A month without meat.

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I can’t quite recall at this point how or when the idea was planted. I do know that the incredulous reaction from my nearest and dearest cemented the decision in my head, and then – fatal mistake – I told a few other people about it, so there was no going back. I was going to become a pescetarian for a month, and swear off meat for at least 30 days. If you didn’t know (it’s ok to admit it), a pescetarian straddles the line between vegetarian and someone who eats meat. Net, you stay off mean but can eat seafood. To be honest, at the outset the idea of doing this for more than a month never entered my head, I wasn’t sure if I’d make it past the first week.

I should confess that my two daughters are pescetarians also, so the idea was not completely an alien one. But my motivation was less about the supposed health benefits (I’m sure there are research studies by the bucket-load out there to prove these) and more about testing my resolve. Could I actually do it? Would I have the self-discipline to carry it through and not slink into a kebab shop on the way home from the pub, emerging furtively with the whiff of lamb off my breath? I get the ‘meat is murder’ argument, but it was not the idea of saving the lives of some cows, chickens or other creatures that interested me, nor indeed the prospect of saving the planet. I just wanted to see if I could reverse (however briefly) the habits of a lifetime.

In my childhood household, meat was an essential part of the food chain. Ironically we couldn’t afford huge amounts of meat (and as good Catholics always ate bone-ridden fish on Fridays – which I detested), but the idea of a vegetarian would have been anathema. And I’m not 100% sure if people who ‘just’ ate fish and vegetables existed at that point – they probably did but we didn’t know anyone who fitted that profile.

More recently, and before this adventure, fish has come to be a more regular feature of my diet anyway, and filleting techniques seem to have improved too, so I seldom have to deal with those horrible bones. Chicken is a staple, and beef is represented by steaks in the BBQ season, and hearty stews in Winter. But the meat-free month was going to be a challenge. And the next obvious question is – how did it go, in reality? And what, if anything, did I learn along the way?

There was one other, completely unintended twist. In a house of four adults, with two no longer eating meat, the other two more or less ‘fell in’ with this pattern too. I regularly and guiltily said ‘do your own thing and I’ll do mine’, but I think our general ineptitude around managing to split one common meal into two versions (with a ‘non-meat’ twist to one) was limited.

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The month started well. I had found some recipes that involved vegetarian food, with lots of spices that gave a real bite to the meal. I crammed the fridge with every vegetable known to man, and loaded up the freezer with fish. I learned how to make a risotto (surprisingly easy, just keep stirring). I bought some real chili’s and chopped them up small into dishes, experiencing the usual terror of inadvertently rubbing my eyes, leading to temporary blindness (I’m very cautious around chili’s, from prior unhappy experiences).

A pattern began to emerge. I’d make a vegetarian dish one night, and a fishy one the night after. The salads that I bring to work (usually chicken Caesar salads) transformed into smoked salmon and/or tinned tuna with all the trimmings. I made a vegetarian chilli that was almost too hot, but got it down somehow. I discovered that you need real discipline when buying vegetables, because somehow or other it’s hard to find a workable recipe for curly kale or asparagus, and I hate throwing out food. Vegetable soup became a staple and a pot into which most surplus materials could be thrown. Lentils and Indian spices also gave soup a tangy kick and at times, a few bowls of soup more or less became the evening meal. Life gets complicated though – for instance you can’t use chicken stock cubes when making soup, etc. You have to be vigilant – for instance stuffing can have animal fats in it, etc. It’s a minefield.

We don’t tend to do takeaways too often in our house, but on the few occasions when I needed a ‘get out of jail’ card, ‘the Indian’ was the usual port of call, with onion bhajis and such like a real treat. Traditional fish and chips from the takeaway also featured once or twice. We only ate out once during the month, and (obviously, I guess) I had fish. It was nice to have someone else cook it for a change. I got better at cooking fish. I realised that it just needs a short burst on the pan to be ready. I was somewhat surprised however at how much fish can cost – it’s not a cheap alternative.

Did I ever waver? Actually, no. I must confess that I found no yearning for meat, though I did miss some simple dishes that I regularly have. Like Chili con Carne or Chicken Curry. I think I have made some of these so many times that I have become very efficient at prepping, cooking and cleaning. So, they were ‘off the menu’ for the duration, and quite often I seemed to spend a lot of time prepping, cooking and cleaning up for a relatively little reward. Did I feel any healthier? Did I experience some type of energy surge? It’s hard to say, because I combined this diet-experiment with a high focus on exercise, walking, going to the gym etc. So, if anything I was quite tired, but it may have had very little to do with the food I was consuming (or rather, not consuming). I did feel somewhat virtuous however, sort of the other end of the spectrum from when you’ve consumed a lot of junk food and you feel bad about what you just did.

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And how did it end? I’m tempted to say ‘With a massive T-bone steak, and all the trimmings’, but that would not be true. I did decide that I could not keep going as was (partly for everyone else’s sake), and have introduced meat back into my diet. But I plan to change some recipes to have less meat in (say) stews or chili, and to think more consciously about how often I eat meat. I can see myself substituting fish-based or straight vegetarian meals a few times each week and eating processed meat will be frowned on. I’m looking forward to seeing how this all evolves, and I’m pleased that I managed to stay off the meat-wagon for the target term (albeit not a day longer) …

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