As most people know, I follow a dietary pattern that is best described as “mostly vegetarian”, and I’m currently moving towards a “mostly vegan” diet. I’ve had some people ask or comment on certain foods that I choose, particularly meat substitutes. Yes, they are generally highly processed foods that are made to resemble animal flesh (which I am supposedly avoiding). So why on earth would I, a dietitian, eat these things. Well, Here are some things I love about meat substitute products:
- They are convenient. I’m no fan of convenience foods, but every once in a while it’s 6 o’clock and you just got home and the toddler is tantrumming and the meal I planned will take another hour to make but we all need to eat something substantial NOW. They are also easily portable and require minimal skill to prepare, making them excellent options to bring when attending cookouts, barbecues, and when packing bagged lunches for my child.
- They make it easier for others to accept our meat-free lifestyle. By and large, Canadians live a meat-loving life. This was true for me up until about 5 years ago when we moved to a vegetarian diet. Most people in our lives have been very understanding of our preferences, but most of our family is at a loss for what to serve us for dinner. While I love making nut and veggie loaves and black bean enchiladas, these dishes are neither in the repertoire nor palate of most of our loved ones. I appreciate it greatly when they try these types of meals, but I never expect it, just as I would hope no one would expect me to prepare meat-based dishes for them just because they were not vegetarian. Food is undeniably an integral part of our culture and socialization and many of us show love by serving those we hold dear; meat substitutes enable others in our lives to feel confident they can provide us something acceptable to eat, but most importantly, to know they can include us in food rituals and traditions. As a side bonus, us vegetarians are not relegated to scavenging the raw veggie tray as our only option for supper.
- It is easier to still enjoy our comfort foods. Sometimes I just want some chicken, or a hotdog, or a salami sandwich. Whether a person has consumed the same diet since childhood or changed their eating habits, I think that most of us still crave the feelings and sentiments (and sometimes tastes) of the foods of our formative years. I will never taste a better lasagna than my father’s; I miss sharing a beef roast and my mother’s yorkshire pudding with my parents on a Sunday evening. Of course, nothing but the real thing could ever fully satisfy these food desires, but meat substitutes (at least for me) are a close approximation, and that’s enough. It’s also important to note that our food knowledge and ideas of what a meal is and what foods are acceptable and when, begin to be shaped by the food culture we experience right from birth. I, like many of us in Canada, grew up in a meat/vegetables/potatoes dietary pattern; to this day I often still think in these terms when meal planning. The challenge is that many vegetarian meals don’t fit nicely into that mold. In this instance, using meat substitutes allows us to prepare meals that have the look and shape of meals of our childhoods (which I find can be just as comforting as the actual foods eaten), without the meat.
- They are fortified to be nutritionally similar to their animal-protein counterparts. Products advertised as meat substitutes are generally good sources of iron, vitamin B12, and protein; it is still important to read the food labels to find out, just to be sure. Unfortunately they also provide a large amount of sodium, much like many processed foods. As I’ve said before, all foods can fit in a diet in moderation.
- It’s one of the few vegetarian protein source my dear husband and I can always agree on. We have very different tastes, my husband and I. I love legumes of any sort, but mostly lentils. I also love trying to put them in as many different kinds of foods as possible. He tolerates my experiments but is often far less enthusiastic about my creations than I. (The 2 year old of course eats nothing but bread, cheese, peanut butter, and garden peas at the moment, so I don’t take offense that she also scoffs at my cooking). Meat substitutes are our common ground, allowing us to have meals that we both enjoy. Because what is life if we can’t enjoy food, at least some of the time?