While on a recent vacation to Kona, my family and I attended a Hawaiian luau. After the pre-dinner punch and hula lessons, my daughters lined up with the other guests for the unearthing of the pig. I don’t know what they were expecting, but as the whole, blackened pig was lifted from the underground pit, they became wide-eyed with horror. I admit, it was a little ghoulish. During dinner, they refused to taste the pork, and in the days that followed, they repeatedly fussed about the pig and berated us for eating our share.
“Where do you think the meat you eat comes from?” my husband and I asked.
They covered their ears and said they didn’t want to hear about it.
Ironically, a few days after the luau, our family was invited to go ocean fishing. Although it was a little early in the season, my husband hooked a thirty pound spear fish. The crew gaffed the fish and brought it alongside the boat where they clubbed it with a short bat before bringing it aboard.
My girls were simply undone. The youngest sat with her arms crossed, stone-faced, and refused to speak to anyone for two hours. The oldest, already battling sea sickness, turned her face away and cried. As I tried to comfort her, she asked, “When we get home can we start talking about becoming vegetarians?”
And so the conversation began. What did it mean to be a vegetarian? Did pepperoni count as a meat? Can you call yourself a vegetarian and still eat a hamburger now and then? How about a corn dog once a year at the fair? Even my husband, who has resisted any suggestions of vegetarianism in the past, began considering an alternate diet. “It was a beautiful fish,” he kept saying with some remorse.
I was glad to facilitate the discussion. From my years of studying diet and nutrition, I already knew that there were many benefits to vegetarianism. Despite the often unwarranted concerns about B12 and protein deficiencies, vegetarians, according to research studies, live longer and are notably healthier than carnivores. Eating meat-free also leaves a much lighter food print on our already taxed ecosystem, and addresses the ethical issue of killing animals for sustenance. As a friend once stated so succinctly, “If you aren’t willing to whack it to death yourself, maybe you shouldn’t be eating it.”
On the other hand, as much as I want my girls to be conscious of the food they eat, I didn’t want them to become so obsessed about the dos and don’ts of their diets that they lost the pleasure of food and the ability to share a meal with others. I have always been bothered by a story a woman once told me about her experience as a volunteer at a homeless shelter. When she was served spaghetti during her lunch break, she could not bring herself to eat the meat sauce, and threw her full plate in the garbage as others around her ate hungrily. While I respected her commitment to her vegetarianism, there was a lack of graciousness about her story that has kept me over the years from diving into a meat-free diet. I didn’t want my girls to let their conviction to a way of eating override their gratitude for the food that is placed before them in any situation.
Fortunately, as I delved deeper into my food research, I stumbled upon the term “flexitarianism.” Flexitarians, or semi-vegetarians, follow a plant-based diet that is occasionally supplemented with meat products. After much family discussion, we decided that this was a good starting place for us. We can consciously cut back on our meat consumption while giving ourselves some wiggle room to eat graciously when hosted by others. This diet also allows each of us to ease into vegetarianism at our own pace while still reaping the benefits of a meatless diet. Writes food journalist Michael Pollan in his book Food Rules, “Near vegetarians, or–“flexitarians”–people who eat meat a couple of times a week–are just as healthy as vegetarians.”
I know that diehard vegetarians may consider flexitarianism to be a convenient cop-out, but as I explored this new term I discovered that flexible vegetarianism has a long history. Buddhist monks, who follow the first of the Five Precepts which is “to refrain from destroying living creatures,” practice flexitarianism when necessary. They will eat meat when it is offered from others, and for health reasons when living in cold climates. Thomas Jefferson, who was ahead of his time when it came to health consciousness, ate meat sparingly. He considered meat “a condiment to the vegetables which constitute my principal diet.”
There are no easy answers when it comes to choosing the best diet. As my girls learned, sometimes deciding what to eat becomes a matter of the heart, and heart issues are rarely black and white. So, our family will continue to feel our way with flexibility: Conscious of what we eat, careful with the abundance that is offered to us, and grateful that we are privileged enough to walk through each day with a full belly.