Quitting meat delivers big payoffs, and it’s likely far easier to go vegetarian than you realize. Ridding your diet of meat eliminates animal cruelty, protects the planet, and can eliminate several grossly unhealthy foods from your diet. But how much effort does it take to ditch meat? It turns out to be shockingly easy—especially if you follow the advice I’ll offer here.
Given the explosion of vegan meat offerings in recent years, quitting meat takes remarkably little effort. Never before have food companies churned out so many satisfying vegan alternatives to meat. There are literally hundreds of vegan meat products available in every shape and form. You can find delicious vegan burgers, sausages, deli slices, bacon, nuggets, and more. Supermarkets carry all of these products, and if you have access to a good natural foods store you’ll find an even better selection.
As you begin to explore vegetarian meats, remember that vegan meats differ from animal meats in one key way. That is: most brands of animal-based sausage, bacon, and hamburger taste pretty much the same. By contrast, the textures and flavors of vegan meats vary immensely from product to product. So try every brand you can, and you’ll quickly discover several you consider sensational. Our vegan meats page features links to all the top brands, plus vegan cookbooks that emphasize meaty dishes.
The Three Sorts of Vegan Meats
You may feel overwhelmed trying to choose from the dozens of packaged vegan meat products available. So let me simplify things for you. You may find it helpful to divide these products into three broad categories, which I will here call: meat alternatives, plant-based meats, and cultured meats.
Let’s now review each of these categories.
For well over two thousand years, countless monks living throughout Asia and India have abstained from meat, often for reasons related to karma or non-violence. To get sufficient protein, they’d often rely on two soybean-based foods called tofu and tempeh.
Both tofu and tempeh are great in stir-fries, or roasted alongside vegetables. They won’t ever fool anybody into thinking they’re meat, but they don’t have to. Tofu and tempeh offer delicious textures and flavors in their own right, and many meat eaters end up preferring these foods to hamburgers and chicken.
Our tofu and tempeh guides cover a multitude of preparation methods for each of these versatile foods. To start, though, the easiest way to prepare tofu is to slice it into cubes, pan fry until it starts to turn golden, and then add it to your next stir-fry. Tempeh is even easier to prepare. Just marinate in a little soy sauce and then pan-fry on each side. Then put it on a bun with your favorite burger toppings.
Some monks also have also relied on seitan as a primary source of protein. This food is produced from a stretchy protein called gluten that is abundant in wheat. Seitan has a nice flavor and a much meatier texture than tempeh or tofu. It’s a fantastic beef replacement in a bowl of Texas-style chili, and vegan chilis have even won meat-based chili cookoffs.
While seitan is essentially 100 percent wheat protein, textured vegetable protein (TVP) is seitan’s soy-based counterpart. Butler Soy Curls and Bob’s Red Mill TVP are two popular brands. You’ll need to soak your TVP for a few minutes, and then you can use it in place of beef in stews, chilis, and stir-fries.
Two Unlikely Meat Alternatives: Mushrooms & Jackfruit
When it comes to exploring various meat alternatives, we’re not done yet. Mushrooms can hit the same texture and flavor buttons as meat. Portobello mushroom caps are about the same size as hamburger patties. Just discard the woody stem and fry on both sides. Prior to serving, drizzle on a little soy sauce, and add your favorite burger condiments. Grilled onions are a fantastic choice.
Also, give shiitake mushrooms a try. You can cut up the caps (once again, first remove and discard the woody stem), and saute in oil. Shiitake is a Japanese mushroom that grows on logs. You find its flesh firmer possessing a meatier texture than most other mushrooms.
And finally, there’s jackfruit—an enormous, spiked, scary-looking fruit from the tropics. Unripe shredded jackfruit flesh, sauteed with your favorite spices, takes on texture and appearance of pulled pork. In Mexico, jackfruit prepared this way is becoming increasingly popular as a vegetarian taco filling. Just keep in mind that in contrast to almost any other meat alternative, jackfruit has very little protein.
The 1960s counterculture introduced the vegetarian concept to millions of people. To satisfy this emerging interest, the first natural food companies released a variety of mock meat products. They started with veggie burgers and hot dogs. Later on came a growing variety of other popular meaty foods from meatballs to chicken slices.
In the modern plant-meat industry, companies usually choose between two very different approaches. Some companies make every effort to replicate the flavor and texture of meat. The Impossible Burger goes so far as to “bleed” just like a regular hamburger.
This degree of resemblance freaks out some vegetarians, who get squeamish about vegan foods that can’t be distinguished from meat. So an entire sector of the plant-meat industry makes no effort to formulate products to closely resemble animal meat. Instead, they simply want their products to taste delicious in their own way. The thinking here is: why make something that tastes exactly like meat when you can make something that tastes even better?
Field Roast brand sausages embody this approach. Unlike some other vegan sausage brands, Field Roast doesn’t taste at all like pork sausage. But even if you love animal meat, you’re likely to prefer Field Roast.
Everybody’s tastes are different. Try as many vegan meat brands as you can, and you’re certain to find ones you adore. And with every such discovery, any remaining animal-based meats in your diet will be squeezed out.
See our vegan meats page for a list of top brands, plus links to detailed coverage for burgers, sausages, and other popular meat alternatives. Finally, keep in mind that some plant-based meats contain egg whites or other animal products. Fortunately, a substantial and growing majority of meat alternatives are vegan.
