Do you want to eat more veggies in 2024? Read this.
This expert-informed guide to texture, flavor, and mouthfeel can help you kickstart a more plant-based lifestyle or just think outside the box of your normal vegetable routine.
PHOTOGRAPH BY CORY RICHARDS, NAT GEO IMAGE COLLECTION
When your mother told you to eat your vegetables, she was on to more than she knew. For the sake of our bodies and the Earth’s climate, experts say people across the world need to make roots, beans, leafy greens, and other plant foods a bigger part of our diets.
“We’re not saying go vegan. But significant changes can happen from shifting away from meat and towards plants,” says Richard Waite, an expert on food climate policy at the nonprofit World Resources Institute. The process of growing and transporting food accounts for a quarter of all global greenhouse gas emissions, he stresses, and the majority of this comes from meat and dairy.
Fortunately, plant-based meals are delicious. And they are better for our health. Long-term consumption of red meat has been associated with increased risks of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes. By contrast, vegetable-based eating is linked to lower rates of these and other diseases.
Even intensive carnivores can find this way of eating enjoyable, says Victoria Moran, host of the Main Street Vegan podcast and author of a book by the same name. Incorporating more plants in your diet isn’t difficult, she insists. “The most colorful, delicious, and inviting foods are the plant foods,” she says. “This is not a sacrifice. This is an adventure.”
Here are some ways to get started.
Begin by blending and swapping
Dishes like hamburgers, meatloaf, sausages, and dumplings benefit when savory mushrooms or other plant proteins are blended into the meat, in a ratio of approximately one-third plants to two-thirds animal, says Sophie Attwood, a senior behavioral scientist at WRI who is working with the food-service industry to add more plant items to their menus.
“This isn’t watering down, the way adding breadcrumbs might be,” Attwood says. This mixture results in good flavor, texture, and mouthfeel, according to a study where diners evaluated blended carne asadas and tacos.
Similarly, carrots can replace some of the cheese in a mac and cheese dinner. Slice a few carrots thinly and sauté them in water until tender. Then puree them with soy or nut milk and add it to the pasta before sprinkling on (less) cheese.
Since familiarity drives much of what we choose to eat, it helps to tweak your favorite dishes. In many recipes, beans, nuts and/or vegetables can be substituted for beef or chicken. Moran frequently makes a vegan “meatloaf” that reminds her of her grandmother’s, replacing the chopped meat with a mixture of rice, mushrooms, walnuts, and wheat germ. Similarly, a hearty lasagna or chili can feature black beans, while lunchtime wraps might swap deli turkey for a soy product like seitan or baked extra firm tofu.
When vegan cook Tabitha Brown, author of Cooking from the Spirit, first started eating this way, she often hewed close to home, by creating country-style steaks using packaged vegetarian burgers mixed with mushrooms and onions and fried “fish” sticks from hearts of palm. Especially when seasonings and sauces are familiar—gravy in the first case, tartar sauce in the second—people tend not to miss the meat, she notes in her cookbook.
Make vegetables the star
According to the United Nations, more than 2,000 plants are available as food, but most of us eat just 30 common crops. And while we tend to think of red and white meats as protein powerhouses, many plant foods are too.
By expanding our horizons beyond conventional side dishes like baked potatoes or steamed broccoli, food can be interesting and tasty. “It really helps to think more about what you’re adding than what you’re subtracting,” Moran says.
“Vegetables are a lot more diverse than meat, and you can do a lot more with them,” Attwood says. There are root crops like beets, carrots, celery root, and the parsnip-like skirret. Cruciferous options include cabbage and watercress. Starchy vegetables range from corn and sweet potatoes to butternut squash, and turnips. There are nightshades like eggplants and tomatoes as well as leaner Japanese eggplants and numerous kinds of peppers. Leafy greens go beyond romaine and spinach to include kale, mustard greens, and more.
Incorporating a range of colors in each vegetable dish offers a cue to your taste buds that the item will be flavorful, the World Resources Institute has found. Harmony and symmetry also matter, so disperse vegetables throughout the plate and consider cutting carrots or other produce into interesting shapes.
Vary texture, color, and shape
Salads are an easy vegetarian dish to make since everyone is familiar, Moran says. But rather than tossing a few grape tomatoes onto a small plate of romaine lettuce, break out a huge bowl and get creative. “Start with a base that is meaningful,” Moran says, such as a mixture of massaged kale, arugula, and baby spring leaves or whatever leafy greens you enjoy. “After that you want to make it fun,” she says.
Include vegetables of various colors, shapes, and tastes, from sweet peppers to pungent radishes. Add additional texture with raisins, avocados, nuts, and/or seeds. In colder months, you can warm up a salad by tossing in a few cooked vegetables like sauteed mushrooms or winter squash and/or beans or seared tempeh made from fermented soy.
Bowls filled with cooked plant foods can be almost as simple to put together, Moran says. Instead of lettuce the base here is typically a cooked grain like rice or quinoa, which is topped with steamed or sauteed vegetables and beans then drizzled with a sauce like pesto or teriyaki. Serving this in a bowl rather than on a plate allows the flavors to meld, she says.
So many types of cooked dishes can be made with plant foods, whether that’s stir-fries, soups, stews, or more creative entrees like Brown’s vegetable stuffed bell peppers or her veggie pizzas made in portobello mushroom caps.
Incorporating herbs and spices is another great way to add flavor and nutrition. These plant parts possess a range of tannins, alkaloids, flavonoids, and polyphenols, which give them antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, glucose-lowering, and other health-promoting properties.
Better for the planet
If the world is to reach climate warming targets of 1.5 degrees Celsius, more of us need to gravitate to plants, Waite says. By 2050, the Earth’s population is expected to reach nearly 10 billion people and require 56 percent more food to be produced than today. In the same timeframe, greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and associated land clearings must be reduced by two-thirds. Shifting from fossil fuel burning to renewable energy won’t be enough without concurrent changes in how we eat.
Some meat eaters worry that a plant-based diet will leave them perpetually hungry, but this need not be the case, Moran says. By including bulky foods like grains, beans, and starchy vegetables along with healthy fats like nuts, seeds, oils, and avocados, “you won’t feel like something’s missing,” she says.
“We owe it to one another and to the planet to be moving in this direction,” Moran says. “You can start today. You can start right now.”