How to Cut Down on Meat, Even If You're Not Cutting It Out Entirely

Using a small amount of meat is a good way to cut back while still infusing your meal with meaty flavor. 

As a butter fanatic, hamburger enthusiast, and a food writer, I doubt there will be a time that I’ll totally cut out meat and dairy products. But I can’t ignore the mounting evidence that cutting back on eating meat can be beneficial. It has the potential to save money and possibly promote health, but the biggest motivator, for me, is the climate crisis. The meat and dairy industries, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, are responsible for 14.5% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions each year. Even if I probably won’t become a strict vegan or vegetarian, cutting down on meat feels like an achievable way to reduce my carbon footprint, and I know that I’m not alone in that goal. I want to eat meat in an intentional way, rather than have it be the default option for lunch.

This isn’t a new strategy. In the aughts, Mark Bittman popularized flexitarianism, meaning mostly eating plants, with a bit of meat and dairy on occasion. But the less-but-not-no-meat idea isn’t anything new. It’s been around for centuries, not because of global warming, but because meat hasn’t always been as cheap or readily available as it is now in America. Stretching a little bit of sausage or bacon for a crowd to cut down on costs is a time-honored strategy, as is using meat as a seasoning or a garnish rather than having a lamb chop or T-bone as the centerpiece of dinner.

If you’re not ready to turn vegan or vegetarian, you can ease your way in by breaking up meatless meals with a few go-tos that use a less-is-more approach to meat and easily cut down on your intake. Plus, reducing your meat consumption doesn’t mean that you have to give up on meals tasting good — not by a long shot. Here are a few ways to cut down on meat, even if you’re not going to cut it out altogether.

White Bean and Ham Soup

Diana Chistruga

Use a ham hock or Parmesan rind in soup

Looking to infuse umami flavor into a mostly vegetarian soup? Adding a bit of meat or chicken broth is a great way to do so. A quick shortcut is to toss a ham hock or a ham bone into the soup at the start so it makes its own stock as it cooks, imparting a lot of flavor with a relatively small amount of animal product. This Smoked Ham Hock and Lentil Soup calls for two 10-ounce hocks, but cutting that in half would give a similar meatiness without the additional heft, and you can freeze the other half to use in another batch. Smoked ham works in the same way in this White Bean and Ham Soup (and you can cut back on the amount of ham there, too). If you want to steer clear of meat altogether, you can also use Parmesan rinds for a similar effect.

Spinach Salad with Bacon Vinaigrette
© Tina Rupp

Put bacon in a vinaigrette

To infuse a salad with the salty, hearty qualities of meat without loading the bowl down with chunks of steak or grilled chicken, a bacon vinaigrette is the way to go. Three slices of bacon go a long way in this Spinach Salad with Warm Bacon Vinaigrette, as does the small amount of pungent blue cheese. You can reduce or eliminate the sliced ham topping if you'd like.

Spinach Pasta Carbonara
© Roland Persson

Go for a little bit of bacon and a lot of pasta

Speaking of bacon, pasta is also a great way to incorporate a small amount of bacon into a larger, less-meaty dish. Classic examples of this method include Bucatini Amatriciana, which uses pancetta alongside tomatoes, carrot, and herbs for a hearty, aromatic sauce, or Spinach Pasta Carbonara, which mixes guanciale with egg yolks and cheese for a rich, satisfying dish. A little bit of bacon goes a long way when cut with vegetables, too, like in Orecchiette with Brussels Sprouts and Bacon or Spaghetti with Escarole and Bacon.

Red Beans and Rice Recipe
Victor Protasio

Add more protein with beans

Red beans and rice, the classic New Orleans dish, is a meal that was typically made on Monday with the leftovers of Sunday’s dinner. The ratio of meat to other ingredients here means that you have much more vegetables, beans, and rice than sausage, but the flavor properties of the meat are still present in every bite. A similar ratio is employed in these spicy, savory Charro Beans.

Mapo Tofu

© Fredrika Stjärne

Deploy a small amount of meat with tofu

Many Southeast Asian dishes use meat to their advantage by including a small amount to flavor the other ingredients, like in mapo tofu, which uses about half a pound of ground beef or pork to a pound or more of tofu. A simple stir fry is another good way to try this out by loading up on vegetables and scrimping on the meat content, as in Pork and Tofu Stir Fry.

Farro-and-Sausage Parmigiano
© John Kernick

Make meat go further with grains

Any grain is a good way to make the most of a small amount of meat, but rice is a particularly easy go-to. Use a bit of pancetta in risotto or a small amount of seafood, chicken, pork, or beef in a classic fried rice. Pilaf, pulao, and other rice dishes are also good ways to use a minimal portion of meat over a larger meal, like in this Chicken Rice Pilaf. Not a fan of rice? Try using farro, quinoa, or millet instead, as in this Farro and Sausage Parmigiano. Using the right meat for maximum impact means you can use less of it without missing out on the flavor of a typically meaty dish — a good thing for the planet and for your appetite.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles