Ten years ago Sid Lerner attended a health conference. Today, there are people across the world who eat better as a result of an idea he came up with there.

The Johns Hopkins health conference on fats and cholesterol suggested that public health could be improved by reducing meat consumption by 15 per cent. With 21 meals a week, Lerner figured that 15 per cent reduction translated to three meatless meals, or one full day. Hence in 2003, he launched the Meatless Monday movement in association with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Aiming to reduce meat consumption by 15 per cent the movement has spread rapidly thanks to its practical, and determined, multi-pronged approach.

They reach out on social media, connect with bloggers and recruit chefs. They offer viable alternatives to meat, from sweet potato steaks to falafel burgers, encouraging people to expand their culinary horizons. Over the years the movement, which has been adopted by about 29 countries so far, has nourished a network of enthusiastic supporters. Recent recruits include students from a school in the Philippines and a unit of the Norwegian army.

“I believe it took hold precisely because it is so simple: a two-word phrase that tells you what to do and when to do it, no assembly required,” says Sid Lerner, in an interview with MetroPlus on how his idea became such an influential movement. “We never anticipated the level of success the movement currently enjoys, but our instincts always told us that Meatless Monday was a global idea. The desire for self-improvement is universal. Incremental efforts, rather than big dramatic changes, tend to work best. And our research with Johns Hopkins has shown that people around the world regard Monday as the ideal time to set new goals, start a new chapter, and begin afresh. Meatless Monday encourages the innate motivation we all have and tells us where to direct it.”

Discussing how bloggers have contributed immensely to the movement, Lerner says “It’s a really incredible thing for a campaign to achieve this level of recognition on such a limited budget. Certainly, it would have been inconceivable without such a robust and enthusiastic online community. But I also think we were in the right place culturally to heed such a message, knowing what we now know about the benefits of a plant-based diet and the dangers of excessive meat consumption.”

Apart from being a movement launched in the right place at the right time — after all people have never been more worried about the foods we eat, and their consequences — Meatless Mondays also has the advantage of being forgiving, allowing people to take a step in the right direction by giving up meat once a week rather than demanding vegetarianism.

Trend watchers are calling ‘flexitarianism’ (flexible vegetarianism, whose proponents eating vegetarian food most of the time, but make occasional exceptions) one of last year’s biggest food trends, and one that is all set to explode this year. A movement like this fits in perfectly with this style of eating, where people understand the moral and environmental argument for giving up meat, and agree with it. But still find it difficult to forgo their once-in-a-while chicken curry or beef steak. Looking at the bigger picture, it’s a useful compromise, after all eating less meat is certainly better for the planet, not to mention your health.

“It’s an opt-in movement that emphasises choice and flexibility above all,” says Lerner. “So while we encourage people to be healthy and stick to plant-based meals as much as they like, we’re also speaking to a population that enjoys meat and simply wants a more balanced diet. As a general trend, however, I do think people are increasingly moving away from eating meat and animal products.”

Discussing India’s role in the movement, Lerner says “international audiences can learn a lot about interesting and delicious meatless cuisine from India… India’s large population also provides a great case study for the sustainability of plant-based cultures. Ultimately, our goal is less to ‘sell’ Meatless Monday to Indian communities than to bring them into the conversation, where their contributions can be a valuable asset to participants everywhere.”