March is National Nutrition Month, a good time to take a look at your overall nutritional habits that can carry you through the rest of the year. Here at Meatless Monday, we’re marking the occasion by focusing on one group in particular: kids. Getting kids interested in eating nutritious food, teaching families about the importance of the kitchen, and encouraging everyone to spend more time at the table are just some of the ways kids can develop a lifetime of healthy habits.
“Enjoy the Taste of Eating Right” is the theme of National Nutrition Month, and as any parent knows, getting kids to enjoy the taste of good food can be challenging. Diana Rice, Meatless Monday’s Registered Dietitian, and Brian Wheeler, Creative Director at The Monday Campaigns and dad of a four year old, offer a few ways to get kids to eat more nutritious food.
Brian: Diana, it’s a Meatless Monday during National Nutrition Month. What’s the first thing parents and kids can do to start making healthier food choices?
Diana: Healthy choices start in the grocery store, and at a young age. Next time you’re at the store with your kids, make a beeline for the produce section. Give each kid free range to pick out one produce item, then spend some time together when you get home researching how to cook it. Kids are much more likely to get excited about eating healthy foods when they’re involved in the choice as compared to simply having a plate of vegetables plopped in front of them come dinnertime.
Brian: Totally agree. One additional benefit of shopping with kids is you can start a hundred conversations based on what you find in the produce aisle. You can talk about all the colors (“we have three green things in our basket, let’s look for some things that are red or purple or orange”), you can talk about geography (“these bananas come from Ecuador, let’s find that on the globe when we go home”), food can even lead to a conversation about history. You can talk about tomatoes coming from Mexico or pomegranates originating in Iran or that most mushrooms in the U.S. come from Pennsylvania. Building a story around the food you eat elevates it to a level of importance. Even something as humble as farro becomes ‘a dish that has been enjoyed since ancient Rome.’ Talk about food in those terms, and now you have their interest.
Diana: Exactly. Make it interesting and they’ll want to learn more. Which brings me to my second tip: another way to generate interest in nutrition is by teaching cooking skills. Children need to learn cooking skills at home so that once they’re out on their own they’ll have the skills to prepare simple, healthy foods instead of relying on packaged and processed items. There’s no such thing as too young to be in the kitchen! A two year old can tear spinach leaves or herbs. Even if half the bunch ends up in her mouth, it’s still a win! Kids can use a plastic knife to cut soft items like tomatoes and avocados as soon as they have the dexterity to use a crayon, and older kids can be involved in almost every step of a recipe save for the ones requiring sharp blades or high heat.
Brian: Good time to plug The Kids Cook Monday! Yes, there is no meal that kids and parents can’t cook together. From the time my daughter could sit up, she was on the counter with me watching me cut fruit in the morning. At two years old, we would keep a plastic container of water on a low table so she could pour her own water into a plastic cup. On a practical level, cooking helps develop coordination, focus, independence, all those good traits. But cooking also takes the mystery out of these sometimes strange looking foods. I’ll open an avocado with a sharp knife, but then I’ll pass it off and let my daughter get a spoon and scoop out the good stuff. So she gets the satisfaction of finishing a task, and she’s interacting with food that doesn’t come from a box. Those OXO salad spinners are a lot of fun and easy to use; let kids give kale a whirl and slosh water all over the place. By a certain age, kids can pour their own cereal, set the table, and even help clean up. When I do the dishes after dinner, I’ll hand my daughter a dishtowel and give her something unbreakable to dry, like a pot lid or a wooden spoon, and she spend five minutes drying it and drying it, and then she’ll put it away.
Diana: What you’re doing–from cutting fruit in the morning to drying dishes at night–is introducing a routine. And routine is essential to healthy eating. When you’re a kid, there’s school in the morning, homework in the afternoon, soccer on Saturdays, etc. Family rituals are especially important when kids are young. Whether it’s weeknight family dinners or a special tradition for holidays and birthdays, they give kids something to look forward to and help define their lives. Making healthy eating part of that framework helps set kids up for a lifetime of healthy choices. Introduce regular family dinners, family cooking nights, and weekly observances like Meatless Monday to demonstrate to your kids that your family is committed to health.
Brian: Routine is definitely the key. When my daughter was born, someone reminded me: ‘they’ll do nothing you say and everything you do.’ So if you want kids to read, you fill your house with books. And if you want them to enjoy healthy foods, you build these routines into your day. We wake up early enough so we have an hour together in the morning, which is more than enough time make oatmeal and eat together. Some mornings we’ll put a bunch of food on the counter and make a game out of choosing 3 or 4 things to put in a smoothie. Then I cut fruit for her school snack and I always cut fruit for myself for work. Just last week, my daughter said, “Dad, you bring a snack to work just like I bring a snack to school.” They definitely notice these things. And one morning at a time, hopefully, you’re showing your child how make better choices.
And if I can add one tip here for parents who participate in Meatless Monday, when it comes to fruits and vegetables, let them try everything. If you shop together and talk about food together and then cook and sit down together, kids will eat it. So buy whatever is in season, from winter root vegetables to the spring beans that will soon be in the markets, cook it all, and kids will eat it. And if they don’t like it the first or second time, they will on the third time.
