One of my daughters recently expressed an interest in going out for a burger. This might seem like an ordinary request, except that she’s a vegetarian and has been for several years. Why not enjoy the occasional burger, if that’s what she craves? It’s called being a flexitarian, a mash-up of the words flexible and vegetarian that Merriam-Webster defines as “one whose normally meatless diet occasionally includes meat or fish.”
It’s an approach I largely abide by myself, particularly as described by registered dietitian DJ Blatner in her book The Flexitarian Diet: “Eat more plants and do the best you can.” The fundamental aim is to emphasize more foods from the plant family and fewer from the animal kingdom. What that looks like is up to the individual.
If the flexitarian path is something you want to try, it helps to set yourself up for success. That means a pantry stocked with mostly plant-based ingredients, along with wiggle room for meat, poultry, and fish.
Why I Eat the Flexitarian Way
The upsides to eating less meat are many, and something I wrote about my post An Encouraging Guide to Eating Less Meat. Here’s a quick snapshot of why a flexitarian lifestyle is the way for me:
It’s good for my health. Research shows that cutting back on meat improves health and decreases the risk for a number of chronic diseases.
It’s good for the planet. Growing plants produces far fewer greenhouse gases and is less demanding from an environmental perspective than raising and processing animals.
It’s budget-friendly. Foods from the butcher case and fishmonger don’t come cheap, especially if you buy premium products, such as grass-fed beef, wild salmon, and organic chicken. Cutting back on these foods can translate to meaningful savings over time.
It’s not so rigid. While I’ll happily skip meat and chicken most nights of the week, I want the flexibility to enjoy my brother’s Christmas roast or the prosciutto pie at my favorite neighborhood pizzeria.
How to Stock a Flexitarian Pantry
Beans, Peas, and Legumes
The first thing folks tend to worry about when skipping meat is, “Can I get enough protein?” The answer is, yes! In fact, many of us get more of this essential macronutrient than we need. Plus, the world of plants offers myriad options for protein. Beans, peas, and legumes are a good place to start.
Choose whatever beans you like – cannellini, black, adzuki, kidney, pinto, and so on – they’re all nutritious and versatile in cooking. Keep them on hand to work into meals, like simple black bean tacos, spicy chili, or minestrone dotted with white beans. Work lentils, split peas, and chickpeas into your repertoire. They’re great for stews, salads, soups, and veggie burgers and are enormously healthy (1 cup of cooked lentils packs 18 grams of protein).
Consider all your options, including dried, canned, and refrigerated (Trader Joe’s sells terrific vacuum-sealed lentils, for example). It’s all good. Just choose what works for you.
Try this recipe: Curry Spiced Lentil Burgers with Cilantro Chutney
Ingredients made with soy, including tofu, tempeh, soy nut butter, and edamame are protein- and antioxidant-rich superstars that can liven up your diet. If you’re concerned that soy isn’t good for you, consider what the American Cancer Society has to say on the subject, “There is growing evidence that eating traditional soy foods such as tofu, tempeh, edamame, miso, and soymilk may lower the risk of breast cancer, especially among Asian women. Soy foods are excellent sources of protein, especially when they replace other, less healthy foods such as animal fats and red or processed meats.”
Try this recipe: Grilled Tofu Satay with Spicy Peanut Sauce
Nuts and Nut Butters
Nuts of every variety are full of fiber, protein, healthy fats, and an assortment of other nutrients. Rotate different nuts and nut butters into your cooking and snacking repertoire. Each one offers a different flavor and nutrient profile, so it can be fun to switch things up.
Consider storing nuts in the fridge or freezer, particularly if you buy them in large quantities. They will keep longer than if you store them in the cupboard.
Try this recipe: Homemade Granola Bars
Seeds and Seed Butters
Pumpkin, sunflower, flax, hemp, chia, and sesame seeds and seed butters (like tahini) shouldn’t be overlooked. They’re great in baked goods, granola, salads, and side dishes. Not only do they provide protein but can be a source of heart healthy Omega-3 fats (notably, flax, chia, and hemp seeds).
Try this recipe: Weeknight Chicken Salad with Tahini Dressing
Grains and Pastas
If you look at cultures around the globe that are living long, healthy lives on a mostly vegetarian diet, one commonality is a reliance on whole grains. These are budget-friendly foods from which thousands of meals can be built.
