Who doesn’t love to eat? Andrew and I certainly do (although our kids would rather be doing pretty much anything else). Cooking, trying new restaurants or hitting old favorites—eating is one of the great joys of life. It’s also (the way we Americans have grown accustomed to eating) a huge problem for the planet. According to Drawdown (an awesome and ultimately optimistic book by Paul Hawkens on solutions to global warming), raising livestock accounts for 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions annually, especially ruminants like cows. If cattle were their own nation, they would be the third largest emitter of GHGs in the world. Out of 80 solutions to stop global warming, Drawdown ranks reducing food waste #3 and changing to a plant-based diet #4. This is a big deal. What are we to do?
Prior to our wakeup on the imminence of the threat of climate change, Andrew and I tried to be somewhat conscious/ethical eaters. We only bought meat that was certified humane and tried to mix in some vegetarian and vegan meals. I didn’t feel like we were consuming a ton of animal products. But once I decided to pretty much give them up (not completely—I’m more flexible as a guest at someone else’s house or if there aren’t vegan choices at a restaurant, and I steal some of my kids’ goldfish), I realized how much they’d been a big part of my diet. The first few weeks of going mostly vegan, I felt a little queasy and headachy and didn’t know if I could do it. I felt embarrassed that my body was reminding me how much I’d depended on eating animal products (dairy was tougher than meat—I’d gone without meat for a couple several-year spurts in the past). My good friend Kat who’s been a vegan for years gave me some good advice and encouragement, and Andrew and I started to enjoy the challenge of thinking of vegan recipes we’d be excited to try. There was also a good bit of trial and error with finding vegan foods and meat/dairy substitutes that were tasty and satisfying. I’ll share some recipes and food items we like (and don’t like) in case you’re considering making a similar change or at least cutting back on meat and dairy.
Pretty much since we’ve had kids, we’ve been in the habit of making a big pot of something over the weekend to reheat for dinner for most of the week. We just don’t have the time or energy to make something new every night, and we don’t mind having the same thing several days in a row if we know we’ll be switching to something new the next week. We’ve found some vegan recipes we love (as well as plenty of non-vegan recipes that we just modify to veganize) that have worked well to keep up this habit, and it’s a lot less daunting than trying to make something new every evening. These also work well to package up and take to a neighbor or friend. Some that we’ve enjoyed have been: sweet potato chipotle soup, chili (this recipe is obviously not vegan but we just cut out the meat and beef bouillon and add some chopped carrots and black beans, and top with fritos), butternut squash soup (we love an old recipe of Emeril’s that’s not online anymore, but there are plenty of good recipes out there and just substitute earth balance sticks for butter and Nutpods unsweetened dairy-free creamer for the cream), marsala pasta with mushrooms and artichokes (substituting Nutpods for cream and using vegan parmesan shreds—our local Publix has lots of options for many varieties of dairy-free cheese and I’m glad they’re becoming more mainstream at many grocery stores), black bean potato enchiladas (we used green sauce instead of red), and cauliflower tikka masala (it was great but a little labor intensive—I‘ll never understand where the “prep time” estimate comes from in recipes because I am always way slower). We love farro as a quick, easy, healthy grain base, and have a couple of go-to meals: a summery one (we skip the feta, and just for our preference usually skip the peas and scallions too), and a fall one (we skipped the green onions and parsley and used butternut squash for pumpkin). We also like to do a southwest medley of roasted sweet potatoes or butternut squash, sautéed onions and bell peppers, mushrooms, black beans, and top with lime juice, avocado, and jalapeños (tortillas optional). A southwest green salad with black beans, avocados, any sautéed (or raw) veggies you like, and this dressing is great too. For an easy, healthy, and delicious side, we like to roast veggies with just a small drizzle of olive oil at 425 degrees for 20 minutes: broccoli, asparagus, or brussels sprouts with lemon (boil the sprouts for 3 min first), sliced carrots, or cauliflower with grape tomatoes. Giant portabellos with vegan pesto or olive oil and balsamic vinegar roasted for 10-12 minutes can be a tasty, healthy main dish.
For fancier occasions, here’s what we made for Thanksgiving: mashed potatoes, this delicious and festive salad (we used a store bought apple cider vinaigrette from a place called Circle A farms that delivers amazingly fresh salad greens and homemade dressing—check it out if you’re in the north Atlanta suburbs—and we always cook brussels sprouts by boiling for 3 minutes then roasting for 30), sweet potato casserole, stuffing, and Andrew’s signature dark chocolate bourbon pecan pie (substitute earth balance sticks for butter and flax meal mixed with water for eggs). For Christmas, we went a little lighter but still delicious with this mushroom bourguignon. For Super Bowl Sunday, we are going to try this dip (I will definitely be focusing on it more than the football).