On March 2-4, New York City hosted International Restaurant and Foodservice Show, an annual convention that draws over 16,000 industry professionals. In the category of “Hot Trends,” Meatless Monday took center stage for a panel discussion called “Why Meatless Monday is Good for the Health of Your Business.” Moderated by Peggy Neu, President of The Monday Campaigns, the panel offered tips and insights on how restaurants could leverage the popularity of Meatless Monday to pump up their Monday business, traditionally the slowest night of the week. Joining Peggy on the panel was Marisa May, Co-Owner of SD26, Geoffrey Kornberg, Chef de Cuisine at Almond NYC, and Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D., Owner of BTD Nutrition Consultants. “Meatless Monday taps into a larger trend of consumers moving plant foods to the center of the plate,” notes Taub-Dix, author of the award-winning Read It Before You Eat It. “It’s not about what you’re giving up, it’s what you’re getting: produce, legumes, even carbs are coming back into style in the form of ancient grains. Restaurants can capitalize on this trend and demonstrate that they are moving in a direction that combines good health and good taste by offering Meatless Monday.” All of which means Meatless Monday is healthy not just for consumers, but also for the bottom line.
The following day, Meatless Monday was featured in the Demonstration Theater, a series of cooking demonstrations designed to keep restaurant and foodservice professionals abreast of the latest food trends. Diana Rice, Meatless Monday’s Registered Dietitian, presented “Cooking Meatless Monday Dishes with Intact Grains,” a 45-minute cooking demonstration covering whole or intact grains and why they are gaining in popularity. Diana, an accomplished home cook, recipe developer and curator of over 1000 meatless recipes from across the globe, then prepared and served the audience a Meatless Monday dish of Farro Pudding.
Also last week was a TEDxManhattan event, “Changing the Way We Eat.” Peggy Neu kicked off the day-long event with a 12-minute talk titled A Simple Idea Goes Global, covering the history of Meatless Monday (“it started by accident”), the reason Meatless Monday works (“Every Monday is an opportunity for a fresh start”), and the key to turning an idea into a global movement (“Give it away!”). The TEDxManhattan event featured an impressive roster of nutritional, environmental and sustainability experts including Chef Tom Colicchio, Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, and farmer and founder of Earthbound Farm, Myra Goodman. Peggy’s presentation and all 17 speakers can be seen online.
Finally, on Tuesday, March 4, Meatless Monday made an appearance at the Annual Gala Benefit for Careers through the Culinary Arts (C-CAP), a nonprofit that provides scholarships, education and career opportunities in the culinary arts to disadvantaged youth. World-renowned Chef Michael White was the honoree, and attendees sampled a walk-around culinary tour-de-force from 40 of NYC’s most renowned restaurants and most famous chefs, including Marcus Samuelsson, Daniel Boulud, Michael Lomonaco and Marc Murphy. It was one of those ‘only in New York’ events, an opportunity to eat at SD26, Nobu 57 and Blue Hill at the same time. Michael’s, a storied NYC haunt helmed by Chef Kyung Up Lim, served up a delicious Meatless Monday dish, Sweet Potato Noodles with Assorted Vegetables in Sesame-Soy Vinaigrette. The recipe can be found here.
If you think cooking a healthy, delicious weeknight dinner takes too much time, then try a recipe or two from Ellie Krieger’s new book, Weeknight Wonders. In less than 30 minutes from prep to table, Ellie’s new collection of 150 dinner ideas will have you preparing entire meals that are faster, and definitely more nutritious, than ordering take-out. The well-known host of Healthy Appetite on Food Network and Cooking Channel, Ellie is the James Beard Award-winning author of The Food You Crave, in addition to So Easy, and Comfort Food Fix, and she has been a columnist for Fine Cooking and Food Network magazines, and USA Today. A registered dietitian and nutritionist, Ellie is on a mission to help people eat better, cook simpler, and answer the question, “What’s for dinner?”
Meatless Monday: I love the concept behind Weeknight Wonders. It seems to have been written to answer one question: “What’s for dinner?”
Ellie Krieger: It really was, in a very large way. It’s funny, when people talk about food and nutrition, there are so many facts that can twirl around your head and issues to consider. But it really does come down to that: ‘what’s for dinner, what are we having, what is doable?’ I think one of my missions is to really look at what’s stopping people from making healthy, delicious food at home and how can I help them break down those barriers. This book answers that question in a very practical way.
So what is the biggest barrier regarding cooking at home? I’m sure most people will say “time.”
No, it’s not time. I think the biggest challenge is mindset. Because we do have enough time to cook a healthy meal, and I think that I prove this with this book. I think it’s more of the misconception, an attitude towards cooking at home, that needs to change. I approach it as a world of possibilities instead of limitations. We know there are limitations in terms of time and money, but you can absolutely get a great meal on the table that’s healthy, affordable and that everyone will be into. It’s about having the right tools, and my goal is giving people the tools.
So where does the home cook start? What is essential to cooking healthier weeknight meals?
Really stock your pantry with healthy options. I have a whole pantry list in the book. If you don’t have time to go to the store, you’ll have these foods on hand: frozen spinach, frozen fruit, canned tomatoes, canned beans, whole grains like quinoa and whole grain pastas. These are healthy convenience foods. Have these as your base and fill in weekly with fresh items.
Overall, Weeknight Wonders is very balanced, equally divided between meat, poultry, seafood and vegetarian. Does that sum up the way you eat at home?
It really does. I personally love variety. Variety of flavor and texture and color. I love variety of ingredients. I want to pick from all of them, so it does wind up being balanced. But, that said, every dish I make is very much plant-based focused, even if it has meat in it. Very vegetable forward, I guess you could say. And also whole grain forward.
Speaking of balance, you have an approach to food that our readers might want to consider. It’s called “Usually–Sometimes–Rarely.” How did that come about?
