Most of us need to stay conscious of food costs as we manage our budgets, yet still want to prioritise fresh and healthy food.

One way to do this is by reducing our intake of meat. Further to the substantial money- saving benefits, there are significant health advantages associated with consuming more plant-based foods. Countless studies have associated a vegetarian diet with reduced risk of chronic degenerative diseases such as heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes and cancer. 

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Tell someone you're cutting down on meat, and a typical response may be concern as to where you will get your protein from. However, you can be confident that there are a multitude of alternative protein-based foods available in the diet, including eggs, cheese, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds and mushrooms. By incorporating a wide range of these into your meals, you will be getting all the quality protein that your body needs. 

Meat-free meals

Reducing your intake of meat shouldn't be about restriction, but rather about introducing a greater variety of foods into your weekly repertoire. Here are 6 top strategies as to how-

1    Big up the veggies! Change the way you think about portion sizes, and make the vegetables the main part of your meal rather than just a side dish. A large bowl of sweet potato, peppers, mushrooms, red onion, garlic, tomatoes and mushrooms roasted in olive oil and served with couscous makes a delicious dinner. Top with toasted pine nuts and crumbled feta or goats cheese for added protein (and you can save any leftovers for a cold salad the next day).

2      Substitute meat in a shepherds or cottage pie with a delicious vegetable mince made from grated aubergine, finely chopped mushrooms and tinned lentils.  Brown off the aubergine and mushrooms in place of the meat, and then add the lentils, tinned tomatoes and the rest of your chosen ingredients.

3      Make a bean chilli. Tinned beans are cheap, high in protein and bursting with nutrients including B vitamins, iron and magnesium. Kidney beans, butter beans, aduki beans and black-eyed beans are all great options, not just in chilli but in soups and stews too. 

4      Make eggs the centrepiece, they are a great source of protein, a fridge staple, and can be whizzed up into a nutritious dish in no time. A baked frittata provides a vehicle for all sorts of delicious filling combinations- goats cheese, sundried tomato and spinach; feta and red pepper; mushroom and toasted pine nuts… be as creative as the contents of your fridge allows!

5      Introduce some "meaty" flavour into your dishes with umami (the fifth taste alongside sweet, sour, bitter and salty). This savoury flavour is found in mushrooms, sundried tomatoes, roasted aubergine, soy sauce and roasted nuts, and will bring such a delicious richness to your food that you won't miss the meat!     

6      Be wary of "meat alternatives" such as soya mince which are often highly processed and contain added fillers, flavourings and salt. Keep these to a minimum and replace meat with fresh wholefoods instead.

When meat is on the menu

When you do have meat, "quality not quantity" should be your mantra, and by cutting your intake of meat to once or twice a week, you can afford to make better choices. Try and purchase from your local butcher, and choose organic and "grass-fed" meat where available; not only from a very important ethical standpoint, but nutritionally it has many great benefits. Less saturated fat, fewer calories, higher levels of omega-3 "good" fats (between 2 and 5 times more than grain-fed meat) and richer in nutrients including vitamin E, beta-carotene, potassium, iron and zinc. And you don't have to go for the pricier fillets; cheaper cuts of grass-fed, organic meat such as ox tongue, breast of lamb and braising steak are all still packed with goodness.

Reward yourself from both a budget and a health perspective… make meat a treat!