Products like the Impossible Burger come enough hamburger to easily fool life-long meat eaters. But whole-muscle meats like steak will never be replicated by plant-based technologies. Luckily, for meat-eaters with inflexible palates, help is on the way.
Over the past decade, food companies have poured tens of millions of dollars into trying to crack the most daunting problem intersecting the fields of food science and biology: How can we produce meat—real meat, made from real animal cells—but without raising and slaughtering an animal?
Thanks to a handful of breakthroughs, they’re getting closer. In fact, the first commercial cultured meat products are just starting to hit the market. This stuff won’t be cheap or widely-available for years to come, but if what you want to eat actual meat—cultured meat will be the only way to bypass slaughter.
Some vegans consider cultured meat repulsive. But anyone who wants to rid the food industry of animal cruelty should see this category as holding immense and unique promise.
Cooking at Home
If you want to remove meat from your cooking, a good meat-free cookbook can help. I suggest choosing a vegan rather than a vegetarian cookbook, even if you’re not ready to cut out eggs and dairy products. When I stopped eating meat I learned a bunch of vegetarian recipes, which I later had to abandon once I decided to go vegan. My experience would have been so much easier and more fulfilling had I jumped straight into primarily vegan cooking.
I regularly update my vegan cookbooks list with the best new titles. You may also want to check out my guides to various veggie-friendly cuisines. Indian and Italian food in particular offer an unsurpassed variety of exquisite meat-free dishes. And I don’t think any cuisine is more accessible to a novice vegetarian cook than Mexican food. So many classic Mexican dishes are vegan-friendly and dead-simple to make.
Many vegetarians don’t particularly crave the tastes and textures of meat. But what if familiar meaty flavors are exactly what you’re seeking—or if you’re cooking for someone who adores meat? Luckily, there are several vegan cookbooks specifically geared to devout carnivores:
You can find plenty of meaty vegan foods when dining out. That’s especially true where fast food is concerned, since most of the top chains have recognized that the meat-free market is too big to ignore. Standout choices include Burger King and White Castle, both of which feature the Impossible Burger on their menus.
If you like Mexican food, you’ve got great options. Chipotle Mexican Grill, Qdoba, and Del Taco all offer a variety of sensational vegan burrito fillings. And Taco Bell is famous for having a mostly-vegan menu as long as you avoid items containing meat, cheese, or sour cream.
No matter where you live, chances are you’ve got at least one superb vegan dining option nearby. See our vegan restaurants and fast food guides for advice on how to discover the best meat-free dining options near you.
Stepping Stones to Going Meat-Free
Going vegan obviously demands a greater commitment than merely eating meat-free. But the same strategies that will help you cut out meat work equally well for going vegan. In both cases, you can edge towards the diet you want, shifting a little closer week after week.
In particular, the most useful step I took towards a vegan diet was when I decided to eat exclusively vegan at home. If you’re not ready to remove quit meat entirely, consider resolving to banish meat from your kitchen. In no time, you’ll be expanding your repertoire of meat-free dishes, especially if you get ahold of some vegetarian cookbooks that cater to your favorite meals and cuisines.
Another helpful approach is Mark Bittman’s Vegan Before 6:00 plan, where he follows a completely vegan diet up until his dinner meal. Then starting at dinner he eats whatever food he wants for the rest of the day. You can obviously this approach to Vegetarian Before 6:00, and thereby eat meat-free at least two-thirds of the time.
If these ideas appeal to you, I offer several more ideas for partial commitments in my “How to Go Vegan” guide.
Go Fish-Free Too!
Many people who decide to stop eating meat continue eating fish. Oftentimes, they’ll cut out the fish years later and wish they’d done it sooner.
It’s natural for people to identify less with fish than with land animals. Many people additionally assume that fish lack sentience and the capacity to suffer. But there’s strong evidence that fish indeed feel pain, and there is likewise no question that the various methods used to catch fish are brutally inhumane.
What’s more, the fishing industry systematically ravages huge portions of our oceans. Efforts to curtail overfishing are widely countered with fraud. Fish farms might seem a sustainable alternative, but they can in fact be worse than ocean fishing in many important respects. You can read more about all these issues on our page titled: The Many Reasons to Avoid Fish and Seafood.
A growing number of vegan fish alternatives are hitting the market. Gardein’s convenient and delicious “Golden Fishless Fillets” deserves a special shout out.
No Willpower Required
Quitting meat has always been easy. But today it’s easier than ever. Every month sees the release of delicious new vegan meat products.
Here’s my single most important piece of advice for new vegetarians and vegans: don’t focus on cutting animal products out of your diet—instead crowd them out. You don’t need willpower and sacrifice to clear your diet of meat. Instead, just try several new vegetarian foods every week. The ones you like will become a regular part of your diet. With each new food you discover, you’ll automatically crowd out the meat and other animal-based foods you’re ready to leave behind.
The quality and variety of vegan meats coming to market gets better every year. So try as many of these brands as you can. In no time meat will be a distant memory, and you’ll be taking greater pleasure from your food than ever before.
For further reading: please see our Why Go Vegan? essay, our article on how to get plenty of protein without meat, and our introduction to vegan eating.