I was in private practice for many years. And when I was working with clients, I felt people were very extremist. It was all or nothing. In order to help people find balance, to get off this diet rollercoaster and living in the extremes, I developed a food list that I call “Usually–Sometimes–Rarely.” The “Usually” foods are the backbone of a healthy eating plan: vegetables, whole fruit, whole grains, healthy oils, lean proteins plus fish, nuts, seeds, beans and low fat dairy. The “Sometimes” foods are the ones you might want to sprinkle in here and there, things like a refined grain like white flour or an unrefined sweetener like honey or maple sugar. These foods have some advantages but you might want to hold back on the amount you use or the frequency. And then there are the “Rarelys.” These are the foods that a lot of chefs use heavy-handedly and a lot of nutritionists completely rule out. And this is where my overriding philosophy is ‘never say never.’ This is where butter, bacon, cream, full fat cheese, ice cream and white sugar come in. I use these in minimum amounts for maximum impact.
That’s a great approach. Similarly, on CNN’s “Road Warriors” you said: “let go of the idea of being perfect.” That goes against the typical “eat this, not that” advice we usually hear.
Rules just set us up. Initially, we’re so high, and we can pat ourselves on the back. And suddenly if you have one French fry, your whole world has crumbled. It doesn’t need to be like that. I have personally lived through the whole binge diet thing in my teens and early twenties. I know how exhausting and painful–and unhealthy–it can be. And in many cases it can lead to disorder eating, which is a whole other topic. My passion is for striving for balance and helping people find happiness, instead of looking at food like a constant struggle.
Meatless Monday agrees! Our entire movement is based on prevention and moderation and small changes—in this case, “one day a week, cut out meat.”
I am so impressed and amazed and inspired at how Meatless Monday has taken hold. I was in a Barnes & Noble the other day, and in the Cooking section I saw a sign: “Great for Meatless Monday.” And there was a table full of fabulous cookbooks.
Does being a Registered Dietitian influence your cooking style or did your cooking style lead you to become an RD?
They are quite intertwined for me. I’ve always loved food. I’ve always been cooking and passionate about food. As I went through my own personal journey, I’ve learned how to love food in a healthy way. I started studying nutrition in college as a Pre-Med student, but I ended up majoring in Nutrition once I realized the depth and breadth of Nutritional education. I remember my food chemistry class, being in the lab, where starches begin and proteins coagulate, stuff like that, things dietitian need to know. All this definitely affected my own cooking.
Your website says it all: “Delicious, Meet Healthy.” Are those two objectives, health and taste, your focus when you’re writing a new cookbook?
Health is always part of my approach. But I always think more of real people. Happily, when I’m on the road on a book tour or through social media, I get to meet a lot of people–I get real feedback from real people. So when I’m cooking in the kitchen and when I’m developing recipes, I think about these people. The humanity and human connection really do it for me. It’s wonderful, and I love this about my job. I meet people who say, “I made your soup the other day,” or “Every Sunday, my family has an Ellie Sunday.” This is amazing. I’m in people’s lives in a very real way, in a very intimate way. And I feel there’s a level of intimacy in it for me. The fact that someone’s going to eat it, it’s very personal.
Speaking of families and cooking, at The Monday Campaigns, we also have a initiative called The Kids Cook Monday. As a mom, what was your approach to getting your daughter interested in cooking?
Cooking together just makes food fun. And it teaches critical life skills. First of all, start early on. When my daughter was just able to sit up and bang things, I would put her—safely—on the counter, and I’d give her a piece of bread and a butter knife and just let her chop it. So you can get them involved when they are very little. A few years later, they can handle simple tasks. They can tear lettuce and toss a salad. They’ll make a bit of a mess, but that’s how they learn. A then a few years after that, you can teach them to make things on their own. I just think it’s easier in the long run for everyone. Also, when I think about kids cooking, I think many parents default to baking stuff. I would encourage everyone to branch out from that. If you want your kids to eat vegetables, let them cook vegetables. Let them pick out vegetables in the store, let them scoop the seeds out of butternut squash at home, and then when they see it baking, they see it collapse in the pan, how sweet and delicious it gets, it’s wonderful. So my advice would be: don’t stop at cookies and brownies! With kids, you can approach foods from a totally sensory experience: smell, taste, color. When my daughter was two or three, we’re on a city bus, and she says, “Mom, I smell basil.” We looked around and there’s someone nearby with a big bag of basil. And I’m like, “yes, that’s my girl!”
March is National Nutrition Month. Since today is the first Monday in March, can you recommend a dish we can all cook in 30 minutes? Perhaps a meatless Weeknight Wonder?
I love the Savory Red Lentil, Quinoa and Vegetable Stew. I love this dish, it’s very unique. The lentils and quinoa cook in the same amount of time, in the same pot, with the vegetables, too. So it’s like a one-pot dish, but it has so many great flavors. It’s almost like an Indian-flavored chili. It’s really lovely, and it’s one of my favorite dishes.
Savory Red Lentil, Quinoa and Vegetable Stew
Reprinted with permission, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
from Weeknight Wonders by Ellie Krieger
Photography by Quentin Bacon
Copyright 2013. All rights reserved.
Tomorrow marks Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, a traditional day of frenzied indulgence before the fasting season of Lent. Millions of households around the country observe Lent every year, abstaining from meats, treats and other luxury items in a gesture of self-denial that goes back millennia.
And what better way to prepare for tomorrow’s bacchanalia than by participating in another global ritual: Meatless Monday. In the spirit of New Orleans, the epicenter of Mardi Gras festivities in the U.S., we are offering Meatless Monday fans everywhere a vegetarian version of the classic red beans and rice, a favored NOLA meal. Red beans and rice has been a staple of Louisiana Creole cuisine for more than a century; New Orleans native Louis Armstrong was reportedly so taken with it that he would sign letters ”Red Beans and Ricely Yours, Louis Armstrong.”
Like much of New Orleans culture, the dish evolved out of various influences. When sugar planters fled to New Orleans during the Haitian revolution, they brought with them red beans from the Caribbean. New recipes developed in the kitchens of the French Quarter, combining the beans with common Creole spices like cayenne pepper and thyme. Over time the dish became associated with Monday, historically a washday in New Orleans. Women of the house would put a pot of beans on the stove to simmer while they attended their clothes. The beans would cook all day, slowly absorbing whatever flavors were added to the pot.
