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December 17, 2019 | 6 minute read

Plant-Forward Eating During the Holidays

Holidays can pose challenges when it comes to food. Whether you’re the one moving toward more plant-forward eating habits or you’re trying to accommodate diverse eating patterns as you host friends and family, it can be overwhelming. For some people, plant-based diets mean “plants-only,” and for others it’s “plant-forward.” The good news is that the transition to including more plant foods doesn’t need to be as challenging as it seems.

various green vegetables

Start with what is Familiar

Plant-forward meals don’t have to be drastic changes from your usual choices. If there are flavors or types of dishes that are most comfortable for you, use those as your starting point as you move nutrient-rich plant foods into the spotlight.

  • Keep the flavor of dishes like stew or lasagna that you love, and tweak proportions of the ingredients. If you’re aiming for more plants, and not necessarily plants-only, simply give the usual vegetables a larger role or add some new ones.
  • Some vegetables can be an especially good addition for texture or flavor when you reduce or omit meat or poultry. Add “umami” flavor with dried tomatoes, mushrooms, winter squash (like butternut or acorn), sweet potatoes, olives, corn or toasted nuts. Add hearty texture with carrots, chickpeas, cannellini beans or artichoke hearts (frozen makes it so easy).
  • Stir miso, tomato paste or canned pumpkin into sauce for a richer flavor and texture.
  • If meat had been the flavor highlight of a dish, increase other flavorful ingredients as you reduce or omit the meat. Slowly sauté onions in olive oil so they develop a brown color that signals a delectable caramelized flavor. Increase the amount of herbs or garlic that you add.

Save Money with Meatless Protein in Your Pantry

For meals that satisfy hunger and provide important nutrients, as you reduce meat, include more plant foods with protein. It’s easy to make last minute adjustments in what you prepare when you keep a stash of protein-rich plant foods on hand.

  • Stock up on cans of black beans, lentils, chickpeas, and white beans (Great Northern, navy, cannellini). Choose options with no salt added if you can. Otherwise, open cans into a strainer and rinse so you reduce the sodium by about 40 percent.
  • Dried beans are even more economical. If you have a slow cooker, instant pot or pressure cooker, their longer cooking time needn’t be a burden. Or choose dried lentils. They cook in only 15 to 20 minutes after you add them to boiling water, and split red lentils need only 5 to 7 minutes. If you plan to add salt, do it after cooking – if salt is added before, dried beans and lentils become tough.
  • Tofu in shelf-stable packages is easy to keep on hand so you can add cubes to stir-fries and soups or crumble into a casserole or lasagna. Even if you get tofu and tempeh from the refrigerator section, the label’s sell-by date will probably show that you can safely keep it on hand for a month or more before opening.

If there’s one tip most important for making plant-based eating work, I encourage focusing less on what you’re skipping, and more on making the plant foods you eat and serve both healthful and delicious.

Plant-Forward Flexibility

Think outside the box for ways you can keep traditions you treasure while providing welcome to those you cherish.

  • Are there certain meat dishes that are traditional favorites? Rather than getting and preparing the same amount as always, recognize that many people today prefer smaller meat portions. Don’t pay for and take time preparing more than you’ll likely need. You can make people who don’t eat meat feel welcome by offering an alternative option, too. For example, a colorful bean and vegetable main dish salad could be the main dish for plants-only eaters, and round out a satisfying plate for people who want meat in a limited portion only.
  • To accommodate a mixture of eating preferences, think about ways that you can serve meat as an optional add-on. For example, instead of cooking pasta dishes with meat in them, make them all-plant or plant-and-dairy, depending on everyone’s preferences. Offer meat in a sauce that some may add, and have the same sauce without the meat for others. This bit of flexibility is a minor effort and allows you to please all who are with you.
  • Offer dishes that let everyone build their own personal dish, adding the vegetables they like best, as well as having the option to add or omit the meat, cheese and yogurt. A taco or burrito “bar” is a fun way to accomplish this or the current popular trend for grain-and-veggie bowls. Provide add-on’s like cheese, meat and fish for people to choose or not as they prefer.
  • If you’re afraid plant-based meals will seem dull, think again! Traditional dishes from Italy, Greece, Asia, Morocco and other flavorful cuisines around the world include many beloved plant-only and plant-forward dishes. A quick Internet search might even provide ideas for some that would make a fun variation on one of your traditional holiday dishes.

Plant-Based and Your Budget

Meat is one of the most expensive items in your grocery cart. Enjoying a few meatless meals each week and making your eating choices more plant-focused could provide a welcome relief for your bank balance during a time of year that can involve a lot of extra expenses.

  • As you explore more plant-based protein sources, don’t feel compelled to use frozen convenience vegetarian meals or meat alternatives. You’ll get more bang for your buck by exploring ways to include plain dried beans, lentils and soy foods combined with other simple ingredients.
  • On the other hand, removing or reducing the money you spend on meat could make room to purchase some higher-priced plant foods that make a valuable nutritional or flavor contribution. Nuts, whole grains like farro or whole wheat couscous, almond or cashew butter to use as the basis for a sauce or dressing, and a delicious extra virgin olive oil aren’t necessary but can add a special touch to a meal.

Whether for holiday meals or day-to-day eating all year long, there are many different ways to put into action the AICR recommendation for eating a diet rich in whole grains, vegetables, fruits and beans. Whether you and those with whom you eat choose plant-based eating that’s plants-only or plant-forward, focus on supporting one another in healthy choices  and enjoying time together.

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