That Pescatarian Life

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I eat a pescatarian diet, meaning I eat primarily plant-based plus I include fish and seafood. Going pescatarian has been a defining decision in my life in a lot of ways. I mean, the food you eat and cook and share says something about who you are and where you come from. The choices you make about the food you buy also often reflects your values and priorities, whether it’s sustainability, affordability, convenience, eating organic, etc. So, in this way, pescatarianism sort of feels like a lifestyle. But the diet itself is one that includes lots of variety – from light and healthy to decadent and indulgent – and has been wholly satisfying.

Being pescatarian has made me a better cook and a more adventurous eater. The food I enjoy keeps me satisfied and sustained. It’s nourished me through two pregnancies of two healthy 8-plus pound baby boys and a combined 33 months of breastfeeding. I wanted to write a post about it because people often ask me about the whys, the mechanics and for technical assistance (with recipes and cooking techniques).

The Whys

When people learn I’m pescatarian, they have a slew of reactions, some of the most common being:

  • “You only eat fish? I didn’t know you were a vegetarian!” (I’m not. Pescatarian is not vegetarian and fish is not a vegetable.)
  • “Does your husband eat that way, too? [Me: “No.”] (Pause…) Well, how do you make that work??!!”
  • “How do you live without [insert person’s favorite meat. 95% of the time, people say bacon here]????”

For me, going pescetarian was part of a gradual process. I gave up red meat back in 1994 for Lent. It was a huge sacrifice. I really loved eating meat (specifically ground beef and lamb). Friends and family routinely gasped when they heard I was planning to go 40 days without meat. It was too much for many to contemplate.

My Mom, the SWEETEST little woman from Alabama, could not believe that I was giving up beef and pork and lamb, all of which were staples in our house. (Now, being a mom, I better understand what a wrench that must’ve thrown in the works. Not only did she have make dinner for everyone in the house, but now, one of the people didn’t eat the same thing as everyone else. What a hassle!) When I didn’t start eating it again immediately – I managed to resist the traditional leg of lamb on Easter – people in my life were concerned. “You’ll be so [fill in the blank: hungry/tired/malnourished],” they said.

These worries were totally overblown. But there was one unforeseen consequence. I often felt (and still feel) pretty left out at cookouts. Haha!! There are some exceptions to this, such as family cookouts with relatives serving up all the family favorite side dishes. But many times (like at most kids parties and EVERY man-hosted cookout I went to in my 20s), cookouts were/are based on hamburgers, hot dogs and the occasional steak. People don’t get too adventurous with the proteins they throw on the grill and sides are often an afterthought, store-bought or downright not tasty. I digress…

I ate chicken and turkey in college, and I went vegetarian about a year after graduation in what seemed like a natural progression. I had survived (!) without eating red meat for several years. I’d also started tuning into a lot of “vegetarian media” – news articles, websites and other discussions about the resources that went into raising livestock and meat production, treatment of livestock animals, etc. – which made me feel pretty good about being totally meat free.

My two years as a vegetarian helped me achieve a huge and integral accomplishment: I broke my addiction to chicken. At a time when I was going to a lot of happy hours and nightclubs with friends and colleagues, chicken was a constantly present, major source of low-quality junk food. Fried chicken wings could right a whole lot of wrongs – long lines to get in the club, expensive drinks, bad days at oppressive work environments, you name it. And chicken as a category is just so easy – it’s on every menu, it’s comforting, everyone has a chicken recipe that they’ve perfected. Once I stopped eating chicken, I had to start getting creative. I started eating at home more since non-chicken options were slim.

Overall, though, I found a vegetarian diet to be limiting. In D.C. in the early 2000s, there weren’t many accessible, affordable vegetarian offerings, especially at the cheapie restaurants I was frequenting! (Happily, this has completely changed. There are so many delicious plant-based options at D.C. restaurants now. If I went vegetarian today, it’d be exponentially easier to have interesting, adventurous and abundant culinary experience across the whole D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area.) So I reintroduced fish and seafood into my diet and haven’t looked back.

The Mechanics

One really great part about a pescatarian diet is the shear volume of different types of fish and seafood you can try. Most everyone’s probably tried canned tuna, tilapia, pollock (like in fish sticks or McDonald’s filet o’ fish sandwiches) and salmon. But there are so many species, flavors, textures and preparations (grilled, steamed, poached, roasted, etc.) – it’s hard to run out of options.

