How to Ease Into a Flexitarian Lifestyle

Embrace flexibility over all-or-nothing dieting.

Moroccan style stew with chickpeas, lentils, topped with cilantro
Photo: Allrecipes

Picture this: you've started a new healthy eating plan, be it low-carb or paleo, keto or intermittent fasting, and suddenly, you realize you've broken one of the "rules." You've "failed." And so, instead of chalking it up to human error, you throw caution to the wind, eat a whole pack of Ho-Hos, and tell yourself you'll do better tomorrow.

If you've been there, know this mindset isn't uncommon with lifestyle changes, especially when it comes to food. But it's far from conducive to your mental or physical health. Luckily, that's what makes a flexitarian diet so different.

Unsurprisingly, given its name, the flexitarian diet has quite a bit of flexibility built into it. Perhaps best defined by author Michael Pollan's philosophy to eat "mostly plants," a flexitarian lifestyle is all about doing your best given the options at your disposal.

Different people define the mindset in different ways, but for our purposes, a flexitarian will choose a plant-based or vegan diet whenever possible, a vegetarian diet when vegan isn't on the menu, and will also occasionally include some sustainable, humanely-raised meat and fish.

In other words, a flexitarian attempts to eat a plant-based or plant-forward diet without becoming rigid about it. And the flexibility built into the lifestyle means adherents can go ahead and order that wild-caught salmon fillet instead of the plate of French fries one might turn to in a dearth of plant-based options.

But despite its inbuilt flexibility, a flexitarian diet can seem overwhelming at first, especially if it's the first time you're phasing out meat, eggs, and dairy. With that in mind, here are five easy steps to ease into a flexitarian lifestyle.

1. Rethink What a Meal Can Be

If you grew up with plates divided into three equal portions – grains, veggies, and a portion of meat – a flexitarian plate can seem, well, lacking. So instead of filling the "meat" section up with meat substitutes, think outside the box! Instead of dividing your plate into pieces, consider recipes like stews, soups, and chilis that can be complete meals in and of themselves.

To see what we mean, take inspiration from abroad. From the vegetable curries of Thailand to the dals of India, from the falafel of Israel to the mezze of Greece, recipes from abroad can help jump-start your flexitarian way of life – and invite you to travel around the world from the comfort of your own kitchen.

Here are just a few delicious options to get you started:

2. Stock Your Pantry

One important part of embarking on any new eating routine is without a doubt being prepared. A flexitarian diet – particularly one based on whole foods – will require a certain amount of last-minute shopping for fresh produce. But there are also quite a few pantry staples that keep healthy meals within your reach at a moment's notice.

Start with the cupboard, which you'll want to fill with cans: a variety of beans (black, cannellini, chickpeas, etc.) and tomato products (whole, chopped, fire-roasted, paste) mean that chilis and stews are always quick and easy options. A can of coconut milk will add silkiness and flavor to curries and soups. And be sure to fill your shopping cart with whole grains like rice and farro, which will bulk out buddha bowls and soak up luxurious vegetarian sauces and gravies.

Next up, the freezer: frozen veggies add flavor and nutrients to stir-fries, soups, and pasta sauces. Plus, you'll have them on hand for any time you want to round out a meal with more plants.

Finish with a well-stocked spice cupboard, complete with turmeric, cumin, coriander, paprika, and herbes de Provence, and a wide range of dishes is at your fingertips without stepping foot in a store.

3. Plan Ahead

Meal prepping is another great way to begin embracing a new eating regimen. By planning out your menu, shopping in advance, and even doing a bit of cooking when you have time to (during the weekend, for example), you're making life for future you a whole lot easier!

Sit down with a beautiful cookbook (or your phone) and make a list of the recipes that most entice and excite you. Set a goal of trying a new recipe each week, and stick to it! And to make life simpler on busy nights, consider batch cooking meals like chili, stew, and soup: chana with potatoes, couscous with olives and tomato, or vegan tomato soup are great make-ahead options the whole family will love.

4. Don't Be Shy

It's all well and good to stick to a new routine when you're at home, but when you're invited to a restaurant or a dinner party, it's tempting to shy away from mentioning your new lifestyle. Luckily, since flexitarianism doesn't technically preclude you from eating any food item, bringing it up with your host or hostess isn't necessarily an imposition. Instead, it can be a great opportunity to keep your friends in the loop about your food choices – and maybe even pique their interest in the flexitarian diet.

As for explaining this, you can quite simply let your friends and family know you're "trying to eat more plants." Then, ask if you can bring a side dish or hearty salad (like this Thai rice noodle salad) to share with the group. This way, you can enjoy the festivities without giving extra work to the host.

5. Keep Learning

The inbuilt flexibility of flexitarianism is all about making better choices – and not letting perfect be the enemy of good. Whenever you're faced with a new choice, consider the reasons behind your flexitarianism: Are you choosing a mostly plant-based way of life for the environment? For the health benefits? For humane reasons? Each of these motivations is valid – and each informs a different second-best option.

Consider, for instance, the health benefits of a plant-based way of life, which include reduced inflammation and improved immune health, according to the MD Anderson Cancer Center. If these benefits are the most important to you, and your choice at a restaurant is between a vegetarian fried falafel sandwich on white pita bread or a grilled fillet of wild-caught salmon, the latter is a better choice. On the other hand, if environmental or humane factors motivate your choice, the falafel is far less demanding than the salmon.

If you're choosing a flexitarian diet for humane reasons, an Impossible Burger might be a better choice than a three-egg omelet. If, however, you're motivated to eat more whole foods, that omelet is probably the better choice.

The best part? A flexitarian diet allows you to keep learning and adapting as you go. With this way of life, there are no wrong answers.

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