of protein-rich foods, whole grain foods, fruits, and veggies within a twenty-four hour period, your body will get all the protein that it needs. If you followed a strict vegan diet, you may need to be more diligent with pairing complementary protein sources at your meals.
Balancing your meatless meal is as easy as choosing three or four foods: A protein-rich food (or two), as mentioned above, some vegetables and/or fruit (try to choose bright, colourful ones most of the time), and a whole grain food or starchy vegetable (rice, whole grain pasta, bread, quinoa, potato, sweet potato, etc.). Make sure to include a healthy source of mono- or poly-unsaturated fats coming from foods, such as oil, nuts, seeds, or avocado.
Healthy meal examples, suitable for toddlers, kids, and adults:
Step 3: Relax
Meatless meals are great for many reasons, including the fact that they are QUICK and EASY! Instead of having to worry about thawing meat before prepping your meal, you can easily grab the eggs, a can of chickpeas, or some cottage cheese, instead. If your family is used to having meat-filled meals, don't panic—they will probably adapt easily to the occasional meatless meal, and appreciate the variety.
Meatless meals can also save you money! Meat alternatives, such as eggs, dairy, beans, and lentils, tend to be cheaper than meat, yet packed full of the same nutritional benefits. And don't bother spending a ton of money on vegetarian cookbooks—keep it simple—just replace beef or chicken in your favourite dishes, with tofu, eggs, beans, or lentils. Have breakfast for dinner and cook up some french toast with yogurt and berries, or make a veggie omelette.
If you are new to this, try making one or two meatless meals a week. You'll likely save money and time, improve your family's health, and add some variety to your weekly menu.
Spill it! What's your favourite meatless meal?