An approach to eat less of a certain food type, without cutting it out completely

I’ve recently been having conversations with people about my approach to eating meat, and so I thought I’d condense my thoughts about it, in case anyone else was interested.

Beef burger to be eaten on your birthday

Whilst the way I’ve written this post is from the perspective of eating less of the stuff, this could easily be applicable to any category of food or drink that you are looking to consume less of. Perhaps it’s gluten, carbs, or caffeine, though I see it being pretty similar to sugar and alcohol.

My rationale is fairly off-topic for this blog post: meat is just something that I’m trying to reduce my consumption of. This video (“Why I’m a weekday vegetarian”) is pretty aligned with my way of thinking, though I’ll admit that watching it is a slight detour from this post.

Deciding to eat less

I’ve spoken with a few people about how they are looking to scale back the amount of a food type that they eat. Often they’ve had a desire to simply reduce overall consumption of a food type, rather than wanting to cut it out completely.

When breaching this myself, my first instinct was to say: “right then, I’ll never eat meat again”. In order to give up something, I should be resolute and give myself no wriggle room, lest I fall foul of temptation. However after playing through a few scenarios in my head, I came up against some problems.

I knew that because my outlook was a desire to eat less meat (rather than necessarily vow to never eat it again) I felt that there would scenarios when I would inevitably break, and then feel guilty about it.

It’s easy to then say “Oh if I can’t commit to it then I may as well as not bother”though that felt like a giving up before I’d even tried.

“I’ll try to eat less meat”

My next approach was to just… see how it goes.

I found that making well-meaning, but ultimately vague statements like the one above sounded good in principle, but didn’t give me direction when I was on the fence about whether to go for chicken or veg.

There’s a concept (your Future Self versus your Present Self) around taking decisions at times of mental strength, versus mental weakness. I find it’s easier to say “I won’t eat chocolate” when feeling fresh in the morning, rather than at the end of a long day. If I was only ever making the decision when tired, or susceptible to making choices I’d later regret, then I’d find the whole thing unenjoyable, and end up just getting annoyed at myself.

Which isn’t very fun.

I felt more work was needed…

Well then, why do I eat?

So for this reason, I decided to set out some guidelines for when I could and couldn’t have the food type I was trying to eat less of. Rather than setting arbitrary days/ weeks when I should fully abstain, I’ve found it easier to say: in Scenario X I will, and in Scenario Y I won’t.

After going around in circles for a while the approach that worked for me was to ask myself, each time that I eat what is the broad reason for doing so. This is what I found:

Nutrition/ sustenance

This is the most obvious one and doesn’t bear too much comment.

The primary objective of the food you are eating is abate hunger and, for me, most often arises when I’m cooking for myself, grabbing food on the go or having some casual food.

Social occasions

One of the joys of food though is eating it with others.

At work, we hold a Lunch Club, where each person takes it turns to provide lunch for the team, and whilst it’s fantastic to try foods from many different cuisines, it’s also an opportunity to bond, rather than individually eating packaged sandwiches at our desks.

Having friends or family around for dinner is another staple social occasion where food plays a critical role. Eating with friends around a dinner table is great, especially when the cook has gone to the effort to make something delicious for the guests to enjoy.

Cultural reasons

A great way to appreciate other cultures is through eating their food. One of the things I enjoy most about travelling is experiencing the foods of the places I stay.

For some cultures, the food they eat is unique to them, and so tasting it is an insight that you wouldn’t get elsewhere.

From here I decided that:

If the purpose of me eating a meal was to give sustenance then I would do all I could to ensure it was meat-free.

This meant that almost overnight I was able to feel like I had reduced my meat consumption, by making a few simple changes to my diet. Allowing myself to choose to eat meat in the other scenarios gave me comfort that I wouldn’t offend those who have a different diet to me.

Not enforcing it on other people

The main issue I found with going full-on vegetarian was the hassle it might cause others.

Because eating is so often a communal activity, if someone has gone out of their way to cook me food, I’d feel awful to decline, just because I have this notion that I’d like to eat less meat.

At restaurants, I’ll opt for a vegetarian option where possible, though if dining at an Argentinian Steak House it’d be weird (for me, at least) to eat garlic mushrooms and chips, and not embrace the restaurant’s gaucho culture. Of course, I could suggest to the group of friends that we go somewhere else, but why should the people I’m going to dinner with have to compromise the meal they’re having because I want to eat less.

Changing my default

So my approach is as follows: to have vegetarian as my “default setting”, and then make a conscious effort to break the rule.

Forcing myself to think about each time I eat meat makes me more aware of how much I am eating, and whether I still want to eat less. Getting in a routine of always opting for a Lamb Jalfrezi and Chicken Salad meant that I felt disconnected from the food I was eating, and didn’t appreciate it as much at the times when there was a special reason to have it.

