Vegetarian Meat Replacements (a few tips for transitioning to vegetarianism)

When I first went vegetarian, processed, pre-packaged, frozen meat replacements were my go-to for main courses.  I heated up Morningstar chik’n nuggets, corn dogs, ribs, chik’n patties, or veggie burgers nearly every night, throwing in some canned corn or green beans and instant mashed potatoes on the side for good measure.   Faux meat products kept me fuller longer than veggie stir fry or pasta with marinara sauce.  I basically just went from frozen fish sticks to frozen soy protein isolate formed into various shapes.  It was easy and quick and I didn’t have to think too hard about menu planning or grocery shopping.  While these are great options for the occasional treat, lazy meal, or a person transitioning to a vegetarian diet, they really shouldn’t be a frequent dinner guest for you. 

Part of the reason new vegetarians rely on these products is because they always feel hungry. I’ve heard this so many times, and I experienced it myself.  This is a pretty common feeling for people when they first give up meat and it happens because we’re used to meat making us feel full and heavy, sitting in our colons for extended periods of time, making us feel satisfied longer.  Push through the first few weeks and your body will begin to change.  Just like your stomach “shrinks” when you eat smaller meals, your body will acclimate itself to a vegetarian diet.  You won’t feel like you’re starving forever, trust me.  It also helps not to constantly snack, especially on junk food, unless you want to put on pounds.  If you’re hungry, EAT, just try to fill up on fruits, veggies, grains, and beans instead of empty calories.

So if you’re a new vegetarian, I’ll cut you some slack for the transition period.  Faux meat products make the switch easier.  However,  if you’ve been off meat for over a year, you really should start to wean yourself off of frozen, processed soy products.  I avoid these now for two main reasons:

First of all, they’re expensive.  Why pay $5 for a box of 4 veggie burgers (frozen hockey pucks that really don’t taste that good) when you can make twice that many at home for less (and they’ll taste good)? Don’t say it’s because you don’t have time because beans can cook in the crock pot while you’re at work and it only takes about 15 minutes to make and cook the burgers when you get home.  I’ve made chicken fried seitan at home before and it tasted just as good, if not better, than the frozen faux nuggets, and it was soy free and much cheaper per serving.  Once you get past your transition period you really don’t need a fake meat at every meal.  If you’re making pasta, throw some mushrooms, zucchini, and lentils into the sauce or make meatballs with mashed beans, breadcrumbs, and spices.  If you want something smoky, tangy, and slightly sweet, make lentil sloppy joes or homemade BBQ black bean burgers.  Add beans and grains like quinoa and bulgar to soups and stews to make them more hearty.

If you’re a new vegetarian, it also helps to eat foods that are familiar to you. If you like tacos, replace the ground beef with black beans cooked in taco seasonings.  If you like comfort foods, try mashed potatoes and cauliflower with nutritional yeast and Earth Balance buttery spread, macaroni and cheese, creamy portobello strogranoff, or lentil shepherd’s pie.   Make a homemade veggie lasagna or pizza.  Also, visit your favorite restaurants and explore their vegetarian options.  If they don’t have any on the menu, ask them if they can make you something.  I’ve NEVER had a restaurant refuse to accommodate me (although I usually call ahead).  Make sure you keep snacks with you for when you get hungry on the run.  Trail mix, apples, bananas, dried fruit, granola bars, nuts, popcorn, pretzels, and raw veggies can easily be tossed into your bag so they’ll be there when a craving strikes (just make sure you put loose snacks into a little baggy first, obviously!)

The second reason I’ve stopped buying faux meat products is because they’re not good for you.  They’re the equivalent of vegetarian fast food really.  Your body needs whole, plant-based foods that haven’t been “put through the wringer” before they reach your plate.  In other words, if your veg food has ingredients you can’t pronounce, consider making something just as good yourself out of foods you can identify. 

Take the Morningstar Farms Chik’n Nuggest for example.  They have over 50 ingredients!  Fifty!  And their vegan veggie burgers have over 30 ingredients!  Some of these ingredients are soy protein isolate, bleached flour, corn oil, modified corn starch, artificial flavors, sugar, hydrolyzed soy protein, and artificial color.  Again, the occasional splurge is okay, but we can do better than that!  And let me just say that there’s a lot of buzz out there about soy right now.  Does it cause cancer or prevent it?  Does it mess with your thyroid and reproductive system?  The Chinese and Japanese have a much lower risk of heart disease and cancer and they eat it all the time.  There seem to be both benefits and risks associated with eating soy and if you’re interested, you can start your research here.  I’m not going to get into the soy debate right now, but I will say that I try to limit my intake.  When I consume soy, it’s not the main part of the dish and when I buy tofu or tempeh, it’s usually for a special occasion or a holiday treat that I’m making.  Again, veggie nuggets, ribs, burgers, corn dogs, etc. are extremely processed, laden with fillers, and not at all good for you in my opinion.  Most of them aren’t even vegan. 

So here’s my verdict:  Make your own food my lovelies; it will save you money and be much healthier for you!

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