Persuading others to change their diet can be quite the challenge. If you’ve ever tried to persuade friends, family members, colleagues, or random strangers that animal-derived foods are not necessary, but actually harmful, you’re likely familiar with the resistance you can encounter. Not only might they reject your overtures, but they may end up angry, defensive, and resentful. They also might associate plant-based eating with weakness, or accuse you of being protein-deficient and on the verge of wasting away.
In this case, arguing back is generally not an effective approach. Instead, I’d suggest quietly introducing them to plant-based cooking, without making a big thing out of it, so they can experience its benefits (and lack of downsides) for themselves.
With the rise of plant-based eaters as a consumer segment, there are more delicious and satisfying meat-free options than ever before. You can easily find meat and dairy analogues that will actually fool the omnivores in your life into thinking that they’re eating the “real thing.”
So in this article, we’ll take an unblinking look at the obstacles you may face when introducing plant-based eating to meat-eaters. We’ll explore various “marketing” strategies, and give you a roundup of dishes so mouthwatering, your friends and family won’t even miss the meat.
Why Some People Are Reluctant to Give Plant-Based Foods a Try
When trying to influence others to eat differently, it’s important to understand why they have certain preferences in the first place. So let’s look at why some meat-eaters push back when offered plant-based fare.
First, there’s the simple matter of taste. Many people have grown up with animal proteins as staples in their diet. It’s a familiar taste that they know and love. Meat, especially red meat, has an umami flavor that can be very appealing because it signals the presence of amino acids (the building blocks of protein). The browning effect seen when cooking meat also involves the Maillard reaction, the same reaction that makes toast and caramelized onions taste good.
Preferences for familiar foods also make sense evolutionarily. Before globalized transportation, whatever people got as babies and toddlers was, statistically speaking, what they were likely to encounter for the rest of their lives. It just wouldn’t do for kids growing up in Kerala, Yucatan, or Sichuan province to dislike spicy food.
Misconceptions About Plant-Based Eating
Second, many people harbor misconceptions about plant-based foods. They might believe that plant-based foods lack flavor or won’t satisfy their hunger. Or they may have internalized a prejudice still reinforced by many health professionals today, that plants can’t provide sufficient protein.
You can try to counter these myths with evidence, but I’ve found that people are most amenable to updating their beliefs through exposure, not argument. A great plant-based meal can invalidate beliefs about taste and satiation. And once someone has realized they enjoy plant-based eating, they might be more open to scientific evidence about the health-giving properties of such a diet.
Some misconceptions are more deeply held, and may even be unconscious. One example is that plant-based foods aren’t “manly” because meat is associated with hunting and traditional masculinity.
If someone holds this belief and is open to reexamination, I recommend showing them The Game Changers documentary. The scene where the urologist tests the erectile capacity of three male college athletes after meat- or plant-based meals may convince the manliest man that plants are the way to go!
If the meat-eating man in your life isn’t yet ready to watch a documentary showing that plant-based eating enhances both sexual and athletic performance, I’d again recommend starting with food rather than discussion. As vegan chef and racial justice activist Bryant Terry puts it, “Start with the visceral, move to the cerebral, and end with the political.” By visceral, he means giving them the experience of delicious plant-based food before trying to change their minds.
Going Against Heritage
Another deep-seated belief is that eating plant-based means rejecting and maybe even betraying one’s family and culture of origin. The thinking goes, “What kind of Italian would I be if I didn’t eat meatballs?” Or “What kind of Hungarian would I be without goulash?” etc.
Again, there’s a powerful counterargument, which is that most traditional cultures were largely plant-based until quite recently. Meat may have been eaten on special occasions, or added to dishes as flavoring or a condiment, but the vast majority of most people’s calories came from the plant foods that grew within walking distance of their villages.
But again, I’d wait to spring that argument on someone until you’ve shared a delicious, plant-based version of someone’s favorite family recipe.
