How food can help save the planet

(CNN) — Eating less meat and dairy is one of the ways we can have a positive impact on the future of the planet, as multiple studies on climate change have shown.

But, as anyone with an unused gym subscription can tell you, sticking with a new habit isn’t that easy. Instead of an “all or nothing” approach, though, it’s best to take one step (or one meal) at a time.

If you’ve ever tried Meatless Monday, going vegan before 6, or any other non-vegan method all the time in an effort to reduce your meat intake, you’re probably well on your way to becoming a planetary.

“Planetarian Life” is a website and online community founded by food writer and communication consultant Maggy Keet as a choose-your-own-adventure, plant-based way of eating. The flexible approach she lays out through recipe “formulas” is intended to help people ease into a more plant-rich diet.

The basic ingredients like beans, spices, and herbs in this 15-Minute Skillet Bean Stew by Maggy Keet from Planetarian Life can be changed to create different flavor combinations.

Following the birth of her second child in 2019, Keet was motivated to make changes by thinking about the kind of world her children would inherit. “She was literally up in the middle of the night having weather anxiety,” she said. “I just brought this person into the world: what will her future look like? What will my son’s future look like?”

Who is a “planetary”?

As a member of a family dedicated to food, Keet grew up with first-hand knowledge of making and testing recipes. His mother, Pam Anderson, is a veteran cookbook author and event planner. Together, she and Keet have collaborated on projects over the years, including the “Three Many Cooks” blog and book and “The Big Potluck” food media conference.

Keet planted the seed for “Planetarian Life” based on her experiences doing Meatless Monday, but with fewer restrictions and a greater sense of purpose. “There is vegetarianism and veganism, but these things don’t describe my motive,” he said. “I eat like this for the planet.”

That’s the most basic definition of who a planetarium is, according to Keet: someone who is changing the way they eat and live for the good of the Earth.

“I want it to be a very inclusive definition,” he explained. “It’s intentionally vague, rather than specifically about reducing meat and dairy consumption; some people aren’t going to give up cheese no matter what.” As Keet points out in Planetarian Life’s mission statement: “There is no right or wrong, no judgment, and no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods. (This is not a diet!)”

planetary approach

Keet acknowledges that “there’s a hurdle to overcome” in helping regular cooks shift their perspectives and navigate the logistics of putting meals on the table each day. “The challenge of reinventing the way people eat seems daunting and time-consuming,” he says.

With Planetarian Life, Keet decided to take a baby-step approach. Instead of a straightforward recipe website, he worked with Anderson to create “Capsule Kitchen,” a collection of versatile recipe formulas, ingredient bases, and tutorials to give cooks interested in plants plenty of places to start.

Instead of completely eliminating meat or working with unknown ingredients, the planetary diet is based on making small substitutions in the usual meals according to one’s schedule and tastes.

This can be as simple as using chickpeas instead of roasted chicken to make a “chicken” salad, or cooking a large batch of quinoa to keep on hand for quick roasted vegetable dishes throughout the week.

garbanzo beans

Chickpea “chicken” salad is one of many ways to replace meat in your weekly diet.

For those who don’t know where to start, Keet’s customizable recipes allow cooks to start with the basics—”assembling dishes instead of cooking big meals,” she calls it—and provide flavor-changing options so people feel you’re not eating the same thing every day of the week.

“We offer people the basic formula, a stripped down version, and variations to inspire them with the idea that if you have any spice, any type of onion, you can make this recipe,” he said.

Try these three ways to start eating a more plant-rich diet:

  • Prepare a base recipe, such as simple tomato sauce or lentil and walnut “ground beef”, which you can then use to make five (or more) different meals a week.
  • Add two “essentials,” items that will help enhance the flavor of meals you can already prepare. For example, lightly cooked winter greens or “roasted” garlic can be added to pastas and stews.
  • Start experimenting with variations on a simple formula, like the 15-Minute Skillet Bean Stew. Do it Mediterranean style, with chili or curry.
tomato soup

Maggy Keet prepares a simple tomato sauce base in advance, which can be used to make creamy homemade tomato soup.

Small changes, big impact

Like compound interest, gradual adjustments made to regular meals add up to a larger lifestyle change over time, and are easier to maintain than drastic cuts. Since no food is prohibited in the planetary feeding mode, it is up to each person to take it as far as they want.

Whether your new routine turns into bean tacos on Tuesdays, honey in your tea instead of cane sugar, or dairy-free mac and cheese for family dinner on Fridays, it’s up to you.

“A lot of the climate action narrative is about sacrifice and downsizing and giving things up,” Keet said, but she sees Planetarian Life’s strategy as adding, not subtracting. “Planetarian Life is a compass, not a map: it points you in the right direction,” Keet said.

— Casey Barber is a food writer, illustrator and photographer, and the author of “Pierogi Love: New Takes on an Old-World Comfort Food” and “Classic Snacks Made from Scratch: 70 Homemade Versions of Your Favorite Brand-Name Treats” ; and editor of the Good website. Food. Stories.