More Britons than ever are waving goodbye to meat, or at least cutting down. Embracing a flexitarian lifestyle while still pleasing all the family doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive, writes Sophie Morris
“I had a very traditional meat-and-two-veg Yorkshire upbringing,” says Katy Beskow, 36, the author of 10 vegan cookery books. “When I went vegetarian in my teens, my mum was up for trying new things, but it was hard to find meat-free products apart from Linda McCartney sausages.”
Twenty years later, not only are there thousands of meat-free or “plant-based” products on supermarket shelves, from oat milk to pea protein sausages to 3D-printed steaks, but Beskow’s own “meatand-two-veg” septuagenarian Yorkshire parents are proud vegetarians themselves.
“They find being vegetarian cheaper but also easier and much more interesting,” Beskow, who’s been vegan for 16 years, tells me. “They weren’t getting value for money with meat, and weren’t enjoying it as much as they used to. A big benefit of being vegan or vegetarian is that you eat seasonally, which means you’re never eating the same thing. At this time of year, for example, I’m looking forward to all the pumpkin and squash.”
“Beskow’s parents might have found giving up meat easier than some, given their daughter is one of the UK’s most prolfic vegan cookery writers, guiding home cooks towards meat-free meals with inventive and achievable recipes, from her 15-minute series to Easy Vegan Christmas (out now, Quadrille, £22).
But government figures show that cutting back on meat is no longer a niche habit or New Year fad. We ate less meat in 2022 than at any point since records began in 1974. The UK is eating 14 per cent less meat than it was a decade ago and consumption has dropped from an average of 949g (33oz) per person per week in 2019-20 to 854g (30oz) in 2021-22.
IS THE ROAST AT RISK?
Whoever thought, when they first heard the slightly awkward portmanteau off lexible and vegetarian, that one day, we’d all be flexitarian? That day, it seems, has come. Carcass meat consumption, which means butchers buying whole carcasses of beef, pork and lamb to butcher and sell on to us, has fallen by 26 per cent in 10 years, with other products falling 11 per cent. Earlier this year, Tesco reported that 36 per cent of us were cooking fewer roasts because of the cost of energy. We want to eat meat on a Sunday, but are put off after last winter’s harsh food price hikes and energy inflation.
Even though I eat everything, and love preparing a roast for a crowd after a predominantly plant-based week, most of my friends have been vegetarian or vegan for years, so I have to choose guests carefully if I want to do a leg of lamb. For a mixed group, I’ll do a number of dishes with one meat or fish option. Perhaps curries or a Middle Eastern spread. Everyone’s happy, but it’s far more work than shoving a chicken in the oven surrounded by spuds and carrots.
HOW WE EAT NOW
Ask a vegetarian - and I was one for years but don’t agree on this point - and they’ll say that cooking without meat is easier and quicker. I’m not sure you can beat slamming sausages or chicken thighs in the oven for ease, or throwing a steak in a pan, but many of us aren’t defaulting to speedy meat hits every day. Nor should we be, if we care for the planet as well as our pennies.
The 2021 National Food Strategy said we need to cut meat consumption by 30 per cent by 2032 to have any hope of meeting net-zero carbon targets by 2050. No one likes to be told what to do, much less what to eat, but a study published last week in the journal Appetite suggests that sticking gruesome cigarette packetstyle warnings on meat packaging could strike fear and shame into the minds of consumers and help us to cut back further.
When I poll meat-eating friends, a number have conscientious approaches to how often they eat animal products: going meat-free every other day, or never eating meat at lunch-time, predominantly for environmental reasons.
Nathalie has her husband and three boys on three meat-free days a week. “We were brought up on a lot of brown rice and lentils when it was still considered alternative, so were aware of the nutrition side early on,” she says. “Over the years, affordability has also been a factor and encouraged me to expand my recipe library for the meals that I like.”
I have lazily defaulted to serving my family more meat since becoming a mother, which is wrong-footed, if not mad, when you consider that this is the generation that needs to cut back the most.
HOW TO DO IT
Chef and cookbook author Claire Thomson runs a flexitarian household with her husband and three daughters, two of whom don’t eat meat; one because she’s never enjoyed it, the other because she’s an animal lover. “We are pretty much vegetarian most of the time, apart from probably every other weekend having a joint of meat and using it up in the week,” she says. “But the figures do surprise me, as when I talk to people I meet a lot of meat eaters, especially the parents of teenage boys, who often eat lots of meat.”
” Thomson’s writing is alsoflexitarian. Her latest book, One-Pan Chicken, is published this week (Quadrille, £20) and she’s currently finishing a book on vegetarian family cooking. Her advice is to give children more autonomy if you want to shift towards eating less meat.
