It began with something my twin daughters learned in a biology class. According to their teacher, the average North American family could reduce their ecological footprint more by switching to a vegetarian diet than by taking a car off the road. This was hard to believe, so I decided to do some fact-checking of my own.

It didn’t take me long to confirm this statement. I found a 2006 United Nations report online that estimates that animals raised for food contribute 18 per cent of annual worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. That’s more than all the SUVs, cars, trucks, planes and ships in the world combined. A more recent article (World Watch Magazine, October, 2009) argues that the UN’s figure is too conservative, that livestock actually contributes closer to 51 per cent of greenhouse gases. The bottom line: meat production is a significant contributor to global warming.

In light of this information, my oldest daughters and I agreed that going meatless for a month would be a worthwhile challenge. The idea got a mixed response from the rest of the family, but in the end we compromised. I made it clear that I wouldn’t be buying or serving meat for the next 30 days. What each family member purchased/prepared/ate on their own was up to them.

Coming up with a healthy meal plan for the month was my next research project. Going vegetarian isn’t simply a matter of removing meat from the menu. Meat is a high-quality source of protein, which is important for growth, tissue repair and hormone regulation, among other things. Meat is also a key source of iron and zinc in the North American diet, as well as vitamins A, D, and all the B vitamins. Fortunately there are many excellent plant sources for all these nutrients, especially if one is careful to consume a diet rich in legumes (dried beans) and whole grains. Getting enough B12 can be tricky for people who eliminate all animal products, but a supplement can fill the gap.

As someone who had flirted with vegetarianism in the past, I had a modest repertoire of meatless recipes. Lentil curry, black bean chili, hummus wraps and bean burritos all appear on our menu on a regular basis. But since we were going to be doing this for an entire month, I decided a trip to the cookbook section of the library would be a kindness to my family.

I enjoyed experimenting with new ways to serve tofu and quinoa—most of the time. But there were evenings when putting something appealing on the table was a challenge, especially when we had guests for supper. Not every new dish was a success. My made-from-scratch falafel patties disintegrated in the pan, and didn’t taste much better than they looked. But the Moroccan chickpea soup was delicious. And the marinated tofu kebabs were surprisingly good.

The first couple of weeks went smoothly. At least I didn’t hear too many complaints. But halfway through the month I caught my husband staring at a grocery store flyer, something I’d never seen him do in 19 years of marriage. He was salivating over the meat section. I could sense it was time for some extra inspiration.

“Did you know that animal protein requires 10 times as much energy to produce as plant protein, and creates 10 times as many greenhouse gas emissions?” I asked. “I read it in David Suzuki’s ‘Green Guide.’ Apparently red meat is particularly hard on the environment. Compared with plant protein, it’s responsible for up to 25 times the land and water use, and five to 17 times the water pollution.”

My husband barely raised his eyebrows before returning to the special on roast beef.

A few days later we attended a community barbecue. I naively brought enough homemade bean burgers to feed the entire family, but my 14-month-old son and I were the only ones who touched them. Even my oldest daughters couldn’t resist the smell of hamburger grease.

After that it was all downhill. A giant salami mysteriously appeared in our refrigerator at the beginning of week three. To mark week four, my husband taught our two-year-old to say “meat is good” on cue. I kept my own vegetarian pledge until the very last weekend when a bad cold sent me to bed. My husband re-entered the kitchen, and suddenly beef and chicken were back on the menu. I secretly enjoyed every bite.

We didn’t quite meet our challenge for the month, but we did reduce our meat consumption dramatically. We discovered some new tasty recipes along the way, and learned that while we don’t want to be vegetarians, we don’t need to eat meat every day to be both healthy and happy. It was a worthwhile experiment in environmentally friendly eating.

As a footnote, I just read an article that argues you can have your beef burger and cut your greenhouse gas contributions too—as long as the beef in question comes from a local, pasture-raised cow. Food for thought.

Rachel Dunstan Muller is the mother of five, and a children’s author. She and her family are working at reducing their environmental impact, one area at a time.