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Bring on the Veggies

     I love vegetables. Growing up I was never the kid who cried over carrots or threw temper tantrums over tomatoes. However I’ve always loved meat too… I never ate pork since pigs were my favorite animal, but a juicy steak or some crispy chicken have always made my mouth water. Being vegetarian always seemed impossible to me, even as a veggie lover. I was worried I would never be able to get enough protein, it would be too much work, or I’d miss eating meat too much. 

     My family already tries our best to do ‘Meatless Mondays’ and when we do eat meat, it’s always locally sourced. The idea of Meatless Mondays actually started during World War I when people were rationing. Paul McCartney of The Beatles (a vegetarian since 1975) has a campaign called “Meat Free Monday.” His website states that the goal of the campaign is to “raise awareness of the environmental impact of meat eating and encourage people to meaningfully reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by having at least one meat-free day every week.” I mean if Paul McCartney is telling us to do this we should listen, right? This got me thinking, “how hard would being fully vegetarian actually be?” So here is my experience of becoming vegetarian for a week! 

     My family is pretty flexible with my dietary choices/restrictions, but I do rely on them for most of my meals. I don’t eat pork or fish, which means my family eats a lot of chicken and probably more red meat than we should. I also don’t eat much dairy because I have a lactose sensitivity. This made me pretty nervous for my vegetarian week because many of the recipes I looked at contained dairy. However, after talking to Johannah Deziel (‘22), who was a vegetarian for eight years and is also lactose intolerant, I felt better. She said, “once you find certain cookbooks or recipes there’s a lot you can make with tofu and beans that has more protein and is nutritious. It’s definitely doable.”

     In order to try and make nutritious meals all week, I did some research. The first thing I did was a Dietary Reference Intake quiz on the USDA website where I input my age, weight, height, etc. and it calculated the amount of macronutrients, vitamins, and minerals that I should ‘technically’ be consuming. (Of course this quiz was only for research purposes and not something I would use to plan my meals all the time). This quiz said I should be consuming 44g of protein, 2.4 mcg of vitamin B12, 15mg of iron in a day, among other things.

     The reason I chose those three nutrients specifically was because each of those nutrients can become an issue when reducing your meat intake. According to “Vegetarian Diet: How to Get the Best Nutrition,” from Mayo Clinic, protein is the most-well known nutrient that people get from meat, however it can also be easily gotten from dairy and eggs. The article said, “protein helps maintain healthy skin, bones, muscles and organs.” Will Johnson (‘22) is pescatarian so he gets protein from fish but also recommended eating protein packed snacks like nuts or puffed quinoa. Vitamin B12 is part of what produces red blood cells. It is almost only found in animal products (including dairy and eggs). Things like Beyond Burgers are fortified to have vitamin B12 but some people do need to take supplements, especially if they’re vegan. Finally there is iron, which is also a part of red blood cells. With iron there are many more vegetarian sources than vitamin B12. It can be found in dark leafy greens, soybeans, legumes, nuts, and many more foods. Both vitamin B12 and iron deficiencies can be dangerous so make sure if you’re debating becoming vegetarian that you’re getting enough of them.

     Unfortunately due to a surgery I can’t comment on my own energy levels during my vegetarian week but Maeve Hickok (‘24), who has been a vegetarian for about a year shared her experience. She specifically talked about how being a vegetarian and being an athlete can affect one another. She said, “when I first started [being vegetarian], it was over the summer so sports were not in full force. I didn’t see it reflected in my performance but I was a little more tired that first week because I hadn’t found meals that gave me the same vitamins, fats, and minerals meat would give.”

     As long as you keep your health your main priority, being vegetarian can have many benefits. First of all, the price difference was crazy! According to a study from the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition published in 2015, eating vegetarian can save you at least $750 per year. If your parents need some convincing I definitely recommend using that. Second, the environment. Johnson brought up how he became vegetarian to help the environment. He said, “I know climate change is a huge issue… it was really important for me to take steps to limit carbon emissions and [pescetarianism] was the easiest option.” Eating less meat, reduces gasses like CO2 and methane from getting into the atmosphere and also saves a lot of water. According to WaterCalculator.org, “meat, especially beef, has a large water footprint — 1,800 gallons of water per pound of beef produced.” Lastly, Deziel and Hickok brought up the moral side about killing animals. “We’re just so used to killing and eating animals that it doesn’t seem as inhumane as we think of it when we actually see it happen,” said Hickok. 

