Jamie Vespa is a registered dietitian who operates the health-centric blog Dishing Out Health. She champions the idea that food and the power of cooking can heal, inspire, and help us thrive.
Plant-based eating has become much more than the latest diet trend. Eating less meat, milk, and eggs and shifting plants to the center of the plate is now the paradigm for healthy, sustainable living. And for good reason — science shows a plant-based diet can help you live longer and ward off chronic disease like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and certain types of cancer. Plus, it’s better for the environment and often, our wallets.
But eating “plant-based” doesn’t necessarily mean forgoing all animal products and adopting a completely vegan diet. It’s more about adjusting proportions to eat more foods from plant sources than animal sources. This lifestyle change can ultimately help us increase vitamin, mineral, antioxidant, and fiber intake, all while lowering our carbon footprint. Sounds like a win-win, right?
Here’s how to get started implementing small changes for a big impact with these healthy foods.
1. Start slow. Aim for one plant-based meal a day
Any transition can feel overwhelming if you’re diving in headfirst. Think of the “one plant-based meal a day” approach as dipping your toe in the water rather than instantly adopting a vegan diet. For many, breakfast is the easiest meal to forego animal products. Of course there are plenty of plant-centric staples like smoothie bowls, coconut yogurt with granola, or a slice of sourdough with nut butter.
If you prefer a savory, hearty breakfast, though, let me introduce you to Vegan Breakfast Burritos. Filled with scrambled tofu plus potatoes, avocado, greens, and a touch of earthy turmeric, they’re a hearty meal that will stick with you all morning. You could easily sub in baby kale for the spinach if you like.
2. Think of meat as an accent, rather than the headliner
We’re used to seeing meat as an entree, where it’s gained much of its center-of-the-plate appeal. Try considering it as a side instead, which leaves more plate real estate for legumes, whole grains, and produce.
As you’re transitioning to a more vegetarian diet you can start by decreasing meat portion sizes from 6 ounces to 4 ounces. Or try using half plants and half animal protein in classic meat-centric dishes. For instance, the Mushroom Meatloaf that follows employs a mix of umami-rich ‘shrooms to turn classic beef meatloaf into a veg-forward version.
Or use meat more as a flavor agent to enhance veggie or bean dishes. For example, the recipe for Easy Roasted Vegetables uses a small amount of bacon to impart loads of salty, savory goodness to a pan of plants. Bonus: The fat from bacon will actually help you absorb fat-soluble vitamins A and K.
3. Prioritize protein
Gram for gram, protein keeps you fuller longer than carbohydrates or fat. In addition to keeping your metabolism buzzing, it’s crucial for repairing muscle and supporting immunity. While most Americans get plenty of protein, about two-thirds of that protein comes from animal sources. So if you find yourself feeling hungrier between plant-based meals, you may not be getting enough protein.
You can still get optimal protein from plant foods. Some of the top plant-based protein sources are soy (tempeh, tofu, edamame, and soymilk; see below), beans and lentils (see pulses, below), nuts and seeds, and quinoa.
4. Don’t forget about fat
Your body needs fat: Not only is it a vital source of fuel, but fat also plays a key role in essential body functions, such as nutrient absorption and hormone production. And with twice as many calories per gram compared to carbohydrates and protein, fat is incredibly filling — a little goes a long way.
However, it’s important to choose the right types of fat — namely, the monounsaturated and polyunsaturated ones that are good for your heart. These are mainly found in plant sources like olive oil, avocado and its oil, nuts, and seeds. Animal sources of fat such as butter, ghee, cream, and lard are higher in saturated fat, so you want to eat these in moderation.
A great way to up the health benefits of heart-healthy fats in plant-based meals is to include a nut or seed-based sauce or dressing. The Creamy Garlic Cashew Sauce imparts savory depth to grains bowls and roasted veggies.
I also love this Garlic Sunflower Seed Dressing as a tasty, nutritious departure from bottled dressings.
5. Get to know tofu and tempeh
Tofu and tempeh are two of the most versatile forms of soy. They also offer all nine essential amino acids, making them a complete source of protein. At the grocery store we’re now seeing soy added to many of the faux-meat products, too. Some of these mimic the taste and texture of meat down to the sizzle, smell, and taste; however, many are highly processed and use oils that are high in saturated fat (most often coconut and palm oils). These products are fine in moderation, but sticking to more whole-food ingredients will give you a more optimized nutrition profile over the long run.
