Once upon a time I was a vegetarian. Then I married a carnivorous man and for the sake of our marriage, I started eating more meat. These days I no longer fill up on tofu or veggie burgers rounded off by a tall glass of soy milk. However, I still continue to serve vegetarian meals two to three times a week.

During Lent even the most meat-loving Catholic families join me in serving up meatless meals as part of following the laws of abstinence. While it might be tempting for the family chef to prepare old standbys like cheese pizza or greasy fish and chips, I’ve found that Lent is the perfect time to get your family to try out new vegetarian recipes.

Curtailing your meat consumption not only stretches you food dollar, but it helps broaden your family’s culinary horizons by introducing them to new flavors and foods. What’s more, plant based diets are rich in fiber and have been shown to reduce the risk for obesity, some types of cancers, and may help lower high blood pressure.

So why not consider making meatless dishes a regular part of your meal repertoire rather than just something you just do during Lent? Six tips to help your family veg out:

Make beans a pantry staple.

Remember the saying, “Cool beans”? Well, it’s time to start believing in these little guys.  “Beans are nutritionally power-packed, and they’re not too hard on the budget,” says Katie Kimball, founder of Kitchen Stewardship. “They’re also very versatile. You can eat them cold in salads or in Mexican or Italian dishes.”

There are many different types of beans: black beans, lentils, chickpeas, pinto beans, and split peas, so get creative with your recipes. My girls love homemade hummus. Put a can of drained chickpeas (or garbanzo) beans in a food processor or blender. Add one crushed garlic clove, about two tablespoons of Tahini (found in the ethnic food aisle of your grocery store), a dash of paprika, and about 1/8 cup of water. Pulse until almost smooth. Then slowly add extra virgin olive oil in until the mixture is completely smooth. Add more water if the hummus seems too thick. Season with salt.  Serve with whole wheat pita slices and crudites (I call my raw veggies this because the girls think they’re eating something really fancy).

During Lent Katie prepares a hearty lentil stew for her family. “This is what we have for Ash Wednesday and then freeze the rest for Good Friday. It’s very simple and feels penitential.”

Another one crowd pleaser for even for bean-aphobes is her recipe for veggie bean burritos. “Everyone loves this,” she says.

Give tofu a chance.

I’m one of those food freaks who actually really likes tofu. My husband and girls are not. But that doesn’t stop this tofu-lovin’ girl. I’ve discovered sneaky ways to add tofu into our meatless meals for an extra protein boost.  I often add silken tofu into smoothies, and no one notices (I promise). Try this tropical smoothie with the avocado-corn salad

Since tofu doesn’t have much taste and absorbs other flavors, you can also use it to thicken soups. Or crumble firm tofu and then mix it with ricotta fillings for Italian dishes.

Go fish!

If offering your family tofu dogs won’t go over well, don’t despair. Fish is another great way to get more bang for your nutritional buck (think canned tuna!). Although fresh fish can be on the pricey side, a growing body of research shows that eating just one to two servings of fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids each week could reduce your risk of dying from a heart attack by a third or more. Salmon, herring, and tuna are all good bets because of their high levels of omega-3.

While some people worry about mercury in fish, scientists believe this risk is generally outweighed by the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids.

“If you’re concerned about mercury, pay attention to the types of fish you eat and limit your consumption to twice a week. Salmon is typically low in mercury, while large fish such as shark, tilefish, swordfish and king mackerel tend to have higher levels of mercury,” says John Thornton, MD, a cardiologist with the MCG Health Cardiovascular Center.

According to Dr. Thornton, certain groups should take extra care, including pregnant women, nursing mothers, and children under 12.  To be safe, limit the amount and type of fish they eat to:

•  No more than 12 ounces of fish a week

•  No more than six ounces of canned tuna a week

•  No amount of fish that’s typically high in mercury (shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish)

Try these super fast fish recipes from Cooking Light.

Eat more eggs.

The humble egg has gotten a bad rap in our fat-fearing society.  “There’s so much nutrition trapped inside that tiny shell,” Katie says. “God created whole foods and man takes them apart. Put them back together. Forget the egg white omelets. You gotta have the yolks.” In fact, the yolk is a nutritional powerhouse, bursting with fat-soluble vitamins and essential fatty acids.

Do yourself and your family a favor and eat eggs - yolks and all - more often than just at Sunday brunch. Like beans, they’re very versatile. Try a quiche or frittata. Scramble them up with veggies and a dollop of salsa. Katie’s fave “eggs for dinner recipe” is eggs en cotte.

Buy a vegetarian-friendly cookbook.

Some of my favorites: The Grit Cookbook, any The Moosewood Restaurant Cookbook, How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.

The American Dietetic Association is a good resource for recipe ideas and anyone wishing to explore vegetarianism.

Take baby steps.

Not ready to introduce regular vegetarian meals to your meal plan? Then just start small. “Try reducing the ground beef by three-fourths to one-half pound in a favorite casserole dish, and see if anyone misses it,” says Katie. “This is one baby step to reduce your meat consumption and cut your budget.”

You don’t have to go green at every meal. Even if you just continue keeping Friday dinners meatless, you’ll reap some benefits. “Most of us would benefit from eating less meat and filling up on more vegetables and fiber-rich foods,” Katie says.

—This article originally appeared at Faith & Family LIVE

Copyright 2012 Kate Wicker