Thursday, May 31, 2012

Guest Post: Meat - It's (Not) What's For Dinner!

I am beyond excited to share with you all Get Bizzy Living's very first guest post, brought to you by a very special person in my life - my amazing sister-in-law, Sarah (S. Bracks)!!
B & S Bracks
She and her hubby live on the West Coast and have been a beacon of healthy inspiration to me (and hopefully soon enough, to all of you, too!) because of their active lifestyles, their conscientious eating habits, and their responsible treatment of the earth.  Oh, and they're both hilarious people - I'm talking laugh-out-loud funny.  I don't want to go into too much detail because she lays out a lot of amazing ideas and facts in her post and I want you all to dive right in!  So without further ado, Get Bizzy Living presents...

Meat: It's (Not) What's For Dinner

Hi all.  I’m Bizzy’s sister-in-law, Sarah, and I live with my husband, Mike, in Seattle.  
Mike and I in our garden - with home-grown vegetables and a delicious brew in hand, of course!
Let me start by clearing the air: I am not a vegetarian, and this will not be a post that attempts to bring folks over to The Green Side.  In fact, I have a hefty ham hock simmering in some split pea soup as I write.  

I wanted to write about transitioning away from meat as a dinner staple because it aligns with Bizzy’s goal of finding a balance between fun and health; the more I learn about the food industry, the more I want to eat meat responsibly but not give it up entirely.  I hope that after reading this you have, at the very least, some questions about meat and its role in your day-to-day life. 

To give you a sense of what a low-meat menu could look like, here is our actual dinner menu this week:
Sunday: Blackened rock fish, broccoli, and bread
Monday: TLTs (Tempeh, lettuce & tomato sandwiches) and roasted carrots (vegan)
Tuesday: Pizza night! (vegetarian)
Wednesday: Split pea soup and salad  
Thursday: Lentils, squash, and braised greens “salad” with spicy lemon dressing (vegan)
Friday: Anasazi bean burgers and asparagus (vegan)
First, the WHY
When you eat a piece of meat, you have just participated in a food system that goes far beyond your digestive tract.  The dollars we spend on burgers and bacon are connected to the animals involved, of course, but also to the health of the land on which the animals live, the farmers and workers who raise and slaughter the animals and then process the meat, the gasoline needed to ship the meat, and finally the businesses who fund the system so that we have consistent access to affordable poultry, pork, beef and fish.

I worked on a farm and I’ve also taught a high school unit on food systems with a biology teacher for the past four years, so I was going to spend a lot of time in this post discussing food systems in America.  In the end, however, I decided to hit just the highlights of what I originally wrote and include resources at the end of the section for you to peruse if you want to know more.  I’m also happy to answer any questions.
  1. Adults need roughly 0.8g of protein per kg of weight per day. American adults get about 1½ to 2 times more protein than they actually need, 70% of which is animal protein.  It is a myth that vegetarians don’t get the protein they need, but it is true that vegans need to be intentional about how they will meet their protein needs.
  2. Most meat in America comes from animals raised in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations.  CAFOs keep costs down for consumers by using practices that some argue are unethical for the animal and potentially hazardous for the human who eats it.
  3. Meat from CAFOs travels quite a distance to get to most of our dinner plates (unless you happen to live in Greely, CO). The “locavore” movement is based on the idea that the closer we are to the origin of our food, the better it is for smaller businesses and for the planet.
Resources to check out:
  • Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser
  • The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollen
  • Unhappy Meals” by Michael Pollen
  • National Farmers Markets Database
  • Report of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010
Now, the HOW
My husband and I are not wealthy by U.S. standards, but we do have a comfortable life. I am a public school teacher and Mike is a PhD student. When we first started to commit to eating meat more responsibly, we experienced some serious sticker shock. We realized that we couldn’t keep eating the same amount of meat every week if we also wanted to have money for things we need and/or want (namely rent, gas, good beer, and travel).

Problem #1: “Responsible” meat is more expensive.
Solution: Buy less meat.
Think about how much you currently spend on meat each week and call that your “weekly meat budget”. Now check out how much that amount would buy at a farmer’s market. If you don’t have a market, head to a grocery store that sells local or organic meat and figure out how much your weekly budget would buy there. What you’ll find is that if you want to spend the same amount that you’re spending now, you’ll have to eat less meat.