     With all of my research I felt ready to start my vegetarian week. I was excited to try some new recipes and also alter some old ones using meat/protein substitutes. Here is how it went!

Day 1:

     The first day of my vegetarian week I started with an easy meal. We had minestrone soup with homemade bread which is a meal we eat pretty often for Meatless Mondays. This was my mom’s variation on a classic minestrone soup. It is a little different because we cook it for longer and add a lot more vegetables. Cooking everything for longer really builds flavor and makes it taste better which is great if you aren’t a big fan of vegetables. 

     Although some soups aren’t very filling, this one is. A lot of it has to do with the components of the soup. Chopping the vegetables into bigger pieces (still small enough to eat) adds texture and makes it a lot more filling. We also added white beans which are a great source of protein and iron. We used Goya brand beans and the nutritional facts said that they contained 7g of protein and 2mg of iron in a ½ cup serving size. This meal was also great because it gave me leftovers for a few days. It was a quick and easy thing to heat up and it helped keep me on track with eating vegetarian all the time, not just at dinner.

Day 2:

     This was my favorite meal of the week: black bean enchiladas! This meal also used beans as a protein source. In a ½ cup serving, Goya black beans have 8g of protein and 2 mg of iron similar to the white beans but a little better. I normally eat chicken or beef enchiladas so I was a bit skeptical about how the beans would taste but it came out so well! We used the same type of enchilada sauce we do with meat ones so I honestly didn’t notice much of a difference. I think keeping the regular spices I’m used to helped almost trick my brain into thinking I was eating meat. This meal was also super filling especially with all of the toppings. We added avocado (protein), fresh herbs, and cheese. I am lactose sensitive so I have to limit how much cheese I have. With a meal like this I made sure to not eat much other dairy throughout the day. However for people without lactose intolerance, dairy is a great source of protein and vitamin B12. I definitely recommend making these if you like Mexican food!

Day 3:

     The third day we made pasta primavera. For this day we definitely didn’t think of protein quite as much but focused more on highlighting the vegetables. My family is part of a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) where we get fresh vegetables each week. It’s a great way to support local farms and eat more vegetables. Although not all of the veggies used came from the CSA, the carrots, shallots and onions did! I also did my best to include protein packed veggies from the store like broccoli, green peas, and asparagus. It had a delicious lemon sauce and it tasted very fresh and light. 

     Pasta is definitely a food that is about balance. My dad has type-1 diabetes which means that foods high in carbohydrates (like pasta) can result in high blood sugars. This was a concern my parents had with going vegetarian for the week since a lot of non-meat protein sources or meatless meals can be super high-carb. This is not a meal my family would have all the time but in moderation, maybe once every one or two weeks. It’s super delicious, a great way to use vegetables, and who doesn’t love pasta!?

Day 4:

     The fourth day we altered one of my favorite meals, Stuffed Peppers, to be vegetarian. Instead of stuffing the peppers with a meat filling we used quinoa. One cup of quinoa has 8 grams of protein. I was a little bit concerned about the quinoa because I hadn’t really had it before. It absorbed the flavors of the spices and peppers super well and just reminded me of a smaller version of rice but with protein. We roasted the peppers before stuffing them and also incorporated some roasted broccoli into the stuffing. Hickok recommended roasting vegetables because it makes them taste a lot better, which is very true. It adds a flavor to the vegetables that you normally would get from cooking meat and it makes the texture a lot better. I would definitely substitute our normal stuffed peppers for these. I felt very full from the quinoa and the leftovers were amazing. They kept tasting better every day.

Day 5:

     On Friday of my vegetarian week we decided to have homemade (ish) pizza. This was a meal I didn’t help as much with because my dad used our pizza oven to make it. We made a normal cheese pizza and also a veggie pizza using store-bought dough. On the veggie pizza there was broccoli, peppers, and basil but you can add anything you want. I’m not someone who really likes pepperoni but I did find that there are some vegetarian options like sundried tomatoes or a tofu substitute.

