Moving towards a plant-based diet

In Eating for the Planet (two years ago) I argued that the ideal diet is “one which minimises harm to the environment and to animals while maximising benefits to our health. There is no logically necessary connection between the three objectives but there is a ‘sweet spot’ where all three happen to coincide: a plant-based diet emphasising fresh, local, seasonal food.”

carbon footprint of meats and other protein
Environmental footprints of various proteins, from the Environmental Working Group, UK.

Since then, calls for all of us to adopt a plant-based diet for the sake of the environment have become ever more frequent and more urgent. Not entirely coincidentally, I have been moving towards such a diet myself, and thinking about how to do so as easily as possible. After all, if a change seems worthwhile and isn’t too hard, then more of us will try it.

Changing the lifetime habits of a household all at once may be impossible but what if we can gently move in the right direction – one dish at a time, one meal at a time, and maybe have some fun doing so? Discover new dishes, new flavours, new cuisines? Would that work?

Poor people’s food

Meat has always been expensive, if not a luxury, for the very good reason that its production costs are high – not just in the cost of the animal’s food but in opportunity costs: killing a hen, for instance, foregoes all the eggs she would have laid and all the chickens she would have produced. Of course, when the hen is no longer producing eggs, then the cost/benefit ratio changes and she’s liable to end up in the pot.

Most people, now and for most of the world’s history, have therefore eaten plant-based diets by necessity. In South-East Asia, rice and something to flavour it; in northern Africa, cous-cous and something to flavour it; in northern Europe,  wheat, oats or barley and something to flavour it; and so on. Killing a chicken or goat for the pot was a big event (honouring guests perhaps) and killing a pig, sheep or cow a bigger one.

A consequence is that every cuisine is rich in dishes which “make a little go a long way,” as my parents (who grew up through the Depression and WW2 rationing in England) used to say. Consider risotto: rice, a little butter, stock, herbs and a little meat. Or pea and ham soup: dried peas (or beans) boiled with the ham bone after most of the meat has been picked from it. Or jambalaya, paella and their global equivalents.

One characteristic of all these is that they mix together all the ingredients so that any shortfall in the quantity of meat is barely apparent and every mouthful has flavour. Contrast this with what happens if there’s not much meat in a typical Anglo-Aussie meat-and-three-veg meal: everyone sees a disappointingly small amount of tasty meat and a large quantity of very boring vegetables.

Another characteristic of this kind of cooking is that no part of the animal was wasted. Protein was valued, and odd cuts like veal shin (osso bucco), liver and kidneys, fish-head soup and other nasty bits (don’t say you weren’t warned!) were made as attractive as possible. For similar reasons, techniques for cooking the oldest, toughest meat (remember the hen which stopped laying?) were developed. In terms of minimising our environmental footprint, these are virtues.

Recipes

One thing which makes the whole exercise much easier (and in turn makes us more likely to persist with it) is not to be too hard-line about it – particularly since eating habits are so deeply entangled with our whole culture.

If exceptions to the rule are seen as failures, they become very stressful for everyone concerned. I like to think of dietary guidelines as training rules rather than Divine Law, since following them most of the time is a lot better than not even trying to follow them, and we will get better at it with practice. Here I’m focusing specifically on painlessly reducing meat consumption, not on eliminating it altogether, so vegetarian options will only be mentioned in passing.

Breakfast is not usually a meat-heavy meal (if a meal at all) and lunch is endlessly variable, ranging from a sandwich to last night’s leftovers to a full meal, so let’s concentrate on dinner as the meal which is most likely to be meat-heavy.

One-pot rice meals

Risotto, Paella, Pilaf, Pilau and Jambalaya are variations (from Italy, Spain, and Louisiana) on a theme: rice is cooked with meat and vegetables.

Wikipedia’s article on Jambalaya and Pilaf leave little more to be said, as they include recipes and variations. For variety, here are a more detailed recipe for a fancier Mushroom Risotto from Maggie Beer and a whole collection of Paella recipes from BBC Good Food.

Pasta, Curries and Tagines

These are all dishes in which a smallish quantity of flavoursome stew is served over a larger quantity of separately-cooked stodge – pasta, rice or cous-cous respectively. Most recipes already call for a rather small amount of meat per person but a further reduction will not be obvious.

Tagines, for those unfamiliar with them, are the North African solution to producing a satisfying meal with limited, or no, meat; here is a collection of recipes from SBS Food.

It is worth noting that modern Western versions of all of the above tend to include more meat than the originals. Pasta, in particular, was originally a filling first course (Primi) served before a separate meat dish (Secondi), not a “first course” or “main” in the English sense (Italian menus are organised differently).

Classic (European) stews, Pies and casseroles

From Irish Stew to Beef Burgundy, our approach should be the same: reduce the amount of meat by a third and make up the volume with more of the vegetables which were already included in the recipe; increase the herbs and spices, too, if that leaves it a little too bland.

Shakshuka

Shakshuka, a classic middle-eastern dish which doesn’t have an exact European equivalent, consists of eggs poached on a bed of thick tomato-based sauce. The original is a very enjoyable light meal, but there are endless easy variations. Serve it with flat bread and dips, etc, for breakfast, lunch or dinner.

Here is a good basic recipe for it, while this (much longer) article surveys the possible variations before supplying another good recipe.

The triple bottom line

Cook what you like, of course, but if you cook with love for the people who will eat your food, respect for your ingredients, and care for the environment, you can hardly go wrong. Bon appetit!

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