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The Flexitarian Diet

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The Flexitarian Diet:
The Mostly Vegetarian Way to Lose Weight, Be Healthier, Prevent Disease, and Add Years to Your Life.

Author: Dawn Jackson Blatner
RD, LDN

If you’re looking for a way of eating that says “yes” to a veritable cornucopia of food instead of “no” to every food you love, then The Flexitarian Diet is for you.  Author Dawn Jackson Blatner RD, LDN has an easy-going style that invites you to try out a “mostly vegetarian” way of eating while still allowing for flexibility (read: you can eat meat!).  Chock-full of tips such as “Craving Control” and “Time Crunch,” Blatner’s approach to eating manages to be both fun and tasty all at the same time.  With 100 creative and delicious recipes that are sure to be winners with the whole family, The Flexitarian Diet will inspire you to look at veggies,  fruits and whole grains as more than just healthy, but absolutely delicious.

Super Kids Nutrition spoke with Dawn about her new book and what it means to “flex” your diet, how it can save time, allow you to enjoy your meals, but live healthier, too.

Could you describe what it means to be a “flexitarian” for our readers?

“Flexitarian” is the combination of two words: flexible + vegetarian. Research study after research study concludes that one of the healthiest ways to achieve optimal health and prevent and manage disease is by eating a vegetarian diet. But so many people (including myself) find it difficult to eat vegetarian 100% of the time because of social moments such as a hot dog at a baseball game with friends or traditional holiday foods with the family.

Being a flexitarian is about minimizing meat without excluding it all together.  It is the best of both worlds – you get the health benefits of a vegetarian diet while still being able to enjoy
meaningful, soul-nourishing moments with others without dietary restrictions getting in the way. Unlike an omnivore who eats everything, a flexitarian is someone who gets up every day with the intention to eat more vegetarian, plant-based foods. I’ve been a flexitarian for 15 years and have counseled my patients to eat like this for over a decade.

What’s your best nutrition advice for feeling great and sustaining energy throughout the day?
Eat three meals a day and make sure each meal is 50% produce.  Seems like simple advice but it really works. Eating on a schedule allows your body to have a steady flow of calories/energy all day without dips and valleys. All that produce on the plate provides fiber to keep us full, hydration to keep all of our body systems running properly and adequate vitamins and minerals to achieve optimal health and energy.

Your book includes “mix and match” meal plans along with shopping lists.  What advice could you give our readers on how to reduce the grocery store bill while still following the meal plans?
Budget-friendly food is important in these economic times. Meat and poultry tend to be some of the most expensive items on a grocery bill so eating less of these items can save you money. Consider the average ounce of meat is $0.25 whereas an ounce of beans is only $0.08 — three times less expensive.  Here are a few grocery list swap ideas:

  • Chicken breast » Tofu cutlet
  • Hamburger » Black bean burger
  • Lunch meat sandwich » Lentil salad in a whole grain pita
  • Meat sauce for pasta » White beans and fresh basil
  • Shredded cheese on pizza» Pine nut-topped flatbread
  • Shrimp stir-fry » Edamame stir-fry
  • Sour cream on tacos » Guacamole on taco salad
  • Steak burrito » Vegetarian refried bean burrito
  • Turkey chili » Vegetarian chili

Many people feel that reducing their intake of meat will result in nutritional deficiencies. What would you say to someone who has this concern? All of our protein needs can be met following a flexitarian, plant-based eating plan.  We need at least 50 grams of protein per day which can be easily achieved by eating plant proteins at meals and snacks, such as beans, nuts and seeds. There are so many possibilities: black beans, white beans, garbanzo beans, pinto beans, kidney  beans, lentils, peas, tofu, tempeh, edamame, almonds, walnuts, pecans, cashews, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, etc.

Other than protein, strict vegetarian diets that are not balanced can be missing nutrients such as iron, zinc, omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, Vitamin D and B12. To combat this, I encourage people to do these three things:

  1. Include plant proteins at meals and snacks such as beans, lentils, nuts and seeds for protein, iron and zinc.
  2. Eat fish and/ or use flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts for omega three fatty-acids.
  3. Drink milk or fortified almond or soy milk regularly for quick calcium, vitamin D and B12.

