Many people are looking to eat less meat these days, whether it’s cutting down significantly on animal-based protein or simply trying to put plants more front-and-center on their plates. Regardless of how much you’re looking to reduce your meat consumption, it can feel overwhelming to tweak a way of eating you’ve been following for years. It can sometimes feel like, Where do I even start?
First, there are a bunch of reasons why you may consider trying to limit your meat. For one, research has shown there are health benefits to reducing meat consumption, even without going full-fledged vegetarian: “Flexitarian” or semi-vegetarian diets may bring metabolic benefits, including reduced risk of diabetes and high blood pressure, according to a 2016 review of 25 studies published in Frontiers in Nutrition. These kinds of diets may also promote a healthy, more diverse microbiome (all the microorganisms that live in your digestive system), since the good bacteria in your gut feed off that plant-rich fiber.
And there may also be benefits outside your body for cutting down on meat. Widespread reduced meat consumption is directly tied to lower rates of greenhouse gas emissions, helping to curb the effects of climate change. Plus, depending on how you go about it, filling your cart with mostly veggies, fruits, beans, nuts, and grains can also help lower your grocery bill, according to research in the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition.
The whole meatless (or meat-less) thing doesn’t have to be as overwhelming as it seems. The key is taking small steps, like the eight smart tips below, which we got from nutrition experts who stick with mostly or fully plant-powered diets themselves. Together, over time, these kinds of steps can add up to significant progress.
Ready to get started? Let’s do this veggie thing.
1. Plan ahead—and plan for leftovers.
Coming up with balanced, nutritious menus on the fly can be tough. And it can feel even harder when the no-brainer meals you used to fall back on no longer fit the bill. (Sorry, store-bought rotisserie chicken.) “Planning ahead can help make getting plant-based dinners on the table easier,” registered dietitian Marisa Moore, R.D., L.D.N., who sticks with a mostly plant-based diet herself, tells SELF.
We’re not talking about a bowl of broccoli and rice here. To make your meals both filling and satisfying, make sure to include a source of protein, fiber-rich carbs, and healthy fat, Moore recommends. Think lentil and butternut squash tacos topped with crumbled feta, smashed chickpeas, and avocado on whole-grain toast with sliced tomato, or whole-wheat noodles with kale-walnut pesto and baked tofu cubes (or any of these super-satisfying vegetarian recipes).
While you’re at it, plan to make extras for the next day and even beyond. “The thought of cooking every night can be intimidating, but luckily when you have leftovers, it’s not necessary,” Moore says. Scoop leftover taco filling on top of a grain bowl, or use extra pesto and tofu in a sandwich. Now you’ve taken care of at least two meals, making a meatless dinner seem way less daunting.
2. Start with just one meatless day a week.
There’s no prize for becoming vegetarian or vegan overnight (or ever, actually). So why not take it slowly?
“Start with at least one day a week where you go meatless. Then every other week, add on another meatless day,” registered dietitian Bansari Acharya, M.A., R.D.N., who specializes in developing recipes for plant-based diets, tells SELF.
The snail’s pace is low-stress, since you don’t have to suddenly figure out every meal at once. And to be honest, it’s easier on your system too. Eating more veggies, fruit, and beans means eating more fiber—often a good thing for your digestive tract but also a potential recipe for uncomfortable bloating and gas if you step it up suddenly. “Gradually increasing your intake helps your body adjust more easily,” Acharya says. (So does making sure you drink enough water!)
3. Take advantage of breakfast.
The first meal of the day tends to be the easiest to make meatless—or even completely plant-based. What’s more, going veggie first thing in the morning can motivate you to stick with it throughout the rest of the day, plant-based dietitian Sharon Palmer, R.D.N., tells SELF. “Try steel-cut oats with fruit and nuts and nondairy milk, whole-grain pancakes topped with nut butter, a veggie breakfast burrito, or scrambled tofu with mushrooms and greens,” she recommends. Knowing you’ve already started off with a meatless meal at breakfast might help you continue your streak and pick more plant-filled choices at lunch and dinner.
4. Think about adding, not subtracting.
Focus on piling more plant foods onto your plate instead of thinking about what you’re leaving out or trying to replace. “When you increase your fruits and vegetables, you’ll automatically notice that your meat intake is slowly dropping,” Acharya says. You’re probably not going to put an actual steak next to that crispy cauliflower steak, right?
Opting for fare that leans into the more-veggie mentality makes this extra easy. Homemade pizza can always take some broccoli or spinach tossed on top, for instance. “Stir-fries, curries, and soups are good too, since you can add as many vegetables as you want to those,” says Acharya.
5. Try out some tofu or tempeh.
Tofu and tempeh are by far the most versatile alternatives to meat and poultry, says plant-based sports dietitian Kelly Jones, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D.. And despite their reputation for being bland, it’s easy to make them taste awesome. Stick with extra-firm tofu, which has the meatiest texture—and don’t hold back on seasonings like fresh herbs, spices, soy sauce, or citrus. “It can be very bland on its own,” says Jones.
Try baking marinated sliced tofu in the oven and adding it to sandwiches or salads, or on top of grain bowls. “Or if you want it to get really crispy without frying, toss cubed tofu in a tablespoon of cornstarch before baking or sautéing,” Jones suggests.
As for tempeh? Jones loves it crumbled up as an alternative to ground meat or poultry. Add your favorite seasonings and sauté until it gets golden and crisp, or stir it into slow-cooked chili or stews and let it soak up all the flavored liquids.
6. Embrace the snack board.
Permission to think outside the protein-and-two-sides format granted. Plenty of plant-based snacks can become lunch or dinner with very little effort. What’s more, sitting down to a new meal format can help ease that feeling that something’s “missing” from your traditional plate.
Moore’s a big fan of Mediterranean-style snack boards loaded up with things like hummus, olives, fresh sliced veggies, dried fruit, a handful of nuts, and some whole-grain pita or flatbread. Sounds like a pretty stellar meal, right?
7. Treat lentils like ground meat.
This is a great way to stick with your favorite kinds of food: Start by replacing half of the ground beef or turkey in recipes like chili, lasagna, stuffed peppers, or taco filling with an equal amount of cooked brown or green lentils, says Jones. The quick-cooking pulses have a soft yet toothsome texture that’s a good stand-in for ground meat—especially because lentils are packed with similar nutrients (think protein and iron) and can take on a ton of different flavors.
A few pro tips: Cook your lentils in low-sodium vegetable broth instead of water for a bigger flavor punch, says Jones. And make extra to store in the freezer. When you need them, just thaw them and use just as you would fresh-cooked lentils.
8. Buddy up with a friend who also wants to eat less meat.
Partnering with a like-minded friend can help you stay the course, says vegan dietitian Rhyan Geiger, R.D.N. Someone who’s already living the veg lifestyle can share advice on things you’re trying to figure out, like navigating restaurant menus or social situations (once they actually become a thing again). But even a newbie who’s working toward the same goals as you will hold you accountable and give you a source for swapping recipes. You can move toward those meat-based choices together, Geiger says.