It can be challenging to serve healthy meals on a budget, but with planning you can eat better for less. Many people save money by adding meatless meals to their weekly menus. Meatless meals are built around vegetables, beans and grains — instead of meat, which tends to be more expensive. Meatless meals also offer health benefits.
The health factor
A plant-based diet, which emphasizes fruits and vegetables, grains, beans and legumes, and nuts, is rich in fiber, vitamins and other nutrients. And people who eat only plant-based foods — aka vegetarians — generally eat fewer calories and less fat, weigh less, and have a lower risk of heart disease than nonvegetarians do.
Just eating less meat has a protective effect. A National Cancer Institute study of 500,000 people found that those who ate 4 ounces (113 grams) of red meat or more daily were 30 percent more likely to have died of any cause during a 10-year period than were those who consumed less. Sausage, luncheon meats and other processed meats also increased the risk. Those who ate mostly poultry or fish had a lower risk of death.
How much protein do you need?
The fact is that most Americans get enough protein in their diets. Adults generally need 10 to 35 percent of their total daily calories to come from protein. Based on a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet, this amounts to about 50 to 175 grams a day. Of course, you can get protein from sources other than meat.
In fact, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends choosing a variety of protein foods, including eggs, beans and peas, soy products, and unsalted nuts and seeds. The guidelines also suggest replacing protein foods that are higher in solid fats with choices that are lower in solid fats and calories. The fats in meat, poultry and eggs are considered solid fats, while the fats in seafood, nuts and seeds are considered oils.
Try meatless meals once or twice a week
You don't have to go cold turkey. Instead, try easing into meatless meals. Consider going meatless one day a week. If you don't like the idea of a whole day without meat, start with a couple of meatless dinners each week. Plan meals that feature entrees you like that are typically meatless, such as lasagna, soup or pasta salad. Or try substituting the following protein-rich foods for meat in your favorite recipes:
- Beans and legumes — great in casseroles and salads
- Vegetarian refried beans — a good substitute for meat in burritos and tacos
- Tofu — a perfect addition to stir-fry dishes
When meat is on the menu
When your meals include meat, don't overindulge. Choose lean cuts and avoid oversized portions. A serving of protein should be no more than 3 ounces (85 grams) — or about the size of a deck of cards — and should take up no more than one-fourth of your plate. Vegetables and fruits should cover half your plate. Whole grains make up the rest.
Flexing for your health
The term "flexitarian" has been coined to describe someone who eats mostly plant-based foods, but occasionally eats meat, poultry and fish. That kind of healthy eating is the central theme of the Mediterranean diet — which limits red meat and emphasizes fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains and healthy fats — and has been shown to reduce your risk of heart disease and other chronic conditions. Why not work on your flexibility and start reaping some healthy benefits?