Not ready to go vegetarian cold turkey--or in this case, no turkey? Test-drive the health benefits of a meat-free lifestyle by adopting Meatless Monday. Take just this one day a week to keep meat off the dinner table in your house. "Any time you substitute plants for meat, you decrease the saturated fats and increase the fiber and phytonutrients in your meal," says Ruth Frechman, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. "If you're eating plants, it's going to be beneficial to your health." (And skipping meat 1 day a week benefits our planet's health too. The United Nations estimates the meat industry is responsible for one-fifth of the man-made greenhouse gas emissions.)
Your inner carnivore might be concerned that you won't feel full after a day of eating only rabbit food, but fruits and vegetables can provide all of the satiating fiber and protein you need. Plus, our healthy swaps will help you stave off hunger and slim down without missing meat. Read on for eight tasty, all-veggie meal ideas.
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Protein-packed lentils can be used in many recipes as an easy ground beef substitute. "Lentils cook quickly [usually in about 30 minutes], and because they don't have to be soaked to soften them, like with dry beans, you don't have to think too far ahead," says Pam Anderson, author of Cook Without a Book: Meatless Meals, who loves to use lentils as a tasty taco filling. Anderson flavors lentils with traditional taco seasonings like chili powder, tomatoes, cumin, and onion to give them the right zesty flavor. Lentils are low in fat and high in fiber, says Frechman. Plus, a bag for them is a lot easier on your wallet, running only 12 cents per ounce compared with 25 cents per ounce for lean hamburger. (Related: These healthy foods are high in nutrition and low in cost)
The hearty composition of the potato and its ability to take on the flavors of surrounding foods make it a wonderful meat substitute, says Anderson. She likes subbing hash browns in a Reuben for the traditional corned beef. "If you have all the fixings--the sauerkraut, the Russian dressing, and the Swiss cheese--you already have the familiar, bold flavors your family will expect in the sandwich," says Anderson. The meat is merely there for satisfaction, and hash browns, which are high in potassium and fiber, will make you feel just as full, she says.
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Bringing in beans for ground beef is an easy way to cut fat and improve a meal's nutrient quality. Beans are a super source of fiber, says Frechman. They are also high in protein, contain no fat, and are tasty to boot. When it comes to burgers, Anderson recommends using smaller beans like black, white, or pinto, which stick together more easily. To make burger patties, mash one can of beans and combine with a can of whole beans. Form into patties, fire up the grill, and cook 3 minutes on each side. Beans take on other flavors well and taste great topped with the usual burger fixings. And if the patty is made out of brownish-pink pinto beans, it even looks like meat, says Anderson. It's a friendly way to fool your carnivorous friends into eating healthier.
Use a hearty portobello mushroom to replace the beef in a sandwich like a Philly cheesesteak. Mixing mushrooms into your meal increases fiber, decreases saturated fat, and lowers calories, says Frenchman. Use a quarter cup of mushrooms in each fake Philly, which will add less than 30 calories to the meal. Top off your sammie with plenty of grilled onions and peppers to get a healthy dose of vitamins A and C.
The oblong shape of eggplant makes it easy to slice into cutlets as a veggie stand-in for chicken. And the benefits don't stop at a lower calorie count: Studies show that the phytonutrients found in eggplant lower cholesterol, prevent cancer-promoting cell damage, and lessen joint damage, a prime factor in rheumatoid arthritis. But before you cook, be warned, that eggplant's spongy flesh soaks up oil--and a tablespoon of oil contains nearly 120 calories.
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Tofu, the longtime staple of vegetarian diets, doesn't have to stay a bland block. Mix with your favorite veggies and one of Anderson's sauce recommendations for a savory stir-fry that scoffs at traditional teriyaki. For example, toss your ingredients with chopped basil and rice vinegar, red pepper flakes, and orange juice, or lemon zest and coconut milk. "Tofu really picks up the flavors in the meal while adding bulk and substance," says Frenchman. Ramp up your entrée's nutrition by choosing calcium-fortified tofu, she says.
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Anderson's genius trick for fakin' bacon is to top the sandwich with 2 ounces of smoked mozzarella and some crumbled pita chips. "The combination creates the smokiness of bacon and the crunch without the saturated fat." A four-slice serving of bacon weighs in at 12 grams of fat, whereas 2 ounces of skim mozzarella contain 9 grams of fat. There's just one caveat: When you swap bacon for mozzarella the sodium content can be comparable.
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Put a healthy spin on the classic salad by adding sliced hard-boiled egg instead of chicken or shrimp. "Egg yolk is an excellent source of choline, a nutrient most American diets are deficient in," says Frechman. Choline reduces chronic inflammation, which is linked to diseases including cancer and Alzheimer's, and improves neuromuscular function. Eggs also contain the antioxidant lutein, which is good for eye health and can lower your risk of colon cancer.
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