Of the reasons you may commonly hear for eating vegetarian, or at least minimizing your meat consumption, you may be most familiar with those tinged with guilt, frustration or sadness: lower your carbon footprint because the planet is melting, or eating meat supports the intense abuses against animals raised in factory farms. There are a lot of reasons we discuss on TreeHugger for vegetarianism, and all are (I think) extremely convincing. In fact, I became a vegetarian years ago because of those reasons (and yes, I'll admit it, because of The Omnivore's Dilemma). However, the reasons that are truly most convincing for going vegetarian are those that just make you just plain feel good. And those are the reasons I have remembered over the last two weeks in a shift back to cooking meat-free meals at home through The Cooking Project.
1) Vegetarian meals are satisfying to the point that meat is superfluous
Over the past couple years I've slipped from being vegetarian for ethical reasons to letting poultry or fish slide onto the menu several times a week, though I tried to make sure they were sustainably sourced. I convinced myself I didn't have the time or the energy to cook at home much, that it was easier to eat out or make a few dishes I didn't need to look up recipes for -- dishes of my childhood that consisted of meat surrounded by various vegetables.
Indeed, it is surprisingly easy to return to the habits we grew up with. And the less enthusiasm I put into cooking, the less joyful I was about food in general until the nightly conversation between my partner and I was a constant loop of:
"What do you want to have for dinner?"
"I don't know what do you want?"
"I don't care, what do you want?"
Until dinner was a chore to be dealt with rather than a joyful gathering at the end of the day. And it too often meant just roasting up a bit of chicken, steaming some vegetables, and slicing up a baguette. Boring.
By requiring myself to cook new vegetarian recipes, I rediscovered how delicious, how satisfying all-veggie meals are and that we really don't notice the lack of meat on the plate when we skip it. So many vegetarian dishes are flavorful and hearty, completely filling and interesting to the senses. Should we crave meat, sure, we can add a small portion of a locally raised chicken or something. But we haven't once cared to add meat to the menu since I started cooking again. It feels great to return to a way of eating that I know is more sustainable, more healthy, and have it not feel like a deprivation.
2) Cooking makes you eat less
This is a fairly well-known bit of information and something I've heard from many other friends who cook a lot as well, but something that I'd entirely forgotten. When I spend time shopping for ingredients, preparing and cooking them, I don't actually want a big portion of the meal when I sit down to eat. In fact, I might not be very hungry at all.
Being around all the food I'm preparing -- the sights, the smells, tasting here and there to test how the dish is coming along, thinking about the steps of the recipe and watching the ingredients change as they are combined or cooked -- is part of eating, part of being mindful of food and feeling satisfied. After all, there's a reason for the saying muttered by people who just finished stuffing themselves: "My eyes were bigger than my stomach!" Getting an eyeful during the cooking process makes us less likely to overwhelm our plates when we dish up.
By the time the meal is ready to be served, a few spoonfuls is usually enough for me. What would have been a "normal" portion suddenly looks huge when I sit down with it, and what was one portion now is at least two. I've found that I'm back to having a lot of leftovers in the fridge -- which is great because that means it's easy to know what's for lunch the next day.
3) Making food pretty makes you feel more satisfied during and after a meal
I've been photographing every recipe I make for The Cooking Project, but through that process I remembered an important lesson about making your food beautiful even if you aren't wielding a camera.
Jan Chozen Bays, in her book Mindful Eating, writes of the seven hungers: eye hunger, nose hunger, mouth hunger, stomach hunger, cellular hunger, mind hunger and heart hunger. We eat for different reasons, and usually because we are feeling at least one of these hungers though we may not be hungry in the way we normally think we are, when our stomach is empty. Our bodies might be craving a certain nutrient, or our hearts might be craving a childhood comfort food. But in this culture of rushing and hurrying, what we often don't realize is how many hungers we can satisfy by taking the time to make our food beautiful and enjoying that process and sight before we eat.
I've taken the time to select which dishes and napkins I'll use, coordinating styles and colors. I've plated the dish and garnished it, thinking about what herbs or extra spices would go best in flavor, texture and color. I've placed the food carefully and paused to notice how everything is set up and making small adjustments. The whole time, I'm smelling the wonderful hot meal and enjoying it as more than just food, but as an event in my day.
While the photography that caused this pause is not necessary on a normal basis, the plating and the care in considering food before diving in is absolutely is part of feeling utterly satisfied.