Consider, for example, dishes such as colorful tabbouleh made with bulgur, vegetable fried rice, polenta topped with vegetables, and hearty bowls of oatmeal.
Try this recipe: Creamy Polenta with White Beans and Roasted Broccoli
Breads and Tortillas
Like grains and pastas, breads and tortillas can be the starting point for flexitarian meals. Fill whole-grain pita bread with hummus, cucumber, and cherry tomatoes; make a quick pizza of lavash, tomato sauce, shredded cheese, and your favorite pizza fixings (being flexitarian means topping it with salami or prosciutto if that’s what you love); or stuff a few tortillas with your favorite taco fillings.
Try this recipe: Veggie Tacos
Fruits and Vegetables
Having plenty of produce at the ready is at the heart of any healthy diet, flexitarian or otherwise. My aim is to work a fruit or vegetable (or both) into every meal and snack (not that I always manage it), so having a stocked house is job number one.
Emphasize in-season produce, from zucchini and peaches in summer to butternut squash and citrus fruits in winter. I also routinely stock a handful of staples, such as onions, garlic, potatoes, bananas, and avocados, ingredients that can be the foundation for plant-rich meals (onions for vegetarian soups, bananas for smoothies, or avocados for nutrient-rich breakfast toast).
Lettuce and dark leafy greens are key for building hearty salads, soups, sides, and mains. I rotate kale, arugula, chard, and collards, along with various lettuces depending on what looks good at the market.
Frozen fruits and veggies are a great hack for quick meal prep. Plus, they’re nutritionally comparable to fresh produce, a topic you can read about here. I always have assorted frozen fruits for smoothies, to top oatmeal, and for desserts (melted frozen raspberries are uncommonly delicious spooned over everything from Greek yogurt to shortcake).
You’ll also find a rotation of spinach, corn, peas, cauliflower, artichokes, and broccoli in my freezer, which I find work well in a variety of dishes, from corn chowder to oven-roasted broccoli.
Try this recipe: Rotini with Kale and Walnut Pesto
Eggs and Dairy
Without a lot of meat and poultry in your diet, eggs and dairy can be a handy source of protein, iron, and vitamin D. They’re also great building blocks for meals at any time of day. Top a hearty salad with a hard-boiled egg, crumbled cheese, or a dressing made with yogurt or buttermilk.
Try this recipe: Baked Eggs in Avocado with Salmon
Grocery aisles are brimming with dairy-free milk and yogurt, which I routinely stock in my fridge. It’s worth noting that most plant milk has far less protein than their dairy counterparts and aren’t naturally rich in calcium. Read the label so you know what you’re buying (I look for products that are calcium-fortified without added sugar).
Try this recipe: Chia Pudding with Blueberries and Almonds
Meat, Poultry, and Fish
Following a flexitarian diet means making room for meat, poultry, and fish when the mood strikes. I keep a few staples stocked in my freezer. My typical stash includes chicken thighs for braising, and a pound of ground beef, turkey, or lamb for burger night or casseroles, and sliced bacon, which is great for adding smokey flavor to soups (yes, dietitians do eat bacon).
When it comes to fish, I typically buy it the day of from a local fishmonger.
Try this recipe: Kofta-Style Chicken Stuffed Bell Peppers
One of the hallmarks of meat is that it’s brimming with umami, which means it delivers big on flavor. If you’re cutting back, you can look for alternatives to give your food a pop of flavor. A few of my standards include:
- White miso. Miso is an excellent ingredient to have on hand to add salty, lip-smacking taste to everything from glazed fish to salad dressing (and even baked goods).
- Anchovies. These salty fish pack a lot of flavor in a tiny package. I use them to add flavor to dressings, pasta sauces, vegetable dishes, or to enjoy straight up on slices of toasted, buttered baguette.
- Spicy condiments. You can quickly punch up any number of dishes with a kick of heat from sriracha, calabrian chiles, crushed red pepper, sambal, gochujang, and tabasco, just to name a few.
- Fermented veggies. Fermented foods are an avenue to flavor. Look for things like kimchi, pickled cabbage, and other pickled vegetables to add to tacos, grain bowls, and side dishes.