On Letting Meat Play a Supporting Role

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When we were young(er) and broke(r), I didn't know what to do about meat. I'm a meat eater and, nursing a newborn, I was always hungry. Fine. That's just an excuse. I'm just a big eater, lactating or not. I didn't want to subsist on rice and beans, and tofu wasn't all that cheap. The meat I craved was grass-fed, antibiotic and hormone free, and preferably from a nearby farm. The good stuff does not come cheap! Our $10 weekly vegetable co-op bag formed the base of our menu, and I learned to use meat sparingly.

I tell my children that an easy way to make healthy choices is to look at the plate. The largest portion should be vegetables, the second largest grains, beans or fillers like potatoes, and the smallest portion, if you want it there at all, should be animal protein. This has been good for our budget, the environment and our health. (I do not take any responsibility for the gooey delicious sandwiches my husband consumes during the workday, away from home. I'm happy for him, but he really could use a few more vegetables. But I'm not his mother, so.)

I got pretty good at cooking without meat, and many of our meals were actually — gasp! — vegetarian. Back then, I went to a playgroup full of hippies, other families who cloth diapered, made alternative birth choices, home schooled, ate vegetables, maybe even leaned to the left politically (hey, that's a rarity 'round these parts). I didn't really qualify, but I found some kindred spirits and enjoyed getting to know a nice bunch of mothers. Discussing food budgets one day while our babies rolled around on blankets on the floor, I was shocked to learn how many of them served meat as the focus of every meal. Many of us had been raised that way. The answer to, "What's for dinner?" was meat, and the sides were an afterthought.

As our food budget grew over the years, meat and fish appeared more regularly on our table, but the habits we developed on a budget stuck, and I'm glad. A little meat goes a long way! One of the first recipes I made using meat as an accent was Better Homes and Gardens' Beans and Greens, the perfect meal to fill my grandmother's big cast iron pan and still a favorite, fifteen years later.

Here are a few more recipes where meat isn't the main attraction...

As my sons grow older, taller and hungrier, I am looking for more ways to make hearty meals without doubling or tripling our food budget. Using meat as an accent is a good way to do it.

How do you cook with meat? When meat's on the menu, is it the star or does it play a supporting role?

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(Image credits: Kitchn reader Sarah)