If you’re new to cooking tofu, you might start with crispy tofu, which is both simple and versatile. Serve it over rice with sautéed veggies, in a stir-fry, or alongside your favorite dipping sauce.
Or take a stab at Sesame and Sweet Tempeh Skewers, which get lacquered in a rich peanut sesame sauce.
6. Discover the versatility of fresh produce
In a time when cauliflower is embraced as taco “meat” and Buffalo wings, it’s never been easier to power up on plants. Even cornerstone American meals like burgers now have a suitable veggie swap.
Beyond cauliflower, some of the most multifaceted veggies to add to your repertoire are mushrooms (see below), eggplant, cabbage, and beets. Here are some of my favorite ways to use them.
Spiced and grilled eggplant mimics the meaty character of lamb in vegetarian gyros.
Crispy Roasted Cabbage Steaks are center-of-the-plate worthy, yet also make for a versatile side dish.
Quinoa Beet Burgers are made with whole grains, seeds, and beets to form a sturdy veggie burger patty that can be pan-fried, baked, or grilled. (Bonus points for the vegan garlic aioli.)
Even certain fruits can be suitable meat swaps. Take jackfruit, for example — a tropical fruit that shreds easily and takes on just about any flavor profile. I like it best in these jackfruit sandwiches, which mimic classic pulled pork. Piled high on a toasted bun and topped with tangy slaw, it’s the ultimate riff on a BBQ staple.
7. Power up with pulses
No need to start palpating your wrists here. Pulses, which you may know better as beans, lentils, dry peas, and chickpeas, are endlessly versatile, inexpensive, and rich in protein, making them easy, regular additions to your meal plan. Plus, they have one of the lowest carbon footprints of any food.
Look to incorporate pulses in some of your favorite high-flavor dishes, like vegan enchiladas and the Indian chana masala that follow. Rich in protein and fiber with plenty of savory spice, the recipes will quickly become family favorites. The enchiladas are topped with vegan cheese, one of the many vegan dairy products available these days.
8. Make the most of mushrooms
Perhaps the most suitable swap for meat in the plant kingdom is mushrooms. Between their toothsome texture and noteworthy umami, mushrooms can impart layers of complexity to any plant-based dish. This goes for both dried and fresh mushrooms, by the way. Of course the flavor of dried is more concentrated, which makes them an excellent contender for adding savory depth to soups and broths, stir-fries, sandwiches, and grain bowls.
Fresh, on the other hand, run the gamut of flavors and textures depending on type. Portobellos are meaty and hearty, and the ideal substitute for a beef patty in burgers.
Shiitakes are super savory, and lend themselves well to a healthy plant-based Bolognese or even faux bacon.
And then there are creminis, chameleons you can toss into stir-fries, stews, or vegan goulash for a hearty medley to serve over rice or noodles.
9. Stock up on umami boosters
If you ever find plant-based meals to be lacking that “oomph” factor, you may need to tap into the savory “fifth taste” known as umami. Central to Japanese cuisine, this is what imparts depth of flavor and all-around craveabilty to foods. Umami can best be distinguished in animal foods like seared beef, anchovies, and Parmesan, though it’s also a distinct characteristic of soy sauce, ripe tomatoes, miso, and dried mushrooms. While many of the umami-rich condiments are high in sodium, they pack a flavor wallop, so you can get more mileage out of a small amount.
For better-than-takeout flavor at home, serve salty, savory seared tofu over rice or brown rice noodles.
If you’re new to cooking with miso, try it in creamy tahini-miso sauce, which is perfect for drizzling over roasted vegetables like broccoli, bell peppers, or sweet potatoes.
10. Replace refined with whole grains
Swapping out refined grains such as white pasta and white bread for whole grains like brown rice and farro will add essential nutrients such as iron and B vitamins to your meatless meals. Bonus: The extra fiber from whole grains will help keep you fuller longer. Try adding whole grains like bulgur, farro, or quinoa to salads, stir-fries, or grain bowls for extra heft.
Those grains also great for molding into “meatballs,” binding a burger patty, or working into savory breakfast bowls.
Learn more about plant-based cooking
We’re only gotten started on all the possibilities for delicious plant-based eating. In these next articles, check out more new recipes, learn about getting enough essential nutrients such as vitamin B12, and learn how healthy eating on a plant-based diet can help with weight loss, high cholesterol, and cardiovascular disease.