On Being an Accidental Flexitarian

When I moved out of college at the end of last year, in favour of adulting in my first share house, I didn’t get around to buying any meat for approximately two-and-a-half weeks. 

It’s not that I don’t like meat. In fact, when it’s cooked well – think kebabs, slowly marinated and cooked over hot coals – meat is delicious. It’s just that my cooking ventures to date have happened to involve vast quantities of chickpeas, but very little in the way of animal protein. On occasion I’ve even been mistaken for a vegetarian, with misinformed observers later puzzling over my sporadic meat-eating, as if I were breaking a code of honour I never claimed to follow.

I guess this makes me what they call a flexitarian: someone whose diet is largely centred around plant-based foods, with occasional inclusion of meat. It’s a growing trend, and one which is being led by young people (very appropriate, considering millennials coined the term). When I mentioned to friends I was writing about this topic, I was surprised to find out just how common it was among my own social circles, and how many people were quick to chime in that they, too, follow a semi-vegetarian lifestyle. 

There are a number of driving forces behind the trend: a desire to be healthier, saving money and concern for the environment are some of the big ones. Although I identify with all of these reasons, my own tendency to eat less animal protein comes down to a tight student budget and a squeamish aversion to raw meat. 

When a sizeable chunk of your weekly income is funnelled straight into rent, it doesn’t leave many dollars for food. In Australia, student poverty has been growing worse in recent years – not helped by the insecure nature of many jobs students work in. Even those with more money to spare take the higher price of meat into account. I spoke with recent university graduate Hana, who still prefers buying vegetable proteins, such as lentils, despite having secured a full-time job, because ‘they are cheaper and stay fresher for longer.’ And as my housemate Lin remarked, ‘You could spend $10 on one steak!’ 

There’s also a level of disgust at play in my flexitarian tendencies. I tend to eat a lot more meat when I don’t have to cook it myself. I’m not the only one. Lin’s first reaction when I asked her why she doesn’t cook much meat was that she dislikes the feel of raw meat, the smell of it, seeing the blood. I strongly identify with these sentiments. Lin said she usually enjoys meat when dining out with friends, where ordering meat dishes is often the group consensus (and the reality of raw meat is happily absent). 

It’s fair to say that most people these days, especially in urban areas, are disconnected from the reality of where their meat comes from. I remember a Buzzfeed video that did the rounds on social media a few years ago in which foodies were asked to kill their own food. 

At the beginning of the video, a man demonstrates how to go about the whole slaughtering business. He secures a chicken upside-down with its head through a cardboard cone before slitting its throat with a knife. I feel sick as I watch the warm spurt of dark red blood cover his hand. No wonder only a few of the shell-shocked foodies could actually bring themselves to do the deed. I know I certainly couldn’t. I wonder if it’s partly a manifestation of our cultural taboo around death and dying. Ultimately, I’m left feeling ambivalent about the ethics of my own brand of semi-vegetarianism.

While the approach of radical vegans is often alienating, flexitarianism can be an easy compromise, which reaps many benefits for our health, wallets and the planet, without really upsetting anyone. Not everybody wants to make a big dietary commitment (and many people simply don’t like being told what they can and can’t do!). The college I used to live in held a meat-free dinner each Saturday night, yet large numbers of hungry students would boycott the meal in favour of beefier alternatives, with many a group chat being established for the purpose. 

But returning to the issue at hand: if I truly care about a sustainable approach to eating meat, shouldn’t I be willing to eat the entire animal? My disgust at raw flesh also seems rather discourteous to the creatures who have died to feed me. Given these scruples, I wonder if I would do better to eschew meat entirely. I don’t think I’ll be willing to partake of lamb brains any time soon, much less kill a sheep. 

Alas, I’m destined to remain in the murky realm of the sometimes-vego for the moment. In fact, if someone were to offer me fried chicken right now, I’d happily eat it.

Picture by Maarten van den Heuvel from Pexels

Sarah Crafter is a Publishing and Communications student at the University of Melbourne.

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