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Allow me to set the stage! My wife has decided it is time to be healthier, and while I begrudge the fact that she is right, I agree. In doing so, we want to reduce the amount of meat (of all types) we consume and increase the consumption of fruits, veggies and other healthier stuff. Now, that said - she doesn't cook all that much and I grew up on meat and potatoes so I have been reading online about meat substitutes and what not, so that I don't have to change too much (because frankly I like meat...). The one site I have gleaned the most out of, in terms of ideas was here. And yes, the link is for people who are or who are planning to go vegan. I just found the variety of suggestions in one place a great jumping off point for this question/discussion.

Now all that said, I am not looking to substitute meat but rather, looking to cut down our consumption of meat. As such we are looking for foods that can "replace" it on the plate. This may come in the form of different cooking styles, seasonings (spices, sauces, etc.), or even a new mindset when it comes to cooking and food preparation.

As I embark on this change in my culinary journey is there anything I should be aware that may not come up on several google searches?

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    Instead of going with the approach of "replacing" meat, consider treating meat as a flavoring, not as the main dish. In some cases, you could take something where meat is isn't served as a big hunk but instead distributed throughout the dish (stir fries, casseroles) and slowly change the proportions of meat to vegetables. – Joe Jul 10 at 15:49
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    Assuming you are not going vegan like the information in the link - consider eggs - very versatile and relatively healthy compared to meats. – bob1 Jul 10 at 16:00
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    Another related question: cooking.stackexchange.com/q/29664/67 (not sure if this is the question that I've been trying to find, as I think someone had asked something similar in the past) – Joe Jul 10 at 16:03
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    @JCrosby : I'm not saying it's a duplicate or that it even answers your question ... I just try my best to cross-link related questions (as if someone asks one, they might be interested in the other). Oh, and if you haven't encountered the word already, you might want to search the internet for 'flexitarian'. – Joe Jul 10 at 17:24
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    You may want to spend some time on vegetarianism.se (although narrower questions are recommended) :) – Erica Jul 11 at 12:11
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In addition to the advice above about not explicitly trying to replace meat, the best advice I can give is to think about two things when cooking vegetarian:

  1. Umami. This is the Number One problem most people have (I'm talking to you, work cafeteria) when cooking vegetarian. Meat gives the umami/savory flavor in a dish, and you can't simply replace it with a meat alternative that has none and call it a day. In my cooking, I'm always looking for sources of umami- some of the best are mushrooms (grill the sh*t out of them, they just get tastier), cheese, nutritional yeast, soy sauce, MSG...

  2. Protein. So much vegetarian food out there is just plain carbs. It's terrible. When I'm cooking I try to have as much protein as possible, so I don't end up being hungry an hour later and eating a bag of chips (health benefits negated). Look for ingredients that can pump up the protein content- chickpeas, lentils, soy meat replacements, eggs, cottage cheese, tofu...

Meat usually combines these two in an easy way, but if you want to replace it, you often need to find these two aspects of the meal from different sources.

Source: vegetarian/pescatarian for ten years, lives with an omnivore with high standards for cooking veg food.

Edit: some recipe suggestions:

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Here's my tricks and tips based on 25 years of being a vegetarian and cooking for a spouse who is not:

  1. Avoid meat substitutes entirely for most meals. They just don't satisfy, and simply act to remind you of the meat you're missing.
  2. Learn to cook & like cuisines that do not require meat, or only require it in small quantities, including Middle Eastern, Mexican, Chinese, and Indian. Many cuisines are primarily about vegetables, fruits, and grains, and as such you may even have eaten vegetarian meals from them without realizing it. Middle American cuisine is your enemy here.
  3. Get away from the idea of having a "main dish". It's not an acccident that the low-meat cuisines also tend to have lots of small dishes instead of one big one. Mollie Katzen calls these "side-by-side dishes".
  4. Learn to be bold with spices. While you can't replace the meat flavor, you can add other flavors, and if a dish has 3 Tbs of 6 spices in it, you're a lot less likely to think it needs meat. Smoked salt also helps.
  5. Where meat substitutes do work is the few dishes where the meat is more of an accent and there's an appropriate product. I've had luck with spicy veggie sausages in a base for gumbo, for example, and "bacos" can replace bacon crumbles. Meat substitutes work best for things where the meat in question was very processed in the first place (sausages, hamburger) and will be heavily cooked.
  6. Tofu, Seitan, and Jackfruit can be delicious and useful ingredients on their own, but they do not taste or feel like meat. They can sometimes satisfy a craving for protein, but really they're better eaten in dishes where they would shine anyway, mostly Asian cuisine (although really you can put just about anything in a taco). Also, most tofu and seitan you can buy in supermarkets is very low quality, which doesn't help.

