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Pricey meat is forcing Americans toward vegetarian meals

If you're part of the 43 percent of young Americans adjusting their diet to be more plant-based, here some easy and delicious recipe ideas.

If you are a meat-eater, there's a good chance your eating habits have changed somewhat during the coronavirus pandemic. Food prices have been going up over the past few weeks and animal products have seen the biggest increase. Meat, poultry, fish, and eggs went up by 4.3 percent from March to April, which the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says is the biggest increase in food prices in almost 50 years.

This price spike, along with widespread shortages in stores (which are, of course, tied to the price increases), has forced many people to adjust their usual meal plans. When you can't find ground beef or chicken breasts, you have to make something else, and in many cases that's resulting in vegetarian and plant-based options.

National Geographic, together with Morning Consult, conducted a poll recently that found 33 percent of Americans are preparing more meatless meals as a result of higher prices and limited options at the store. In National Geographic's daily newsletter, science editor Victoria Jaggard wrote:

“Younger Americans are more likely to be exploring vegetarian options, with 43 percent of those between 18 and 34 saying they are adjusting their menus. Just a quarter of older Americans — 26 percent of respondents over 65 — say they are going meatless more often.”

As someone who eats meat occasionally and considers myself a “reducetarian“, I know how daunting it can be to come up with vegetarian alternatives to meals. Meat is undeniably convenient, adding loads of flavor and volume to meals, but I've learned over the years that beans, lentils, eggs, nuts, and soy-based alternatives are similarly useful and delicious. It just takes some practice, planning, and a bit more imagination to use them.

Because so many readers might be struggling to adjust to a new pandemic diet, I want to share some of my go-to vegetarian recipes for quick weeknight meals. These are the recipes I make when I don't feel like spending two hours cooking, when I would have tossed a pound of ground beef in a pan in the past, but now do not – mainly for environmental reasons, but also for ethical and health motives. And now many of you will add pandemic shortages to that list.

The first thing I'd recommend is getting your hands on a copy of “The America's Test Kitchen Complete Vegetarian Cookbook,” which I was sent several years ago to review and have continued to use daily every since. It is huge, comprehensive, thorough, and reliably delicious. With that book, I never seem to run out of ideas for great, easy meals, and it has proven its worth above all the other vegetarian and vegan cookbooks I've tried. Most of my favorite vegetarian recipes come from it.

But even if you can't buy or borrow the book, I'm sure you can find versions of the following recipes online or in other cookbooks. The point is to guide you toward better, meatless dinnertime ideas. Please share any of your favorites in the comments below. I'm always happy to add to my repertoire of fast and filling vegetarian mains.

1. Vegetarian pad thai: Although it traditionally has shrimp and pork in it, you can make a fabulous vegetarian pad thai with crispy fried tofu and egg. You won't even notice the absence of meat.

2. Black bean burgers: If you have a can or two of black beans in the pantry, plus a few additions, you can mix up a batch of delicious patties that fry up in a pan and can be eaten like a regular burger – on a bun with sliced tomato, onion, and whatever condiments you like.

3. Bean burritos: I buy a pound of soy ground round every week at the store, which is a great beef substitute. It adds chewiness and body to bean-based fillings for burritos, which my kids love. I use whatever beans I have – black, pinto, chickpeas, kidney – and fry with onions and spices (chipotles in adobo sauce, if possible) before adding the soy. Top with pickled red onions, cheese, and sour cream.

4. Hearty grain salads: These are a great summery dish, endlessly flexible based on the ingredients you have. Cook quinoa, brown rice, bulgur, couscous, barley, etc. and let cool on a tray. Mix in pre-cooked vegetables, toasted nuts, seeds, minced herbs, and vinaigrette. Top with feta, goat cheese, or grilled halloumi.

5. Saag paneer: I got this recipe from Madhur Jaffrey's “Vegetarian India” cookbook (which I also adore) and it has become a family standby, made with steamed blended spinach. A friend of mine swears by spinach curry made with feta cheese, which I have not yet tried, but I did see a delicious-looking recipe in Bon Appétit. Apparently you can also do it with tofu. Serve with basmati rice and/or naan.

6. Dahi toasts: While we're on the topic of Indian food, these are a version of grilled cheese, but oh so much better! A spiced yogurt filling is sandwiched between hefty slices of sourdough, fried in oil till crispy golden, and dipped in cilantro chutney. Give it a shot. You'll have a new favorite.

7. Felafel: If you have a food processor, homemade felafel are pretty easy to made. You blitz pre-soaked chickpeas with spices, then form into balls for frying. You can bypass part of this process by buying felafel mixes in the Middle Eastern section of the grocery store, and they're simple and delicious, too. Serve in a pita with salad and tahini sauce.

If you're part of the 43 percent of young Americans adjusting their diet to be more plant-based, here some easy and delicious recipe ideas.