Eating Less Meat For Completely Selfish Reasons

When I’m picking a lunch spot to meet up with someone I haven’t seen in a while and I say I’d prefer somewhere that has good vegetarian options, the inevitable response is “Oh, I’m not vegetarian. Are you?” My answer: “No, but I also don’t need to eat meat with every single meal.”

Nowadays, I eat around 95% vegetarian and 50% vegan by meal frequency, with the caveats that it’s easier because I live in a city near an inexpensive farmer’s market, and usually cook for myself. I hadn’t even started thinking about the vegan bit yet; the goal I set was simply to stop unintentionally eating meat that just happened to be there, which turned out to be a surprisingly ubiquitous phenomenon. I still indulge in occasional social meat; I’ve just cut out all the filler meat.

If we must be technical: when I say "vegetarian" here I mean "ovo-lacto-vegetarian", a.k.a. everything goes except body parts.The fleshly transgressions are inevitably for getting Asian food with my Asian-American friends, which I have not come to a resolution on yet because the literally killer combo of cultural connection and delicious nostalgia seems to be great at overriding my capability to say no to things. The non-fleshly vegan transgressions are mostly butter and cheese.

I’ve briefly thought about or attempted to go mostly-vegetarian several times before for ethical reasons, but quickly failed out of a combination of habit and sheer convenience; meat is everywhere in America. And when animals are raised in total isolation from human society and then delivered to your grocery store in neat little blood-free pink packages sealed in shiny plastic, the problem of consuming animal products is more a vague theoretical handwave in most people’s heads than an active thought process.

We’ve all heard the myriad ethical, health, and environmental reasons to stop supporting the meat industry. But as much as I really hate to admit it, and as much as I would ethically prefer to be vegan, I never made more than a few days headway trying to consume fewer animal products by using vague ethical and environmental reasons to motivate myself.

When I first found out about factory farming, I naively thought it was an exception, exaggerated for propaganda — because how could we as a species possibly normalize such callous conditions for pure profit? It wasn’t until stumbling across Eating Animals (Jonathan Safran Foer) while hanging out in a living room that I was exposed to hard stats about the factory farming conditions that the vast majority of animals raised for meat are subjected to. I knew I had to overcome my activation energy.

Inertia and personal convenience were the major things holding me back from cutting out animal products. So once I began reframing it from the perspective of increasing my own personal convenience, it was suddenly a lot easier to cut back, and my habits finally started to stick.

I hope that sharing some of these selfish reasons will help you find motivation if you’ve also been wanting to eat fewer animal products, but found yourself struggling.

My selfish reasons to eat less meat

Meat spoils 10x+ faster than non-meat

Most fruits and vegetables stay fresh and crispy for weeks in the fridge. Root vegetables last months unrefrigerated. Dried pasta, beans, flour, and grains will keep for literally years. Even soy meat (which has gotten much tastier in recent years) will easily last for a couple weeks in the fridge. It’s really convenient to be able to keep food around for so long and use different ingredients whenever you feel like it!

for gratuitous aesthetic purposes, here is a pastiche of autumn/winter fruits, featuring the one true fruit I salivate in anticipation of until mid-November each year, persimmons. (try fuyu persimmons first; hachiya persimmons are optimized for baking.)

Meat has to be used up within just 2–3 days or it’ll go bad; I can’t believe I went this route for so much of my adult life. Yes, you can freeze it, but then you have to deal with the boredom/hunger of letting it defrost for an hour before you can use it, and I am too lazy for that. If you buy meat and then it spoils (which used to happen to me all the time), it’s a waste of your money and an annoyance, (as well as a waste of the animal it was butchered from).

This factor alone is so monumentally inconvenient that it’s the main reason my home cooking is now 99% vegetarian.

Meat is more expensive

Factory farming has significantly lessened this cost gap by growing animals under genetically and environmentally unnatural conditions, packed into minimal square footage with artificially accelerated meat growth. Although the margins are smaller in the modern era, meat is still more expensive than the nutritionally/calorically equivalent vegetable nourishment, whether at the grocery store or cooked by someone else.

If your constraint is “meat” and you’re on a budget, your most inexpensive option is probably going to be chicken thighs every single time, but cooking vegetarian offers an ever-changing palette for your palate that gives you more flexibility and creativity. I really enjoy seeing what’s seasonal and cheap at the market that day, and assembling meals around whatever it happens to be. Will it be cauliflower? Snap peas? Sweet corn? A fun mystery vegetable I’ve never used before?

Fruits & vegetables make you feel fuller for longer

I have an outrageously fast metabolism, worsened by an almost-lifelong tendency to not eat very many vegetables. I’ve spent most of my life desperately snacking every few hours with rapid onset of hunger fugue if I don’t.

