May 29, 2017
The Vegetarian Experiment
Recently, I sat down and explored many of food documentaries available on Netflix. After watching a couple, I came across one which focused on the benefits of a vegetarian diet. Now I’ve never been interested in pursuing a vegetarian diet, and for me, even the thought of giving up meat seemed unnatural. That being said, I became interested in the day-to-day lives of vegetarians. I was curious how vegetarians feel about their menu options and how keeping a vegetarian diet shapes their out-of-home dining habits. I speak to a lot of operators, and to some, offering fantastic vegetarian dishes is important. For others, not so much.
After watching the documentary, my wife looked at me and said I’d never be able keep a vegetarian diet. Not even for a day. Never wanting to back out of a bet, I replied, “I could eat vegetarian for a week.” She raised the bar to two weeks. Not wanting to be outdone, I proclaimed, “I’ll eat vegetarian for an entire month!” Let me now say that I wasn’t exactly sure what I was getting myself into. Granted, this is just my experience— but here’s what I learned over that month.
Week 1: The first day of becoming a vegetarian was a challenge— but it was also easy— because the motivation was new. All I had to do was not eat meat. Breakfast was eggs and toast. Putting the bacon away in the freezer hurt a little, but I made it. After my morning meetings we went out to lunch. Wait a minute…the restaurant I chose had no vegetarian options. Not even a gesture of a vegetable platter or grains. It was a little surprising, but then again, I’ve never put that much thought into vegetarianism before. So I ordered a southwest chicken salad— minus the chicken. One more surprise when the check came; that chicken-free southwest chicken salad was full price. Was there something to what my vegetarian friends have told me? Is it really more challenging for vegetarians to find options when eating out at restaurants?
That night I made an ancient grain and vegetable dish for dinner. It was good. To be honest, I didn’t miss the meat. The rest of the week went much of the same way. Since I wanted to fully experience what it was like being on a vegetarian diet, my goal was to spend half of my meals dining out. However, most of my meals ended up being home-made. Cooking my own meals challenged me to be more creative in my cooking. I pushed myself to create meals where consumers wouldn’t miss the meat proteins; ones that even non-vegetarians would want to order.
My week 1 learning was vegetarians are forced to be very selective in which restaurants they go to. I found myself looking up menus online before going out. I was eating at places that I would normally never go to. It was a great experience, however, it was clear that the majority of restaurants weren’t offering enough meatless chef-inspired dishes on their menus.
Week 2: The second week was more of a struggle than Week 1. I was starting to miss meat immensely and found myself eating more and more junk food. Doritos and granola bars are vegetarian, so I was stuffing my face with junk to replace my craving for meat. I was staying strong though. Still no meat. I ended up preparing more meals at home and was getting good at putting together vegetarian dishes. When dining out, I found myself ordering bowls of cream soups, side salads, and chips. I really wasn’t eating healthier; I just wasn’t eating meat.
There was one particularly difficult time during Week 2. I was having dinner with colleagues at a well-known seafood restaurant where appetizers of ahi tuna and calamari preceded a meal of freshly caught seafood. I found myself with a bowl of potato soup and a side salad. It was extremely difficult at the time, but when it was all said and done, I was proud that I stayed true to my goal. By the end of the Week 2, I was missing meat less and less.
Week 3: By the time Week 3 came around I was more acclimated to a vegetarian diet. I didn’t crave meat as much and actively sought out restaurants with more vegetarian options. One day, in a pinch, I even ordered a vegetarian sandwich from subway— something I never thought I would do. Honestly, it was better than expected.
Another night out, in a hip part of town where all the menus are posted prominently outside, I had a very hard time finding anything vegetarian. This is Texas, by the way. Finally, after looking at five different menus, we found a cafe that had a bean burger on special. It fell apart and was mushy. I vowed to make a better bean burger. By this time I had fully embraced being on a vegetarian diet. Mushy burger and all.
Week 4: The final week was the easiest. My home-cooking was in swing and I finally started discovering more vegetarian options outside of the house. Although it got easier, it still surprised me that options were so limited. But I became accustomed to that, too, and it didn’t really bother me much anymore.
By the end of the month I truly didn’t miss meat. I never thought I would ever say that, but it was the truth. I started eating healthier and even lost 8 pounds. It didn’t really feel like a huge difference, but it was starting to show. On day 32, I found myself in Las Vegas for a work function. The choice for dinner was Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Cafe. I’ve been wanting to go there for a few years now. I ordered fresh oysters, escargot, and a center-cut ribeye. My vegetarian diet was officially over. It was a well deserved end to what was a surprisingly an easier-than-expected challenge.
Conclusions: Since my experiment, I’ve limited my meat consumption and have even gone a day or two without meat. I learned what vegetarians go through on a daily basis and now understand why many simply don’t eat out. A recent study showed that 7.3 million Americans are vegetarian. Many of those say it can be difficult dining out due to a lack of options. Is this something that restaurant owners and operators should be thinking about when planning their menus? Is eating less meat going to be a growing trend? Some trend experts and operators say, “yes”. Other operators don’t seem too concerned.
If I had any advice after this experiment, it would be this: if you decide to offer vegetarian options, don’t just throw a vegetarian plate out there for the sake of it. Try to create great, memorable dishes that will keep people coming back. You might be surprised to see that even meat-eaters will order a thoughtful, inspired vegetarian dish— even without a side of meat.