Going Meatless Is Probably Easier Than You Think
Scroll through the #healthyeating tag on Instagram and you'll find gorgeous pics of smoothie bowls, avocado toast and every type of veggie-based Buddha bowl. It's clear: plant-based eating is in. It's also incredibly healthy. The American Heart Association notes that vegetarian diets tend to contain less saturated fat, which is the type of fat found in meat. Vegetarianism is also linked to a lower rate of obesity.
And if you're not up for the commitment (and, frankly, the challenge) of going vegan, starting a vegetarian diet is a great way to eat plant-based without complicating your family's diet too much.
Embrace Plant-Based Proteins
Expect to spend some time in the bean and legume aisle of your grocery store, especially when you're beginning to change your diet. Beans and lentils are among the best plant-based sources of protein, which makes them staples in virtually any vegetarian diet. Black beans, for instance, have 15 grams of protein per cup, while lentils have 18 grams. They're also high in other beneficial nutrients, like fiber and magnesium.
Use beans as a stand-in for meat in some of your family's favorite dishes. Make chili with extra beans, for example, to make up for a lack of turkey, and use black beans as the base for a homemade veggie burger. Of course, beans work well as a side on their own, too. Add canned beans to your Buddha bowls and salads, or cook your own beans, adding onion, tomato and a pinch of cumin to the pot before cooking for added flavor.
Seek out Plant-Based Omega-3s
Omega-3s are nutritional powerhouses – they're great for fighting inflammation, help lower your chance of cardiovascular disease, and they're important for your childrens' cognitive functioning. However, unless your vegetarian diet includes fish (also called a pescatarian diet), you're missing out on some of the most effective omega-3 fats, called DHA and EPA, which are almost exclusively found in fish.
To compensate, you'll need to eat plant-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which contain a less effective form of omega-3, called alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA. You'll find ALA in walnuts, flaxseeds and chia seeds, with smaller amounts found in canola oil soybean oil. If you're concerned about your family's omega-3 fatty acid intake, talk to your doctor about the potential benefits of a vegan DHA and EPA supplement.
Don't Forget Animal Proteins
Part of the benefit of going vegetarian over going vegan is the convenience of being able to include some animal-based foods, like dairy and eggs, in your diet. These foods not only make it easier to meet your daily protein requirements, but they often also provide other essential nutrients, like calcium for strong bones.
Take advantage by including high-protein and low-fat dairy, as well as eggs, in your family's diets. Make egg salad sandwiches from hard-boiled eggs and cottage cheese, for instance, as a vegetarian-friendly lunch option with plenty of protein. Or start your family's day with scrambled eggs loaded up with vegetables.
Easing the Transition
Going vegetarian doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing transition, and there's no reason to quit meat cold turkey (sorry...) unless you want to. Ease your family into plant-based eating by expanding the typical Meatless Monday meals to a few days a week. Explore plant-based recipes each week to find new classics your family loves, and gradually sub out meat-based meals for these new recipes to transition to plant-based eating entirely.
If you're struggling with the transition, consider consulting a registered dietitian. An expert can point you to specific recipes and design a meal plan tailored to your lifestyle and your family's tastes.
Sylvie Tremblay is a food and lifestyle writer based in Guelph, Ontario, Canada. A green smoothie aficionado, she's written about delicious and healthy eating for Livestrong, Healthy Directions Magazine, Vitamix, Kroger and more.