The triple threat of continued COVID conditions, increasing political unrest and prolonged economic uncertainty is killing my nerves. As I look to the kitchen for comfort, I return to the Sunday dinners my mom put on the table after Mass when I was a kid.

A roast was always the center of attention. The affordable cut would often slide into the oven topped with sliced salt pork to add flavor and stretch the volume to feed seven. The pan gravy, made with a good beef stock, was poured over potatoes mashed with sweet butter and whole milk, the latter also filled the glasses of the five kids seated around the table. There was a required vegetable and an optional green salad dressed with oil and vinegar. But the meal was about the meat, and therein still lies my comfort zone, despite all I now know about the sustainability of a plant-based diet and the unsustainable nature of industrially raised animal proteins. I can pinpoint a dozen ways in which I try to reduce the amount of meat I eat, but I don’t foresee a day in which that number will hit zero.

According a 2019 survey conducted by the International Food Information Council, non-profit foundation set up to communicate science-based information about food safety and nutrition to health professionals, government officials, educators, journalists and consumers, 2020 was supposed to be the year that more consumers would become more concerned about the role the food system plays in climate change. Given that industrial meat production accounts for as much as 18 percent of the agriculture sector’s greenhouse gas emissions, respondents said sustainability concerns would be the major driver toward plant-based diets in 2020.

However, the 2019 survey results also show that consumers’ conceptions of what comprises a plant-based diet vary. About one-third (32%) of consumers surveyed said a plant-based diet is a strictly vegan diet, while another roughly 30% defined it as a diet that emphasizes minimally processed foods that come from plants, with limited consumption of animal meat, eggs and dairy. Another 20% believed it to be a vegetarian diet that avoids animal meat but allows for eggs and dairy, and some 8% said it is a diet in which you try to get as many fruits and vegetables as possible, with no limit on consuming animal meat, eggs and dairy. If this were a ranked-choice voting situation, the top of my ticket would be the second (reducetarian) option, followed by the vegetarian diet, with the all-out vegan candidate as a last option.

Columnist Christine Burns Rudalevige sifts the dry ingredients for her cake. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The 2020 iteration of this survey was conducted in late April and the 1,011 Americans ages 18 to 80 who participated were quizzed on how their eating habits are changing during the pandemic. It’s no surprise that folks are cooking at home more and shopping for food less frequently. As far as animal proteins are concerned, the survey says that 28% are eating more protein derived from plant sources, 24% are eating more plant-based dairy products, and 17% are eating more plant-based meat alternatives.

Those results should not be surprising either, given the widespread shut downs of slaughterhouses due to COVID-19 outbreaks, growing concerns about slaughterhouse employees, rising meat prices and the connections that have been drawn between pandemics and how animals raised for human consumption are treated. There is no arguing that plant-based meat alternatives – Beyond Meat sausages, Impossible Burgers, Tyson’s Raised & Roosted nuggets – are cashing in. Some estimates show that market segment growing by 400 percent between 2019 and 2020. That said, market research firm 210 Analytics says that as monthly meat alternative sales in the U.S. hover around $100 million, monthly meat sales cash in at $6.2 billion. There’s a lot of room to reduce that second number for the health of the planet, for sure.

The folks at the International Food Information Council say their data shows that if you name your intention to change your diet to eat less meat, you’ll have better success at doing it. Respondents following a specific plant-based diet (like vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian or flexitarian) were the premier drivers of the overall increased consumption of plant-based proteins. In fact, 41% of these specified dieters say they increased consumption of protein from plant sources (vs. 18% of those not following a specific diet) and 28% say they eat more plant-based meat alternatives (vs. just 9% of those not following a specific diet).

So here goes nothing. I’m a reducetarian, and I’m actively looking for ways to reduce the amount of animal products in my comfort foods.

CHRISTINE BURNS RUDALEVIGE is a food writer, recipe developer and tester, and cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a cookbook from Islandport based on these columns. She can be contacted at [email protected]

A slice of vegan Butternut Squash Cake is doing its bit for the health of the planet (and probably for your health, too). Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Vegan Butternut Squash Cake
My neighbor, who happens to be the vice president for operations for The Humane League, an organization that works to end the abuse of animals raised for food, gave me a loaf of vegan pumpkin bread last fall that compared to none I’ve eaten in the past. The recipe comes from Portland, Oregon-based vegan food blogger Nora Taylor. This version is adapted from that one using ingredients I had on hand – butternut squash puree instead of canned pumpkin, molasses and white sugar instead of brown sugar, and oat milk instead of soy.
Makes a 10-inch round cake or a 9- by 5 loaf

1 tablespoon ground flaxseeds
1 ½ cups butternut squash puree
1 ¼ cups sugar
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon molasses
½ cup vegetable oil
¼ cup oat milk
1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
½ cup pepitas

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and grease either a 10-inch round cake pan or a 9- by 5-inch loaf pan.

In a large bowl, combine the flaxseeds with 3 tablespoons water. Let sit for 10 minutes until it thickens. Add the squash puree, sugar, molasses, oil and oat milk and whisk to combine.

Place the flour into a sifter. Add the baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves on top of the flour. Sift the dry ingredients into the bowl with the wet ingredients and stir until the ingredients just combine. Do not over mix.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and sprinkle the pepitas on top. Bake for 40-45 minutes if using a round pan and 70-75 if using a loaf pan. The cake is done with a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Let the cake cool in the pan for 10-15 minutes, then transfer it to a cooling rack. Let it cool completely before slicing it.

Green Plate Special: Just what is a plant-based diet? Opinions vary

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