“We’ll have veg as the main event, with lots of bolt-ons. For example with a pilaff there’ll be yoghurt and pickles. With a tray of sweet potatoes, there’ll be soured cream, coleslaw, and maybe a little lamb shish kebab as I know my 13-year-old likes meat.
“If I do a whole poached chicken, the girls are happy to eat noodles cooked in the chicken stock the next day. Everyone’s happy as there’s always something that everyone likes.”
Thomson says that this more incorporated approach, rather than separate chicken, broccoli and potato on a plate, is the root to getting kids to understand flavour and different ingredients in a diet. But she knows she has two chefs in the house and doesn’t want to preach.
Her easy vegetable swaps for family favourites include doing tofu Kyiv instead of chicken Kyiv and elevating our beloved potatoes. “Add homemade baked beans, punchy coleslaw, and sriracha,” she says. “And cook seasonally - it’s by far the best way to cook with a budget in mind.”
Asda’s trend report for 2023-24 found that more of us are turning to potatoes as the main event, with a 12 per cent increase in sales year on year.
“Budget-friendly vegetables have been given a new lease of life as the centrepiece of main dishes,” says
Jonathan Moore, Asda’s senior director of food trends and innovation. “The biggest not-so-humble star is the potato, as consumers turn to TikTok, which has over 10 billion views for #potato, for inspiration on how to get creative with the household staple.”
Government figures also show that we’re moving to cheaper cuts of meat, something chefs have long recommended. With steak, for example, we each ate 13g (half an ounce) more of the higher priced cuts in 2021-22, a reduction of 8g in a year, and 16g of cheaper steak, down from 20g. While food inflation is currently easing - 12.2 per cent in October down from a peak of 19.2 per cent in March - prices are still high. The poorest 10 per cent of consumers have cut back more, to eat 19 per cent less meat, and the richest 10 per cent are eating 10 per cent less meat each week than in 2002.
Ocado claims we’re even turning to more offal, with sales of ox tongue at double last year and bone marrow up 37 per cent. I don’t see tongue becoming standard fare any time soon, but the online supermarket also says that chicken sales have increased by 15 per cent in a year and suggests its “lower average price point” may be a driving factor of this preference.
“If your budget isn’t up to buying a whole chicken, use the wings and use the drumsticks,” says Thomson, whose kids love her sesame marmalade wings. “Use two sausages to feed six, squeezing the meat out of the casing to make a sausage and broccoli pasta with rosemary, garlic and chilli.”
Like Beskow, I grew up eating a fairly traditional “English” diet, with meat on the menu most days and Sunday roasts. We did, however, have plenty of vegetarian dinners, with Delia as our guiding light towards pasta and parmigiana, risotto and salad (my dad had a slice of gammon on the side). Still, the recipes we loved most then, and still do today on visits back to the mothership, are undoubtedly
Delia’s bolognese and lasagne.
Somehow the message that bacon and sausages weren’t healthy ways to start the day had reached us in the 1980s, and increased health messaging since means that many British consumers worry about the links between red and processed meat and a greater risk of heart disease and some cancers. The British Heart Foundation says we shouldn’t eat more than 70g (2.5oz) of red meat a day, which is only a few mouthfuls of steak but could go far if bulked out into meatballs.
In September, the Social Market Foundation found that 58 per cent of Brits are making efforts to eat less meat. But the market for processed fake meat seems to have burst, with plummeting sales all over the world.
“You need a chemistry degree to read the ingredients,” jokes Beskow. “But we all fancy something easy once in a while. Making a bolognese with lentils is cheap, but processed fake meats aren’t. But we need to get over the snobbery that everyone’s going to cook everything from scratch every day.”
Family dinner-time alternatives
Swap shepherd’s pie for a lentil and carrot version with sweet potato mash
Switch a Sunday roast for a mushroom and chestnut wellington
Exchange your spag bol for a rich lentil ragu with flavour bombs from dried mushrooms and miso
Experiment with different lasagne fillings such as squash and sage, creamy white beans with leek and garlic, spinach and peas with ricotta, tomato and peppers, or a fridge-forage filling
Swap your usual steak and chips for portobello mushrooms topped with grilled blue cheese
Make your burgers meatfree by trying black bean and halloumi patties
Try a faux fish and chips with beer-battered tofu
instead of sausage and mash, treat yourself to Linda McCartney sausages and add flavour with a rich onion gravy
Instead of a beef-based chilli try cheesy kidney and pinto beans
Swap bacon sarnies for fried eggs flavoured with liquid smoke
Switch chicken curry for cauliflower and coconut milkWe shouldn’t just default to meat if we care for the planet as well as our pennies