Vegetarianism: More Than What “Meats” the Eye

When I was growing up I too often had to explain my vegetarian diet and the soy substitutes I ate to my friends at lunch time; the phrase I seemed to gravitate towards to explain my unconventional lunch box foods was, “I don’t eat meat, but I eat fake meat”. My classmates always replied to that statement, perplexed: “Wait, you eat plastic?”

Soy Substitutes Made Simple

If you’re thinking about making Mondays meatless, or adopting a fully vegetarian diet, it can’t hurt to have some grocery shopping tips to help you navigate your way around the soy substitutes that line the grocery store shelves.

I’ve been a vegetarian for 20 years and I’ve tried many brands and products. I have found great tasting products that fit seamlessly into familiar recipes, and that can truly substitute for the meat in your favorite dishes.

These are my top three favorite soy substitutes:

1. Morningstar Farms Grillers Original:

This hamburger substitute is my childhood favorite. We would bring a box or two of these to barbecues and grill them up in just 5 short minutes. They are simple to make and taste delicious - even my friends who’ve taken a chance on these veggie burgers have chosen them over beef burgers. That certainly says something.

2. Morningstar Farms Veggie Bacon Strips:

Bacon egg and cheese on a bagel is a weekend morning staple, and while I myself have never had a “real” bacon egg and cheese, I know that many people would be hesitant to give those crispy strips up. I grew up eating these bacon strips at the breakfast table, and when they “accidentally” get covered in maple syrup I promise that even a bacon-lover would have to agree that they’re divine.   

3. Trader Joe’s Chicken-Less Mandarin Orange Morsels:

Until I went to college I had never eaten a soy substitute in a Chinese take out dish. While my friends were placing orders for General Tso’s and Sweet and Sour Chicken, I routinely ordered the Vegetable Lo Mein or Broccoli with Garlic Sauce—and that was that. Then I found these Mandarin Chicken Morsels at Trader Joe’s and everything changed. These are perfect with stir-fried veggies and steamed brown rice; I’m definitely not missing my old take out  “go-tos.”

Obviously “fake” was not the best word to describe these foods—but with the limited vocabulary that I had at such a young age, it was the best I could do.

I have always struggled explaining exactly why I am a vegetarian. At nearly every meal someone inevitably asks “Why?” and until just a few years ago I didn’t have a very good explanation. My siblings and I were raised in a vegetarian household. Veggie burgers made frequent appearances at the dinner table, and until I started to actually like vegetables, bread, cheese, and tomato sauce made up at least one part or all parts of each meal I ate.

It was more than just what I did and did not eat. Among the various pets we had growing up, a few years in a row my mom “adopted” a cow named Dolly for us, from Farm Sanctuary—her picture was taped onto the dryer in our laundry room for as long as I can remember.

The Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, NY spans over 175 acres and is home to more than 500 rescued farm animals including cows, chickens, and sheep. Their focus is multifaceted, and they consider factory farming practices inhumane as well as unsustainable. According to the USDA Livestock Slaughter 2013 Summary, commercial cattle slaughter during 2013 totaled 32.5 million heads.  

Farm Sanctuary spared Dolly from facing a terrifying fate, but they also relieved a certain environmental burden.  To produce one pound of beef (and a cow like Dolly could have yielded upwards of 400 pounds in “retail cuts”), it takes an estimated 1,799 gallons of water, which is roughly as much water as it would take to run the dishwasher 150 times

Only until I started to want a better explanation for my choices did my vegetarianism become less of a routine and more purposeful. My mom, who made the original decision to raise her children as vegetarians, always believed that I would be the first to rebel. Well mom, I haven’t picked up a hamburger yet - not because I wanted to prove you wrong, but because my vegetarianism has evolved and come to mean something personal to me, and to our planet.

The global food-system is complicated, and the journey from farm to plate is one that requires more than what meets the eye; farming inputs like water and fossil fuels are two very precious and finite resources that we need to use more sparingly.

When compared with current food intake in the US, a vegetarian diet could reduce water consumption by up to 58% per person.  So I ask those of you who didn’t have a Dolly growing up, or someone who made a dietary choice for you, to think about what you eat every day. I mean really think about it. Eating, and more importantly choosing what we eat, is more than just something we do. It has an impact on our planet. 

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Farm Sanctuary cows in the summer (Photo: Derek Goodwin for Farm Sanctuary)
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