When I was omnivorous, I used to labour vehemently under the false assumption that I had to eat as much carne asada as possible to feel satisfied. Since I became mostly-vegetarian, I haven’t needed to snack as hard (fiber and water are filling), which is really convenient. Although protein makes you feel full (beans, cheese, and nuts are great), it turns out that bread and a crunchy apple will do the trick too.

Now that I’ve been mostly-vegetarian for over a year, I think my gut flora have retrained themselves to not rely on meat for energy, because I don’t get that same hit from it any more. Which makes it a lot easier to stay mostly-vegetarian!

Cooking without meat is so much faster and easier

Meat has to be monitored more carefully, and cooked longer and more thoroughly than other foods to kill certain bacteria. Tough cuts of meat need to be slow-cooked before they’re enjoyable to eat. A lot of meat needs to be marinated for a long time before it becomes delicious. Meat is tragically easy to overcook. Cutting boards and utensils need to be washed carefully after handling raw meat to avoid contamination.

Vegetables? You can eat most of them raw, and they won’t all be delicious, but they also won’t be harmful to you. You can simply boil or steam most vegetables to make them fully edible and acceptable-tasting. But you can also turn practically any vegetable into a plate of delicious crispy-sweet-savory goodness by drizzling with oil, salting, and roasting.

roasted cauliflower via how to roast fall & winter vegetables | the food lab

You can literally just microwave potatoes and dress them up with fat and salt to make a delicious breakfast-of-champions worthy carbload. Heck, raw beets are amazing. So are chickpeas straight out of the can; I ate one out of boredom once when I was about to cook them and it was so tasty I just eat them as-is now, like a carby salad. Also, rice and beans are really filling and tasty.

Contamination has barely crossed my mind since I stopped cooking with meat and eggs. Instead of trying to abrade every pore out of my raw-meat prep surfaces, I just wash my cutting boards until I don’t see or feel stuff on them any more, and that’s that.

Vegetables offer SO MUCH VARIETY

When I used to cook meat often, my dishes were all about how to enhance the meat flavor, what herbs to use on the meat, how to make the meat tender…

Meat is delicious, but there really aren’t that many different meat flavors. Off the top of my head, there’s the white-meat flavor, the red-meat flavor, the gamey-meat flavor, the seafood flavor, the fatty flavor, and the gelatinous meat-near-the-bone flavor. All the other unique flavors you associate with meat are ones that you impart from herbs, sauces, charring, smoking, etc, which you can do to the same effect without meat.

(Trust me; I lived next to a fancy exotic meat store for a year and quickly found that I prefer non-exotic meat — alligator tastes like stringy chicken, kangaroo is super tough and dry, and snake is just uneventfully ok. Most of the delicious animals are the ones picked out and bred specifically for consumption.)

When I was more meat-focused, vegetables always existed, but they were rarely the focal flavor point. Now that I’m mostly-vegetarian, I’ve realized there are SO MANY different kinds of fruit and vegetable flavors it’s insane. Once I started cooking vegetable-flavor-centric dishes, I got way more creative with my flavor palate and started having a great time improvising. It’s like a continuous orgy of flavor discovery. Tangy? Earthy? Spicy? Umami? Jammy? Sweet? Sour? Any combination of the above? It’s all there amongst the things that grow out of the ground.

roasted carrots with black sesame dressing might be my favorite easy vegetable right now

Vegetable-centric thinking opens up all sorts of flavor portals. Throw any random herb you’ve got lying around into the food processor and turn it into last-minute pesto. Caramelize a batch of onions and char a can of black beans with them to make a dish that hits the same dopamine buttons as short ribs with caramelized onions, without trying to imitate it exactly.

Vegetables are also super colorful and have lots of different textures! It’s fun to eat a crunchy spring rainbow instead of a greasy brown slab.

“Vegetarian” includes carbs and butter ;)

Ok, we’ve been disproportionately talking about cooking raw vegetables here, but quick change of topic. Assuming carbs and butter are not amongst your dietary restrictions: YOU STILL GET TO EAT CARBS AND BUTTER.

When many folks sigh that they could never be vegetarian, they’re imagining a grim food-binary with bacon and burgers on one end, anemic mixed-green salads with no nutritional value save a thin whisper of cucumber on the other, and an empty wasteland in between.

Don’t forget that the generous blanket of vegetarianism includes big honking hearty dishes like chili mac-n-cheese, lasagna, casseroles, biscuits, curry, quiche, potato hash, pastries, ice cream, and literally any fried thing that is not meat. You may already be eating vegetarian food you love ALL THE TIME without realizing it.

Hot tips

Like I said, I wasn’t very successful the first few times I thought about going mostly-vegetarian, and even got sick on the second-to-last attempt because I was merely eating a meat-centric-diet-minus-the-meat, as opposed to a nutritionally balanced diet.

Meat eaters are often conditioned to construct dishes around the meat, and cooking fake meat in a meat-centric framework is far less fulfilling than cooking based on whatever flavors and textures you have in front of you. Here are some tips to make your dietary transition more enjoyable.

Prioritize deliciousness

Whatever you do, do not look up “health food”; that is a surefire way to make you hate vegetables. No one wants steamed broccoli and overcooked firm tofu on brown rice.

Use more fat; it’s delicious. You also need it in your diet. Eating fat does not make you fat. Meat provides its own fat, but vegetables (usually) don’t, so it’s ok to break your intuition and use a lot more fat with vegetables than you’re used to using with meat. Coconut oil and sesame oil are particularly delicious ones. If you’re a sucker for the crispy crunchy savory aspect of meat, try roasted vegetables; they hit a lot of the same dopamine buttons as, say, maple bacon.

crash hot potatoes | pioneer woman

I hate vegan food that attempts to imitate a specific meat dish, and I’m pretty sure no one really loves it. The best vegan food is accidentally-vegan food whose real goal is to optimize for deliciousness. If you ask, “How do I make a veggie version of [TRADITIONAL MEAT],” you will probably be disappointed that it doesn’t taste exactly like the completely different thing you were thinking of. If you instead just buy veggie ingredients and then think about what would make them taste best, you will be pleasantly surprised.

In a similar vein: American soy milk is really bland and boring. However, that's not what soy is supposed to taste like. The American market is presumably targeted at cow-milk drinkers, as it tries to strip out the potentially unfamiliar soy flavor and leaves you with a sort of thin, bland soup in the process. Soy milk from a Chinese grocery store is actually hearty, thicc, and delicious.

Don’t forget to salt your food! The correct amount is “to taste.” TASTE YOUR FOOD while deciding what to do with it. A judicious and tasteful salting will dramatically bring out flavors in the plainest vegetables.

Salt Fat Acid Heat (Samin Nosrat)

Meat awareness

It’s relatively easy to cut meat out of your cooking. But outside the house, meat is so literally everywhere that it’s easy to eat it on accident, especially if you don’t pack your own lunch for work. Meat in America is opt-out, not opt-in.

In order to turn meat from a thing that’s just there into a conscious choice, you have to be aware of its presence. I started building awareness by jotting down a tally mark on a pocket notepad any time I found myself eating meat. I was shocked to find out not just how often I accidentally ate meat without thinking about it, but how often I ate meat and didn’t even get enjoyment out of it.

Now, if you say you don’t want to give up meat because you love the decadent meaty treats of your cultural heritage, I have often been there and I totally understand the feeling. Decadence meat such as seared steaks, Peking roast duck, short ribs, and chashu are a specific showcase of flavor, and a special treat which may be tied into nostalgic cultural associations for you.

But that’s very different from boring daily filler meat, which is shoehorned into a lot of dishes just because it’s the norm. And when filler meat is cooked in such a way that you can’t taste the meat flavors, then why even bother? In many curries, stir-fries, and fast foods, the meat is so marinated or processed that the only flavor you taste is sauce; you could replace it with any textured protein and basically get the same experience.

So when I do eat meat nowadays, I’m more aware of it; it’s actually a conscious decision. A lot of Asian-American culture revolves around Asian food, and a lot of classic Chinese food here is really heavy on meat. (Honestly, I daydream of roast duck all the time.) When I choose to socially get Asian food with friends, it’s often implicitly bundled with a choice to eat meat. But now I only eat opt-in meat instead of default meat. I’m thankful that I’ve built a much stronger awareness for my food, cut out all the random filler meat, and have established a vegetarian default for the majority of my meals.

I’m certainly nowhere close to any real vegetarian’s standards, but I figure 95–99% vegetarian (1 fleshy transgression per week to month) is a lot closer aligned with the way I want to live than accidentally defaulting to meat all the time.

