Cutting down on animal protein does more than slash calories—it lowers your cholesterol and blood pressure, as well as your risks of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. The vegetables, legumes, and whole grains that will replace the meat help shield you from developing these chronic diseases, too. “Plants are nature’s pharmacy,” says Kate Geagan, RD, author of Go Green Get Lean ($5, amazon.com). “They’re brimming with protective nutrients and antioxidants that you just can’t get from animals.” You don’t have to go full vegetarian—our plan ups your plant protein without depriving you of that Saturday-night steak.
Week 1: Mix up your protein
“Meat can have a place on your plate if you’re passionate about that—just shift the proportions,” says Geagan. Here’s how to nail the balancing act.
Shop for substitutes: Stock up on at least three foods that can replace meat in many dishes. “Mushrooms, beans, and chickpeas are my go-tos,” says Elle Penner, RD, a dietitian and blogger.
Combine proteins: In as many meals as you can this week, swap half the meat with an equal serving of plant protein; mix chickpeas with half the usual amount of chicken, say, or black beans with half the ground beef.
Trim the bacon: Reduce your intake of sausages and bacon big-time. “They contain a ton of sodium, preservatives, and fat,” says Penner.
Week 2: Embrace meatless meals
Your goal this week is to add in five purely vegetarian dishes. (Need ideas? Here are more than 50 of our favorite vegetarian recipes.)
Tweak your lunch order: Instead of a meatball sub or chicken cutlet, opt for falafel in a pita. On salads, trade chicken or fish for lentils and edamame.
Convert your favorite dinner: If you drool over stir-fry, make it with tofu (or twice the veggies) rather than chicken. Burger lover? Ditch the beef for a quinoa patty. Try the quinoa-chickpea version in this quinoa burger recipe.
RELATED: 53 Vegetarian Recipes We Love
Week 3: Make it routine
“By week three, you should have cut your meat consumption in half,” says Geagan. Now root your new flexitarian habits into your life for good.
Prep ahead: Having a few veggie meals ready to reheat takes out the guesswork when days get hectic. Penner’s tip: Make a big batch of vegetarian chili on Sundays.
Add umami: This savory flavor (found in tomatoes and Parmesan cheese, among other foods) helps bring plant dishes to life.
Be a nighttime vegetarian: Aim to eliminate meat from dinner on weekdays. “It’s an easy way to tally up five meatless meals per week,” says Geagan.
Keep it fresh: Going forward, sample at least one new vegetarian recipe each week so your taste buds stay hooked.