I passed a chicken truck when I was driving to Atlanta two weeks ago. It was crammed full of caged birds, feathers flying, little red combs a-flapping. The sight made me sad; those chickens did not appear to be living their best lives. I’m never eating chicken again, I told myself as I sped up to get past the truck, but even in the moment I knew I didn’t mean it.
Over the years, we’ve cut way back on meat, red meat especially, and have tried to up the number of vegetarian dinners we eat over the course of the week. I have to admit that this past year has been a lot meatier, mostly because last summer we did some serious low carb eating for weight loss. Having (mostly) met our goals, it might be time to revisit how much meat we eat.
When conversations with Jen in Atlanta prompted you to explore veganism, I was fascinated. Kristin give up her tri-tips? But while over the years I’ve joined you on all sorts of interesting culinary and dietary adventures, this is one food journey you may have go on alone (well, alone with Gary).
It’s true, neither Clifton or I do much dairy. We don’t drink milk, and when I started intermittent fasting three years ago, I said goodbye to half and half and learned to drink my coffee black. There’s not a lot of recreational cheese eating around here except during the holidays.
But we’re both meat-eaters and will most likely remain so. I do worry about animal welfare, so my focus over the last couple of years has been to find ways to source our meat locally (or as locally as possible). I buy chicken that was raised on a farm outside of Winston-Salem (about an hour away from here) and get much of my red meat through Firsthand Foods, which is a distributor for North Carolina farmers. It costs more, for sure, but a) I like supporting small farms; and b) it tastes really, really good.
Over the years, I’ve come to believe that our individual dietary needs are more idiosyncratic than most nutritionists would have us believe. I seem to function better on a lower carb, higher protein diet. Sugar does all sorts of bad things to me–I don’t have to eat much to feel horrible, and if I overdo it by the tiniest margins my weight immediately goes up. Bread is also tricky, so I keep that to a minimum as well, usually only indulging on Saturday nights, which is our homemade pizza night.
My current diet could use some tweaks. I’m definitely making a concerted effort these days to get more greens in on a daily basis. But I’m maintaining a weight that I’m happy with, and perhaps most importantly, I feel like most days I have a healthy relationship with food. Not all days–I still use food as a drug when I feel stressed–but most days. This comes after a lifetime of dieting, which as you know, messes with your head.
So, while veganism strikes me as an attractive option for all kinds of reasons, I know that putting restrictions on what I can eat (even sugar) is not an option for me. That’s why I like your exploratory approach to veganism–you’re not saying you’ll never eat meat or dairy again. You’re just trying to increase the number of plant-based meals you eat over the course of the week. I’m looking forward to seeing where it leads you–and to getting some tasty vegan recipes in the meantime.
I couldn’t agree more that different things work for different people when it comes to diet. And some of us have more baggage around it than others (ahem). Last week I mentioned that Jen inspired Gary and me to watch the documentary Forks Over Knives, which presents a very compelling case for the health benefits of veganism. Before we even watched it, Gary admitted that he was feeling conflicted about how meat is raised in this country and that we should think about cutting back. After many years of trying to eat a “lower carb” diet (if not actually low carb), we had really fallen into a “meat and veggie” style of eating.
I had assumed that now that it’s just the two of us, we would start buying higher quality meat (local, free-range, grass-fed, etc.), but somehow I haven’t taken that step. It’s just so easy to keep doing what we’ve done for so many years—buy our meat at Costco. I really admire that you have overcome this hurdle and buy locally-raised meat.
Since changes are so much easier to make when both of us are on board, I said, “OK, let’s commit to eating a vegetarian dinner 3-4 nights a week, and when we feel like we have a good repertoire, we can think about increasing that.” That plan has been working surprisingly well, at least for the last two weeks! I’m excited about digging further into my favorite cookbook, Moosewood Cooks at Home, and adding to the dozen or so recipes that are currently in the rotation. There are still a lot of recipes to explore! Cauliflower Paprikash! Chickpea and Artichoke Heart Stew!
I also dug out Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison (another of my vegetarian gurus, along with Molly Katzen). When Chloe went through her vegetarian phase early in her college years, this cookbook was a savior. It’s a treasure trove of delicious meals. And of course, there is the internet! No shortage of inspiration there!
As if that was not challenging enough, I remembered a book that I read many years ago called Vegan Before Six by Mark Bittman. I’m sure you know that Bittman is a food writer (How to Cook Everything, among many others). About ten years ago, he wrote Vegan Before Six because when he turned 57, his doctor told him that many of his labs were going in the wrong direction. (Coincidentally, this blog post is going live on my 57th birthday!) His blood sugar was high, his cholesterol was high, and he was about forty pounds overweight. His doctor could have put him on medication but instead told him, “you should be vegan”. But as a food writer, Bittman looked for a compromise. He decided to be a strict vegan before dinner—eschewing not only animal products but ultra-refined foods and alcohol. After 6 pm, he could eat whatever he wanted. The fact that the rules let up every evening helped him stay the course during the day. Of course, over time, healthier choices made their way into the evening meal. But the rule was that he could eat whatever he wanted. Ultimately, the experiment worked, and his weight, blood sugar, and cholesterol all got back into normal ranges.
There are a few things that appeal to me about this. I already do intermittent fasting–so I really only need to be vegan for one meal a day! How hard could that be? I also don’t really want to be vegan full-time, so the fact that anything goes for dinner helps with the mental aspect. Right now I’m experimenting with a Vegan Before Six diet with plenty of vegetarian dinners each week. Lunches are a little tricky since I can’t always rely on leftovers anymore. But I’m learning what I need to keep in the fridge to make lunches easier, like plenty of salad fixings, and the components for grain bowls (brown rice, veggies, and a delicious sauce).
The fun part is that the rules loosen up at dinner! I will not be giving up my tri-tip, thank you very much! Ben came home last weekend, and we made some very nice burgers with goat cheese and caramelized onions on brioche buns. They were delicious! And I really appreciated it because I know it’s now a rare treat. (I just didn’t get to eat the leftovers, which was a little disappointing.)
I’ve flirted with both veganism and vegetarianism at various points in my life for one reason or another, but it never stuck for the long term. A big part of that was cooking for a family and trying to please five people, including two active boys. I would have had a much harder time with these changes when the boys were both at home. I think it will be a lot easier in these empty nest years.
Maybe experimenting with this new style of eating will give me the health benefits I’m looking for without deprivation. The key word here is “experimenting”. Really my goal is to just lean more toward a whole-foods plant-based diet. But I’m keeping an open mind. I’m reminded of that Michale Pollan quote on how to eat: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” I love that as a measuring stick. I’ll keep you posted! (And thanks for the inspiration Jen!)