Small changes can improve your health and help you embrace new foods.
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pan of Pesto Ravioli with Spinach & Tomatoes

You don't have to go full-on vegetarian or vegan to reap the benefits of a plant-based diet. But choosing to eat less meat can have benefits for your health and even the planet.

When eaten in moderation—a three-ounce serving several times a week—meat is a healthy (and tasty) way to check off your protein, B12 and iron needs. But, realistically, people consume way more than the recommended intake.

A 2019 report published in Nutrition Reviews found that between 2015 and 2017, the average American ate 200 pounds of meat per year. (That's compared to 130 pounds in Latin American and the Caribbean, 60 pounds in parts of Asia and 30 pounds in Africa.)

Eating too much meat, specifically red meat and processed meats (think: bacon, hot dogs), can lead to health concerns, including an increased risk of colorectal cancer.

Plus, according to the Nutrition Reviews paper, reducing protein intake by just 25 percent paired with a 25 percent shift from animal food to plant food protein could significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions and water use, which is good news for the planet during a time of climate crisis.

Okay, so how do you cut back on meat?

1. Try a New Vegetable Every Week

We get it. You're standing in the produce section trying to figure out how the heck to cook a rutabaga. Or you don't know how to differentiate between 12 types of peppers. Experimenting with new foods can be daunting, but it can also open the door to a host of new tastes and meal ideas.

Plus, eating more vegetables can improve your health: They're high in heart-healthy fiber and disease-fighting antioxidants. Plus, they're packed with vitamins and minerals to keep your body healthy.

Do a little research before your next trip to the grocery store and pick a vegetable you've never tried. Interested in an Asian-inspired dish? Pick up a bunch of bok choy and sauté with a little sesame oil and garlic for a leafy, green side dish. Or go for that rutabaga and roast it with other root vegetables (potatoes, onions, beets), topped with salt and pepper.

2. Invest in a Plant-Based Cookbook

It's easy to get caught up in the same meal rotation every week—we're creatures of habit. But a plant-based cookbook is a great way to try new foods and new combinations of foods. And, spoiler, you don't have to follow a recipe exactly. Sometimes new recipes are just good jumping-off points to help you think outside the box. (Turn to our 25+ Plant-Based Recipes for Beginners for some free inspo!)

Some of our favorite plant-based cookbooks include:

  • Mostly Plants: 101 Delicious Flexitarian Recipes from the Pollan Family ($15, Amazon)
  • EatingWell Vegetables: The Essential Reference ($16 , Amazon)
  • Vegetable Kingdom: The Abundant World of Vegan Recipes ($20, Amazon)
  • In My Kitchen: A Collection of New and Favorite Vegetarian Recipes ($24, Amazon)

3. Embrace Meatless Monday (Any Day of the Week!)

Meatless Monday isn't a new idea but it is an effective way to, well, go meatless. Pick one meal a week—it doesn't have to be Monday, or even dinner—to eat entirely vegetarian.

Meat has become such a staple in our diet that it's hard to imagine a meal without it, but going meatless at least one meal a week is proof in the pudding that it's not impossible and can be fun! And before you know it, you might be going meatless several meals a week.

4. Go Fishing

While fish and seafood are technically meats, they tend to be healthier than the traditional sources, especially red meat. As a country, we don't eat nearly enough fish and seafood as we should—the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend two to three four-ounce servings per week.

Fatty fish—think: salmon, sardines, trout and tuna—are excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to improve heart health and brain function. In fact, it's highly recommended that pregnant and breastfeeding women consume two to three servings of fish or seafood a week to help their babies' development.

While mercury levels are higher in larger fish like tuna and swordfish, consuming these varieties once in awhile shouldn't be cause for concern.

5. Vary Your Sources of Protein

Experts agree that most Americans have no problem consuming enough protein. Protein recommendations seem to always be a moving target but adults should aim for 0.36 grams per pound of body weight, which is 45 grams for a 125-pound person and 64 grams for someone who weighs 175 pounds. According to reports, the average woman eats 80 grams per day and the average man, 100 grams per day.

Even vegetarians don't struggle to hit their protein requirements, assuming they're eating dairy and eggs. (Vegans have to work a little harder by consuming complete proteins found in quinoa, soy and mixing rice and beans, for example.)

So instead of relying on meat as your protein source, there's plenty of room to change it up and still get enough.

Eggs offer high-quality protein as well some vitamin D—and recent research has found that an egg a day won't hurt your heart, as previously thought.

Nuts and nut butters are also good sources of plant-based protein that add flavor to your snacks and meals (try a scoop of peanut butter in your oatmeal), while also offering good fats.

Grains and legumes can also be a good source of protein, especially when mixed together, like rice and beans, quinoa and soy. The bottom line: the best way to hit your protein requirements—all of your nutritional requirements, actually—is to simply eat a varied diet.