By Rebecca Portman

Brisket, potato kugel, roasted chicken, squash casserole and matzah ball soup. Sounds like a traditional Rosh Hashanah meal.

Those items have certainly been staples on my table during many Jewish New Year’s celebrations. Four years ago, when I started replacing animal-based ingredients with plant-based ones, I wondered whether I could continue those traditions.

Rebecca Portman

Rebecca Portman

After learning about the health and environmental benefits of eating fewer animal products and more plant-based foods, not to mention the obvious benefit to the animals who suffer in our industrialized food system, I was determined.

Happily, it didn’t take long for me to discover tasty plant-based versions of matzah balls and kugel, chicken-inspired dishes sans the chicken, and many other meals that are part of my family’s tradition. Not only has it been easier than I could have imagined, but my Rosh Hashanah table is now filled with variations that are more nutritious, more flavorful, and, get this, less costly.

Rosh Hashanah, being a time for introspection, provides the perfect opportunity for making better food choices, especially when one considers tsa’ar ba’alei chayim, the principle that bans inflicting unnecessary pain on animals.

As a nation, we’ve become more conscientious about where our food comes from and how it gets onto our plate. Many of the animals we consume for food are pumped full of hormones and antibiotics, fed an unnatural diet, and kept in egregious conditions.

Many people aren’t aware that the only dietary source of cholesterol is food made from animal products, which are also high in saturated fat. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, chronic diseases such as diabetes and obesity may be prevented by replacing some animal products with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds.

Eating less meat also helps the environment. The Environmental Working Group warns, “Meat production is one of humanity’s most destructive and least efficient systems, accounting for astounding levels of wildlife losses, land and water pollution, deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions.”

It’s easier than ever to improve our eating habits, especially with the abundance of plant-based food now available in most stores where we buy our groceries, including Target and Walmart.

Here are some simple ways to provide the tradition and taste our guests enjoy during the holiday season while maintaining the values and goals of eating a healthier, sustainable and more humane diet.

First, you would be surprised that many foods you eat are already plant-based: potato and pasta dishes, sautéed and grilled vegetables, hearty whole grains and salads. Matzah ball soup can be homemade with vegetable broth (such as Not Chick’n broth), and there are even recipes for plant-based matzah balls.

As for alternatives to brisket, there are great recipes using seitan (wheat gluten), which can be found at your local Whole Foods, Earth Fare or Fresh Market. An example is this recipe at OneGreenPlanet: www.onegreenplanet.org/vegan-recipe/braised-seitan-short-ribs-in-spicy-chile-sauce. Although the recipe includes instructions for making homemade seitan, store-bought may be used to save time. And, of course, the flavor can be modified to taste.

Instead of chicken, why not give tofu or tempeh a try? A whole head of cauliflower roasted makes an impressive (and delicious) centerpiece to the meal.

Not only are these options better for our health, planet and animals, but they’re also better for our wallet.

A Rosh Hashanah dinner for 12 that includes kosher meat costs approximately $150 to $200, based on my seasoned mother-in-law’s shopping list. Rosh Hashanah dinner for 12 excluding animal-based products costs approximately $70, including soup and dessert.

The final key is to remember that eating with a conscience doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Rather, it might simply mean following the three R’s of eating: “reducing” or “replacing” consumption of animal products and “refining” our diets by choosing products from sources that adhere to higher animal welfare standards.

I hope you all have a happy, healthy and sweet new year.

Rebecca Portman is the Georgia-based food policy coordinator for the Humane Society of the United States.