There are good reasons to cut meat out of your diet. It’s healthier, of course. It will probably save you money and you may even lose weight. And even if you don’t think it of it as a moral choice in terms of animal rights, it’s also good for the environment. According to one source the greenhouse gas emissions arising from the production of a year’s worth of cheeseburgers roughly equals the amount emitted by 6.5 million SUVs. I think most of us know that eating a plant-based diet is a good thing, but putting that into practice can be difficult, especially if you’re used to meat being the focal point of a meal. Or maybe you love vegetables and the idea of a vegetarian diet sounds fine–except you can’t face the idea of giving up bacon forever. Or maybe its fried chicken. Or the occasional juicy steak. Or in my case, really good prosciutto.
During my recent visit with Pawling Public Radio’s own Dr. Patrice Passidomo, she told me the healthiest diet would be to eat like a vegetarian five days a week. You may have been hearing the term “flexitarian” used to describe this type of diet. It combines the words “vegetarian” and “flexible” and its interpretation is very flexible as well. The basic idea is that it’s not necessary to totally cut meat out of your diet–you just increase the amount of plant-based foods that you are eating and decrease the amount of meat. There are any number of ways to use this plan–you can do as Dr.Passidomo suggests and go vegetarian during the week and save the pot roast for the weekend, you can go meat-free for breakfast and lunch and have your chicken dinner, or you can just use meat more as an occasional flavoring in the meals you prepare.
I wanted to find out more about this diet and how one would go about adopting it, so I reached out to writer Irina Gonzalez, the author of a blog called “The Fit Flexitarian.”
Irina’s Cuban/Russian background posed both the first challenge and the inspiration for choosing the Flexitarian diet. Because the cuisine of these two cultures emphasize meat in their cuisine, she felt it was unrealistic to totally cut out meat, but in order to find recipes that were more plant-based, she would have to step outside of her cultural background. Since she wanted to keep off the 100 pounds she had lost, she was also wary of a common pitfall–replacing meat with carbs and becoming a “muffin vegetarian.”
Irina pointed out that the Flexitarian diet is not a new-fangled fad–it’s what humans have evolved to eat from the time of hunter-gatherers up until the Industrial Revolution, and its the way people in many parts of the world continue to eat. In particular, Irina began by exploring Asian cuisines and she also challenged herself to add new vegetables and grains to her diet. Now she prepares Indian curries, Japanese and Thai noodle dishes and salads with grains like quinoa from South America. In order to give her meals variety and have the best tasting produce, Irina buys what’s in season from farmer’s markets whenever possible. And when she does have meat, she goes for quality over quantity, like choosing free-range chicken and grass-fed beef.
Irina thinks eating meatless meals during the week is the easiest way to be a part-time vegetarian. She likes to make a filling vegetarian stew, chili or grain-based salad on Sunday and eat it for lunch during the week, that way she is sure to have a meatless meal at least five times a week.
If going vegetarian during the week sounds too challenging, you can start by observing “meatless Mondays” until you build up an arsenal of meatless recipes your family likes. Begin with established favorites like macaroni and cheese served with a salad and gradually add in more hearty meals like vegetarian chili, curried cauliflower and chickpea stew or spinach lasagna. A broccoli cheese quiche with a salad, or veggie burger with oven-baked fries make quick and easy meals.
You can also adjust family favorites by reducing the amount of meat and adding in more vegetables, or plant-based proteins like tofu. Try making tacos with half ground beef and half black beans. Or make a stew with half the amount of meat and add more vegetables like carrots, celery and parsnips. You can replace half the meat in a pasta sauce with cannellini beans for a pasta fagioli-like dish.
There are lots of recipes that feature meat as more of a condiment or side dish. Big salads of greens tossed with shredded carrots, tomatoes, and cucumbers or lightly-steamed vegetables can be topped with a few slices of grilled chicken, steak, tuna, or shrimp. Use highly flavored meats like chorizo or andouille sausage in soups or stews and you’ll get a lot of flavor with a lot less volume. A soup of chickpeas, kale, and sliced kielbasa served with a slice of crusty bread is a really hearty meal. If something needs a hit of protein often an egg is just the ticket. One of my favorite lunches is Bibimbop, a Korean rice dish with sauteed vegetables and a small amount of very flavorful meat topped with a fried egg, hot sauce and a sprinkling of sesame seeds.
For Irina, a lifelong picky eater, choosing a Flexitarian diet led her on a journey of discovery. She told me for her it was about exploring healthier foods, better ingredients, and a diet that she feels is the most sound for our bodies. Check out her blog, “The Fit Flexitarian” for tips on flexitarian meal planning as well as lots of great recipes like Slow Cooker Eggplant Curry and Mushroom Quinoa Risotto. Bon voyage!
Listen to Lisa’s Radio Piece:[audio:http://www.pawlingpublicradio.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/4-20-stirring-the-pot-flexitarian.mp3|Titles=Flexitarian – Lisa – Kelsey]