Tofu stir fry over brown rice

If you’ve been looking forward to a summer of grilling on the patio or in the backyard, you may need to change your plans.

Meat cases in some supermarkets are starting to resemble the toilet paper shelves of two months ago. Beef and pork especially are getting harder to find—and more expensive. And even when you can find it, the cut you want might not be available, or your store may, like many, be limiting how much of it you can buy.

The cause is, at least indirectly, the COVID-19 pandemic. Thousands of meat plant employees became ill, which led almost two dozen plants to shut down and many more to reduce production.

In a new, nationally representative Consumer Reports survey of 2,164 Americans, almost half reported that they haven’t always been able to find the beef, pork, or poultry they wanted during the pandemic.

President Donald Trump has deployed the Defense Production Act to order plants to stay open. But experts say they don’t expect to see changes any time soon.

According to a report from CoBank (a company that lends to food producers), meat supplies will be 30 percent lower and prices as much as 20 percent higher by Memorial Day. But these shortages don’t have to be a hardship.

“Most people eat more meat than they should,” says Amy Keating, R.D., nutritionist at CR. “So think about using the meat shortage as an opportunity to develop a healthy habit: eating more plant proteins.”

Meat vs. Plant Protein

Beef, pork, and poultry aren’t the only sources of protein—or the only centerpieces for a hearty meal—and in many ways they’re not the best, either.

“As a general rule, the scientific evidence shows that eating meat is actually deleterious to health,” says Dana Hunnes Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D., adjunct assistant professor at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health in Los Angeles. Many studies show that whole-food, plant-based diets promote health and lower the risk for chronic diseases—diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, and cancers—she adds.

More on Food During the Pandemic

For example, if plant-based diets became the standard, rather than the exception, up to 11.6 million deaths per year might be prevented worldwide, according to a 2019 report in The Lancet.

Another review, published in the journal Circulation, looked at studies that compared diets high in red meat with those that emphasized other animal and plant proteins, and found that subbing in plant protein for red meat resulted in a 10.20 mg/dL decrease in total cholesterol and a 7.65 mg/dL decrease in LDL (bad) cholesterol.

Protein is a crucial nutrient. But meat, though it packs a lot of protein (about 26 grams in a 3-ounce steak) often comes with a hefty dose of saturated fat, which is probably responsible for a number of the health problems associated with heavy consumption. And processed meats, such as sausage, bacon, and deli meats, also contain excessive sodium and additives that can be unhealthy.

There are plenty of plant proteins to turn to. You probably already have a fair amount of peanut butter and beans in your cupboards; other sources include tofu, lentils, chickpeas, nuts, and whole grains.

Cheese, yogurt, and eggs are also good sources and can replace meat, too, but “it's easy to get all the protein you need from plant foods,” says CR’s Keating. “Plus, eating more plants will give you more of the nutrients many of us don’t get enough of, like antioxidants, potassium, healthy fats, and fiber.”

While some sources of plant protein, like nuts, do contain fats, they’re generally healthy ones, not the saturated fats that red meat is loaded with. “And plant proteins tend to be anti-inflammatory,” adds Hunnes, meaning they put a damper on the low-level inflammation that is at the root of many chronic diseases.

“So, if anything, the fact that there is a meat shortage should hopefully encourage people to look towards other alternative food products, including plant-based meats, legumes, and other plant-based proteins,” Hunnes says. Depending on your appetite for meat and your taste, there are several ways to go.

Tasty Ways to Minimize Meat

Stretch meat with mushrooms. To make a small amount of ground meat go further, mushrooms can be an almost magical secret ingredient, adding moisture, bulk, and flavor when you sub them in for half the meat called for in meatloaf or meatballs. “For example, when I make tacos, I cut up a package of mushrooms to blend with ground beef, and then mix in black beans,” says Charlotte Vallaeys, senior policy analyst in food safety and nutrition at CR. “I’ve done this for a while now, and nobody in my family has noticed that they’re consuming about half the amount of beef they were used to.”

Use meat for flavor. Sure, meat can be delicious, but so can ketchup, and you wouldn’t make a meal out of that. Thomas Jefferson said he used meat “as a condiment” and thinking of it that way, rather than as a main course, can help you emphasize plant protein. Instead of sitting down to a whole roast chicken, for example, you can use the chicken in a stir-fry and still have some left over for enchiladas or stew on another day. 

Substitute plant proteins in sauces, stews, curries, and chilis. Rich simmered foods like this rely on a melange of spices and tastes melding together for their savoriness, so you might not need as much meat as you think—or any at all. Try swapping in bulgur wheat for part of all of the meat in a spaghetti meat sauce, for instance, or replace ground beef in chili with beans.  

Mix things up. “It’s all about reorganizing the way meat is served,” Vallaeys says. For example, to get her family to stop eating so much sausage, she switched from serving links with a side of potatoes or rice and roasted vegetables to removing the sausage from the casing, cooking it, and crumbling it into a pasta and roasted veggie dish.  

Make veggies the main dish. It may be easiest if you choose those with the heft, texture, or flavor of meat. Thick-cut cauliflower steaks, for example, can offer some of the same tactile satisfaction as a slab of meat, while portobello mushrooms provide some meaty texture and taste.

Explore meat substitutes. Soy-based foods, such as tofu and tempeh, are classic options, but more recent innovations are available, too, and some may even be grill-friendly. “Try grilled tofu in place of meat on skewers, for example,” Hunnes says. (Be sure to use super-firm vacuum-packed tofu.)

Make Your Own Veggie Burgers

And as we enter grilling season, you can make veggie burgers yourself with these recipes from Claudia Gallo, a member of CR’s food test team and professional chef. They’ll even help you use up some of those black beans and quinoa you may have stockpiled back in March.

This recipe has two variations, black bean and corn, and carrot and parsley. You can make a big batch to freeze, so you have them at hand for a quick meal. Wrap the uncooked burgers individually, and once they’re frozen, put them in a plastic zip bag. Don’t thaw before cooking.

1. Make the Base
Heat 1 teaspoon olive oil in a nonstick skillet over medium heat. Sauté ¼ cup each finely chopped onion and red pepper and 1 clove minced garlic until soft, 4 to 5 minutes. Place in a large bowl and add 1¼ cup cooked quinoa, ½ cup panko bread crumbs, 1 egg, ½ cup grated sharp cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese, and ⅛ teaspoon each salt and black pepper.

2. Choose Your Style
For black bean and corn: Add ½ cup black beans, ½ cup corn, ¼ cup chopped cilantro, and ½ teaspoon chili powder.

For carrot and parsley:
Add 1 cup grated carrot, 1 tablespoon tahini, 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice, ½ teaspoon cumin, and ¼ cup chopped parsley.

3. Chill and Cook
With wet hands, gently form six patties. Refrigerate, uncovered, until firm, at least 30 minutes or up to 4 hours. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a nonstick skillet over medium heat or on a grill. Cook until browned on one side, about 5 minutes. Flip and cook about 5 minutes more.

4. Top and Serve
Top black bean burgers with salsa and avocado. Top carrot burgers with tzatziki.

Nutrition Information Per Burger
170 calories, 9 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 17 g carbs, 3 g fiber, 2 g sugars,  6 g protein, 150 mg sodium.

Black bean: 180 calories, 8 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 20 g carbs, 3 g fiber, 1 g sugars, 7 g protein, 210 mg sodium.