The last time I ate meat (intentionally—like most vegetarians I’ve had a few accidental meat ingestions) was a ballpark hot dog in the summer of 2002 at Fenway Park in Boston.

We were there on vacation and after the baseball game, we drove out to Cape Cod for the rest of our stay. I distinctly remember stopping at Burger King (the one right after you leave “mainland” behind and the prices double) for dinner that night and staring at the menu, saying to my husband, “Okay, we’re vegetarians now. What do we eat?”

Our decision to go meatless wasn’t a health or environment-related choice, at least not directly. And back then nobody was talking much about carbon footprints or environmental impacts of livestock. Not much. Instead, our decision to go meatless came in the most sensible way possible. It was the result of a bet.

We had been to dinner with my husband’s brother, a longtime vegetarian but also a smoker. He taunted my husband about the skirt steak tacos, and a return taunt about cancer sticks began a friendly banter. Eager to keep the siblings from coming to blows, I interjected, “Wait a minute. How about we give up meat and you quit smoking?”

And thus a month later and with a heavy investment in nicotine patches, my brother-in-law ditched the cigs, and we finished the last package of ground turkey from the freezer and headed off on our East Coast vacation.

In retrospect, it might not have been the wisest idea to quit eating meat at the start of a vacation. We had no idea what TO eat. After that Fenway hot dog and the veggie patty at Burger King, our next meatless meal was a cheese pizza. While we hadn’t gone vegetarian specifically for health reasons, we were quickly headed down the path of the Junk Food Vegetarian, subsisting mainly on cheese pizza and Taco Bell bean burritos. We knew we could get Broccoli and Cheese Hot Pockets, but was this really what eating meatless entailed?

I invested in a copy of Mollie Katzen’s The Moosewood Cookbook, which I found incredibly intimidating. With recipes with titles like “Odessa Beets” and “Bulgarian Pepper Casserole,” I felt vaguely like I was embarking on a journey to a foreign land, cooking as a vegetarian. It led to countless amusing grocery store trips. Where does one find the bulgur wheat, anyway? With flours? Rices? Beans? Other grains?

I’ll be honest. It took several years of meatless eating to get comfortable with the “one pot” meals that most of our dinners are now. I grew up one of five children in the hearty Midwest, where dinner was always composed of a meat, a starch, and a vegetable, usually from a can.

My husband, from a different part of the Midwest but similar in family shape and structure, had parallel experiences with food as a child. As we decided to raise our family meatless (our first child was 11 months old at the time of that last ballpark hot dog, and had never eaten meat), we had to rethink meals entirely.

Here are a few of the lessons we’ve learned:

First, get comfy and familiar with legumes. Legumes, legumes, legumes are your friends. Our favorites are lentils, black beans, and chickpeas.

Second, ditch the idea of replacing your former meat-filled entrees with vegetarian “meat” equivalents. While there is a place for fake meat products in a vegetarian’s diet, I found trying to make my meat dishes work with imitation meat just made me wish I had used ground beef, which was not the point of our grand vegetarian experiment.

Third, be open to the idea of odd grains. Trust me when I tell you faro is really quite delicious, especially with spicy chickpeas and spinach. Quinoa isn’t just a great scrabble word; it’s a hearty grain high in protein. Amaranth, well, I haven’t quite figured it out yet but I want to try.

Four, be open to different-looking meals that don’t quite adhere to common meal structures or standards. I had a great lunch recently of a sliced apple, knob of goat cheese, walnuts, and rice crackers. We have soup for dinner—as a main course—at least once or twice a week. I challenge you to not get full on a lovely lentil stew. Fiber in those legumes (remember suggestion #1!) helps you feel full. We had carrot, red pepper, and saffron soup earlier this week. It is the loveliest shade of deep red-orange.

Five, be prepared for some meal experiments to fail. This is the reason we keep tortillas, jack cheese, and cans of black beans on hand in case of food emergencies. If necessary, I can whip up a homemade (and way better for you) bean burrito in about five minutes, something I have quite a lot of experience with!

What vegetarian meal will YOU eat this week?

Image Credits:

Cover Photo:

Fenway Park:

Lentil Stew: