Do you serve an a la carte menu every night? As a family with diverse eating habits, I seemed to have taken up the position of amateur nutritionist and chef at my house. Preparing a multitude of meals every day for all the different dietary requirements was not an ideal situation. Mum, Dad and teenage twins – how hard could it be?
Fifteen-year-old Miss E. has been on a strict gluten-free diet since being diagnosed with coeliac disease aged two. It’s more of a slight inconvenience these days, rather than the drama it was at the start. Awareness of coeliac disease and gluten free diets has increased since those early days. We can eat out with careful choices and I can get everything I need at the supermarket now. Phew! Whether the reason is fad-based ‘health’ diets or fact-based awareness, the variety and widespread availability of gluten free foods are a welcome relief.
Her twin, Miss S., decided at the beginning of the year that she was going ‘pescatarian’: a lacto/ovo-vegetarian who eats fish. She’s doing it for ethical reasons, and although it may be tricky for the cook, I applaud her intentions and I don’t want to squash her teenage autonomy.
Mr. B. has been doing the 5:2 fasting diet for around a year now, and needs low calorie dinners two nights a week. He’s been battling his weight for ages and has tried several different diets. 5:2 has been the easiest fit with our everyday lives, and suits him well. To be honest, I don’t count the calories, just apply common sense when planning the meal and cut out the carbs. He’s healthier and lighter than he’s been in decades, and even on fasting days he gets to eat a proper evening meal with the family.
To make life easier, and so I’m not cooking a-la-carte every night, we decided to all adopt the ‘pescatarian’ diet at home. So now I’m preparing gluten free, vegetarian (or fish) dinners, which twice a week need to be under 600 calories. Sounds daunting, right? I’ve found the key to sanity is meal planning and having a well-stocked pantry.
I’ve always loved the idea of becoming vegetarian, and flirted with the idea over the years. When it came down to it though, I just really enjoyed eating meat. There are many excellent reasons to adopt a (mostly) vegetarian diet: improved health, animal welfare, environmental impact, and also delicious food. I hoped that this would be just the thing that would make me explore all the possibilities and give it a really serious go.
There has been a surge of interest in vegetarian and non-meat cooking in recent years, showcasing vegetables as the main event. I’ve been inspired by some gorgeous cookbooks that celebrate vegetables, pulses and grains: Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty, Anna Jones’ A Modern Way to Eat, and my current favourite, Hana Assafiri’s Moroccan Soup Bar: Recipes of a Spoken Menu. While exploring these recipes we found that we didn’t miss meat at all. What can be done with lentils and chickpeas has been a revelation!
Of course, we were always going to miss some of our family favourites, and I’ve done a bit of experimenting and amending to well-worn recipes with great success: Roast vegetable pasta – used to have bacon, but now has crumbled feta; Vegetable Biryani – replaced chicken with diced butternut pumpkin, cauliflower, mushrooms and peas. Added calcium and protein with a dollop of natural yogurt. Delicious! Who knew?
My absolute favourite adaptations is Lentil Shepherd’s Pie – lentils instead of mince and cheesy mash topping. Adapted from regular shepherd’s pie and a yummy lentil soup recipe, I honestly think I prefer it now. Give it a go.
Lentil Shepherd’s Pie
This recipe feeds 4 hungry people
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 medium onion, finely diced
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 750ml gluten free vegetable stock
- 250g brown lentils
- 2 large carrots, peeled and finely diced
- 2 sticks of celery, finely diced
- 150g mushrooms, sliced
- 2 tsp gluten free corn flour
- 400g canned chopped tomatoes with juice
- 1/2 tsp allspice
- 1/2 tsp dried thyme
- pepper and salt to taste
- 4 large potatoes, peeled and cubed
- milk, butter and grated cheddar cheese for mashing
- Place olive oil, onions, garlic, carrots and celery in a large saucepan and fry gently, stirring occasionally until soft.
- Sprinkle the corn flour over the vegetables and cook, stirring to coat everything, for a few minutes. Be careful that it doesn’t stick to the pan.
- Rinse lentils and add to pan with tomatoes and their juice, allspice, dried thyme and stock and give it a stir.
- Bring to the boil. Cover, lower heat and simmer for about an hour, or until lentils are tender.
- Stir from time to time. The finished product should be a similar consistency to the traditional mince version, so you may need to adjust the liquid.
- Meanwhile, boil potatoes in salted water until tender.
- Drain and mash with a splash of milk, butter and cheese. Check seasoning.
- Choose a large or individual oven proof dishes and spoon in the lentil mixture.
- Top with the mash and spread out to cover the whole dish.
- Criss-cross with a fork for texture and bake in the oven at 220°C until contents are bubbling and top is crispy and golden.
Tips and tricks: If you’re in a hurry, used tinned lentils or make a double batch of lentil filling and freeze for another time. This could also be thinned with more stock and blended for a delicious lentil soup.
So six months in, how have we fared? You know what, after the first couple of weeks we didn’t really miss meat. Even when eating out, I’ll often choose a non-meat option without thinking about it. But it hasn’t been a question of simply cutting out meat, as growing teenagers need good nutrition. This new way of eating has made me really think about the balance of nutrients in a meal. We are all fit and healthy, and we spend less money on food. It has done us all good to eat less wheat-based food, and no carbs a couple of times a week has made my cooking more creative!
You could have a go at strategic meal planning if you have different diets to accommodate. Beats spending all night in the kitchen.