The How-Many-Vegetables Game and the Vegetarian Conundrum

IMG_3581I have a decent self-image, but I recognize that I eat in what can only be described as a lopsided food pyramid. Cheese, fried foods, and avocado top my list whenever choosing a meal, and leafy greens, whole grains, and fruits tend to fall by the wayside. This year, I’d love for that to be a little different, so I’m bringing back a game I started playing with myself years ago.

When I first started cooking for myself after a few years of college-cafeteria food, I would wager against myself: how many vegetables and other good-for-me foods can I slip into the chosen dish (read: usually pasta) without deeming the dish gross. This was far from an exact science, and more often than not, the dishes went from delish to gross because of a mismatched proportion rather than because I had too many vegetables in them. Whatever; it was all part of the challenge (can you sense a theme in my adversarial relationship with food?). I was the person trying to substitute pureed cauliflower in her cheese sauces, which I know has worked for some people, but not for imprecise folks like me.

This year, though, I’m hoping to have a more moderate view. At some point, as a modification to the how-many-vegetables game, I started making exactly what the recipe called for but subbed out some of the meat or grain for things like eggplant, onions, or broccoli. These sturdy veggies absorb flavor like champs, make a meal feel like a lot of food but are also lower in calories. Sure, nothing beats a real chicken parm sandwich, but when eggplant parm still tastes like cheese and marinara, I consider it a success.

So that may be a part of my modifications during this year of comfort-food recipes – if it seems appropriate for the recipe, I may sub a sturdy, flavor absorbing veggie for some of whatever meat or grain is called for in my recipes. I won’t make cheese sauce out of cauliflower (that was really a losing battle; I hate cauliflower. It was just so tempting: getting to eat alfredo and call it a vegetable is basically the dream of my entire life).

All these veggie subtitutes might make you think: is this girl a vegetarian? (She sure ain’t a vegan, am I right?) The truth is: no. I’ve never been a vegetarian, never gone a substantial amount of time without eating meat… at least not on purpose.

I would call myself a vegetarian sympathizer. I appreciate all the stats about how much more energy it takes to raise meat than to raise an equal amount of plant protein. I appreciate that there are many healthy plant proteins that don’t contain the marbled striations of fat found in my favorite meat products like bacon. I have actually gone for probably a week and a half without eating meat a few times because of one other fact, which is that I generally find cooking meat icky and requiring of higher precision than I care to exert. Thus, by accident of lazyness, I have indeed started to eat meatless entrees.

The main reason I will never consider the leap from veggie sympathizer to whole-hog vegetarian (hahaha) is that Husband is a carnivore. If he needed to eat meat at every meal, I’d probably be having some words with him, but he’s great: he is willing to try my meatless experiments and is a whiz at making enough food for leftovers and actually eating them – he’s more sustainable than I am and without all the bluster. Still, in exchange for his all-around reasonable attitude toward eating, I see no reason to become the person who has to cook totally separate dishes for each meal – that cannot be saving many dishes or plastic packages. The only exception I make to the we-eat-our-meals-together plan is when he wants something “spicy:” What is reasonably flavored and mouth-tingly to me is bland to him, so I always have him cook the whole dish at my spice level, remove my portion, and go nuts with the red pepper flakes once my portion is out of harm’s way.

So there you have a few important things to know about my cooking style: I am not yet a true convert to the idea of eating mostly veggies but I know it is better for me and (someday) for my family; it just won’t do for me to one day raise a child on pretty much just cheese. I also like the challenge of making something taste like the kind of food I want to be eating, while secretly sneaking nutrients into me. Finally, I’m aiming at more meatlessness in my life, but not sweating a few meaty delicacies. I just really hate getting my hands all chickeny.

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