Meatless Monday: an easy, gradual step towards a healthier diet

I want to preface this post by telling you that I am not a vegetarian. At a work party earlier this week, everyone was shocked when I helped myself to a hot dog. All year long, I taught healthy eating classes to 4th and 5th graders, and everyone at the school (including the kitchen staff) assumed I was a vegetarian. Health-conscious eaters are often assumed to be vegetarians, but it's not true that a healthy diet can't include meat. Various kinds of meat can be a rich source of protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and delicious flavor.

That said, Americans often make and order meals that are centered around meat, resulting in consumption of large amounts of beef, pork or chicken (larger than the recommended deck-of-card-sized portion) in almost every meal. This type of meat-heavy diet has a large carbon footprint. Large farms, where most grocery store and restaurant meat is produced, have hugely negative impacts on the environment. Higher consumption of red meat is also associated with diabetes and obesity.

While no one should expect Americans to eliminate meat from their diet entirely, a new idea called "Meatless Mondays" is catching on across the country. The NY Times recently profiled the city of Aspen, which is encouraging the idea in its restaurants and schools. Oprah's studio, Toyota's U.S. branch, and the U.S. Department of the Interior have all gone meatless one day a week. More interestingly to me, many universities and school districts, including UC Davis and Baltimore Public Schools, have eliminated meat from their menus on Mondays.

There are also lots of individuals who have taken on this challenge. Why do this? First of all, it's an easy and gradual step to reducing your meat consumption. There's no need to stop eating meat if you enjoy it. But avoiding it one day a week means you'll be more likely to fill up on vegetables, fruits, and grains. It means you'll save the water and fossil fuel energy that goes into producing your meat. And it means that, on the days you do eat meat, you'll enjoy it that much more. And who doesn't want to savor their food?

Not sure what to cook on your meat-free day? Here's a huge list of recipes from one of my current favorite magazines, Eating Well: Meatless Monday

Thanks to MeatlessMonday.com for many of these resources.

Photo credit: Run with Kate