Swap Your Meat for Cheese

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Times are tough for omnivores. By now, you’ve heard all the reasons to eat less meat: your health, the planet, the animals. All that might be true, but for many meat-eaters, vegetables aren’t always delicious on their own. Pitiful are the collards without the ham hock, the peppers without the sausage, the snap peas without the shrimp.

In my family’s universe, meat is the sun around which vegetables, beans, and grains revolve. Take it away, and dinner descends into chaos. As the cook of the family, I’m constantly trying to find ways to reduce our meat consumption. But the mouths I feed, mine included, still crave the taste of meat.

Eating less meat and more vegetables can be really difficult—in part because the current meat replacements are so lacking. Do you really crave tempeh? Or a black-bean burger? Yet a solution might already await in your refrigerator—an ingredient that’s easily as savory and satisfying as meat. Toothsome and funky, rich with umami, it makes up for meat’s absence, and then some. If there’s one thing that can turn meat-eaters into plant-lovers, it’s cheese.  

Adding cheese to vegetables is kitchen sorcery. A dusting of Parmesan transforms humble pasta with beans into a filling Italian dinner; slices of grilled Halloumi turn a plate of greens into lunch. In one viral recipe, a slab of feta is baked with tomatoes and garlic to create a luscious pasta sauce. The natural order of a meal: restored. For generations, cooks have used cheese to entice people to eat their vegetables. In other words, cheese is a meat replacement, even though an Italian nonna may not call it that.

Cheese can help address the issues posed by meat and its imitators. Although plant-based meat is an improvement on some of these fronts, drawbacks related to taste, cost, and nutrition remain. As declining demand suggests, it’s far from perfect. Lab-grown meat that is theoretically identical to meat is still a long way off. Tofu is, well, tofu—healthy and minimally harmful for the planet, but most appetizing when slathered in oily, salty sauce. In these regards, cheese isn’t perfect, either. But it’s better than meat.  

Yes, even in terms of health. The long-held belief that cheese is bad for you has been complicated by research—it turns out to depend on what you’d eat instead. Cheese has a bad rap because of its high saturated-fat content. Dietary guidelines warn that saturated fat causes weight gain, which in turn raises the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and other health conditions. All of that is true. Yet perplexingly, large studies show no relationship between cheese consumption and weight gain. In some studies, for reasons that have yet to be explained, eating cheese is even linked to lower weight.

Meat isn’t uniformly bad for you; red and processed types seem to be the worst offenders. And cheese comes out looking even better when it’s specifically eaten as an alternative. The effect of substituting just 1.8 ounces of red or processed meat a day with an ounce of cheese could decrease the incidence of diabetes by 8.8 percent, according to one modeling study. “If you consume a lot of meat, then replacing some of it with cheese is likely better for your health,” Daniel Ibsen, a nutrition professor at Aarhus University, in Denmark, who led that study, told me. Part of the explanation is that some beneficial elements of cheese, such as good fatty acids and probiotic bacteria, may compensate for its unhealthy qualities. But the main reason is likely that red and processed meats are just so bad for you that replacing them with virtually any other protein source is probably better.

Then there is the climate concern. Cheese—especially hard varieties, which require more milk to produce—is unquestionably tough on the planet. The fact that it comes from cows is not great. It has the fourth-highest emissions among major protein sources, after beef, lamb, and farmed crustaceans. Producing 1.7 ounces of cheese emits the same amount of carbon dioxide as charging 356 smartphones using conventional power sources. But here’s the catch: Cheese is typically consumed in far smaller serving sizes than meat. Most of us don’t regularly down a steak-size hunk of Gouda for dinner or substitute a wheel of Camembert for a burger patty. Americans ate nearly 42 pounds of cheese per capita in 2022, a record-breaking amount—yet meat consumption has hovered around 250 pounds annually for the past two decades. A little cheese goes a long way.

Cheese is not a one-to-one meat replacement but rather a way to make plant-based dishes more exciting without missing the meat. This principle has shaped dinner at my house. When plant-based dishes seem too plain, too spartan, too veggie, I think about how to incorporate a bit of cheese. Humdrum asparagus? Lay it down on a bed of labneh. Cheerless lentils? Invigorate them with goat cheese. The dish that might single-handedly turn my family into vegetarians is a northern-Indian dish called saag paneer, in which spiced puréed spinach envelops cubes of squishy, salty, chewy paneer cheese. It’s essentially a meat stew, only the meat is cheese.

Switching from a meat-centered diet to one based on cheese should not be the end goal. Whether cheese is “healthy” depends on who’s eating it: A person concerned about diabetes might benefit from using it in lieu of red meat, but not someone worried about cardiovascular risk, Ibsen said. Cheese doesn’t come cheap—and if you are lactose intolerant, this isn’t for you.

Cheese isn’t the new meat—rather, it’s the bridge to a meatless future, one where calls to enjoy vegetables on their own aren’t annoying, because omnivores are all a little more creative about what a satisfying meal can be. Cauliflower can be seared like steak, mushrooms shredded like chicken, crushed walnuts sautéed like ground chuck. But discovering the joys of meatless cooking takes time. For now, a sprinkling of cheese won’t hurt.

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