  • Consider investing in a meat CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program. We recently purchased a half of a pig (about 70 pounds) from Thoughtful Food Farms in Monroe, WA ( We also purchased a Thanksgiving CSA from them, which includes a turkey. Now we know where our pork and turkey were raised and how they will be slaughtered. We even got to visit the farm and meet our pig!
  • Eat smaller portions of meat at dinner (this means you can buy less of it at the store!). Mike and I often eat half of what recipes or restaurants call a portion (but actually I think we’re pretty close to what the USDA recommends, about a pack of cards/3 oz. each). We will split a ½ pound of salmon or one juicy pork chop between the two of us. When meat is the star of our meal, we tend to go all out and make something really fancy with it because it’s so rarely a meat night, let alone a night where meat stands alone. 
  • What is more common for us is that we don’t build dinner around the meat. We’re much more likely to add meat to a dish that already has a lot going on such as a stir-fry, pasta, or casserole. Also, if the recipe calls for 1 lb. of ground beef for the meatballs or 2 chicken breasts for the enchiladas, we almost always cut it in half. As mentioned before, Americans tend to get more protein than they actually need, so we figure we’re not really losing out.
  • Eat meat fewer times per week. See Problem #2 for creative solutions.
Problem #2: Meat is a reliable, tasty, traditional way to get protein.
Solution: Get protein from non-meat sources and get creative.

What it is: Curd (sort of a thick substance) made from mashed soybeans. Tofu comes in different forms – from soft (for desserts and “creamy” sauces) to extra-firm (for stir-fries and grilling).
Why we like it: Tofu soaks up the flavors with which is it is cooked. Soy beans (like all beans) offer much-needed fiber along with essential amino acids (protein).
How to cook it: We usually press extra-firm tofu to get out a lot of the water before we cook it and then we bake it or sauté it like you would chicken. Mike makes “crack-fu” which is crispy and full of flavor. Ask me if you want a killer Tofu Parmesan recipe.

Brands we like: Wildwood (extra-firm)

Sarah's photo - with some favorite accompaniments!
What it is: cooked and slightly fermented soy beans, often comes in strips
Why we like it: This is a great meat substitute for sandwiches and chili because it is firmer than tofu, but still soaks up flavors.
How to cook it: Sauté tempeh strips in a bit of oil and then throw them on a sandwich or crumble and add to anything you would add sausage or ground beef to.
Brands we like: Turtle Island Foods, especially the Maple Smoked Tempeh (we use it to make the TLTs since it reminds us so much of bacon!)



What it is: cooked wheat gluten (the protein component of wheat)
Why we like it: It is the closest in texture that we’ve found to pork or chicken, and it doesn’t contain soy.
How to cook it: Marinate it first, then sauté the seitan as you would pork or chicken
Brands we like: Westsoy is good, but Mike has started to make it himself!

Beans & Dried Peas
What they are: Beans and dried peas are legumes. We always try to have black beans, navy beans, chickpeas, lentils, and split peas in our pantry.
Why we like them: Beans are a super food because, among other essential nutrients, they give you protein and fiber. Beans are also so versatile – they can be whole or mashed, eaten on their own or added to something else. I love to experiment with bean burgers.
How to cook them: When using dry beans, always rinse your beans first and pick through them to make sure you don’t have any stones or shriveled up beans in the bunch. You need to soak beans before you cook them. Cooking times vary. An important note – when the beans are ALMOST cooked, add salt and other seasonings or else your beans will be bland. Lentils and split peas don’t require soaking ahead of time, which makes them a great last-minute addition to soups and salads.
Brands we like: We mostly buy beans in bulk, so we don’t really have any brand loyalty.

Resources we use to experiment with non-meat meals:

  • Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison
  • How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman
  • I Can’t Believe it’s Tofu by Deborah Madison
  • 101 Cookbooks (blog) and Supernatural Everyday Food by Heidi Swanson
  • The Vegetarian Epicure by Anna Thomas
  • Vegan Soul Kitchen by Bryant Terry

Don’t have a lot of time or energy?  
There are a few prepared staples to which we turn when we’re rushed or uninspired at dinner time. Our current favorites are:

  • Chik’n Products (find them in the freezer) – These are mostly mushroom based, although you wouldn’t know it (take it from a mushroom-hater). We eat the patties on sandwiches (like a chicken sandwich) and the nuggets are a great substitute for chicken wings when you drench them in your favorite wing sauce.
  • Chez Gourmet Spicy Anasazi Bean Burgers (also found in the freezer) – these are SOOOOO good!
  • Soysages – our favorite is probably the Field Roast Chipotle soysage, but most of the brands we’ve tried are excellent.
  • Trader Joe’s Soyrizo – you would NEVER know that this is not chorizo. Well, you do have to add some olive or veggie oil when you cook it up, but seriously, this is the PERFECT meat substitute!

Final Thoughts

Mike and I don’t really ever “miss” meat. I think that’s largely because we never gave it up all the way and we still eat really well. Along with the health, economic, and environmental benefits that have come with our transition, I think I’ve actually gotten to be a better cook because I’ve had to learn new techniques to keep our dinners interesting without putting meat at the center of them. Our latest adventure involves cooking vegan a couple of nights each week, but that’s a whole separate blog post, eh?

For me, eating less meat means feeling healthier and being more at peace with my impact on the planet. It doesn’t make up for my love of a good IPA or my 30-mile daily commute, but I believe that it’s making a small difference. And it tastes good, too.

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