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For the next 40 days, I am a vegetarian. This — giving up meat for Lent — has become a tradition of mine. It started a couple years ago when my family got involved in Operation Rice Bowl through my kids’ school. Operation Rice Bowl is a program that helps people connect with people in need around the world by inviting participants to “… fast in solidarity with those who hunger; learn more about our global community and the challenges of poverty overseas; and give sacrificial contributions to those in need.” We aren’t officially participating this year, but we do have our own little family version. Every day the kids put one toy or book in a box for the poor, and the money we save by not eating meat (or candy in the kids’ case) goes to a famine-relief organization.

Okay so this long-winded and slightly preachy update on my plans for for Lent is not the point of this post. And even though there’s really no question that a mostly plant-based diet is better for you and the planet, I’m not going to urge anyone to become a vegetarian, even for 40 days. After giving up meat for five weeks last year, however, I did learn firsthand that meat is not essential to a healthy diet or even a fun, happy life. Aside from the occasional urge to snatch a piece of bacon off my son’s breakfast plate, I didn’t miss it very much. In fact, I hardly touched the lamb my mom made for Easter. The icing on the cake was that I lost five pounds without even trying. Although we did go back to eating some meat after Lent, we’ve really tried to be more mindful about it and appreciate it. I now think of meat as a side dish or flavor accent, which means the bulk of the meal is plants.

Which (finally) leads me to the point of this post.

One of the best parts of Operation Rice Bowl is that the organization’s website has a huge list of interesting yet super-simple vegetarian recipes from Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean, Asia, and Latin America. We cooked most of the recipes last year and, aside from a few bombs (Gambian Yam Balls were actually worse than they sound, and Nigerian Okra with Cornmeal Porridge did not go ever well with the kids.), they were fantastic.

One of the issues I’ve had in the past with going vegetarian is that so many meatless recipes seem exceedingly complicated and frankly don’t sound very good. They often use things like tempeh or other soy-based proteins, which I don’t love. So I end up eating lots of pasta and salads. The ORB dishes — such as Congolese Beans & Greens, Ghanian Ground-nut Stew, Cambodian Sour Soup, and Honduran Plantain Turnovers — are easy to make from ingredients that are readily available. And they are surprisingly satisfying, balanced, and varied.

I’m excited about making a few of my favorites, including Burundian Spinach Stew and Haitian Rice & Beans, in the next few weeks. As I do, I’ll post my versions of the recipes. If you get inspired to see what they eat in Cameroon and make something from the list, please let me know!

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One of the things I’ve always tried to share with this blog is my belief that if we make food a priority — i.e. adopt the mindset that delicious, healthy meals are not a luxury — it would do us all a whole lot of good. I think just getting people out of the drive-thru and into the kitchen is a solid first step toward curing the ills caused by the typical American diet. Through his numerous cookbooks and New York Times column, “The Minimalist,” Mark Bittman, one of my foodie idols, makes cooking something fabulous, fresh, and nourishing more often than breaking out the Hamburger Helper seem totally doable. With the voice of a real eater — and in a way that’s accessible — he is also outspoken about why this is important. He is definitely at the forefront of the debate we Americans are currently having about food and our health and the environment — and how all those things are connected.

Last night Bittman spoke at the Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver. He was there promoting his new book, The Food Matters Cookbook, but he didn’t talk about recipes. Instead, he spoke about why food matters (which is the title of his previous book — a book that radically changed that way I eat and think about food, by the way). Food Matters is kind of a manifesto on how our diet affects our health and the health of the planet, with really helpful recipes and other genius ideas for how to change it. The premise is basically this: We (By “we” he’s talking about Americans generally) eat too much meat, processed simple carbohydrates, and junk food; and if we want to be healthy and leave our children a healthy planet, we need to change the way we eat.

The real cost of cheap food.

While food these days seems cheap (Bittman pointed out that Americans spend 7% of their incomes on food, far less than anyone else in the world), its real costs — to the environment and our health — are staggering. The overproduction of meat, processed carbs, and junk is really, really inefficient and is a major contributor to environmental problems such as deforestation and health problems such as obesity and heart disease. And although food seems abundant to us here in the USA, our diet is simply not sustainable; the resources (land, water, oil) required to produce the food we eat are finite and dwindling. When you factor in the impact of our industrial food production on developing countries, things get really unpleasant.

