Updated: Jul 29, 2021
Many of us grew up eating beef, lamb, pork, chicken, veal, fish and seafood, and other kinds of meat. We had enjoyed eating meat in different ways of preparation and cooking -- steak, grilled, braised, stewed, etc.
However, since we’ve been advocating the whole-food plant-based diet, the first question that probably entered your mind is how to “plantify” meat. You might be concerned with finding plant-based substitutions for your old favorite meat recipes.
Going on a whole-food, plant-based diet does not mean you have to sacrifice the dishes you love. Almost anything you used to eat can be made with plant-based ingredients – even meaty dishes like burgers, meatballs, and Buffalo wings. It would just take imagination and creativity on your part to achieve this.
Below are different ways on how you could prepare a whole-food plant-based meal without harming a single animal. But first, let me tell you why we love to eat meat in the first place.
Why We Eat Meat
Humans are generally omnivorous, meaning we feed on both plants and animals for sustenance.
However, historians and zooarchaeologists say that millions of years ago, the hominis --- a term used to refer to the extinct members of the human race --- ate only plants and fruits. Based on their studies, our early ancestors were scavengers by nature, not hunters. So while they had stronger jaws and larger teeth than modern man, their digestive systems were designed for digesting plant matter, not raw meat.
However, as the climate changed and temperature rose, the forest shrank and plants became scarce. These environmental conditions forced the early humans to find another source of energy. By using the tools originally designed to help them dig tubers and crack open nuts, our ancestors pre-process animal flesh so they could chew and digest easier. Once they shifted to occasional meat eating, it didn’t take long to make it a part of their diet.
The modern human brain is far larger than that of other primates and three times the size of the predecessors of the Homo species. But those big brains come at a cost. They require energy to operate. Studies say our brains consume twenty percent of our body’s total energy and meat played a role in this.
Then, when humans began cooking meat, it became even easier to digest quickly and efficiently, and capture those calories to feed our growing brains. The earliest evidence of humans cooking food dates back about eight hundred thousand years ago.
Today, we crave meat because our brains are still wired to seek out energy-dense sources of protein. But we also crave meat because of its cultural significance in our lives. Cultures across the globe consume meat differently. Also, wealth plays a role in meat consumption. Industrialized countries consume an average of more than 220 pounds of meat per person per year, while the poorest nations consume an average of less than 22 pounds per person.
Enter Meat Substitutes
I’ve mentioned in a previous blog that religion plays a role in our diet. People following religious dietary rules led to the development of meat substitutes. Tofu and wheat gluten are associated with Buddhist cuisine in Asia. Meat substitutes were also popular in Medieval Europe during the Lenten season when eating meat is forbidden.
During the late 19th century and first half of the 20th century, interest in meat substitutes increased, especially from vegetarians searching for alternatives to meat protein for ethical reasons. Food shortages during the two World Wars caused regular meat eaters to be confronted with the same problem of finding meat substitutes.
Today, owing to the global demand for sustainable diets, concern over global warming, and major investments by food companies, there is an increase in awareness and market demand for meat substitutes.
However, meat analogue companies, who have been developing meat substitutes in laboratories and mass producing them, have been criticized for the production and marketing of their products. Dieticians claimed that these laboratory-made meat substitutes are not necessarily healthier than meat due to their highly processed nature.
I advise you to stay away from these meat substitute products since they are processed with isolated proteins and probably loaded with oils which may be hard for you to digest.
Types of Meat Substitutes
If you really feel the need for a chewy meat-like texture, there are some substitutions that offer some degree of texture but with none of the problems associated with meat but have all the green light healthiness of whole plant foods.
Jackfruit is a fruit, quite expensive but has a very meat-like texture once cooked. It can stand in for meat in savory dishes like pulled pork, corned beef, or shredded chicken. You can buy it raw or in a can. Jackfruit has a very slight sweet taste but is perfect for barbecue sandwiches, stir-fries, or any dish that uses beef, chicken, or pork.
