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As eating habits change, expect more meatless meals

Kevin Carter and Margaret Nichols of La Fete Catering in Natick.

Juliette Lynch for The Boston Globe

Kevin Carter and Margaret Nichols of La Fete Catering in Natick.

After weeks of holiday extravaganzas, it’s no surprise that eating less and exercising more are two common New Year’s resolutions. Cutting back on meat is often part of a plan to establish healthier habits in general and data show that many Americans have already begun the reduction.

It’s a matter of health for some; for others it’s environmental and ethical concerns, primarily the sustainability of the land and humane treatment of animals. For over 10 years, the Meatless Monday campaign has promoted non-meat meals at least once a week, and in many families it has caught on. Another reason for the dip — total US beef consumption has fallen from a peak of about 28 billion pounds in 2007 to 25.8 billion pounds in 2012 — is that beef squeezes the family budget and takes longer to prepare.

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Two things change eating habits, says Harry Balzer, chief food industry analyst of New York-based NPD Group. “It either saves money or it saves time.” Any cook knows that a traditional meal of meat accompanied by two or three sides requires more cooking and clean-up than, say, a sandwich or a one-pot pasta dish.

At the Meat Spot in Watertown, owner Dikran Ucuz is selling fewer beef roasts and legs of lamb and more quick-cooking, small cuts, such as chicken cutlets and marinated steak tips.

But Balzer says America is “still a country that eats meat.” We’ve just become less meat-centric, “more likely to have meat as an ingredient,” he says, in pasta dishes, sandwiches, soups, and salads.

Some families move away from meat because of circumstance. Shawna Levine’s daughter Melanie, 22, a vegetarian for seven years, “has had a big influence on how we cook,” says the mom. Levine and her husband, Jeffrey, Wayland residents, still eat chicken, fish, and occasionally beef, but also two or three vegetarian dinners a week, such as stuffed peppers, spinach and black bean enchiladas, zucchini-basil lasagna, eggplant Parmesan, and acorn squash filled with quinoa and dried fruit. “You can have a meal without meat and still feel satisfied,” says Shawna.

While home cooking patterns are changing, it’s a different story at steakhouses. “Beef sales are almost higher than ever,” says Jay Murray, executive chef of Grill 23 & Bar. He attributes the appetite for red meat to people splurging in restaurants, and to the better quality of beef offered there.

Dikran and Karen Ucuz at the Meat Spot in Watertown.

Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff

Dikran and Karen Ucuz at the Meat Spot in Watertown.

Brides and party hosts are still offering all kinds of beef cuts. What has changed, according to La Fete Catering chef and co-owner Kevin Carter, is the choice of two entrees at sit-down events (guests typically select one on the RSVP card). Seafood is usually an option, says the Natick caterer, with salmon most popular year round. Carter’s wife and business partner, Margaret Nichols, thinks that “beef is still special to people.” At a recent wedding, the caterers served three small plates: fish and chips, vegetable risotto, and braised short rib. The ribs were by far the most popular.

Frank Vitale, meat director for Roche Bros., spots two trends. One is the younger generation eating less meat, the other a steady rise in the sales of natural and organic chicken and beef. “People who don’t want to give up eating meat want to eat more healthful meats,” he says.

With traditional plates of meat-veggie-starch a thing of the past, home cooks are eager to spruce up their vegetable repertoires. Diane Thomson, who oversees cookbooks at New England Mobile Book Fair in Newton, says, “A lot of customers are saying they’re eating less or no meat and want some new recipes.” Anyone looking for inspiration can find it in a slew of new volumes, including from authors Deborah Madison, Mollie Katzen, and Yotam Ottolenghi.

NPD’s Balzer says, “We’re looking for alternative protein sources,” and those might be yogurt, protein bars, chicken, and eggs.

Beans may not nudge beef off the plate anytime soon, but Americans are cutting back on meat. After a while, their wallets and waistlines will thank them.

A recipe for roasted vegetable timbales from La Fete Catering, click here.

Lisa Zwirn can be reached at lisa@lisazwirn.com.
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