Many neighborhood restaurants still serve red beans and rice as a Monday special, and it remains as popular as ever in private homes. The dish often incorporates meats such as ham and sausage, but a vegetarian version offers more than enough flavor. For maximum enjoyment, pair with colorful beads and a Creole drawl.
On Friday, February 14, one day after a storm dropped a foot of snow on New York City, Meatless Monday and Alicia Walter, Resident Chef of La Scuola at Eataly NY, pulled on their boots and headed to the Union Square Greenmarket. Our mission was to discover what vegetables are in the market right now, and to discuss the incredible range of colors, textures, flavors and menu options for the home cook. For all of us who participate in Meatless Monday and are interested in cooking more plant-based meals, here is a window into the mind of a chef, as Alicia shares her thoughts, preparation tips, and a dozen recipe ideas using these incredibly versatile vegetables.
Meatless Monday: Alicia, thanks for bundling up and joining us today. As we come to our first vendor, I’m seeing a lot of potatoes, onions, fresh thyme. Any ideas come to mind?
Alicia Walter: This is perfect, look at this. Right next to each other. Baked onions with fresh thyme is a perfect contorno. And with these potatoes, my favorite wintertime Italian dish is called Pizzoccheri, from the region of Lombardia. It’s essentially buckwheat pasta, potatoes and cabbage. Check, check, check. We sauté some onions and cabbage, then cook the potatoes in garlic and milk, cook them way down until they’re soft and then puree them. You can use a floury potato or a waxy potato, either of these will work. We mix the onions and cabbage into the potato puree as well as buckwheat pasta that’s just been cooked just a few minutes. In the summer, you don’t bake the dish. But in winter, you bake it all together with some grated Bitto or Fontina cheese and breadcrumbs on top. We add caraway and poppy seeds to our breadcrumbs, as well.
Blue Hubbard is a drier, starchier squash. People are intimidated by it because it’s so huge. The best way to open it is by putting the squash into a strong plastic bag, tying the bag and then drop it on the ground! It’s perfect for baking or to replace some of the potato in your gnocchi dough.
Celeriac is nice when you want to make a fresh salad in the winter. Just shave it thin, add olive oil, salt, pepper, lemon juice, done. With parsnips, check the core. See, this one has a bit of a tough core in it? So I would be less inclined to roast this. But you could make an amazing puree out of this. Or you can put it in a soup, so it’s cooking a long time and gets really soft in the middle.
Right. But this time of year, all of the greens are really special. They’ve battled their way through a couple of hard frosts, so they’re actually sweeter in the winter. Kale is getting all of the attention, but it is well-deserved! It’s delicious. For a quick dinner, when I get home late from work, I’ll make a kale salad with a tahini lemon dressing, golden raisins and nuts. I mean, what else could you want? If you want to get fancy, you put a hard boiled egg in there. I also love to make a pasta sauce with garlic, lots of toasted walnuts, a dark leafy green, and dried blueberries. I mix this with a short dry pasta like vesuvio or fusilli.
This is Ruby Red Streak. This is my new kale. It gets the same treatment, except I wouldn’t cook it, ever. I always eat this raw. It’s just so good, it’s very tender and one of the more mild members of the mustard family. The feathery leaves get coated with dressing but don’t get soggy so it still feels very nice in your mouth. Toss it with my tahini lemon dressing.
Again with tahini dressing. Is that a new love of yours?
No, that’s an ongoing relationship. Decades long!
These are scapes, kind of the shoot of a garlic bulb. When you cook it, the stalk will taste like a garlicky asparagus. But the white head is really intense; one of these blooms is equivalent to a full head of garlic. The stalks need to get cooked, but the head you can eat raw. Crumble it up just a little bit and throw it in a salad, or sauté, and it’s really nice.
Of course in the winter market, we see a lot of apples that are kept in storage. Is there anything new we can do with apples?
I really like to use things in opposite ways. For example, I like to make beets sweet. And I like to make fruits savory. We recently made a contorno that was sautéed cabbage, really thinly sliced apples, pomegranate seeds, and caraway. And a little bit of red wine vinegar, too. It was incredible.
That’s the second cabbage recipe of the day. I see a theme here. What other things can a home cook do with cabbage?
Here’s something we’ve been doing recently, and I thought it was going to be horrible. I was a complete skeptic until the very end. We made a cabbage puree. Steam it with a little salt, then puree it, get it nice and smooth. And now, we use it to either bind other ingredients that need some creaminess or add it to anything that needs a puddle of flavor underneath it. The taste stays really clean. So for home cooks, if you want to add a little variation to your last run of winter menus, substitute cabbage puree for potatoes or squash purees.
We’re coming up to rutabaga. I have to confess: I’ve never cooked a rutabaga. Other than roasting, I need professional advice.
I can tell you that rutabagas and apples are besties. You can either add rutabagas to sweet apple dishes, like crisps and pies. Or pull the apples over to the savory side and add them to contorni with rutabaga and caramelized onions and such. They’d also be great raw in the celeriac salad that we talked about a few booths ago. I’m still working on cracking the rutabaga code!
Speaking of apples, we love cooking with apple cider. So we take cider and boil it down to half or even 75%. It hasn’t been strained or manipulated or pasteurized, so it will get gelatinous. It’s almost like a vegetarian thickening agent, like an agar. So you can add that to whatever you want, a fruit that’s already cooking down, add it to blueberries, it’ll make them a little more tight—it’ll tighten up the juices in the background. You can cook any vegetable in apple cider, so maybe that’s another answer to the rutabaga question: cook it in apple cider and salt until it the pan is dry. You’ll have some very delicious rutabaga. Oh! Or add maple syrup instead of salt. Now we’re back in dessert territory.
