This being the first day of a new month, I’ve just completed another monthly challenge. Due to its relative brevity, I chose February to be the month in which I would try something that until recently I would have considered impossible: to go a month without eating meat.
I very nearly managed it.
Out of the month’s 29 days—I was cursing the leap year right from the start—I eschewed all meat (including fish) for 27 of them.
My first failure as previously noted was a result of health concerns. I’m now quite convinced that the lack of meat had little or nothing to do with that incident, but it was reasonable to take precautions anyway.
My second day off was during the week of Valentine’s Day. I took Eileen to a Japanese cooking class at Atsuko’s Kitchen in Shoreditch. There was an option to prepare a vegetarian menu, but as my herbivorism was only temporary I thought it would make more sense for us to learn some dishes we’d be more likely to prepare in the future. We still only had fish, so some people would consider that a partially successful day.
The rest of the time I found the challenge to be easier that I expected. Certainly it was much easier than it would have been for me only a few years ago.
It was sometimes hard to just keep in mind the restrictions I’d placed on myself. During the first few days I had a tendency to come very close to picking up some meat in the café in work without thinking. Even during the last week I nearly lost another day when I twigged only at the last second that the paté I was about to eat was (duh) made from an animal.
But when I was able to keep the rules in mind it was pretty easy to always find a food option that I was happy to eat and that was allowed. Sometimes that meant I couldn’t have exactly what I wanted, but on the other hand it also made choosing what to eat a lot more straightforward.
I’m reminded of a part of A.J. Jacobs’ book The Year of Living Biblically when he asks a Rabbi why orthodox Judaism has such restrictive rules about how to live your life. The Rabbi answered that the rules exist to determine the answers to all of life’s unimportant decisions, so that you have more time and energy to devote to more noble persuits. I felt like having my restrictive rule in place made choosing what to eat easier, and freed me from a lot of unimportant decison making. I was fighting against what author Barry Schwartz calls the paradox of choice.
One of my aims going into this challenge was to expand my food horizons by ocassionally being forced to choose between edging out of my comfort zone or going hungry. It’s amazing how much better some foods can taste when you’re hungry. Hunger is the best sauce, as my father always tells me. He’s clearly never had Belgian samurai sauce, but he’s nearly right.
As it happens I’ve been consciously training myself to appreciate more foods for some time. I like to identify a popular food that I don’t like and make myself first tolerate it, and eventually even like it, through progressively increasing exposure. If I look at a dish and think, “that would be great if it weren’t for (some ingredient),” that’s a clue that I should be adding that ingredient to my list. In fact, without a few years of this kind of effort I would never have even considered trying this challenge.
I’m proud to declare that the most recent addition to my “foods I don’t hate” list is mushroom. I think I’ve had more mushroom in the last four weeks than in the rest of my life combined.
Sadly it wasn’t all positive. Frequently the most appealing vegetarian lunch option was a sandwich, and you wouldn’t believe how many restaurants’ only vegetarian meals are pasta. I ate a lot of carbs, and I put on a few kilos. It can’t have helped that I was directing my willpower at avoiding meat, and had little left to apply to the goal of eating healthily.
If I could overcome that tendency to eat carb-heavy foods I might be inclined to do this again, though maybe for a shorter time. But even without doing that, I think I’ve got something valuable out of the experience. I will no longer just skim over the vegetarian options on a menu, now that I’ve learned how good some of them can be.
I’d encourage others to give it a go too, if only for a short time. See how much your diet is really centered around meat, and maybe get a better understanding of what life is like for real vegetarians. And if you’re as picky an eater as I was, forcing yourself to eat things you wouldn’t previously have considered may end up paying off for you in the end.