Stephen Jardine: Meat-free diet is not ‘mung beans & misery’

Asparagus: one of the many delights to be enjoyed when pursuing a meat-free diet.
Asparagus: one of the many delights to be enjoyed when pursuing a meat-free diet.
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As his month-long experiment comes to an end, Stephen Jardine finds that a vegetarian diet has much more to offer than he ever realised - and he will be changing his eating habits

And now, the end is near and so I face the final curly kale. With a Frank Sinatra big finish, my meat free May is now coming to a close.

A month ago I set out to test my prejudices and preconceptions about vegetarianism and to find out how a committed meat eater would cope with going cold turkey without the turkey.

It’s not been plain sailing. I’ve lapsed a couple of times when well meaning friends have served me meat without knowing about the experiment. But even after just a brief break, meat didn’t seem to taste the same.

In contrast, my vegetarian meals have been a revelation. I’d always assumed vegetarians subsisted on a diet of mung beans and misery topped up with vitamin pills and sanctimony. Turns out I was wrong. My meat free diet this past month has been fresh, spicy, interesting and full of flavour.

I’ve turned to Middle Eastern cookery for some help with herbs and spicing but the stars of the show have been simple vegetables prepared in ways I hadn’t imagined. Coronation cauliflower is not just a thing, it is unbelievably tasty as well.

I’d expected to double the profits of Linda McCartney vegetarian ready meals in May but I only actually resorted to the microwave once. The rest of the time, meals have involved experimenting and conjuring up something interesting involving vegetables that were sometimes familiar to me but often were not. Turns out they are a lot more forgiving than meat when you get cooking times wrong. An undercooked courgette maybe delivers a crunch but it is not going to send you to the bathroom for 48 hours.

So the experiment has hardly been a hardship and it’s has had one unexpected bonus. I feel better than I did before. I haven’t had that full-to-bursting sensation for a month and I am all the better for it.

Eating out has been less fun. If restaurants offer a step up in food and cooking for most meat eaters, that rarely seems to be the case for vegetarians. You often hear meat eaters saying they like to have something they couldn’t make at home when they eat out. In contrast, the vegetarian food I encountered in restaurants this month often seemed to be dishes that were easily available and just as tasty when made at home.

Looking back, the highs and lows are obvious. The baked potato and beans I ate in a work canteen offering nothing else vegetarian left me full but not happy. In contrast the four-salad selection I ordered the other day in a café ticked all the boxes. From the Jersey Royals with beetroot to the thick, grilled asparagus spears slicked with rape seed oil, it was seasonal, healthy and full of flavour.

What a difference a month can make. I’ve gone from being a committed carnivore to someone happy to order a quartet of salads and clear the plate. So what next?

I can’t imagine never eating meat again. I understand that decision has a cost to the planet but so does almost every other human action and a great steak is a pleasure I’m not prepared to consign to the past. But I will eat an awful lot less meat in the future and what I choose will have the best welfare standards.

My diet has changed but so has my attitude to vegetarians and meat free living. Before this I’d seen them as self righteous misery makers, who put up with second class food just to feel smug. Now I realise I’m the one who has missing out. I may not be a vegetarian moving forward but I will be only an occasional meat eater. That feels like a result for everyone.