Cooking in cider sounds like a delicious way for someone to reduce their intake of oil, too. Where do you stand on the oil debate? Olive oil used to be “the healthy oil,” but recently a lot of voices are saying the less oil you use, the better.
I think about it differently. When I started at Eataly, I was completely vegan. Gluten-free, no oil, that kind of thing. I thought that was the right way to do things. But then I started to think more about ingredients in terms of quality. It’s very different to use an oil that’s been sitting on a shelf for years, the label says it’s olive oil, but maybe it’s canola or grapeseed or who knows what. That’s a very different product than when someone presses their own oil from olives that were grown on their land, and they are sharing that product with you. I trust the quality of that product and am thrilled to taste and use it. It’s like when people say: I hate vegetables. How can you say that? There’s so much variety. So that’s how I feel about oil.
You teach the same thing at Eataly. I’ve taken two of your Meatless Monday classes and the emphasis is always on finding quality ingredients. How are those classes doing and what do you have planned in the months ahead?
The classes are going really well! The last one sold out before I’d even posted the menu! Folks are definitely interested in learning how to make delicious meatless meals. For the class in March, I invited Mary Menniti, the founder of The Italian Garden Project, to co-teach the class with me. We’ll be cooking her family recipes from the region of Molise with ingredients from some of the backyard gardeners featured in her project. I can’t wait!
Okay, I’m ready to go shopping. I’m getting the scapes, for sure. Winter salads are a treat, so I’m taking your advice about the Ruby Red Streak and I’ll pick up some celeriac. And I am definitely making Pizzoccheri, so I need cabbage and onions and potatoes. Is this basically how chefs shop? You see what’s here and build your menu?
I’m actually coming back here this afternoon. I keep my cart up at Eataly. But yes, that’s exactly how I shop.
So what will you be buying and cooking this afternoon?
We’re picking up some staples like potatoes and carrots. I’ll race you to the scapes. We’re going to get parsley root, cabbage, a couple of Hubbard squash and some sexy microgreens. The microcelery and Bull’s Blood caught my eye. And tonight’s menu has Pizzoccheri on it. This must be why cabbage is on my mind!
When Meatless Monday founder Sid Lerner wanted to expand the program’s reach, he knew what industry to take his cues from. As a former ad man, Lerner understood the need for smart marketing. In 2008 he tapped Peggy Neu, a fellow advertising executive, to head Meatless Monday’s parent organization The Monday Campaigns. Under her direction the movement has flourished, extending to 29 countries and innumerable participants. Next week Neu will deliver a TEDx talk on Meatless Monday’s place in the rapidly changing landscape of health and nutrition. We sat down with her to ask a few questions.
The subject of your talk is how a simple idea—Meatless Monday—sparked a global movement. Public health campaigns don’t often enjoy such rapid growth. What makes Meatless Monday different?
I think it’s absolutely due in part to how simple it is. But the other aspect of Meatless Monday that makes it relevant around the world is the “Monday” aspect: the rhythm of the week, and the idea of incorporating an action that’s healthy and good for you into that natural rhythm. That’s something that resonates across cultures. Our research shows that in many different countries Monday is the day that people are most open to trying new healthy behaviors. People start diets and exercise regimens, and of course that’s the overall goal of The Monday Campaigns. So having a “meatless” day at the beginning of the week is something that makes sense to people all over the world.
One of the foundational principles of the Meatless Monday approach is that it’s essentially an “open source” model: your team basically just creates resources and gives them away for free. What’s the logic behind that?
That was the brilliance of Sid’s early vision. The idea with Meatless Monday was to encourage people to use it to accomplish their goals. And I think that’s one of the reasons it has spread so rapidly in such different settings, because people feel they can just take the idea of giving up meat in whatever language and make it their own. So it’s not a question of “signing on” to what we’re doing, but rather having an idea that people can own.
So it’s a very decentralized, almost grassroots approach.
Right. It helps to remember that Meatless Monday is often referred to as a movement, and the definition of a movement is a collective action undertaken by loosely organized groups. And that’s exactly what we’ve done: we have a collective action—going meatless on Monday—and there is this huge variety of groups that are interested in that: vegetarians, animal welfare activists, climate change organizations, and of course the public health community. Given the issues surrounding both meat production and meat consumption, there are so many interests groups that have a stake in reducing our reliance on meat. So when they ask themselves, “What can we do, specifically?” Meatless Monday is there as a simple idea that can be adopted, whether by an individual or an organizer.
And it’s not just advocacy groups: encouragingly, businesses are adopting the program as well. What has Meatless Monday done to foster those relationships?
One of the things that we’ve done well is to talk to participants about what’s in it for them. If you’re a restaurant, you can get more business on a Monday night. If you’re a media outlet, you can increase your audience at the beginning of the week. If you’re a corporation, you can achieve your wellness and sustainability objectives. So because of our business background, we know how to walk into a room with a potential participant and tailor our pitch to meet their goals.
Do you think that business savvy has been lacking in public health?
My observation in public health is that professionals don’t boil their research down to an understandable, memorable idea. And that needs to happen, because people don’t have enough time or attention to devote to lengthy articles, and they can also be overwhelmed by all of the things that we have to do to stay healthy. One of the things that’s unique about The Monday Campaigns is that it’s a marriage between marketing and public health.
The larger theme of next week’s TEDx event is “Changing the Way We Eat.” Has your diet changed at all since taking the helm of Meatless Monday?