4) A new recipe a day keeps you excited about cooking at home
It is almost painful to admit this, considering I live in San Francisco where food is a really big deal and a significant part of the culture. There are many options here for buying incredible produce grown locally and I have no good excuse for not taking more care in the sourcing of my food, the choices I make in ingredients I purchase (whether take-out, packaged, or a meal made from scratch), and the care I put into what I cook. I am exceedingly lucky to have an extraordinary freedom of choice with my food, and I forgot what that looked like.
A new recipe a day makes me look forward each morning to what I will create that day for the first time. Novelty keeps our interest, and maintaining and interest in what we're cooking keeps us from slipping back into old habits like I did -- basics from childhood that include a piece of grilled or baked meat surrounded by vegetables. A new recipe a day keeps us on our toes, energized about the challenge in using common produce and spices to create uncommon delicacies.
5) Shopping for ingredients is an event in itself
Having a new recipe to cook every day, often with ingredients I haven't used before or haven't considered using in such a way as the recipe requests, brings an entirely new interest in what is available at the market. I find myself looking at the shelves suddenly aware of how unaware I was at the selection of vegetables or herbs available. And as I started The Cooking Project at the cusp of winter turning into spring, I am suddenly aware of how unaware I was of what is available at this time of year and what I need to wait for, which means having time to get excited about the arrival of different items later in the year.
Shopping for ingredients has become a joy again, even in busy markets. I enjoy the challenge of selecting the perfect ingredients, based on color, shape and ripeness. I love taking the time to find the little extras like herbs for garnish or variety. I love looking for items on my list and discovering items I hadn't heard of before.
Cooking vegetarian recipes at home is like getting a whole new education in produce, in farming, in flavor combinations, and even in knowing a city better through the location and the layout of local stores, and who carries what.
6) Cooking at home makes going out to eat feel like a special event again
When I was growing up, going to a restaurant was a special occasion. It was something reserved for celebrations or the occasional treat. Now that I'm an adult, going to a restaurant has become the lazy way to eat. Though the food is delicious, little effort except making a menu selection is put into it. Restaurants have lost the feeling of being a treat, and have become a go-to option when I don't want to cook. Needless to say this hasn't been beneficial to my wallet or my waistline. And it takes away some of the satisfaction and joy of eating.
Now that I've been cooking at home so much, I notice that going out to eat has started to become more of the special occasion it once was as it returns to being a rare event. I'm particularly happy about this because you can't ever have too many things to look forward to in life, and something as simple as going out to a new restaurant should be one of those things. By cooking at home most of the time, restaurants are once again a treat.
7) All this adds up to losing weight without trying
By feeling almost full before sitting down to eat, by feeling more satisfied with less food during a meal, by being excited about gathering ingredients and cooking meals, by being able to select healthful recipes rather than gamble on what is tossed into a restaurant's take-out box, by enjoying food in all its forms again, I've definitely noticed healthful benefits.
Cooking vegetarian meals at home has made me feel better and made my clothes fit just a little looser in the last few weeks. And I can't argue with improving my health, especially when I don't even have to diet to accomplish it.
8) The pride and joy is worth the minimal effort
I have undoubtedly spent more time in the kitchen the last few weeks. However, I can't say that it's been so much time as to feel like a burden. In fact, when it comes down to it, cooking some of the recipes in The Cooking Project actually takes far less time than going out to a restaurant or getting take-out. Some of these dishes fall together in 15 or 20 minutes with ingredients usually on-hand already. So it is not particularly hard to cook healthful vegetarian meals at home. And, it comes with an added benefit: pride in accomplishment.
I know that a significant part of being joyful about cooking vegetarian dishes at home is saying these things more often:
"It turned out!"
"It tastes.... good!!"
I did something right. I did something well. I did something others can enjoy. The pride I've come to feel in that is wonderful. Plus, in my experience with cooking meat dishes and vegetarian dishes, it's a whole lot easier to get the vegetarian ones right (even the more complicated recipes) than the meat ones. And it is never a bad thing to be able to pat yourself on the back more often.
You may have noticed not every one of these revelations has to do strictly with cooking vegetarian meals at home. Most are about simply cooking at home, period. However, I justify this list under this title by saying that cooking at home is a big step to reclaiming your health, and cooking vegetarian dishes is often an interesting exploration of what is possible with grains, legumes, roots, vegetables, fruits and things we may not experiment with enough but which are greatly important to our health -- especially for those of us for which meat is a major part of most meals. So, cooking vegetarian at home is an excellent way to boost your creativity and interest in recipes and new dishes and perhaps by getting excited about cooking, you'll get excited about being more vegetarian than not. I know that this is true at least for me.
Recipes for all of the dishes shown in this article can be found over at The Cooking Project, rolling out now and over the next two weeks.