     This meal is similar to the pasta dish where it needs to be consumed in moderation. I read an article from Harvard Health Publishing called “Becoming a Vegetarian” which said, “unless you follow recommended guidelines on nutrition, fat consumption, and weight control, becoming a vegetarian won’t necessarily be good for you. A diet of soda, cheese pizza, and candy, after all, is technically ‘vegetarian.’” Pizza every once in a while isn’t necessarily bad, it’s a delicious meal but you have to make sure to have different meals throughout the week to balance. 

Day 6:

     I was going to end my week after pizza night but after talking to Johnson I had to try a Beyond Burger! I don’t like the taste/texture of tofu so I felt like I should try a different meat substitute. Johnson said, “it’s very very convincing, at least to me. It tastes like real meat and I know it has a lot of the same nutrients.” In one serving size there is 20g of protein, 4mg of iron, and 2.4mcg of vitamin B12. On the Beyond Burger package there was also a saturated fat comparison which showed real beef at 8g and these at 5g. Saturated fat is something that can potentially increase risk of cardiovascular illness later in life. According to the USDA, a hamburger comparatively contains 13.3g of protein. 

     There was a slight aftertaste I noticed, but the texture was spot on. My dad wasn’t home when we ate them but my mom loved them. I feel like red meat is always known as being kind of bad for you and for the environment so I felt really good about eating this. I would definitely eat these again but I would be interested in trying the other brands to see how they compare.

     Overall I’m pretty impressed with how my challenge went. I was definitely expecting myself to end up slipping and eating meat at least once but I never did. I think that had a lot to do with the meal planning because most of the meals created leftovers which meant I had easy vegetarian lunches. This was also great environmentally because if you’re eating leftovers more, you are creating less food waste. My parents also loved how much money we saved. If you think about it: which is going to be cheaper, vegetables or steak? Vegetables. Even the Beyond burgers were about the same price to the normal burgers we would buy from somewhere like Tendercrop Farm.

     I would definitely do this again and would love to become a vegetarian when I’m older. My family is going to keep our Meatless Mondays and I hope to add at least one more day to that each week, if not more. It is still a big commitment and even though I think I’m ready, my parents aren’t quite there yet. I think eating more vegetarian meals is a great step that a lot of people, including my family, can take to help both the planet and animals. Eating just one meatless meal a week is 52 days of the year. Imagine making that two days a week, 104 days of the year! Eating vegetarian may seem scary or impossible at first but I highly recommend that you give it a try.

Recipes

Day 1: Minestrone Soup

This soup was based off of this recipe. We cooked the olive oil, onion, garlic, carrot, celery, tomatoes, beans, broth, a parmesan cheese rind, and dried herbs for about an hour before adding the other vegetables for a more flavorful soup. We also added the pasta to the soup bowl vs into the actual soup so it didn’t absorb all of the broth.

Day 2: Black Bean Enchiladas

I used store bought enchiladas sauce to keep this simple. I added sautéed peppers and onions to the enchilada filling for more flavor and texture. I like to add shredded lettuce, guacamole, onion, black olives and radishes as toppings for my enchiladas.

Day 3: Pasta Primavera

This recipe is great because you can put any vegetables you want in it.  In the spring, we love to add asparagus and green beans. In the summer, we love to add zucchini and summer squash.  Since I am not a fan of tomatoes, we always leave those out.  It is also a great recipe to clean out the fridge with. 

Day 4: Stuffed Peppers

We usually double or triple this recipe because the leftovers are good for 4-5 days and are perfect for a quick and healthy lunch. We also like to roast a couple of heads of broccoli with a drizzle of olive oil, salt and pepper. We then add the chopped, roasted broccoli into the quinoa filling.  

Day 5: Vegetable Pizza

For this we used store-bought pizza dough (we like Portland Pie Company) as well as store-bought pizza sauce. Then we topped the pizza with fresh shredded mozzarella and vegetable of your choice – I am a fan of onion, red bell peppers, black olives and broccoli.

This pizza can be made in the oven on a pan or pizza stone, grilled on a grill or made in a pizza oven. My family has an Ooni pizza oven, so that is how we make it.

Day 6: Beyond Burgers

For this we just cooked them on a grill pan. Even though they aren’t meat you still have to make sure they aren’t undercooked. We cooked them on medium-high heat for about 4 mins per side. They should reach an internal temperature of 165°F.

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