How to Replace Meat in Recipes

Asian Marinated Tofu

The Spruce / Kristina Vanni

Whether it's for health reasons, ethical reasons, for the sake of the planet, or all of the above, deciding not to meat is one of the best decisions you can make. But learning to shop, eat, and cook in a new way can be challenging, especially if you're not accustomed to eating lots of plant-based foods. If this is something you're considering, here is a guide to help you on your way.

Make a Decision

If you're accustomed to eating some sort of meat with every meal, especially as the centerpiece of each meal, the idea of cutting it out completely could feel daunting and something you might not be able to do overnight. For some people, changes like this are easy. It's simply a matter of deciding to do it and then doing it. For others, it might require weaning themselves in order to move gradually toward their goal of eating no meat. 

Either approach is fine if it works, but both require some effort and setting realistic and actionable goals. So the first step is deciding that this change is important to you. If you're making this change along with others in your household, it will help if everyone is equally on board. 

For those requiring weaning meat from their diet, the good news is even reducing meat intake by half will make a significant difference in your health. And if everyone did it, it would make a significant difference to the planet as a whole. 

Make Your Meat Go Further

As you begin this journey from meatless Mondays to a meatless life, start to think about your meat in a different way. As recently as the middle part of the last century, meat was considered a luxury, rather than a staple.

Recipes such as meatloaf and meatballs, which involve mixing meat with grains, bread, and other starches, were a way to make more meals out of a given amount of meat. Soups, stews and casseroles are likewise rooted in the reality that meat was scarce and expensive, and it was important to make a little go a long way. Indeed, historically, that approach to eating has been the norm rather than the exception. 

Another way, then, to use less meat is to embrace the idea of cooking like our grandparents, when meat was used more as a flavoring ingredient or condiment rather than the primary component of a meal. But that doesn't have to mean you only eat old-fashioned foods. This style of cooking can accommodate flavorful dishes like grain bowls, stir-fries, and sheet-pan dinners.

One major advantage of soups, stews, casseroles, and grain bowls is that they make it easier to substitute plant-based meats, since using them in small amounts makes the difference less noticeable. 

And in many cases, it might simply be a matter of looking at the amount of meat a recipe calls for, and using half as much. You can make up the volume by adding extra vegetables, which will help.

Substitute Or Replace?

There are a couple of ways you might approach your goal of a meatless diet. One is to use plant-based meat substitutes, which include products like sausages, hot dogs, and burger patties. You can even find plant-based ground meat that you can use in stews and casseroles just like real ground beef. These products aim to reproduce the familiar look, feel, and flavor of meat products.

For a recipe that calls for ground beef, use the plant-based version instead. This substitution approach helps you eat meatless while allowing you to enjoy your favorite recipes. 

Other plant based proteins don't necessarily mimic existing meat products, but can provide protein replacement and add substance to a dish. Examples of this include tofu, tempeh, and seitan.

All substitutes and replacements are not equal. When you experiment with these alternate ingredients, you might find yourself trying out recipes specific to them, as opposed to simply replacing tofu for ground beef in your ground beef casserole.

How to Maintain Protein Intake

When you start thinking about replacing the protein you get from meat, it's helpful to remember that most people in America get plenty of protein in their diets. Adult women need 46 grams of protein per day, and adult men 56 grams. To put that into perspective, one cup of chopped chicken breast provides 43 grams of protein. 

The reality is that most of us probably consume twice as much protein as our bodies require. And so that means that most of us could cut our meat consumption by half and still get all the protein we need. 

If getting enough protein is a concern, there are ways to make it up. Beans and legumes are some of the best plant-based protein sources. Their protein content varies, but in general, 100 grams of cooked beans provides 9 to 10 grams of protein. They're also an excellent source of fiber, and they provide that sensation of fullness that comes from eating meat.

Nuts and seeds, along with their butters, also provide protein. Whole grains, including pasta, are another often overlooked source of protein. 

Eggs and dairy also contribute protein. But depending on why you're cutting back on or omitting meat, eggs and dairy might not be the best choice. Eggs contain cholesterol and dairy farming is arguably as damaging to the environment as beef farming, and as ethically problematic as well.  

Ultimately, if you eat a variety of foods, including beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains, you'll get all the protein you need. And if you factor in the protein in foods like tofu, or plant-based meats, you'll see that getting enough protein won't be an issue.