Going vegetarian in 2021

Bigger than recycling, or an electric car, or minimizing impact through reuse, reducing meat consumption is the biggest thing an individual can do to reduce their impact on the environment and aid sustainability. Meat production, specifically the agriculture needed to maintain livestock, accounts for as much greenhouse gas production as the entire transportation industry, including cars, trucks, planes, and ships. That’s why the advances in plant based food and even lab grown meat are so exciting, they may be able to remove a huge portion of the most destructive industries we rely on. This is exactly why going into 2021, I’m coming up with a plan to reduce my own family’s dependence on meat and slowly shift us to an entirely plant-based diet.

This isn’t exactly a new feeling for me. As much as I’ve enjoyed some good meat in my life, I have struggled ethically with the process it takes to get meat to us, especially after learning more about how livestock animals are treated and how the industry works. Of course I haven’t really done anything about it until now, but now it’s time to take accountability and make a plan. It’s not like I eat a ton, especially red meat. I don’t think I’ve had more than like one steak in years, but all the burgers, pork, and meat mixed into meals certainly adds up.

These days, it’s pretty easy to substitute plants for meat. It’s not all about tofu now, and there are numerous fairly convincing options for burgers, sausages, and ground meat. There are vegetarian restaurants in way more than just the crunchiest towns these days, and pretty much every restaurant offers multiple vegetarian options. Plus it’s not like I’m eating out a ton now anyway, and we’ve honestly been eating vegetarian about 60-75% of the time anyway. If cutting out a little bit of bacon, swapping out ingredients, and having a pepper quesadilla instead of a chicken one is what it takes to put things on this planet back on track, I can do it.

I actually have to thank my children for putting this idea squarely in my mind. COVID is making it easier since we’re making pretty much all of our own food too. But when my kids started asking me recently what food comes from animals, and asking if we eat all the animals on the nature shows we were watching, I struggled to come up with answers. In the meantime, they have begun refusing to eat anything that comes from an animal, and I don’t really have any heart in trying to convince them otherwise.

So like anything, reaching such a big goal, like running a marathon, requires a plan. It takes little steps over time to get there and make it a reality. I can’t just cut out meat entirely tomorrow and expect to keep it up. My plan is to cut out the remaining things we depend on over the next few months, starting by cutting out red meat and pork entirely, then moving on to poultry, and finally fish. Thanks to Costco, Aldo, and Shoprite all stocking alternative plant based meats, we’re nearly there to the first step already, but we set a more realistic goal of getting to 0% red meat by the end of the year since we have to clean out what we already have.

With the exception maybe of Christmas dinner, I don’t think this will be too much of a challenge for us. Veggie bean burgers are pretty good as their own thing. In the midst of the pandemic, I’ve started making some pretty mean quesadillas, even when they are meat-free. My wife, the incredible cook, had found ways to make cauliflower taste like anything and the best black bean chili ever. Even when we order Indian food, I’ve been gravitating toward the paneer more than chicken lately.

After getting rid of red meat, it’s chicken only, which will absolutely be the hardest thing to cut out for us.  Chicken is without a doubt the most used meat in this house, and one we often get when ordering foo too. While I have enjoyed the odd Bison, Aligator, Ostrich, Snake, or Elk when the mood is right, but I think it won’t be too big of a deal to remove them from my diet entirely. But it’s going to be fairly hard to turn down a chicken dinner if we’re ever out again, or to go for a vegetarian option at Chipotle or Taco Bell the next time we have a craving. On a daily basis, I don’t think it will be that hard to make the switch and simply remove it as an ingredient in our meals. It’s the times out and in interesting places where the cuisine is part of the experience that it will be hardest.

This is partially why I’m planning to go down to chicken only first, then pescatarian, then full vegetarian. This is also the order of decreasing impact on the planet. Fishing, and in particular overfishing is also a blight on the world, but when researched a bit, it’s possible to find sustainably raised and farmed fish that aren’t nearly as bad as what livestock farming does to the environment. That gives us some time to still enjoy the salmon we love from Aldi, the periodic filet of snapper from Costco, or a nice octopus or crab from Shoprite, while weaning ourselves off entirely. We can also potentially enjoy another trip to a beach locale and enjoy the locale faire if we’re ever actually back in a position to travel safely again.

I have to thank my wife for even making this switch a possibility. She does 95% of the cooking in our house and is an absolute master at coming up with new recipes. We’re already down to very infrequent meat meals. Beyond that, she’s found some great ways to use Impossible or Beyond Burgers to make some awesome food. We’ve had burgers of course – which I find best decked out with tons of toppings like the cast iron grilled poblanos, jalapenos, onion, and hot sauce creation I’ve become pretty good at – while she’s come up with amazing tacos, chili, and nachos from the plant based meat. There are also bean burgers that are nice on their own, or we’ve found are especially great mixed up into quesadillas with a nice gob of shredded monterey jack and some Trader Joe’s Dragon Sauce.   But the thing all of these recipes have in common is that she’s found great ways to improvise with substitutes to meat and I would have never even considered it before.

The beginning of a new year is always a time for reflecting and setting goals for the upcoming year. In the past, I’ve set goals around my running and fitness, and with a few setbacks here and there, have largely been able to accomplish what I set out to do. This year, I am going to get a head start on what might be the hardest audacious goal yet and do what I can to improve my diet and health as well as have a smaller footprint on the world while also aligning my ethics around animals more in line with how I generally feel. I’m under no illusion that it will be easy, but with small steps each day and a few milestones to focus on along the path, I do at least think it is achievable. Plus, the accountability from sharing it with others should help keep me motivated. The animals will thank us.

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