There’s also lots of veggies, fruits, beans, grains, and healthy proteins and a full variety of textures and flavors in my diet. In a typical week, I probably eat 75% vegetarian and 25% seafood or fish. These percentages have shifted over the years to include less fish and more vegetables. This is in part because once I really learned to cook and experiment with vegetables, I’ve found them so sustaining and satisfying that I’d rather eat them than anything else. I know that meals can be amazing, Earth-shattering and meat-free both at home and in a growing number of local restaurants.

Of course, diet becomes more complicated when you cook for other people. If you’re feeding people who are not adventurous eaters – like my husband and one of my boys – experimenting with fish or many new recipes is not always doable. I definitely had to figure out some go-to everyday recipes that made us all happy at dinner time.

My go-to method for cooking salmon: Broiled.

My husband is an omnivore – he definitely likes his meat. But he also likes shrimp, steamed whole blue crabs, canned tuna and and a few other things. He’s not a huge fish fan, though over the years, he’s developed an appreciation for a well-seasoned grilled or broiled salmon filet (it must have a nice seared crust, or he won’t eat it. Try my go-to method in my Citrus-studded Chop Salad with Salmon recipe). He’s also open to plant-based protein substitutes like veggie crumbles instead of ground beef. And, luckily, he really enjoys vegetables.

My oldest son is an adventurous eater. He lives to eat and will try just about anything. Rice is his favorite. My youngest is a picky eater and has a peanut allergy. He’ll occasionally eat tuna, salmon or shrimp and he’ll do veggie crumbles. Pasta is his favorite. Both of the boys LOVE sushi.

This gives me enough to work with for our family meals. I make hearty, filling meals that he and the boys like (such as shrimp and veggie fried rice, spaghetti, paella and tacos). I also make a lot of soups and stews – the guys love the heartier ones (like gumbo and minestrone) for dinner and I always love a creamy vegetable soup (like potato leek or carrot ginger) for lunch. We also have some good restaurants like Silver Diner and Ruby Tuesdays where the kids menus have a fish option and the regular menu has lots of variety in choices.

Technical Support

If you’re considering a change to any diet that emphasizes eating less meat, having a plan is a must. Our food system in the U.S. is not structured to support diets that are low in animal protein and high in plants. If you’re not aware of that and prepared with solutions, you might have a hard time.

A few quick tips:

  • Go in order. Think about the foods you eat on a regular basis – what would you need to adapt if meat was removed. What would you replace with fish? When could you try a vegetarian swap like veggie crumbles. Strategize on a few key recipes that you’ll adapt early on and commit to perfecting or improving them.
  • Eat your favorites. What are your top three favorite vegetables? How can you include them in your regular menu more often?
  • Work with your personality. Do you need gradual change? Are you great at going cold turkey? Are you a “challenge junkie” that’s good at making a change for a set amount of time? (This is me. Remember my Lenten challenge?) Think about habit-change methods that work for you and use those tactics as part of this process, too.
  • Find good resources. I found this great article “Pescatarian Diet 101” that gives a pantry list, recipe ideas, health info and more. There are many other high quality resources like this around. Find one that’s thorough and from a reputable source to use as a quick reference guide.
  • To quote Flavor Flav: “Don’t believe the hype!” People will tell you it’s not healthy/normal/sane not to eat chicken, beef, bacon and other meats. They’ll suggest that you can’t get enough protein, perform at your peak or have optimal energy without eating a meat-centric diet. Not true! Some of the healthiest cultures in the world eat little to no animal protein. Personally, I feel completely supported by my diet. And I’m not the only one – plant-based diets are a huge topic in health and athletic circles. The current and persistent buzz around the new film Game Changers is a testament.
  • Contribute. Remember what I said about cookouts? Be prepared to bring a dish with you to share to parties and events. Pro tip: There will ALWAYS be room for a vegetable dish. (Don’t be surprised if you bring the only one. Eat more vegetables, people!)
  • Be flexible with the “rules.” My husband eats meat. I like to try fish, seafood and vegetarian dishes that others in my house won’t eat. My oldest really loves peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but I don’t want him eating them around his little brother. So everyone’s allowed to “do lunch their way.” We don’t typically eat lunch together during the week anyway, so this is a good time for people to really be able to have what they want wherever they’re having lunch.
  • Be open minded and adventurous. Go ahead, try a meat-free meal. You may end up with a new family favorite. We did. One of our favorite weeknight meals is a super savory and quick pasta sauce that uses lots of veggies (including onions, mushrooms, tomatoes, capers) and a few anchovies or anchovy paste.

Don’t be afraid to give that pescatarian life a try. You will survive and you might find yourself feeling stronger, healthier and more satisfied with a new line up of favorite recipes.

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