Fear of the Unknown
A third reason people might resist trying plant-based dishes is simple fear of the unknown. That’s kind of the flip side of the exposure effect, and it also makes good evolutionary sense. The person who tried that unfamiliar fruit in the wild might have discovered a delicious source of nutrients, or they could have ended up as a cautionary tale about how Virginia creeper berries may look like grapes but can effectively poison you.
The key to overcoming fear of the unknown is to sprinkle in a generous dose of “known.” In this context, that means making plant-based versions of familiar dishes and using flavors, textures, and ingredients that are already familiar and accepted.
Strategies for Introducing Plant-Based Foods
Conversation and contemplation approaches are all very well and good, but at some point, the rubber has to meet the road — or, more accurately, the tofu has to meet the tongue. Here are a few strategies to gently introduce plant-based meals so as not to trigger an omnivore’s resistance.
Themed Plant-Based Days or Meals
In the old-timey times, meat was often reserved for special occasions. You can flip the script by creating special occasions reserved for eating plant-based. The most famous of these is the “Meatless Mondays” initiative, which invites people to sample the plant-based lifestyle once a week. Research shows that people are more likely to adopt a significant change on Mondays, thanks to what behavioral scientists call the “fresh start” effect.
Of course, Monday isn’t the only day of the week with a first letter just begging for an alliterative plant-based pairing. What about Taco Tuesdays, with totally or predominantly plant-based fillings? Or Smoothie Sundays? Three-Bean Salad Thursdays? (OK, that’s stretching it a bit.)
Also known as the “camel’s nose under the tent” strategy, gradually introducing plants into a meat-lover’s diet can take several forms. One is to start by incorporating plant-based ingredients into familiar recipes.
Lentils can sub in for part or all of the ground beef in meat sauces, sloppy joes, and chilies; chickpeas can supplement or replace tuna or eggs in tuna or egg salads; and a combination of walnuts, mushrooms, and beans added to or used instead of ground meat in hamburgers and meatballs are healthier substitutions.
The trick here is to incorporate these substitutions and supplements into foods that the omnivore in your life already knows and likes.
Another way to get meat-eaters to try plant-based options is to have the plants look, feel, and taste like meat. There are some naturally “meaty” plant-based foods that can mimic the texture and umami flavoring of meat. And the world is now awash in plant-based meat analogues that are becoming more and more convincing.
- Tofu & tempeh are both versatile protein sources that can take on various flavors. Made from soybeans, both originate in East Asia and have become increasingly popular in the West.
- Lentils are more familiar to a wider number of people and can be less intimidating than other sources of plant-based protein. They’re super versatile legumes, and you can feature them as the main ingredient in a variety of soups, stews, chilies, tacos, and casseroles.
- Seitan, also known as “wheat meat,” has a texture similar to that of beef or chicken. It’s made from wheat gluten, and takes on the flavor of whatever it’s marinated or cooked in.
- Jackfruit is a tropical fruit known for its meaty texture. It’s often a substitute for pulled pork in vegan versions.
- Mushrooms are great for adding meaty texture and umami flavor. Portobellos are great on the grill, shiitakes can add meat-like depth to Asian dishes (and can make a base for delicious plant-based bacon), and some varieties of oyster mushrooms taste a bit like seafood (hence the name).
- Plant-based meat brands such as Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, and an increasingly growing field of competitors can also provide great transitional foods, as the taste and texture are typically very familiar to meat-eaters. They do have their limits in terms of health, though; so at some point, you may want to phase them out in favor of more whole-food alternatives.
For tips on helping family members move toward plant-based eating, we’ve got a whole other article for you.
Scrumptious Swaps: 7 Meat-Free Meals Even Carnivores Will Crave
Prepare your taste buds for an incredible dining experience made entirely possible through plants! With so many plant-based ingredients that can double as meat substitutes, you’ve got nothing to lose by giving them a try. The key to making a meal crave-worthy for meat eaters is balancing rich umami and savory flavor with a hearty and chewy texture. Together, these flavors and textures can transform even the humblest of plant ingredients into an oft-requested recipe!
