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.


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

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, 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!

19 thoughts on “Moving towards a plant-based diet”

  1. The Ethical Omnivore by Laura Dalrymple and Grant Hilliard is a book about eating less meat and doing it with more respect for the whole food chain.

    The first half of the book, ‘Let’s Talk’ is an attempt to answer all the questions we’re asked every day in the butchery and to explain why we do what we do, the way we do it. This is where we apply the lessons learned over 14 years working with visionary farmers, curious customers and our co-workers, some of whom are profiled in these pages.
    The second half, ‘Let’s Eat’, features recipes for eating the whole animal from all the wonderful members of our community – customers, farmers, chefs.

  2. Five easy ways to lower your household carbon emissions from ABC Science says shower less, drive and fly less, waste less food, tweak your electricity use, and…

    Give kangaroo a try
    Beef and lamb are the greenhouse gas heavy-hitters in many people’s diets, because of the methane that cattle and sheep produce. We’re often told to eat less red meat as a way of reducing our footprint (and for health reasons as well). Swapping from beef or lamb to another source of protein such as chicken, pork, duck, fish or eggs will reduce your food footprint. If you like your meat but want to reduce your emissions try kangaroo. Despite being a red meat, it has just one fifth of the emissions of beef and a quarter of that from lamb. This is because the kangaroo’s stomach produces very little methane (a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than CO2) in comparison to cattle and sheep.

  3. An addition to the “poor people’s food” variations: a Lebanese recipe. Humus Msabah is softened chickpeas mixed with lemon juice, cumin, cinnamon, pepper, olive oil and garnished with herbs.

  4. It turns out eating healthier could save your family $1800 a year
    Cost is often cited as the biggest barrier for shifting to a healthier or more environmentally-friendly diet, but new research has found the average Australian family could save more than $1800 a year by making the switch.
    The Deakin University study, published in Nutrition Journal, compared the cost of a basket of weekly groceries based on the planetary health diet, which involves eating more plant-based foods, with the cost of a basket based on the typical Australian diet, which includes more red meat and processed foods.

    1. …It’s unlikely we’ll end the climate crisis without tackling the vast environmental hoofprint of livestock. And, according to new research, the climate benefit of cutting meat consumption could be double what we thought.
      We already knew that cattle and other livestock use 83% of the world’s farmland for pasture and fodder, while producing just 18% of protein. In rich countries, 70% of food-related emissions come from livestock. What the new study shows is that if people in developed nations adopted a healthy, low-meat diet, a huge amount of carbon dioxide could be sucked out of the air by letting farmland revert back to natural forests and grasslands.
      In fact, the carbon-reduction impact of the growing trees and plants roughly doubles the climate impact of just cutting meat-eating alone, which itself reduces agricultural emissions by more than 60%. That’s because we are talking about a lot of land being freed up: almost 350m hectares of pastureland and 80m more of cropland – about half the area of the US. The total savings would be about 100bn tonnes over time, equivalent to about 10 times China’s annual emissions today. …

      This came to me in a newsletter so I can’t link to the whole of it but the ‘new study’ is here:

    This asks whether veganism as such is necessarily better for the planet than vegetarianism, pescatarianism or flexitarianism, and argues that, “If people replace fish, meat, eggs and cheese with plant-based ultra-processed foods, it might actually do us – and the planet – more harm than good.”

    Processed food companies are getting a slice of [the growing plant-based food market] by mass-producing vast quantities of plant-based burgers, mince, nuggets, pies, quiches, vegan cheeses and more, all assembled in industrial energy-guzzling factories. The products often use extracted or isolated plant proteins (frequently from peas or soy), which produce waste. Although the average carbon footprint of plant-based meals remains far lower than that of their animal-based equivalents, there is something else that has an even lower environmental impact and is far better for our health: it is called “whole unprocessed food”.

    It’s hard to argue against that.

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