6 Healthy Meals That Are Light on Meat, but Big on Flavor

Experts have been urging Americans to eat less meat for years, but most of us are reluctant to give up our carnivorous ways. Only 7.4% of people regularly eat a vegetarian diet, an NPR survey found, while 38% of people eat meat five or more times per week.

People are reluctant to give up meat for a whole variety of reasons, as The Huffington Post points out, but one may be they just don’t realize that you can make great-tasting dishes that aren’t meat-centric. Some of these meals are completely vegetarian, while others feature a little meat balanced by a lot of beans, veggies, and other good-for-you ingredients. If you’re trying to cut down on the amount of animal protein you eat, try these five healthy recipes that are light on meat but big on flavor.

1. Slow Cooker Chicken and Bean Tacos


Tacos | iStock.com

Put a healthy spin on a family dinner favorite with these easy-to-make slow cooker tacos from Betty Crocker. The filling is made from chicken breast along with two kinds of beans (a good source of fiber) and fresh bell pepper. As a bonus, this dish is gluten-free, provided you make your tacos with corn tortillas. Makes 12 servings.


  • 20 ounces boneless skinless chicken breasts, trimmed of fat
  • 1 tablespoon canola oil
  • 2 cups chopped onions
  • 1 medium red bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 jalapeño, diced
  • 2 tablespoons chili powder
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 2 teaspoons ground coriander
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 (15-ounce) can tomato sauce
  • 1 (15-ounce) can great northern beans, drained, rinsed, mashed
  • 1 (15-ounce) can black beans, rinsed, drained
  • 24 taco shells or corn tortillas

Optional toppings

  • Lime
  • Chopped avocado
  • Chopped tomato
  • Chopped cilantro
  • Shredded lettuce
  • Sour cream

Directions: Spray a 5- to 6-quart slow cooker with cooking spray. Place chicken in slow cooker.

In 10-inch skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add onions, bell pepper, and jalapeño; cook 4 to 5 minutes or until vegetables begin to soften. Add chili powder, cumin, coriander, and salt. Cook until onions are soft and spices are fragrant; remove from heat. Add tomato sauce and great northern beans; mix well. Stir in black beans. Pour mixture over chicken.

Cover; cook on Low heat setting 4 to 5 hours or on High heat setting 2 to 2½ hours until chicken is tender and cooked through. Remove chicken to cutting board; shred. Return chicken to slow cooker with beans and sauce. Squeeze lime juice over mixture; stir. Serve in taco shells with toppings.

2. Pasta e Fagioli


Soup | iStock.com

Pasta e Fagioli, or pasta and bean soup, is the kind of dish that’s so good you won’t miss the meat. This copycat recipe from Vegan in the Freezer mimics the version served at the Olive Garden, though it omits the ground beef you’ll find in the restaurant version.


  • 8 ounces ditalini pasta
  • 1 tablespoon coconut oil
  • 1 cup white onion, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 4 cups vegetable broth
  • 1 (15-ounce) can diced tomatoes or equivalent amount of fresh diced tomatoes
  • 1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce
  • 2 carrots, chopped
  • 1 celery stalk, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil
  • 1 (15-ounce) can cannellini beans
  • 1 (15-ounce) can kidney beans
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • ¼ teaspoon black ground pepper
  • Parmesan cheese for topping, optional

Directions: Add the oil to a large saucepan and heat over medium. Add the chopped onions and sauté for 5 minutes, until they start to turn soft and translucent. Add the garlic and cook for 1 to 2 minutes more.

Pour in the broth and tomato sauce, along with the tomatoes, carrots, celery, oregano, and basil. Bring to a boil, then add the pasta as well as the cannellini and kidney beans. Reduce heat to medium and cook for 6 to 8 minutes, until the pasta is al dente.

Season to taste with salt and pepper. Ladle soup into bowls, garnish with fresh-grated Parmesan cheese, and serve with crusty bread.

3. Spicy Thai Tofu with Red Bell Peppers and Peanuts

red peppers

Red peppers | iStock.com

If you’ve turned up your nose at tofu in the past, this Thai-inspired recipe from Epicurious may cause you to give it another look. Cooked with crisp bell peppers, fresh ginger, spinach, and soy sauce, this meal is so packed with flavor that you won’t even realize it’s meat-free. Serves 4.


  • ⅓ cup olive oil
  • 2 large red bell peppers, seeded, thinly sliced
  • 3 tablespoons minced peeled fresh ginger
  • 3 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1 (14-to 16-ounce) package extra-firm tofu, drained well, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 3 green onions, thinly sliced on diagonal
  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • ½ to ¾ teaspoon dried crushed red pepper
  • 1 6-ounce bag baby spinach leaves
  • ⅓ cup chopped fresh basil
  • ⅓ cup lightly salted roasted peanuts

Directions: Heat oil in wok over high heat. Add bell peppers, ginger, and garlic; sauté until peppers just begin to soften, about 2 minutes. Add tofu and green onions; toss 2 minutes. Add next three ingredients. Toss to blend, about 1 minute. Add spinach in three additions, tossing until beginning to wilt, about 1 minute for each addition. Mix in basil. Season with salt and pepper. Sprinkle peanuts over.