Oh definitely. The more you learn about how your food is produced and prepared, the more you change. So I eat less meat and more plant-based options, and when I do eat meat I check to make sure it’s locally and sustainably raised. Mostly it’s just about enjoying meat as a special occasion instead of an everyday staple.
Dr. Neal D. Barnard, M.D., is optimistic that America is turning a corner. After decades of poor diets and resulting health problems, Dr. Barnard is buoyed by trends like our reduced consumption of meat and a leveling off of some diseases. One of America’s leading advocates for plant-based diets, Dr. Barnard is the founder and president of the nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, an adjunct associate professor of medicine at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, and a clinical researcher focused on the effects of diet on health. He is the author of 15 books, a frequent guest of radio and television programs, and the host of several PBS specials.
MEATLESS MONDAY: Let’s start by taking a look at ourselves. What is the state of America’s health?
Dr. Barnard: I think that after a long difficult journey, we have started to turn a good corner. By that I mean our diet, for a generation or two, got progressively worse until about a decade ago. And now it’s starting to get better. The trend we’ve seen towards increasing obesity is starting to level off. Although diabetes is still increasing, I expect that eventually will level off, too. That said, we still are not in very good shape. Obesity is prevalent. Diabetes is a serious problem. Cancer and heart disease take a big toll. But I think we have turned the corner in that more and more people are improving their diets. So I’m optimistic.
I’m surprised to hear that. ‘Optimism’ is a word we don’t usually hear with regard to America’s health.
We see this in the USDA’s figures regarding meat consumption. Meat consumption peaked around 2004, and has been dropping ever since. So that’s the good news. But we’ve paid a price for that. Take the issue of obesity. People are asking, “could this be caused by a lack of activity?” The answer is decisively “no.” Obesity is not due to a lack of exercise. It’s not that people shouldn’t get plenty of exercise, but the change in exercise in recent decades has not been sufficient to explain the obesity epidemic. It is all on the input side of the equation. It’s the foods that we’re eating.
So our waistlines can’t be blamed on video games.
The USDA has tracked America’s eating habits beginning in 1909. The average American in 1909 ate just under 124 pounds of meat, per year. That slowly–but steadily–went up and hit a peak in 2004, when it hit 201 pounds per person. That is an increase of 75 pounds of meat per person, per year. In the same interval, cheese intake, which was less than 4 pounds per person back in 1909, shot up to about 34 pounds per person, per year. And sugar intake went up, as well. You put all this together, and what do you do with a person who, year after year, is eating 75 more pounds of meat, 30 more pounds of cheese, 40 to 50 more pounds of sugar? The problem is, they will become overweight and have many health problems.
The obvious question is: what happened? Why are we eating so much more meat and cheese than our grandparents did?
One change is that the price of food has gone way down as a proportion of our income. When our grandparents went out to eat, it was a special occasion. A $10 dinner was expensive, and you really thought about it. Today, the price of food, whether at the grocery store or in restaurants, as a percentage of our income, has gone down dramatically. So people can afford to eat, essentially, whatever they want without looking at the price. Another reason is that we do have a subsidy issue. Meat products are subsidized largely through feed grain subsidies; cattle, chicken and other animals are very cheap to produce because the government is paying the cost of feeding them. Today, Americans are eating more than a million chickens per hour. We wouldn’t be doing this if food were more expensive.
So we’re spending billions on farm subsidies and billions on healthcare. Can you imagine if we spent billions promoting fruits and vegetables?
That would be just a wonderful change.
If we could subtract the subsidies for unhealthy foods and either have a neutral market or, ideally, encourage people to choose healthy foods like vegetables, fruits, whole foods and beans, you would revolutionize the health of this country overnight. And it could happen. But it’s strictly a political decision.
But politics becomes personal. Members of my own family, eating a standard American diet, have experienced the same diseases I’m sure every family has: cancer, diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s. Why do Americans just accept these health problems as normal?
I put that question to Dr. William Costelli 20 years ago. He was the head of the Framingham Heart Study. He said, ‘People just accept that a heart attack is a part of life.’ When I was young, growing up in Fargo, North Dakota, I thought that age 60 was old age, that heart attacks were just part of what happened when you got old. But, of course, poor health is not something caused by age. It’s caused by long exposures to things that cause these disease processes.
So let’s talk about how we can get healthier. You are the president and founder of The Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine. PCRM believes that the major killers of Americans—heart disease, cancer, stroke—have a dramatically lower incidence among people with plant-based diets.
If you think about the things that kill Americans, number one is heart disease. It was before, and it still is. And 20 years ago, Dr. Dean Ornish showed that even if you don’t take cholesterol lowering drugs, if you don’t have angioplasty, and if you don’t have any kind of surgery, if you take the meat off your plate, if you follow a healthy diet, if you exercise in a moderate, simple way, if you reduce stress, when you put those things together, the arteries not only stop getting worse, they start opening up again. It rejuvenates the body. Cancer risk starts to fall. There are different estimates but one credible estimate says that people following a plant-based diet have anywhere between 12-40% less cancer risk compared to meat eaters. The risk of diabetes plummets dramatically. We’ve seen many people who had diabetes and it just goes away. I don’t mean to say that that will happen to everybody. Everyone is a little different. But it’s not at all unusual.
These results provide the overarching theme of your new book, Power Foods For the Brain. You write, “the more people steer clear of animal-based foods—meat, dairy, fish, eggs—the healthier they are.”
Yes, that’s exactly it. When people base their menus on healthy plant-based foods, the health payoff is enormous.
So if America is turning a corner and thinking more about healthier food, where do you see movements like Meatless Monday? Obviously, we preach moderation: one day a week, cut out meat.
