What does it mean to ‘use meat as a garnish’?

Here are some tips on reducing the quantity of meat used in recipes.

For people looking to reduce meat in their diets, a common recommendation is to “use meat as a garnish.” But what exactly does that mean? Meat will never be a garnish in the traditional sense of the word, like a sprig of parsley or a squeeze of lemon. You're probably not going to add a ‘sprinkle of sausage' or a ‘steak twist' on top of a salad. But there are other delicious ways to reduce a meal's meat content.

My family and I have not given up meat entirely, but we've slashed the amount we eat to roughly 30 to 50 percent of what it used to be. In doing so, I've learned a lot about stretching meat further and would like to share some of my tips below. (I was also inspired by a great article in Food & Wine on this topic.)

1. Add it to soups.

Soup is one of those magical foods that's so much more than the sum of its parts. For example, I bought a six-pack of sausages last week. If I'd roasted them whole, they would have disappeared in a single meal. Instead, I used three in a big pot of minestrone soup and, several days later, two in a pot of split pea soup. Each of those pots fed us two meals with lunch leftovers, meaning five people got more than four full meals out of six sausages.

2. Cook it with beans.

I once lived in northeastern Brazil, where a pot of stewed black beans is served with rice for every lunch and dinner. Sometimes it's plain, sometimes it has a bit of meat added, and on Sundays it's turned into meaty feijoada. But that's where I learned that a very small amount of pork (bacon, sausage, smoked hock, pancetta, etc.) can infuse a full pot of beans with fabulous flavor and that it can make a satisfying meal when served with rice and sautéed greens.

3. Buy meat with bones.

When shopping for chicken (a rarity because the locally-raised meat I buy is so expensive), I always get bone-in pieces or a whole chicken. After dinner, the bones go into a container in the freezer and eventually I make chicken stock. This wonderful stock can be used for brothy soups, risotto, rice pilaf, or other mains that do not have any added meat but are still loaded with flavor. In other words, the bones allow me to squeeze an extra meal out of my purchase.

4. Mix meat with plant-based protein or legumes.

If a recipe calls for ground meat, such as spaghetti sauce, meatballs, meatloaf, kima curry, dumplings, or burrito filling, I automatically cut it 50/50 with a non-meat alternative, such as soy ground round, cooked lentils, mashed chickpeas or beans, mashed tofu, or crumbled tempeh. It can change the consistency slightly, but it does not affect the taste. Most people don't notice.

5. Create a base from another ingredient.

Then the meat goes on top. This could be a grain or leafy salad with a bit of shredded chicken, sliced steak, or smoked fish on top. It could be a bowl of pasta with a small amount of bacon, egg, and cheese mixed in for a carbonara. It could be scalloped potatoes, macaroni and cheese, or cauliflower gratin with some bits of ham added, or fried rice with vegetables and leftover meat, or a Mexican bean filling with a scoop of cooked ground beef stirred in.

In most of these examples, the meat isn't even necessary, but if you're having trouble cutting it out completely, these are good ways to reduce it drastically, while not feeling like you're missing out.

Here are some tips on reducing the quantity of meat used in recipes.