So, other than getting thoroughly depressed, what can you do? Bittman is strongly in favor of a soda tax, which seems to make sense — I mean, soda, like cigarettes, has no nutritional value, is marketed to young people, and it contributes to health problems and deaths, so making it slightly more expensive can’t be a bad thing, can it? But beyond that, I don’t think we can expect our government to legislate what we eat (nor do I think it should, actually) or force corporations to forgo the huge profits they earn by selling Froot Loops and Hot Pockets. Like it or not, that’s not the American way.

Eat like someone who’s not actually insane.

What we all can do, however, is engage in what Bittman calls “sane eating.” Sane eating means choosing quality over convenience and quantity (quantity is obviously not a problem for most of us; the weight of the average American has increased 20% since 1950, Bittman said). Sane eating means not using “I’m too busy” as an excuse for not making a healthy dinner. (If you’re really that busy, let’s talk — there are plenty of ways you can still make something fresh and nutritious in very little time, plus, as Bittman pointed out, what is quicker than eating an apple?) Sane eating means reducing your intake of processed, packaged foods in favor of more fresh, natural ones (“Healthy processed food is an oxymoron,” Bittman said.); it means cutting out junk food (what Bittman calls “UFOs” — Unidentifiable Foodlike Objects) and, yes, soda. And sane eating means drastically reducing your consumption of meat (One fact that got me last night: Americans eat almost 10 billion animals per year, most of which are raised and slaughtered under abysmally inhumane conditions.). For Bittman, it seems like sane eating means eating lots and lots of apples.

Just might keep the diabetes, global warming, tight jeans, as well as the doctor away.

But, being sane, Bittman doesn’t suggest we all become vegans either. He calls himself a “less meat-atarian,” and his personal program is to eat nothing but fruits, veggies, whole grains and legumes (i.e. no animal products) until dinnertime, then he eats whatever he wants for dinner. He has lost over 35 pounds in the last three years, by the way. But, he stresses, his program is probably not for everyone. Do what you can to reduce your meat intake. Instead of meat being the main course, make it a side dish or even a flavoring. Or have one or more meat-free days every week. It doesn’t have to be complicated, or even super drastic, to make a difference.

Meat: It’s more than what’s for dinner.

Since this is my blog, I thought it would be appropriate to share a little of my own opinions and experiences with eating meat. First, I get that the whole subject of eating meat is fraught with moral, political, health, and plenty of other complex issues, and I don’t claim to understand all of them. However, looking back on the recipes I’ve shared here, I realized that most of them are meat free or almost meat free. That wasn’t entirely a conscious decision, but I’m not known for my fabulous pot roasts. My meat recipes are just not my favorites, I guess (well, except for garlic Crock Pot chicken and my killer turkey burgers on English muffin buns…). We just don’t eat all that much meat around here, and when we do, it’s pretty basic. And not pretty to look at, either.

I do know that this year for lent, I gave up meat completely and didn’t miss it at all. Plus, I lost weight. Simultaneously my husband got weirded out about industrial meat production (mostly from a health perspective but also because it’s inhumane) and decided to be come a “unless I killed it or know who killed it-atarian,” which, as you can imagine, greatly reduces his (and our) meat intake. Thankfully for him, he’s a hunter and fisherman, and he has never been that big of a meat eater. So we eat wild game, wild fish, and occasionally meat from the farmer’s market. It’s a bit more expensive, but if you’re eating less of it (see Sane Eating above), you’ll still probably come out ahead.

I don’t think meat eating itself is morally wrong, even though I love animals. I am, however, kind of against torture. If you haven’t done so, maybe take a few minutes to educate yourself about the treatment of animals on industrial farms (A good place to start is by reading Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, but only if you’re not squeamish.). If you do that and think about those animals’ life and death, as well as the consequences for your own health and the planet, it might just give you pause long enough to reconsider that pork chop. Or perhaps it will motivate you to make the Pasta with Seared Roma Tomatoes and Ricotta from Bittman’s amazing-looking new cookbook. That book’s 500 recipes should keep you eating sanely — and happily, too — for a very long time.

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