Just separate the yellow flesh and the seeds and save the seeds for another recipe. In a pan, water sauté onion, garlic, and jackfruit. Season it with salt, pepper and other seasonings like cumin, chili powder, paprika, cayenne pepper, Worcestershire sauce, and liquid smoke. Add vegetable stock and simmer the jackfruit mixture for 45 minutes. After simmering, spread them on a baking sheet and bake them for 1½ hours at 350°F. Spread some vegan barbeque sauce on top and bake them for another 15 minutes. Serve this like how you serve barbeque pulled pork.
Mushrooms can substitute grilled meats, burgers, and steaks. Marinating a Portabello mushroom in balsamic vinegar and then grilling it makes a nice steak.
Or in a pan with water, cook minced mushrooms until water evaporates. Then sauté it with onion and garlic. Transfer the mixture in a bowl and add breadcrumbs, oats, herbs like parsley, oregano, rosemary, and thyme. Season with salt and pepper or add cayenne pepper for spice. In a separate bowl, prepare an egg substitute which is done by mixing ground flaxseed and water (at 1:3 ratio) and let it sit for 10 minutes. Add the ground flaxseed mixture to the mushroom mixture to act as a binder and mix well. Cover and refrigerate for at least two hours or overnight. Once chilled, form into balls and line them on a baking sheet. Bake them for 20 minutes at 375°F but turn them over halfway so that they brown evenly. Serve them like how you serve meatballs.
You may not know it, but an eggplant can be a delicious alternative for meat in this recipe.
In a pan with water, sauté an eggplant cut into cubes with skin on. Then add vegetable broth as needed until eggplant is cooked. Transfer to a food processor. In another pan with water, sauté onion, garlic, and celery. Transfer into the food processor and pulse until eggplant and aromatics are blended. Transfer the eggplant mixture into a bowl and add breadcrumbs and herbs like parsley, basil, and oregano. Season with salt and pepper. In a separate bowl, prepare an egg substitute by mixing ground flaxseed and water (at 1:3 ratio) and let it sit for 10 minutes. Add the ground flaxseed mixture to act as a binder. Mix well and form into balls and lay them all on a baking sheet. Bake them for 20 minutes at 375°F, turning them over halfway through so they can brown evenly. Once baked, serve them as you would do to regular meatballs.
Originally from China, tofu is made from curdled soy milk. Soy milk is a liquid extract from ground cooked soybeans. The curds are then drained and processed into a block. Tofu is tasteless on its own, but it can absorb whatever flavors it is cooked or marinated in. They crumble easily making it good for salads, meat substitutes, or in stir fry.
Crumble a block of extra firm tofu in a bowl. Season it with soy sauce, tomato sauce, chili powder, garlic powder, cumin, and pepper and mix them well. Grease a baking sheet with olive oil and spread the crumbled tofu on it. Bake it for 20 minutes at 400°F. Give it a little stir after 10 minutes so it can brown evenly. Try serving this as taco meat.
Originally from Indonesia, tempeh is made from fermented cooked soybeans and molded into a block. Sometimes, brown rice, quinoa, or flax seeds are added. Unlike tofu, tempeh has a natural nutty flavor and texture. You may flavor your own tempeh by soaking it in your favorite marinade.
Cut tempeh into cubes and place it in a bowl. Add cornstarch, paprika, minced garlic, minced ginger, sesame oil, soy sauce, and rice wine. Mix together and then cover and let it chill inside the refrigerator.
In a pan, dry fry the marinated tempeh until golden brown. In another pan, dry sauté minced garlic and minced ginger . Add red pepper flakes, tomato paste, vegetable broth, soy sauce, rice vinegar, honey, and slurry. A slurry is a mixture of water and cornstarch that is used to thicken sauces. Cook the sauce until thick then add the fried tempeh. Coat the tempeh with the sauce and sprinkle sesame. Do you think this recipe looks and tastes like General Tso’s chicken?