Meatless Monday has an enormous influence. First of all, in order to make a long-term change, you have to discover what is possible. And if a person has just realized, “here it is Monday, and I just skipped the meat for one day,” that means you’ll discover that your local restaurant may serve a bang-up Angel Hair Pasta with Wild Mushrooms. You learn that you can do it, and you learn what you can have. Or maybe if you’re in a sandwich shop or a taco restaurant, you now know what the possibilities are. And if you can do it one day a week, then you are in charge. You know that you can do it as frequently as you want.
What are the power foods that should be on everyone’s shopping list?
The foods you want to get, of course, are the vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans. Why those foods? First of all, they don’t have bad fat. They don’t have saturated fat, to any substantial degree. They don’t have trans-fats. And that’s really important because research has shown that people who reduce the “bad fats” have dramatically reduced their chances of getting Alzheimer’s disease. But these foods at the same time give you the protein and the calcium and so forth that you need. I might also say a word about Vitamin E-containing food. Foods like walnuts, almonds, sunflower seeds and sesame seeds bring you Vitamin E. You don’t need a lot; just as a topping on your salad or pancakes, an ounce or so. Also, blueberries and grapes have both been shown to be memory boosters in studies at the University of Cincinnati. And in Okinawa, where there are more centenarians than anywhere in the world, the dietary staple there is not fish. And it’s not rice. It’s actually sweet potatoes. So sweet potatoes are front and center on my own shopping list. So those are a few foods I like to recommend.
And in your research, when someone starts eating these foods, what happens? How do they feel?
Several things are going to happen. First of all, on day one, you’re likely to feel a little more energetic. A little bit lighter. If you have any kind of digestive problems, they sort themselves out within a day or so. I’m talking about people who have constipation for years. It often gets dramatically better very quickly. Weight loss usually begins the first week. If you are a normal weight, you’re not going to lose any weight. But if you are overweight, whether it’s 15 pounds or 215 pounds, you’re going to start losing weight. And this occurs slowly and steadily as the months roll out. If you have a high cholesterol level, that starts to diminish. If you have high blood pressure, that comes down. If you have diabetes or high blood sugar, that starts improving. And that causes me, by the way, to encourage people to let their doctors know they are doing it. Not that it’s in any way unsafe, but if you are on medicines, your doctor will want to work with you to ratchet you down on your medicines as you don’t need them any more, and it’s good to do that in a careful way.
What I found interesting about Power Foods, although the focus is on preventing Alzheimer’s, was that your plan helps everything: weight loss, better heart health, more energy, diabetes prevention.
That’s the beauty of it, in my view. Everything works together, unlike what happens with medication. We see a lot of patients now with diabetes. And they’re taking one thing for their cholesterol. But the cholesterol pill doesn’t do anything for their blood pressure. So they’re on something for their blood pressure, too. And they’re on something else for their diabetes, and they’re taking these 3, 4, 5 pills. So if I’m able to encourage them to change their diet, a plant-based diet helps all of those things simultaneously.
I want to share your tip about PLU stickers with our readers. I didn’t know those little stickers on fruits and veggies can help identify what you’re buying?
Isn’t that handy? You’re looking around for a sign, you’re asking the guy in the store, but the PLU sticker will tell you. If the number begins with a 9, it’s organic. If it begins with an 8, it’s GMO. Any other number, it’s conventional.
Is the biggest issue still perception? If someone goes on medication for the rest of his or her life, it’s considered normal. When someone commits to eating a plant-based diet, it’s “alternative.”
Dr. Dean Ornish has made that point very eloquently.
People pay a phenomenal amount of money to have a life saving operation and that’s considered conventional, but eating beans and rice is “alternative.” I think those two should be twisted around. To me, getting away from meat is not the end of a dietary journey. It’s the beginning of one.
Because once you don’t have animal products at the center of your plate, you can think, ‘Alright, what can I do today? Do I want to favor grains? Do I want Asian flavors? Do I want more fruits and vegetables, maybe something with Mediterranean flavors?’ And suddenly the world of culinary exploration is thrown open to you. Growing up in Fargo, we never had Italian food. We didn’t have Chinese food. We didn’t have Mexican or Thai. We didn’t have veggie sushi. And now, I love all of these cuisines. And if you told me you had to go back and eat what I had in Fargo, I would say forget it. My diet that I follow now is much richer than that.
The recipe section on the Meatless Monday web site can attest to that. We have over 1000 recipes. For anyone who wants to get more plants and veggies onto the plate, how to you recommend they get started?
I would suggest to anyone who is new to this: explore your options. Look at all the things you can use to replace meat. Some are literal translations like veggie sausage instead of pork sausage, or veggie bacon instead of animal-dried bacon. But some changes are not literal replacements. Hummus, for example, is a familiar product for most people. It’s actually a breakfast food in the Middle East, and it’s become a popular lunch item in North America. If you have never made bean chili instead of meat chili, I would try that. Try different recipe books. Try different restaurants. Try different products you see at the store. And every five seconds there’s a new, cool plant-based website. And then go a step further and look at the dairy replacements if you’d like. Why not try Almond Milk if you’ve never had it. Try Soy Milk, Rice Milk, Oat Milk, Hemp Milk. There are a million options. Give them a try and see the exciting world of culinary advancement that’s waiting for you.
No conversation about plant-based diets can be complete without discussing protein. In your opinion, how much protein does a person need, and how much are they actually getting?
It’s a funny thing. At least 30 years ago, the American Dietetic Association said loudly and clearly that you do not need meat or animal products, in general, for protein. And we have looked at that in great detail. When people go on plant-based diets, they always get more than enough protein. This, for some reason, has been one of these perennial preoccupations. An average person, if they would add it up, they would need maybe 50 grams of protein a day. A little more if they are a bigger person, a little less if they are smaller. But that’s a pretty good average. How much are they getting? Quite often, twice that–or more–and that’s not good. You don’t need extra protein and you probably shouldn’t have it, yet this just lives on in people’s minds. I don’t think anyone actually knows what a protein deficiency would look like. But they say, ‘gee, if I was a vegetarian, would I get enough protein?’ Whenever anyone is persistently concerned about protein, I say: get in your car, drive to a rural area, and look over the fence into a field. Look at the biggest bull you can find, or the largest stallion you can see. Those are vegans. And those rippling muscles you see are built entirely on plant-based foods.
