Read: Irish Examiner | This flexitarian life
A new word for omnivore? Someone who’s not a picky eater? When you throw the word flexitarian out there, you get some interesting reactions. It’s far from a new term: flexitarian joined the august ranks of the Oxford English Dictionary back in 2014, meaning “A person who has a primarily vegetarian diet but occasionally eats meat or fish.” It’s a word that is starting to gain more ground in Ireland. For Bord Bia’s 2021 Dietary Lifestyles Report, 16% of Irish people said that they stick to a flexitarian diet, citing health as a primary motivator for adopting this kind of plant-leaning food lifestyle. Covid may have also played a role, with Irish people’s consumption of vegetables increasing significantly over the last year. The fact that we were all stuck at home during the various lockdowns meant that there was also more of an opportunity to cook from scratch, exploring new ways of eating.
While diets like vegetarianism and veganism can involve a lot of rules and restrictions – things that can cause major stresses when taken to an extreme degree – the OED definition of flexitarianism points back to the origins of the word being a “1990s blend of flexible and vegetarian”. It’s the anti-diet diet, a way of eating that has long existed in some food cultures.
Indian food writer Mallika Basu, author of cookbooks Masala: Indian Cooking for Modern Living and Miss Masala: Real Indian Cooking for Busy Living says: “Historically, a lot of communities [in India] ate meat on special occasions only or preferred to be vegetarian on certain days, so you could say flexitarianism has been part of our culture for a while.”
She believes that Indian food works well within a flexitarian diet: “India has the highest percentage of vegetarianism in the world mostly of the lacto-vegetarian kind, ie enjoying dairy but not eggs. Pulses like lentils and beans, therefore, form an important part of our diet as proteins and we eat a wide range of seasonal vegetables so it’s easy to eat meat and fish occasionally.”
Basu’s books and website, with recipes like one pot vegetable dal, baghare baingan (peanut, sesame and coconut aubergines) and dimer dalna (Bengali egg curry) prove her point that meat and fish can be occasional treats rather than every day meals, although she’s got plenty of other options too: “If I was eating meat and fish occasionally, I would definitely have Goan fish curry up my sleeve, with coconut milk, tamarind and Kashmiri chillies…North Indian style chicken korma with yoghurt and its characteristic kick, and a Kerala Beef Fry, which is ridiculously easy to toss up with curry leaves, coconut, green chillies and shallots and is a brilliant way to add interest to steak in minutes.”
The most important thing about any style of eating is that it’s balanced. The HSE’s food pyramid for healthy eating is rooted firmly in the plant world with the base and largest layer – what they call a shelf – being reserved for vegetables, salads and fruit. Five to seven servings a day is recommended, something which is easier to manage while eating as a flexitarian, while also keeping the carnivores in your life happy. Flexitarianism: it’s a deliciously healthy, flavourful, win-win situation.
Six top flexitarian tips
If you’ve decided to cook and eat in a more flexitarian way, start small. Don’t make any big announcement to your meat-loving family, just gradually introduce more vegetables into the diet. There are simple ways to cut back on meat: add a handful of lentils to ragu to make mince go further, tip some butter beans into a beef casserole and use a little chorizo to flavour a tomato-based chickpea stew. Meal planning is key, especially if you’re trying to keep a family happy:
Monday: Vegan: Falafel with flatbreads, hummus, tahini sauce and pickles.
Tuesday: Meat: Roast pumpkin and beef lasagne.
Wednesday: Veggie: Whole roast cauliflower with cheese sauce.
Thursday: Vegan: Broccoli and noodle salad with peanut dressing.
Friday: Fish: Irish mussels with butter beans and pasta.
Saturday: Veggie: Spanakopita (Greek spinach and feta pie).
Sunday: Meat: Roast chicken with all the veggie trimmings.
Avoid ultra processed food
Being flexitarian doesn’t mean that you need to go down the route of highly processed meat replacements. Dive into the world of grains and pulses, investigate tofu and tempeh, start pulling that jackfruit or get involved with a protein-rich wheat gluten called seitan.
Buy less, but better quality
Rather than opting for cheap meat in the supermarket every day, seek out slow-grown breeds from your local independent producer or farmers’ market for your occasional meat-based dinner. Yes, it will cost more but you’ll make sure that you use up every little bit. Ronan Byrne sells top quality pasture-raised poultry and meat from his mixed farm in Athenry as The Friendly Farmer. Nationwide delivery is available. www.thefriendlyfarmer.ie
Taste and flavour
This is your opportunity to go for something unusual – play with different vegetables, investigate new methods of preparation, try unfamiliar flavours. Make a kohlrabi salad. Roast a whole cauliflower. Explore a different cuisine every week and discover new family favourites. Discover a whole new world of spices from all around the world. Variety is key.
Tins are your friend
When you’re caught for time, having a good stash of tinned food really makes a difference for fast options. Fry onions and garlic, add cannellini beans, tinned tomatoes and spiced paprika, simmer and serve on toast for an easy vegan option. Always have a quick fish choice available by including tins in your diet. Killybegs-based Shines Seafood produces the best quality tuna, sardines and mackerel that you could possibly have in your pantry. Shop online at: www.shinesseafood.ie
Cook the books
A flexitarian diet need not involve extra cookbook investment as many of your books will already have vegetarian and vegan chapters and options. A few to take a look at: Fresh Spice by Arun Kapil, Veg by Jamie Oliver, Fearless Food by Lynda Booth, The Green Roasting Tin: Vegan and Vegetarian One Dish Dinners by Rukmini Iyer, East by Meera Sodha. Mallika Basu’s website is mallikabasu.com and her books are Masala: Indian Cooking for Modern Living and Miss Masala: Real Indian Cooking for Busy Living.