Seitan (pronounced SAY-tan) is made from wheat. It is made by rinsing away the starch in the wheat dough, leaving just the high-protein gluten behind.
It is also called wheat gluten and similar to the look and texture of meat when it is cooked. That is why this is a popular meat substitute among vegans and vegetarians. Seitan has a savory taste close to Portobello mushroom. Once you peel it, it looks like peeled chicken. You can make your own seitan or you can buy them at grocery stores.
A legume refers to any plant from the Fabaceae family that includes its leaves, stems, and pods. A pulse is the edible seed from a legume plant. Pulses include beans, lentils, and peas. For example, a pea pod is a legume, but the pea inside the pod is the pulse.
Lentils have always been a stand-in for meat since the beginning of veganism. Any variety of pulses, either ground or mashed, can be a great filling for things like burritos and sandwiches. They cook up quickly and are inexpensive. You won’t get the same texture as meat, but you will get a filling, nutritious meal.
In a saucepan, dry sauté chopped onions, sliced carrots, and chopped celery. Season with salt and pepper. Add red wine, minced garlic, diced tomatoes, tomato paste, and vegetable stock . Bring it to a boil. Add brown lentils and dried herbs like basil, oregano and rosemary. Add baking soda to cut the acidity and simmer for 40 minutes. Serve on top of any pasta a la Bolognese sauce.
Some say that potatoes can be used as meat substitutes. But most people agree that potatoes will make excellent extenders for any mixture.
The Old Testament mentions bulgur and the wheat was popular in the ancient Mediterranean region. Bulgur is an edible cereal grain made by boiling, drying, and grinding kernels of cracked wheat. The result is a firm grain that you can eat plain like rice or couscous, or an ingredient for soups, recipes, and baked goods. When cooked, it has a similar consistency to couscous or quinoa.
Nuts are not vegetables but they can be used as a meat substitute which can provide “meatiness” in your cooking.
Grind walnuts in a food processor. Then add mushrooms and pulse until you have a rough walnut-mushroom mixture. In a pan, dry sauté the walnut-mushroom mixture. Add soy sauce and cumin and sauté a little bit more. Transfer the mixture in a bowl. Using the same pan, dry sauté minced onion and minced garlic. Season with salt and pepper. Add tomato paste and mix well. In a food processor, blend black beans and the tomato paste mixture. Once done, add it into the walnut-mushroom mixture. Add grated beets, cooked brown rice, vegan mayonnaise, vegan Worcestershire sauce, and liquid smoke. Mix everything well. Then add wheat gluten and mix well again. Form into burger patties. Grill them on a pan and brush with vegan barbecue sauce until brown on both sides. Serve as what you would do with hamburgers.
When you begin a whole-food, plant-based diet, you may feel like your choices are limited. But as you can see here with these plant-based substitutions, there are so many ways to keep your meals delicious and interesting, while fulfilling your meat cravings. Learning how to “plantify” a recipe could be fun and challenging. The more plant-based recipes you make, the more creative you will become. Soon you will be making delicious, satisfying meals that will satisfy your cravings, and before you know it, you will realize you don’t even miss the meat at all.
If you are not yet ready to go 100% on a whole-food plant-based diet or if you are interested to start, feel free to ask me how by scheduling a consultation. I will help and work with you to make changes at whatever pace you are comfortable with. There is also a health program that might suit your needs. Or if you want to hear from me talk more about Lifestyle Medicine, feel free to listen to the podcast or reach out by using the contact form below.
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Center for Nutrition Studies. 2019. “Plant-Based Food Tips: Healthy Recipe Substitutions - Nutrition.” T. Collin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies. May 24, 2019.
Parsons, Rhea. 2018. “10 Vegetables That Can Substitute for Meat.” One Green Planet. August 2, 2018.
Roos, Dave. 2019. “The Juicy History of Humans Eating Meat.” History. A&E Television Networks, LLC. May 8, 2019.
Smith, Diane. 2017. “Plant-Based Substitutions.” Plant-Based Cooking. June 19, 2017.