In the weeks before Easter, millions of people avoid eating anything made with meat or poultry every Friday as a sacrifice during the Lenten season. That’s great — and here’s why.

With Easter Sunday still weeks away, we’re right in the middle of the Lenten season, for those of that religious persuasion.

First created in the 4th century A.D., Lent is defined by the Catholic Church and several other Christian religions as a period of fasting, self-discipline and self-denial that traditionally begins on Ash Wednesday (Feb. 18 this year) — preceded, of course, by Mardi Gras — and ending on Easter Sunday. For those who observe Lent, it’s common to give up eating certain favorite foods or desserts, and mandatory to avoid eating meat on Fridays during the 40 days prior to Easter.

As a result, some restaurants advertise “meat-free” alternatives as a Friday night feature. Here are a few examples:

  • Sullivan’s Steakhouse in Omaha, Neb., is promoting “a fish and chips special through April 3, along with other seafood classics, including crispy Shanghai calamari and Hong-Kong style pan-seared sea bass.”
  • Maine-ly Sandwiches in Houston is urging customers to “head here for a lobster roll that will make you forget all about your usual Friday burger — a buttery-crisp, griddled bun comes filled with hunks of plump, tender lobster dressed simply in lemon-mayonnaise and salt and pepper.”
  • Skyline Chili, the Midwest chain, is serving a Greek Pasta Bowl dish, a combination of Greek Salad and Skyline 3-Way Chili, only without meat.
  • Matthew’s Restaurant in St. Louis offers Lenten specials every Friday during Lent, such as lobster pot pie, sea scallops in a garlic-chile teriyaki sauce, shrimp risotto and lobster mac & cheese, plus fish and chips and shrimp and grits.

(Unfortunately, Matthew’s online promotion also hyped its “crap cakes” (sic), which kinda takes the edge off a person’s appetite).

Even fast-food restaurants are acknowledging that many customers adhere to dietary restrictions during Lent and are featuring everything from McDonald’s venerable Filet-O-Fish to Arby’s national promotion of a fish sandwich to sandwich chain Blimpie’s Lenten campaign promoting its tuna subs and wraps.

I think that millions of people giving up meat once a week — Meatless Fridays, anyone? — and the consequent advertising of seafood or even vegetarian alternatives (noticeably missing from most restaurants Lenten promotions, by the way) is wonderful.

Yes, sales of beef, pork and chicken are going to decline for the seven weekends in Lent, and in the short-term, that’s not helping the industry’s profitability.

But the larger, longer term impact is potentially profound, and to explain what I mean it’s necessary to take a quick trip back to the 1960s. That’s a long time ago for some of us, but still a part of contemporary history.

It’s meat, or it’s, uh . . .

Back then, virtually every prominent white-tablecloth restaurant offered a menu totally tilted toward red meat, with a couple token chicken and maybe — maybe — a seafood option for picky eaters. The common wisdom among restaurateurs was that when people dine out, they want red meat on their plates, and if somebody preferred fish, they can go to a seafood restaurant.

The entrees back then commonly included Stuffed Pork Chops, Chicken-Fried Steak and Veal Piccata, plus such comfort foods as Beef Stew and Meatloaf. Back then, they weren’t specials, they were staples.

Fifty years ago, if you asked your waiter to talk about the restaurant’s vegetarian options, you’d have been greeted with a blank stare, followed by a mumbled response about a Cobb Salad, minus the bacon, eggs and cheese.

Now, of course, vegetarian options have a prominent place on every menu, no matter what type of cuisine the restaurant offers its diners — which is a good thing. Variety is often considered the spice of life, and it’s for certain the spice we’re seeking when we shell out for a professionally prepared meal.

But it’s difficult to assert that meat should retain a position of prominence on the foodservice industry’s menus or on the majority of consumers’ dinner plates unless people value those foods, those entrées made with meat and poultry.

And what better way to create desire and enhance preference than by taking them away — at least temporarily?

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in its annual message about Lent asked the faithful to “fast from certain foods” on Fridays as a sign of “the Lenten discipline” necessary to rededicate oneself to Christian values.

I say giving up meat once a week is also a valuable message to the rest of the public that in the process of identifying what’s most important in our lives, the high-profile practice of giving up meat many people embrace every year might be one of the best ways to ensure that the fruits of animal agriculture retain a prominent place on that list.

Enjoy those fish sticks.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.