I haven't made many self-improvements in quarantine, but leaning into vegetarianism is one I hope to hang on to.

By Margaret Eby
May 21, 2020
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I’m not someone who believes that this period of self-isolation and quarantine is a way to self-improve. Treating a national lockdown spurred by a pandemic as a space for productivity is the same as pretending unemployment is vacation. The time isn’t really yours if it’s eaten up with anxiety and fear. This isn’t spare time; it’s life in suspension. We’re all in various states of distress, some much more urgently than others. Trying to implement lifestyle changes in the middle of all that can be too overwhelming. Cling to whatever gets you through this time healthy and sane, and that is more than enough.

But despite all of that, I have found myself eating less meat these days. In fact, I’ve been gradually cutting down on my meat consumption even before the pandemic. Partly it’s because of the mounting evidence of how damaging raising animals can be for the environment, and the increasing dangers of climate change. I know that individual shifts in diet aren't necessarily as meaningful as overhauling the systems responsible for making meat cheap and plentiful, but it’s still a small thing I can feel good about. I’m no vegetarian or vegan guru—plenty of people have written more meaningfully and deeply about the shift to a diet that’s more vegetables than animals, and I encourage you to read them on the subject. But when the first wave of lockdowns came down in New York City, when I did my grocery trips to stock up on flour and rice and beans, I walked down the meat aisle and decided: Well, no. Here’s my chance to just not buy meat, and adjust to that being the norm. 

I’m not super strict about it. When I found a few slices of pancetta in the back of my fridge on week four, I fried them and ate them over my Brussels sprouts pasta meal with gusto. When I ordered takeout the other day I went for chicken khao soi, one of my all-time favorite dishes. For me, the goal isn’t so much to be perfectly meat-free, but rather to be really intentional about when I eat meat, so that the default is meals without it, and the rarity is a sprinkle of meat here and there

Now that coronavirus has laid bare just how fragile our current food systems are, and how dangerous meat-packing plants can be for their employees, it feels like an especially good time to cut back on meat, and to support fair working conditions for everyone who labors along the line to get groceries to my fridge, from delivery workers to farmers to folks packed shoulder to shoulder along the line at a chicken processing plant. With meat shortages looming anyway and the abundance of summer produce on the horizon, taking a turn towards a more vegetable-centered diet seems practical, too.

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Raid the Spice Cabinet

If that sounds like something you want to do, too, here are a few things I did that helped ease the transition. First, making liberal use of my spice cabinet. I’m a diehard Burlap & Barrel evangelist, and so I had very good spices to jazz up my vegetable-based meals. Experimenting with spice combinations helped avoid the trap of being bored with the same vegetable preparations over and over. Taco seasoning is amazing on whole roasted cauliflower, for example. Sumac and Za’atar give everything a little brightness. Got herbs? Make a quick green sauce and liven up any vegetable situation.

Don’t worry about sticking to rules, just try what you think might taste good and you’ll probably be right. If you miss the smokiness of meat, smoked paprika is going to be your pal. If you’re going for that deep saltiness that you can find in anchovies or fish sauce, a dollop of miso is going to help you out. 

Photo by Jennifer Causey / Food Styling by Rishon Hanners / Prop Styling by Sarah Elizabeth Cleveland

It Helps to Like Beans

Rather than going for meat-imitation products, I went hard in the bean department. I’m a known bean evangelist, but they really are versatile, filling, and wonderful. I eat them on toast, in soups, in pasta, and blended into dips. It’s an easy default to have them around, whether they're from a can or cooked from dry. I haven’t dabbled much in the world of tofu and tempeh yet, but those are other great options for protein and fiber that can act as the centerpiece of a meal otherwise occupied by meat. 

Caitlin Bensel

Mushrooms in Everything

I haven’t really missed the texture of meat, but that unctuous umami flavor is something I often want. For that I’ve found having a bunch of dried mushrooms is really helpful to anchor a vegetable-and-rice meal. Crushed up and steeped with boiling water, they make a rich, earthy stock that can be swapped in for some of the water when cooking rice, and you can also plump them up in water and throw them into a stir-fry in the last few minutes of cooking.

Marcus Nilsson

Take Notes from Vegetarian Cultures

Of course, there are many, many people around the world who eat no meat, or meat in very limited quantities. There’s a long history of vegetarian cuisine from all over the world, but I’ve personally found food from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka has been a huge help and inspiration. Saag paneer and all kinds of dal have been in the regular rotation for me in the last couple months. I’ve also been making Madhur Jaffrey’s excellent chickpeas cooked in Moghlai-style, and this Red Lentil Dal with Asparagus and Tamarind

Your diet is your business. But if you feel like this is a good time to make the shift, give beans a chance.