Hope that helps!

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    I think you are spot-on here, I'm no vegetarian, but do love me some veges, and the flavoring, if similar to those associated with meat dishes, can really help bring some extra appetite to the table. Interesting you mention smoked salt - there are quite a few common vegetables that smoke pretty well - zucchini, mushrooms (not really a vegetable, but close enough), eggplant/aubergine, bell peppers and can add plenty of flavor to a dish. I do find adding a protein substitute (often egg) helps with satiety though. – bob1 Jul 10 at 22:22
  • So much this. Many vegetarians hang on so much on meat substitutions that they're constantly "missing meat a lot" instead of eating more vegetables. – Luciano Jul 11 at 8:24
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Meat substitutes - a word of warning for someone attempting to replace meat in one fell swoop...

I'll leave everyone else to come up with viable meat alternatives, if that's what you actually require, but as someone who once did this & failed miserably, a word of warning.

Don't expect meat substitutes to give you the same flavour or texture satisfaction as meat.
They won't.
If you expect them to, then your new regime will fail in a month.

You have to 'embrace the vegetable' rather than 'fake the meat'.
Only then will you succeed.

I thought I was doing really well, when I tried this - I was using soy meat & being reasonably satisfied with the texture replacement. For flavour you really have to drown soy-meat in big sauces, but the texture is OK.
I was availing myself of my local Gujarati vegetarian restaurant for my curry 'fix' with no meat at all - that was working very well.

The fall came when someone in an effort to 'help' made me nut cutlets for dinner... canned nut cutlets... like some kind of vegan Spam, sliced & fried.

My attempt at vegetarianism ended that day.

I think I described it as having the flavour & texture of conti-board, an imitation wood wall covering popular in the 1970s.

This, of course, is not actually an answer to the question, but it is something the "new vegetarian" is going to have to deal with.

After comments:
If the intention is to reduce rather than replace meat, then I think you will have a far easier time of it.

My ideal curry used to be sheek kebab followed by keema madras & 3 chapatis. Total meat weight, maybe 3 - 400g or so [at a guess]
In my new regime, that would now be vegetable samosa, followed by a small portion of even the same keema madras, but with palak (sag) paneer & channa masala to fill out the plate, sitting on basmati rice. That probably needs only 1 chapati to eat it with, as it's much more of a 'fork meal' with the rice. Total meat weight probably 60 or 70gm. Satisfaction = 100%.

My other regime change is that I would ring for the old curry from a take-away... I make the new ones from scratch.

  • I appreciate the honesty. We aren't going to vegetarian, we are trying to drastically reduce the meat we consume. I am unsure of how to word it other than how I did in the question (feel free to edit it lol). However, this is why I am asking more about "tips and tricks" than replacing the meat itself. – J Crosby Jul 10 at 16:27
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    Many of the things I cook these days just lean more heavily on interesting "veggie side dishes" rather than trying for total replacement. Big meat curry... two veggie sides, + bread & rice. Total meat content, about ¼ of what I would have had before I changed my regime. Satisfaction quotient, still there. – Tetsujin Jul 10 at 16:34
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    Speaking as someone who's been veg for 20 years, Tetsujin is on the money here. If you "like meat", the worst thing in the world will be a meat substitute. They just don't taste like real meat. You're far better off focusing on dishes that don't need meat -- which is going to mean embracing some ethnic cooking. It's way easier to make non-meat meals that don't feel incomplete if you're cooking Indian or Middle Eastern or Chinese than if you're making Middle American. – FuzzyChef Jul 10 at 21:51
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    Although I second the “embrace the vegetable” point, I think this answer is misleading. Your view about meat substitutes seems quite outdated. Food chemistry has come a long way in the last 20 year, much of that in the last 5 years. There are meat substitutes available that do their job well. – leftaroundabout Jul 11 at 10:00
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This is a non-vegetarian POV:

Eating healthier is often just as "easy" as eating less. A good meat substitute would be to replace your meat with: Nothing.

Now I don't mean replace all your meat in a dish, just part of it.

Just halve the amount of meat you eat and you're already eating healthier. Halve the amount of potatoes you eat too. Keep veggies at the same amount.

What I have done in the past year is basically substitute my meat intake by half but buy better cuts. You could say my meat substitute would be: buy better meat but less of it.

For instance: instead of eating 2 porkchops (400 grams) I got 1 pork tenderloin (150-200 grams)

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    A lot can be said about buying better cuts of meat and learning to cook them well. When reducing meat consumption, sometimes you can then buy prime for just a couple of dollars per person more and enjoy it far more than choice. The quality can make you eat less due to the satisfaction it provides. – Rob Jul 11 at 10:38
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Me and my husband cook almost exclusively vegetarian at home, because he simply doesn't like meat very much in general. For the meat we do buy occasionally we value quality over quantity, which tends to get rather pricey and we simply can't afford much of it. However, I grew up on a lot of meat, so at first it was rather hard to come up with food ideas and in the beginning I, too, tried to substitute the meat in the recipes I knew from home. With time I came to realize, that this will just make it harder for me and everyone else and I learned to love my non-meat meals.

This, however, was already answered in another answer. Instead I'm going to get into detail about the recipes, where meat is more in the front and needs substituting.

What you have to think about when adapting a recipe like this: What is the meat accomplishing in this recipe? Is it because of the texture? Because it gives body to a dish? Because it's the main protein source? Depending on this, you can substitute different things. However, always be aware that the dish changes fundamentally when substituting, so you simply will get a different dish, which is not better or worse than the original but different.

For example: In a chilli con carne the meat has different funcitons. The first is of course taste, but we'll going to forgo that for obvious reasons. The second is texture and that's where we'll substitute. You can use tofu or seitan here, but I tend to simply go with red lentils. They have an amazing texture and the resulting product is really amazing. Not to be confused with a real meat chilli con carne of course, but it really can be an amazing dish by itself!

Another example: Burgers. Here the meat is more in the front. However, what I personally want from a burger patty is the smokeiness and savoryness of the grilled meat. I recently found out that I can get a similar (although of course still very different) experience by substituting the meat patty by a grilled cheese like halloumi. It doesn't get soft when heated but remains rather firm. It is amazing on a burger, I can tell you.

Always remember, that you don't have to remove all the meat from your diet. This tends to make people crave it even more and makes it harder to achieve your goal of eating less meat. Just go step by step. With time you will notice, that it is a very natural transition and you'll realize how much more you appreciate the meat you do eat. When I visit my family now I can't believe how much meat they eat. It just seems strange to me today. But then again, I can really appreciate my fathers cooking, because I hadn't had a really good steak in a long time.

  • Thanks for the insight! And to your comment, "Always remember, that you don't have to remove all the meat from your diet," we don't plan to - what we (as a family) have decided is to cut down the portions we eat as part of our plan to be healthier. – J Crosby Jul 11 at 14:08
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From a commercial/industrial standpoint, there are two sources for TVP that are industry "go-to"'s: CHS Proteins and ADM. In particular, CHS Protein's QR600 line (non-GMO version is QR600N) has the most closest match we've been able to find through sensory evaluations for matching actual meat (cooked from raw ground). If you soak them, spin dry, then mix into the ground meat emulsion -- up to 60% ± your preference -- and season / cook as you would usually, it's actually quite difficult to even differentiate between the original and TVP-included versions. If anything, the TVP actually adds a texturing consistency, improves water retention and emulsification (juicier), etc., and it even qualifies for a heart-health claim according to FDA.

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