Mushrooms are often paired with meat to further bring out both ingredients’ umami flavors. But mushrooms also make for a great meat replacement on their own in a plant-based diet. Mushrooms’ juicy, meaty texture and savory flavor give them a similar mouthfeel to meat, albeit a much healthier version. Mushrooms have zero cholesterol, trans-fatty acids, and saturated fat. And they have tons of nutrition such as B vitamins, selenium, copper, and vitamin D (if sun-exposed). Plant-based and meat eaters alike will find this “steak” sandwich just as indulgent as a meat-based version due to the delicious marinade that infuses the mushrooms.
Jackfruit Carnitas Pizza is a great plant-based recipe for the meat eater in your life. It’s piled high with shredded Mexican-spiced jackfruit, sweet pineapple, red onion, and (optional) jalapeño for just a bit of heat. This pizza tastes just like you are biting into a smoky meat lovers pizza — except it’s all plants! Jackfruit mimics the texture of meat and takes on any flavors you add to it, making it a versatile ingredient that is perfect for a “meaty” pizza. We think your meat-loving friends and family members will be extra happy with the textures, flavors, and nutrition in this comforting, meat-free meal.
These All American (BEAN and BEET) Burgers are big on taste as well as health-promoting nutrients. They’re moist, hearty, and brimming with healthy doses of iron, vitamin A, B vitamins, fiber, and omega-3 fatty acids — not to mention flavor. No need to reach for the meat with these beauties around. Meat eaters can enjoy these tasty bean and beet burgers grill-side, and relish in the fact that their body will be as happy as their belly is!
One-Pot Tempeh Sausage Pasta makes a delicious plant-based swap for a traditional spaghetti Bolognese dinner. Tempeh is a hearty plant protein that takes on any flavor you add to it. In this case, savory herbs and spices transform tempeh into meaty sausage crumbles. The result is a healthy and delicious meat substitute that improves even more with the addition of red tomato sauce and pasta. No one will even notice they’re not eating actual meat!
This Korean-Inspired TLT with Pickled Veggies and Spicy Mayo is a unique twist on a classic BLT, with tofu standing in for bacon. Protein-rich tofu is marinated with lots of garlic and ginger, slathered with spicy Korean-inspired mayo, and piled high with pickled veggies. Once all the fixings are on, chewy tofu will take on all the various flavors used in this dish, which makes for a delicious mouthful. Don’t be surprised if this becomes your new favorite sandwich!
The easy-peasy, plant-based chorizo in this recipe shares the smoky and savory flavors of traditional chorizo. But this version is exponentially more nutritious since it’s made with walnuts, lentils, and mushrooms. It’s a delightful meat substitute for all sorts of recipes. In this taco bowl, the chorizo adds so much wholesome flavor, texture, and nutrition that you’ll happily forget about its meat-based counterpart. What’s more, it is simple to assemble once you have the chorizo and whole grains ready to go.
Jamaican Jerk Tofu with Sweet Pineapple Salsa is a showstopper! The jerk tofu is a delight to both plant-based and meat eaters who enjoy exciting flavors and exploring diverse cultural cuisines. Tofu is generously rubbed with a flavorful Jamaican jerk spice blend and baked until slightly crispy, then topped with juicy and sweet pineapple salsa. This dish is equal parts sweet and spicy with a familiar meaty texture.
Give Plants a Chance!
Plant-based eating challenges traditional Western notions of what a meal should be, and so may be hard to “swallow” for people brought up on meat-based diets. But it’s not necessary — or even effective — to hit people over the head with arguments to go plant-based. There are several behavioral and culinary strategies that can make people more willing to explore plant-based options.
Ultimately, you just might find that the people in your life start asking, “Where’s the beet?” instead of “Where’s the beef?” as they discover the flavorful possibilities and positive impact of a plant-based lifestyle.
Tell us in the comments:
If you’ve become more plant-based over time, what were some of the dishes and food strategies that helped you transition?
What are some meat-based meals that you can use to introduce plant-based options?
What has and hasn’t worked in terms of getting the people around you to eat less meat?
Featured Image: iStock.com/vaaseenaa