Last question: when you look at the rate of obesity, and diabetes, and all the other related diseases, is your passion for helping people get smarter about food choices the issue of our generation?
A generation ago, we were at a fork in the road. It became clear by the early 1960s that tobacco was the culprit in lung cancer. And the question was, should we go along with the government promoting tobacco, subsidizing tobacco, it being tolerated in the workplace, sold in every store, allowed in restaurants, allowed on aircraft? Or, should we change that? Should we take what we actually knew about the health risks and work to change behavior? It was a hard fought battle, but the bottom line is we took a serious health risk and decided to do something about it. And the risk of lung cancer has plummeted. That was a generation ago. Our generation’s issue is food. We know there’s a problem. There is no doubt whatsoever that unhealthy food choices contribute to heart disease, cancer, not to mention backbreaking costs of healthcare and all kinds of personal tragedy. We are at this fork in the road. And the question is: shall we change course or not? And as a doctor, there’s only one way for me to vote. The issue is getting the information in people’s hands, along with tools they can use to put it to work.
Cover photo courtesy of Steve Shapiro with Commercial Image Photography
Dr. Mehmet Oz, on his show last week, promoted a weekly regimen designed to restore energy. Titled ”Restart your Body 5 Ways in 5 Days,” the episode shone a spotlight on a disconcerting trend among Americans: namely, our collective sense of exhaustion. But Oz argued passionately that diets can have a profound effect on how we feel. By following his five tips, he claimed, “You can boost your energy and put some pep back into your step.”
At the top of his list, unsurprisingly, was Meatless Monday, which Oz noted was a great way to reset your digestive system and incorporate more veggies into your diet.
On Tuesdays, Oz recommended eating a snack that contains both iron and vitamin C—both known to improve mood and increase energy. Oz suggested sunflower seeds with chili powder or chocolate-covered strawberries.
On Wednesdays, he advised his audience to go “wheat-less,” foregoing wheat products to accommodate gluten sensitivities and boost focus.
And on Thursdays, he advocated pomegranate juice, which combats free radicals and restores collagen to your skin.
Oz ended the segment with a bit of a twist: Fatty Fridays. But the good kind. Monosaturated fatty acids—such as those found in avocado, coconut oil, salmon, dark chocolate, and flax seeds—can paradoxically control other fats of the diet, and Oz mentioned that while he used to be a proponent of traditional low-fat diets, he has since discovered the benefits of a diet high in good fat.
Lenox Hill Internist Teaches Meatless Monday Cooking Class
Tonight a group of New York-based doctors will be practicing with the latest medical instrument: a fork.
Dr. Robert Graham, the Interim Program Director of Internal Medicine at Lenox Hill Hospital, will lead 13 medical residents in a unique cooking course designed to familiarize them with the most recent scientific findings on nutrition and healthy eating. The course is being offered under the joint auspices of New York’s Natural Gourmet Institute and Lenox Hill Hospital, and it will be held on Monday nights to bring attention to the Meatless Monday movement.
Dr. Graham is also the co-founder of “Learn one, Cook one, Eat one,” a nutrition education program that has garnered national recognition. Its objective is to instill in a new generation of doctors the vast importance of a healthy diet.
“In both hospitals and clinical settings,” Graham explains, “doctors often care for patients with medical complications born from lifestyle-related illness, like obesity, diabetes, hypertension and, to an extent, cancer. There are very few programs to teach medical residents—as one of the primary givers of medicine in academic hospitals such as Lenox Hill—basic healthful cooking techniques. With increasing evidence linking diet to health and disease, this partnership between NGI and Lenox Hill Hospital will address the knowledge gap in nutritional education and its impact on illness and wellness.”
Residents will learn techniques from various world cuisines to increase the appeal of vegetarian meals primarily based on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, healthy oils, and low-fat proteins. The course will feature eclectic tasting samples every week.
Dr. Graham’s menu tonight includes guacamole with plantain chips, pupusa with tempeh filling, and a chilled poblano soup.
Participating doctors were selected on the strength of submitted essays, in which they discussed how they might apply the principles of the program while addressing food-related issues with their patients.
Want to benefit from Dr. Graham’s perspective? Ask your own doctor about diet and nutrition at your next appointment.
This past Monday, ABC’s The Chew championed Meatless Monday for a third time, dedicating their September 30th episode to a category of “Mighty Meatless Meals” designed to satisfy even the most ardent meat lovers.
Host Clinton Kelly introduced the segment by enumerating some of the key benefits of going meatless once a week, including a 19% reduced risk of heart disease; a 21% reduced risk of type 2 diabetes; and an average family savings of $600 a year.
Chef Mario Batali claimed that he knew Meatless Monday had gained traction when the National Meat Council sent him a letter denouncing him as “part of the subversive fringe.” But he continued, “I think now they realize it’s not stopping people, it’s suggesting you think about what you eat, that’s all.”
Reality TV star NeNe Leakes and parenting blogger Jeannette Kaplun joined as special guests, contributing their kitchen-savvy to Clinton’s Leek Tart and co-host Daphne Oz’s Pumpkin Corn Fritters. Chef Michael Symon presented his Portobello and Blue Cheese Sandwich, a favorite meatless substitute for his beloved hamburgers.
If you want to cook like a TV chef, try their recipes at home.