4. Mushroom and Bacon Frittata

White mushrooms

White mushrooms | iStock.com/alfernec

First, the bad news: Eating too much bacon can cause cancer, according to the World Health Organization. Now, the good news: Bacon packs a ton of flavor in a tiny package, so if you’re not quite ready to give up the savory meat entirely, you can look for ways to eat less of it. This mushroom and bacon frittata recipe from Serious Eats is a great example. Each serving has half a slice of bacon, so you can enjoy the traditional breakfast flavors with slightly less guilt. Egg whites, meanwhile, are a good source of protein, while mushrooms offer a dose of vitamin D. Serves 4.


  • 2 slices bacon
  • ½ cup chopped onion
  • 1½ cups chopped or sliced button mushrooms
  • 2 eggs
  • 6 egg whites
  • Kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • ¼ cup grated Parmesan

Directions: In a medium ovenproof skillet, cook bacon over medium-high heat until crispy. Remove to a plate with a paper towel to drain.

Add onion and mushroom to pan. Sauté until onion is soft and moisture from mushrooms is mostly evaporated, 10 to 12 minutes. Lower heat to medium-low or low and spread vegetables out evenly in pan.

Preheat broiler. In a medium bowl, whisk together eggs, egg whites, and salt and pepper to taste. Pour evenly over mushrooms and onions. Sprinkle Parmesan evenly over egg mixture. Cook until top just begins to set, 5 to 10 minutes.

Crumble bacon and sprinkle evenly over egg mixture. Broil until top is fully set, 2 to 4 minutes. Remove carefully and quickly, cut into four equal pieces. Serve.

5. White Chili

White Chicken Chili

White chili | iStock.com

If you’re living in a house divided between meat eaters and vegetarians, this white bean chili recipe from Kitchen Treaty will be a life-saver. The base recipe is completely meat-free, but you have the option of stirring in some cooked chicken at the end for those who want it. The result is a hearty meal with lots of protein that everyone will love.


  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 medium onions, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 (4-ounce) cans diced mild green chilies
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1½ teaspoons dried oregano
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 teaspoon coarse salt
  • 2 (14-ounce) cans cannellini beans, drained
  • 1 (14-ounce) can pinto beans, drained
  • 4 cups vegetable broth
  • 1 jalapeño with seeds, finely chopped (more if you prefer spicier chili)
  • 2 cups diced cooked chicken, optional (enough for half the chili)

Optional toppings

  • Monterey Jack cheese
  • Cheddar cheese
  • Sour cream
  • Cilantro
  • Salsa
  • Fresh lime wedges

Directions: Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the chopped onion and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes or until soft. Add the garlic, cumin, oregano, cloves, cayenne pepper, and salt. Stir in and cook for 1 minute more.

Add the diced chilies, both types of beans, and vegetable broth to the pan. Continue to cook until the mixture comes to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and let cook for 1 hour.

Add the jalapeño to the chili. If adding the chicken, ladle out half the chili into a separate saucepan. Add the cooked chicken to one pot. Continue to simmer both for another 30 minutes.

Spoon chili into bowls and serve with your preferred toppings.

6. Roasted Veggie Quinoa Bowl

rinsing quinoa

Rinsing quinoa | iStock.com

Eating a variety of colorful fruits and veggies is key to getting all the nutrients you need in your diet. Fortunately, this roasted veggie quinoa bowl makes it easy to eat the rainbow. This recipe from Minimalist Baker features carrots, Brussels sprouts, and potatoes, plus protein-rich quinoa. Serves 4.


For the veggies

  • 4 whole carrots, peeled and quartered
  • 1½ cups quartered baby yellow potatoes
  • 2 tablespoons maple syrup, divided
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • Pinch sea salt
  • Black black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh or dried rosemary
  • 2 cups halved Brussels sprouts

For the quinoa

  • 1 cup white quinoa, well rinsed and drained
  • 1¾ cups water
  • Pinch sea salt

For the dressing

  • ½ cup tahini
  • 1 lemon, juiced
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons maple syrup

For serving

  • Fresh herbs, such as parsley or thyme
  • Pomegranate seeds

Directions: Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a rimmed baking pan with parchment paper.

Place the carrots and potatoes on the baking sheet. Drizzle with 1 tablespoon maple syrup and 1 tablespoon olive oil. Sprinkle on the salt, pepper, and rosemary. Toss to combine. Transfer to oven and cook for 12 minutes.

As the vegetables are roasting, heat a saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the quinoa and lightly sauté for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring frequently. Pour in the water and add a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cover. Cook until all the liquid is absorbed, about 18 to 22 minutes.

Uncover the pan and use a fork to fluff the quinoa. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside.

After the potatoes and carrots have cooked for 12 minutes, remove from the oven and add the Brussels sprouts. Drizzle the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil and 1 tablespoon maple syrup over the vegetables and add a pinch more of salt and pepper. Toss to combine.

Return the vegetable to the oven and continue to cook for another 10 to 12 minutes. The vegetables are done when the Brussels sprouts turn golden brown in color and the carrots and potatoes can be easily pierced with a fork.

To make the dressing, add the tahini, lemon juice, and maple syrup to a small bowl. Whisk to combine. Pour in 2 tablespoons warm water and continue to whisk until the dressing reaches a pourable consistency, adding more water if needed. Taste and add additional maple syrup or lemon juice as necessary.

Add the quinoa to bowls and top with the vegetables. Drizzle on some of the maple-tahini dressing and garnish with pomegranate seeds or fresh herbs if desired.