There are a lot of diets out there: paleo, Keto, Whole30, Atkins… but what about flexitarian? The term (and diet) has been slowly rising in popularity over the last few years—in 2003, “flexitarian” was voted the word of the year by the American Dialect Society. In 2009, registered dietician Dawn Jackson Blatner popularized the term and touted the health benefits in her book The Flexitarian Diet.
The term itself probably feels like a made-up word someone mashed together when struggling to explain their meal preferences to friends. And that’s kind of correct. “The word “flexitarian” was first coined in the early 1990s as a portmanteau of the words flexible and vegetarian, and it really is exactly that,” says Corky Pollan, who wrote a new flexitarian cookbook, Mostly Plants, with her daughters Tracy, Dana, and Lori. “A flexitarian is someone who eats a primarily vegetarian diet but who also occasionally eats meat or fish.” The idea of the diet is meat moderation, not elimination.
Flexitarians believe that when you focus on eating more vegetables, you naturally eat less meat and fewer processed foods and that you needn’t go completely plant-based or vegan (unless you want to) to enjoy the benefits. If you love meat or feel deprived without it, you don’t need to give it up; you can simply change the ratio on your plate, using meat as an accent rather than a centerpiece.
You might see the last name Pollan and think, “Hey, that sounds familiar…” and you’d probably be thinking of the famed author Michael Pollan, who penned nutrition best sellers, like The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food. Michael is also the son of Corky (and brother to Tracy, Dana, and Lori). When he once famously wrote “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants,” he started the (veggie-based) conversation about how we should eat for better health.
That meat should be used as an accent is a cornerstone of the flexitarian diet and, arguably, overall well-being. As Michael has previously said, “Vegetarians are healthier than carnivores, but near vegetarians (flexitarians) are as healthy as vegetarians.” Studies are backing up that claim too. It’s been shown that eating less meat has myriad health benefits, like a decreased risk of cancers, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, dementia, and help with weight reduction. Eating less meat is also associated with increased longevity. “And conversely, eating too much meat has been associated with innumerable negative health impacts,” says Corky. In addition to your well-being, eating less meat has a tremendous positive impact on the environment. “It reduces greenhouse gasses, saves billions of gallons of water, and conserves land,” says Dana.
For the Pollan family, they think “eating right is not about following the rules of a diet—rather, the key to healthy eating is choosing good-quality foods, lots of vegetables, whole foods, and home-cooked meals whenever possible.” In their new cookbook, they focus on creating plant-centric recipes that are not only good for keeping you healthy, but they’re also highly accessible—many of them can be thrown together in 35 minutes or less using only a few ingredients. They describe the book as “practical, realistic, and inclusive,” a necessity when cooking, no matter your diet in this modern, hectic day and age. “Cooking for yourself and your family is one of the best things you can do to improve your health,” says Tracy.
So what do these flexitarians cook for dinner after a long workday? Pasta, duh, and a few other standbys—all with a hefty dose of veggies. “After a long, hectic day, we all tend to resort to our favorite quick standbys; we love pasta with oil, garlic, and vegetables (always lots of vegetables), broiled salmon with sautéed mixed greens (for the non-vegetarians), or a big chopped salad with greens, vegetables, chickpeas, nuts, and seeds,” says Corky.
In addition to quick, weeknight recipes, the cookbook also features handfuls of Pollan family hacks when it comes to food prep (cleverly labeled as “Sage Advice and Thyme-Tested Shortcuts” in the book). A few of their favorites include everyday tips, like when cooking grains, cook double the amount you need and store the leftovers in the refrigerator for quick weeknight meals. Or chop the whole bunch of herbs used for a recipe and freeze what you don’t use for another day. And an obvious, but oft-overlooked tip: Annotate your recipes—if you change something and it works, write it down so that you have it for next time.
Rather than restrict what people eat, the Pollans say they’re trying to answer the question, “How do I make a nutritious meal that doesn’t scream ‘healthy’ and that will put me on the road to a happier, more balanced lifestyle?” One of their favorite go-to recipes is linguine with spinach and golden garlic bread crumbs, a super-quick meal that sneaks in a pound of iron-rich spinach with garlicky breadcrumbs.
Linguine with Spinach and Golden Garlic Bread Crumbs
- Kosher salt
- 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 6 cloves garlic: 1 minced, 5 thinly sliced
- 3/4 cup panko bread crumbs
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1 pound linguine
- 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste
- 1 pound baby spinach
- 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat and add 1 tablespoon salt. Meanwhile, in a large skillet over medium heat, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Add the minced garlic and cook, stirring, for about 30 seconds. Add the bread crumbs and cook, stirring frequently, until golden, two to three minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from the heat and set aside.
Cook the pasta in the boiling water until al dente, about two minutes less than the directions on the package. Reserve 1⁄2 cup of the pasta water and drain the pasta in a colander.
Wipe out the skillet, set it over medium heat, and add the remaining 1⁄2 cup olive oil. Add the sliced garlic and the red pepper flakes and cook, stirring frequently, until the garlic is lightly browned, three to four minutes.
Slowly add the spinach and cook, using tongs to mix it thoroughly with the oil, until wilted, two to three minutes. Pour in the reserved pasta water and mix well. Add the cooked linguine and 1⁄2 cup of the cheese and use the tongs to thoroughly combine. Season with 1⁄2 teaspoon salt and teaspoon black pepper. Add 1⁄4 cup of the bread crumbs and toss. Transfer the pasta to a serving bowl, sprinkle with the remaining bread crumbs and remaining 2 tablespoons cheese, and serve hot.
Wanna try flexing? There are a plethora of plant-heavy recipes and tips on the Pollans’ site, aptly named The Pollan Family. And Mostly Plants and the OG The Flexitarian Diet are available online and most bookstores.
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