We’re not purists. Our kids are extremely picky. I’m in awe of families who get their kids to eat the “family meal” from the time they start solids. We offer our food to our kids, and they literally spit it out–although last week our two-year-old called this comforting pasta recipe (substituting veggie broth for chicken broth, Nutpods unsweetened creamer for cream, and artichoke hearts for lobster, then topped with vegan parm) “yummy” over and over and it was a minor miracle. With our four-year-old at less than the 1st percentile BMI, we’re not going to do the old-school “eat what we offer you or go hungry” tactic. So we give them what they’ll eat, which means our grocery cart often contains bacon, cow’s milk, cheez-its, goldfish, and/or parmesan. We make sure they eat a fruit or veggie with each meal and tell them the reasons we make the choices we do, and then move on. (And we’re happy the weeks that the obsession happens to be sourdough peanut butter sandwiches with cauliflower on the side rather than bacon.) Progress, not perfection. We’ve still majorly cut our diet-related carbon footprint, especially since we grownups are consuming the vast majority of calories in our house. This doesn’t have to be an all or nothing endeavor. Of course, the bigger of a change you make in your diet, the more of a difference it will make for your carbon footprint, but small changes made by a lot of people can help a ton: if every American just substituted beans for beef without making any other changes, that would cover more than half of the emissions reduction needed to make our 2020 goals pledged by Obama in 2009. Meatless Mondays is popular (but unless that’s really all you can do, try to be a little more ambitious!), and VB6 (eat vegan before 6pm) is catching on as well. Many people call themselves “reducetarians” and aim to reduce meat and dairy–the more you reduce, the better for the planet. As with any goal, make it SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-based; that will make you more likely to succeed than just a general effort to cut back. Another thing to keep in mind is that reducing meat while increasing dairy isn’t nearly as helpful as reducing (or eliminating) both. It’s encouraging that more restaurants and fast food chains are adding vegan options, but they are still fairly hard to come by. It’s good to try to plan ahead and bring food with you to work and have food on hand at home to avoid take out for dinner, but if you need to (or want to) eat out, try to at least avoid beef and minimize other meat/dairy–often restaurants that don’t have purely vegan options have some “almost vegan” options.
I’m encouraged that many people are jumping on the plant-based diet bandwagon for health reasons. A couple years ago, it seemed like all my patients were going on the keto diet (don’t do it, please!). Now it is much more common to hear people say they are shifting more plant-based. Documentaries like Forks Over Knives and The Game Changers tout the health benefits of plant-based diets. Going vegan or close to it, as long as you’re choosing a healthy variety of foods including plenty of vegetables and fruits, can lower your risk of heart disease, cancer, and other chronic illness. You don’t need to worry about a varied vegan diet being unhealthy; most Americans get too much protein, and plant sources of protein are generally healthier than animal sources. There is some risk of vitamin B12 deficiency with a vegan diet, so I take a daily (well, when I remember) multivitamin to avoid that.
Of course, going vegan is wonderful for the animals too! For years we’d been buying “certified humanely treated” meat (and dairy when possible), but we’ve known that livestock usually don’t have very pleasant lives even outside of factory farms. Again, we’re not purists, but just avoiding it for the most part leaves us with a clearer conscience in terms of animal suffering too.
I’ll share here some of our favorite vegan products and meat/dairy substitutes. We have an espresso machine we love, so I tried pretty much all the dairy-free milks to make lattes and settled on soy. Andrew’s favorite is Oatly barista grade oat milk. Earth balance sticks are a good substitute for butter. The same brand’s imitation cheez-its are mediocre; sadly they were rejected by our kids, and I decided to bring plain sunchips with my work lunches instead. Flax meal (available at Trader Joe’s among other places, or you can grind your own flax seeds) mixed with water substitutes really well for eggs in baking and has a similar texture. My favorite yogurt substitute is Sodelicious strawberry. Kite hill has some good products like vegan cream cheese and unsweetened almond milk yogurt that can sub for sour cream (although I’d probably rather just put avocado on a Mexican dish instead). There are some amazing vegan junk foods too, like vegan queso, Bitchin’ sauce (seriously addictive!), and all kinds of options for ice cream (I really like the ones made from almond milk, although some made from coconut cream like Jeni’s are amazing and available at Publix). One thing I’ve noticed about some of the meat and dairy substitutes is that they do better paired with other flavors rather than making them the star of the show. I tried a slice of cheddar nutcheese on toast and it just was not like the real thing (so I now put avocado or peanut butter on toast instead). But shredded vegan cheddar is great in breakfast casserole or on enchiladas or veggie chili. Morningstar meats as well as all the new plant-based meats like Impossible and Beyond are quite good, and Andrew likes Evolve vegan breakfast shakes. He also makes a tofu “egg salad” he loves–I’ve always thought egg salad was gross but more power to him!
