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Does meat really need to be the main attraction on the plate?

Does meat really need to be the main attraction on the plate?

More and more, it seems that Jewish cuisine and meat-eating are synonymous. Big shabbat and holiday meals are often centered around meat and chicken. When we think of Jewish food, cholent (or hamin) and Pesach brisket often come to mind. But today we know that over-consumption of meat affects our health, our finances, even the environment. Does meat really need to main attraction on our plates?

Maybe you really looooove meat and your family would mutiny if you went extreme into a no-meat-never diet.  And just maybe, the vegetarian/vegan path is not for you now or ever. I get it and respect that.

But you know what? Eating less meat and dairy need not be a black and white, all or nothing battle. You don’t need to swear off dairy or meat for the rest of your life to enjoy the rewards of more plant based foods. The benefits are personal and universal.

When I started working in lower-income countries I really noticed  that the non-western world views meat differently than we do. Most of the world doesn’t (and can’t!) have meat as the main attraction at the center of their plate.

Meat is more of a a flavoring agent.

Almost a condiment.

For example in Cambodia, it is common for people to tuck an ounce of meat into the soup stock, so the whole soup is infused with a delicious meaty flavor – without all the fat and cost. They shred ½  an ounce of beef over rice or noodles. They drop a bone into the curry base and call it a day.

These simple, strategic preparations give the dish the taste and feel of meat without the actual meat.

In fact, this is probably how all of us ate back in the day. That Shabbat chicken dinner was usually the only meat for the week – and it was probably shared by an entire family plus guests. The rest of the week, it was that illusion of meat – the beef-scented broth and the bits of shredded chicken –  that kept everyone happy.

Kosher meat was too expensive for most Jews to afford to consume much of it. The poor Jews of Russia, for instance, centered their diet around the food that was readily available like potatoes, barley, rye and sauerkraut. Jewish butchers in North Africa often had to pay a tax to the government which made kosher meat five times more expensive than non-kosher meat. Sephardic cuisine focuses on fresh vegetables, couscous, with fish and meat as an added plus for shabbat and holidays.

In recent years, we have discovered that over-consumption of meat is detrimental to individuals and to the environment, so many people have begun to take stock of their meat intake. Over the course of a few years, I’ve slowly transitioned my meat-loving husband and our daughter into a largely (notice I said “largely” and not “totally”) plant-based diet, with minimal fussing.

The secret to my diet-switching success? I watched + learned from my Cambodian neighbors.

You can do exactly the same thing in your kitchen. Love yourself and your family enough to dial back the meat.

  • Top your spaghetti with just a sprinkling of ground beef.
  • Shred one chicken breast and divide that between six salads.
  • Drop a quarter-sized piece of beef into your soup broth and then toss it when the soup is done.

See? Simple. Your family will be eating healthier and they won’t even know it!

About the Author
Kenden Alfond is the creator of Jewish Food Hero, the website that helps you explore beautiful details of Judaism and connect to yourself. Together you’ll create meals that are good for your body, your soul, your family, and the world.