It's not just a question of animal ethics. Meat production is humankind's least efficient means of feeding itself. For every pound of meat that goes to the plate, it took sixteen pounds of grain and soybean feed to put it there. On top of this, each calorie of meat protein requires approximately 78 calories of fossil fuels to produce. And at a time where 4,000 children die each day from the lack of safe water, livestock production — including feeds — accounts for about half the fresh water used in industrialized nations.

In short: an affluent, meat-rich diet consumes up to three times more resources than one based on vegetables.

Pretty gloomy statistics. There's really no argument with the idea that a well-constructed vegetarian diet is better for our bodies and the environment. Of course, it's easier said than done. Meat-eating is synonymous with health and prosperity in much of the West. Attend a business dinner, and you can be assured the main course is meat. It's tough to find vegetarian food when you're eating out. Going veggie is a significant commitment.

The good news is this: every vegetarian meal makes a difference. Maybe you're not ready to swear off barbecue forever. Choosing a day or two a week to eat vegetarian is a great start, and allows you to sample the variety and satisfaction of veggie cooking on your own timetable.

It's National Vegetarian Week. Through this weekend, all over the world, vegetarian groups and restaurants are staging events showing off healthy, green cooking. Even if you can't find something close to you, it's a great time to explore the possibilities of veggie cuisine.

Want to give it a shot? Here are some ideas to get you going:

Start small

Pick one day out of the week to be your "veggie day" and stick with it. If you're planning to do an all-vegetarian day, rather than a single meal, the weekend is a good place to start: you'll have more control over your schedule. Some families start by dedicating a single sit-down meal — Friday dinner, for instance — to veggie fare. Whatever works best with your busy schedule.

By essentially making an appointment with vegetarianism, you're confronting the big stumbling block for new Veggies — planning. Like any new habit, practice makes perfect. Knowing you need a meal plan (or three) a week in advance allows you to browse for recipes well in advance. More importantly, it allows you to shop. Having your veggie foods at hand following a long day at work will make it less likely that you'll be ordering out for pepperoni pizza at the last minute.

Once you have your day, resolve to maintain it at least three months. In 90 days, you'll see just how easy things were once you got organized.

Convenience is your friend

Let's face it: frozen foods are generally not as environmentally friendly as eating fresh and local. It takes a lot of energy to keep frozen foods cold from factory to freezer, but there's no denying their convenience.

Almost all grocery stores have a frozen vegetarian food section these days. Annie's Naturals, Boca Burger, Eden Foods, Fantastic Foods, Gardenburger, Morningstar and dozens of others sell an incredible range of veggie, organic and vegan entrées — all ready for quick preparation on your range or in the microwave.

Load up, particularly as you're just getting started on a three-meal veggie routine. There's no quicker way to kill a new vegetarian habit than dreading getting into the kitchen. Make a few meals easy, and spend your time elsewhere.

Get the tools of the trade

Vegetarian cooking can be more labor-intensive than just tossing a steak on the grill. Like Asian cuisine, there's a fair amount of cutting, slicing and dicing involved.

Which isn't a bad thing. There's nothing more natural than preparing food, and once you have the right tools, you'll probably find it a great way to relax and unwind. So make sure your kitchen is equipped for veggie cooking.

A high-carbon or stainless steel Chinese cleaver is probably the most versatile food preparation implement on the planet. You can do practically anything with it, from delicate cutting to smashing garlic cloves with its flat side. You'll want a few decent fruit and vegetable knives in several sizes and plenty of bowls to hold chopped-up veggies while you're cooking.

A blender and a food processor are veggie essentials, particularly as you move into more complicated recipes. A lot of vegetarians have a heavy wooden cutting board or block for a working surface. You'll eventually want a rice cooker: they're convenient and energy-efficient. A spay bottle with a 50/50 mix of water and white vinegar is helpful for cleaning veggies, too.

Study up

Going veggie isn't just leaving out the meat. You'll need some balance in your diet — and variety. Like any new practice, you'll do better with vegetarian cooking if you seek out some instruction.

Here's an excuse to prowl your local new or used bookstore. Vegetarian cookbooks are hot. You'll find everything from books which help you replicate traditional recipes — veggie style — to ethnic cooking, to the uncharted waters of the truly avant-garde.

And then there's Google. Pop in the search query "vegetarian cooking" and you'll see there are thousands of free resources at your disposal. A few which really stick out: Vegweb's impressive archive of veggie and vegan recipes; VegCooking, with its magazine-style survey of all things veggie, and the offbeat PostPunkKitchen, a fully vegan site with a lot of attitude and style.

Try some vegetarian restaurants

It's homework! The quickest way to get a feel for the broad variety of vegetarian possibilities out there — and get a sense of what you might like to try cooking at home — is to hit a few restaurants which specialize in veggie cuisine.

Vegetarianism isn't just hot — it's haute. So you'll find everything from funky little bistros with a hippie vibe to high-concept, high-end restaurants with prices to match. Your local Whole Foods or health store probably has a deli, also.

Make the rounds and try different things on the menus. It won't be long before you develop favorites. Take the ideas you pick up and try them in your own kitchen.

That grilled veggie wrap with hummus? You're going to like it. Really.

Copyright Lighter Footstep 2007

The easy way to give up meat
Want to help the environment? Consider cutting back on the amount of meat you consume -- or go vegetarian altogether.