When she was a teenager, my sister-in-law informed her parents that for ethical reasons she would no longer be eating meat, and would prepare her own vegetarian meals. For the most part, that meant potato chips with sour cream and onion dip while the rest of the family ate steak or pork chops. On Saturday night, when their parents went out, my husband would join his sister in her meatless repast. Clearly, neither of them was going meatless for their health.
She is still a full-time vegetarian, and he prepares a weekly vegetarian dinner for me and our kids, but we have all come a long way since the '70s in thinking about meatless cooking. Foremost on our minds is nutrition. Instead of chips and dip, our family's occasional meatless meals include alternate sources of protein such as beans, soy and low-fat dairy products in combination with plenty of vegetables and whole grains.
We are not alone. The Meatless Monday movement, initiated by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health to raise public awareness about the links between illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer and the overconsumption of meat, is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. The idea, to get in the habit of skipping meat every Monday to lower overall consumption, has spread to tens of thousands of public schools, corporate cafeterias and hospitals, and to millions of home kitchens. Celebrities including Al Gore, Yoko Ono and Simon Cowell have all endorsed the program.
The original idea is almost 100 years old. During World War I, the U.S. government encouraged citizens to go meatless on Mondays to reduce consumption of key staples as part of the war effort. Americans gladly cooperated, and the results were stunning. In the course of one week in November 1917, New York City hotels saved about 116 tons of meat.
Scarcity of meat is not a problem today. On the contrary, Americans eat on average 270 pounds of meat a person a year, more than almost any other people on the planet. The problem, according to the Bloomberg School, is that excessive consumption, especially of red and processed meats, is linked to increased risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and death from cancer. Replacing meat, even for just one day a week, with plant-based foods may reduce these risks, the school contends.
Of course, going meatless for your health doesn't mean skipping the burger and eating a plate of fries and a shake. A healthy diet -- vegetarian or not -- includes limited amounts of saturated fats and sweets. But cutting out meat and putting vegetables front-and-center one night a week is a good way for many to begin to balance diets in favor of good health.
Go ahead, tinker with the repertoire
There's no need to learn a whole new style of cooking to go meatless on Mondays. You probably already have dishes in your repertoire that can be adapted:
* Substitute meaty vegetables such as mushrooms or eggplant for meat in pasta sauces.
* Use sauteed tofu instead of meat in main-dish salads and stir-fries.
* Sprinkle vegetarian soups with nuts or beans to add healthy vegetable protein.
* Adapt breakfast dishes such as frittatas and omelets, load them up with vegetables.
* Skip the pepperoni. Pizzas make satisfying meatless meals. Just be sure to use more vegetables than cheese for a healthy balance.
Be environmentally correct
If lowering your risk for chronic illnesses isn't enough, scientists at Johns Hopkins want you to know that a wide embrace of Meatless Monday would benefit the environment.
* According to the United Nations, the meat industry generates nearly one-fifth of the man-made greenhouse gas emissions that are accelerating climate change. Reducing meat consumption would slow global warming.
* Because it takes more water to raise livestock than it does to grow vegetables and grains, replacing some of the meat in our diet with vegetables would conserve water, which is in short supply in many parts of the world.
* Going meatless one day a week would lessen our dependence on fossil fuel, since it takes nearly 20 times as much fuel energy to get meat to the table as it does to deliver plant-based protein.