Do I miss meat and dairy? Well, firstly, since as I’ve said I haven’t 100% given them up, that’s not a totally honest question. But Andrew and I have given them up in terms of groceries that we buy and prepare for ourselves at home, which is the vast majority of what we eat, and I can honestly say I really don’t miss them. That’s not to say that vegan substitutes taste indistinguishable from the original version. Our homemade chocolate chip cookies with earth balance sticks don’t taste as indulgent and gooey as they used to with butter (although cowboy cookies are amazing–throw in a few ingredients beyond regular chocolate chip cookies and you really can’t tell they’re vegan). But I’m convinced that the planet needs a major overhaul of our eating habits, and can we have a joyful and abundant life, and great pleasure in eating, with a plant-based diet? Absolutely. When I was pregnant, every now and then I missed alcohol (and I did have a drink maybe once a month), but it wasn’t a temptation because of the bigger purpose of the baby I was growing. Making a “sacrifice” like this for a bigger purpose just doesn’t really feel like a sacrifice, especially after the initial adjustment period, and especially with so many great options out there these days. In case food budget or weight is your main consideration: this shift has not changed either for us. And it is definitely possible to eat a healthy plant-based diet on a budget (some of the stuff we’ve mentioned is a splurge, but there are plenty of good inexpensive options) and to tweak the calories to suit your needs. Something like keto may get you quicker weight loss results but that’s not really helpful to your health in the long term, and people eating very high protein/low carb diets on a large scale is just terribly unsustainable. There is definitely not a medical need to do so. Endocrinologists I’ve worked with suggest that even diabetics need to get about 55% of their calories from carbs; carbs are not the enemy (and they’re delicious).
You might be wondering why I spent so much time on eating plant-based if food waste is an even bigger issue. It’s mostly because a lot of the problem with food waste happens further up the supply chain, so as individuals/families, shifting to plant-based has the biggest impact. But avoiding/limiting food waste as much as we can is very important too. Some good habits are: have a plan for each thing you buy (stick to list, try to avoid impulse purchases–we’re not always great at this), limit eating out and bring home leftovers (preferably in your own container), try to have some weeks where you use what’s in your freezer or pantry for most meals, don’t pick the very freshest stuff at the grocery if you can use it soon (remember expiration dates are just suggestions, not a date where you have to throw away perfectly good food if it still looks and smells okay), and compost food scraps (more about this later–we are still in the learning stage and haven’t started composting yet). Further up the supply chain, support zero waste efforts like this amazing company and misfits (delivery service of “ugly” but still good quality produce that would otherwise be thrown away). Kroger’s zero hunger/zero waste commitment is encouraging and an example for other grocery chains to follow.
If you’ve made it this far, I applaud you. I won’t really get into questions here of whether it matters for the climate if food is grass fed (if you’re consuming meat or dairy), local, or organic. The short answer is: not nearly as much as it matters to choose plant-based foods (impact of local food vs. food choice is discussed nicely here). Agricultural methods do matter a lot, and Drawdown describes climate friendly agriculture methods in detail (it gets a good bit more complicated than the adjectives I mentioned above). But for most of us who want the biggest bang for our buck in terms of carbon reduction per effort spent, and who don’t necessarily have time to research the agricultural methods of every brand, by far the best, simplest, and most effective move (and Drawdown’s author would agree) is shifting to a vegan or mostly vegan diet.
Action step: set a SMART goal about your animal product intake and make your next week’s grocery list accordingly. If you’re not sure you’re ready for a long term goal, save a few recipes above (or find your own to suit your taste) and try one or two a month. And/or share your favorite plant-based recipe (I seriously had to restrain myself to *just* share the ones above–happy to share more great ones with anyone interested!).