Unfortunately, I’m nowhere close to being vegan because I heavily rely on cheese in my cooking. However, as I wrote this post, I realized that I haven’t built daily awareness for animal products yet, so I’ve accidentally defaulted to using plenty of animal products that have reasonable and tasty vegan substitutes, such as butter, eggs, honey, and cooking-cheese (a.k.a. cheese that’s going to get cooked down to a melty consistency such that its texture doesn’t matter). Gotta fix that!

diagram by daiyi on the simplicity of going vegetarian —the vegetarian foodspace is more similar to the omnivorous foodspace than you might think, the only difference is literal flesh & bone

Nutritional balance

Meat is an easy source of B-vitamins, so you might want to get a multivitamin supplement to patch that if you’re used to a meat-heavy diet. In particular, B-12 is only naturally found in animal products. Fortunately, in modern times, you can get them in a delicious fruit-flavored gummy format (I like Vitafusion).

You still need protein and fat; you can’t just live on pasta. Beans, nuts, and legumes are easy sources of vegan protein. Cheese and eggs are easy proteins for non-vegans. And if you haven’t tried soy meat, give it a shot; flavor technology has vastly improved this decade. I really enjoy Trader Joe’s (incidentally) vegan chorizo not for it’s vegan-ness but because it’s ridiculously delicious and flavorful.

We could talk about the health benefits of dark leafy greens (which I have finally grown to enjoy), but I personally don’t find health benefits sufficiently motivating to permanently change my food habits. Selfish, gratuitous reasons are what help me stay on track.

I’ll just slyly leave you with this tip about red chard, which is nutritionally similar to kale, except that it actually tastes really delicious, and not in that gnarly, punishment-health-food kinda way. It’s like the red wine of vegetables, and is in fact frequently cooked with red wine. It also looks cool.

how to use red chard | julie yoon

Helpful cooking weapons

Steaming, blanching, and roasting are all minimal-effort ways to make veggies delicious. If you don’t have time for that, there’s no shame in microwaving. I actually prefer to parcook hard root vegetables in the microwave before roasting, because the microwave takes care of them way faster than boiling and you can barely tell the flavor difference after the roasting step.

japanese sweet potatoes with a bit of salt and butter are a truly luscious, chestnutty, hearty miracle for any occasion, be it snacks, meals, or potlucks. photo via bonappetit

As Asian-Americans have known for decades, rice cookers aren’t just for rice; you can also steam veggies in them. They’re great because you can literally just throw in your ingredients, press the button, and walk away without worrying about it boiling over. Imagine a slow-cooker…but fast. (Rice, beans, and cheese are an easy rice cooker meal, and an excellent vegetarian base to carry many other flavors.)

Be shameless

Meat is the norm. If you’re not used to having a dietary restriction, it can feel awkward to tell someone, “Hey, I, uh…would prefer to eat vegetarian, is there another option?”

It stops feeling like a big deal after you do it a couple times. If you’re worried about inconveniencing someone who was about to invest effort cooking/ordering food anyways into cooking/ordering a slightly different food, you can always offer to bring your own food.

Collect inspiration

Sometimes, the biggest blocker to eating vegetarian is simply knowing where and what your options are.

Personally, my favorite inspiration is the farmer’s market. Since college, I’ve enjoyed finding the mystery dollar special of the week and figuring out what the heck to do with it.

pile of tasty tropical fruit via Honolulu Magazine

If you prefer your inspirations documented for your convenience, here are some of my favorites:

  • Veggie Galaxy menu — my favorite diner and incidentally vegetarian restaurant all in one, with beer-battered onion rings so hearty I daydream about them when I’m far away. This place is my top pick for getting dinner with a consummate meat lover.
  • Serious Eats — “Easiest Ever” (only 4 ingredients allowed)
    This category isn’t strictly vegetarian, but like me, 90%+ of it is accidentally vegetarian…because veggies are easy.
  • Southeast Asian flavor profiles. Even though a lot of dishes traditionally use meat, the flavor profiles actually make tofu taste amazing, unlike the way American health food uses tofu. Particular personal favorites include spicy Vietnamese eggplants and every kind of Thai curry.
  • Mexi-cali food
  • Salvadorean food, especially pupusas
  • Madrones, or fried ripe plantains, are literally candy
  • Beets are also candy
  • The Food Lab — Vegan Month
    Labor-intensive, but tasty experiments in vegan cooking. I haven’t made specific recipes from this because my favorite vegan food is easy, accidental vegan food, but perhaps other people will enjoy this!

Although there are tons of personal convenience reasons to stop eating meat, the particular reasons I’ve outlined here don’t apply as well to dairy. Ethically, I really don’t want to support the milking industry, but for some reason I haven’t yet found the combination of nutritionally balanced foods that feels long-term satisfying without cheese. Would love to hear some inspirational selfish motivations for giving up dairy.

Enjoy going selfishly more-vegetarian-than-you-were-before!

autotelic polymath with an overwhelming compulsion to reverse engineer things I’ve never tried before