During lent I “gave up” sugar. However I decided that if someone was to offer me birthday cake (there are a lot of March babies in the office…) then I’d accept. If someone offered me a mid-afternoon chocolate bar though, I’d decline.

Consequently, the times where I had a piece of birthday cake with the rest of the team, it tasted all the sweeter, and I could enjoy the moment with others.

So you’re a…

This led me to try and define my approach to eating which is easier said than done. The best I’ve come up with so far is:

1. An “occasional meat-eater”: I will eat meat when there is an occasion to do so

2. An “in-house vegetarian”: when I’m cooking/the only affected by the choice, I’ll go meat-free

3. A “default vegetarian”: my default position will be a vegetarian option, but it’s not fixed

I realise these aren’t particularly punchy ways to describe how I eat, but it’s work in progress. Other suggestions are very welcome…

Don’t you miss it?

An obvious question that arises when changing your diet is whether you miss the thing that you’ve just cut out.

Eating this way means that I’ve never had to say: “this is my last burger”, and so I’ve never had to make a big ceremony about turning vegetarian, mainly because I haven’t really.

By identifying situations where I know I’d find it hardest to resist meat (Christmas Dinner, for example) I can feel comfortable saying that on 25th December I will probably eat meat with my family, and then not throw the baby out with the bath water and go back to eating meat every day.

Moments of weakness

What I’ve found helpful with this methodology is that in a potential moment of weakness, I have a reference point from which I can base my decision.

Suppose it’s sugar. If you’re curled up one evening watching Netflix, thinking about cracking into a bar of chocolate — you consult your conscience at a time when you know it’s more likely to say “Oh, go on then, it’s been a long day”. Or you can ask whether this really is an occasion that would worth breaking off some Galaxy for.

When you’re next in a ‘moment of strength’ (i.e. the morning) you have the same reference point to evaluate whether you warranted the choc.

As another example, I’ve found that when scanning down the menu at Pizza Express it’s neither enough of an occasion, nor culturally imperative to have, say, pepperoni, and so will choose something veggie. If I was at a small restaurant in Northern Italy famed for it’s Parma ham pizza though, I’d opt for the House Special.

Finding substitutes

For a while I wondered how difficult it would be replace my default meat diet with a non-meat option. However, the internet is awash with specialist food blogs that do all of the hard work of identifying alternatives, and offering inspiration for altering your diet..

The biggest change I have felt has been to stop buying Chicken & Baconsandwiches in a Boots Meal Deal. Now Ploughmans is my go to.

When having a cooked breakfast, I’ll be happily replete from a combination of eggs, mushrooms, tomatoes, avocados, spinach without needing bacon, sausage and the like filling up the plate too.

BBQs are difficult. Visually it’s the starkest occasion when someone isn’t eating meat in a group setting, and so often sparks conversation. When it’s BYO I’ve started opting for halloumi as my main event though for a while I allowed myself burgers and hot dogs under Social Occasion category.

Hummus has transformed cooking my own lunches. More specifically variations of this Deliciously Ella post about food on-the-go ideas.

Otherwise, it’s simply been substituting red lentils for minced meat in many dishes, and experimenting with various combinations of pulses and root vegetables to get variety in my diet.

Are you doing enough?

There might always be calls from those who abstain fully from your food group that you are being a bit of a cop out, which is understandable.

If someone professes to wanting to have less meat/ sugar/ alcohol in their diet, and then still indulges every few weeks it almost feels like they’re getting both the high ground, and the guilty pleasure.

It’s difficult. If the goal is to reduce overall consumption then for some people, taking a steady decline is easier than stopping right away. For me, that’s the case.

In time people’s world view may change, so that under no circumstance do they find it comfortable to drink alcohol, even if, say, it’s at a friend’s wedding. I know that for me, right now, I’d rather enjoy a spag bol that someone has cooked for me, than spend my evening eating just a bowl of pasta.

Key Takeaways

When I’ve talked to people about this, the thing they’ve found most useful is identifying times when they comfortably tell themselves “it’s OK to eat x”, but still look back and realise that they’ve achieved the goal of reducing their consumption of x.

Here’s a summary

1. Identify when you are in control

When you’re cooking/ choosing for yourself, appreciate that you are making the choice. There are myriad blogs out there to offer inspiration if you think there’s not variety.

2. Accept it might be difficult at first

You’ve probably spent most of your life automatically choosing food that has xin it, and so switching out mightn’t be 100% smooth.

Changing that habit takes time, and so don’t beat yourself up if it takes a while to get ingrained

3. Everyone is different

Different people will have different reasons for when they do/ don’t feel comfortable eating x. You will too probably, the more you get into it. Take solace that there aren’t hard and fast rules about what every single human on earth should eat, and that you can settle into a spot somewhere on the spectrum.

If you have found this post in any way useful/ interesting/ entertaining, then thanks for reading, and do get in touch if you have any questions!