Meat is not a necessary ingredient for health but I do have patients who feel cravings for it. Those cravings are for the meat flavor (not the nutrients in meat) known as “umami” which means savory in Japanese. Luckily there are flexitarian ways to get that umami flavor by incorporating more foods such as mushrooms, aged cheeses, seaweed, soy, broccoli, tomatoes and potatoes.

There’s a belief out there that eating “mostly vegetarian” meals is going to result in a lot of time spent in the kitchen. What tips do you have to reduce the time spent on meal prep? 

It doesn’t have to take a lot of time. In fact here are ten easy and quick ways to go flexitarian starting today:

  1. Grill a veggie burger and enjoy it with all the classic toppings such as ketchup, mustard and pickles.
  2. Enjoy hummus as a dip for veggies or as a sandwich spread in place of mayonnaise to add flavor with fewer calories and less fat.
  3. Toss canned white beans (rinsed and drained) into your favorite pasta dishes for extra protein and fiber.
  4. Make a fast and flavorful burrito with canned low-fat refried beans, lettuce, tomato and guacamole.
  5. Top a whole grain pizza crust with pine nuts and veggies such as spinach and onions instead of heavy cheese and meat toppings.
  6. Heat canned vegetarian chili and pour on a baked potato for a healthy meal in a hurry.
  7. Make a speedy stir-fry by adding frozen veggies, frozen pre-cooked brown rice, frozen edemame or tofu and teriyaki sauce to a hot wok or pan.
  8. For a quick brown bag lunch, mix Italian salad dressing with canned lentils (rinsed and drained), shredded carrots, chopped cucumber, sliced red bell pepper and stuff into a whole grain pita.
  9. Stash a 150-calorie emergency snack in your purse or desk drawer for times when hunger hits.  A great combination: 1/4 cup soy nuts with 1 Tablespoon raisins.
  10. Mix together canned black beans (rinsed and drained) with jarred salsa for a satisfying tortilla chip dip.

The Flexitarian Diet includes 100 recipes that are “quick and delicious.”  What makes them so quick and easy to prepare?
The recipes have only five main ingredients which keeps things simple and quick. I also rely on some healthy convenience foods such as precooked brown rice, canned beans that you just have to rinse and drain and pre-cut and frozen veggies. All the recipes also have nutrition analysis and offer flex swaps to convert recipes back and forth from vegetarian to meaty.

Your approach is not actually a diet but a “nondiet-lifestyle approach to get healthy and lose weight.”  What are three everyday tips the flexitarian diet offers to help achieve or maintain a healthy weight?

  • Table-Plate-Chair: Only eat when you have those three things. Avoid eating standing in the kitchen, driving in the car or lounging on the couch. When you eat
    seated at a table from a plate you are more mindful and get satisfied with less.  Do this even at parties and events.
  • 50% Produce: Aim to have 50% of your grocery cart piled high with fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables and then also aim to have 50% of your meals and snacks produce-based, too. Fruits and vegetables are loaded with vitamins and minerals, which work to make you healthy. Plus, the fiber and water will have you feeling full with very few calories.
  • Snack Yourself vs. Treat Yourself: Snacks provide nutrition and fullness such as celery with peanut butter or an apple and almonds. Treats such as cookies, chips, candy do not provide nutrition or fullness. Keep your home and office stocked with snacks for you and the family and keep treats to only special occasions such as going out for ice cream as a family or stopping with a friend to get coffee and split a cookie.

What are your family’s three favorite go-to meals?
Here’s a sample day and what pages of The Flexitarian Diet I’ve adapted these from:

  • Breakfast: Oatmeal with chopped apples, nuts, and cinnamon (page 85).
  • Lunch: Whole grain pita stuffed with white beans, fresh basil, chopped tomatoes and balsamic vinaigrette (page 218).
  • Dinner: Stir-fry with broccoli, cashews, and edemame served on brown rice (page 100).
  • Snacks: Celery and peanut butter (page 168).
  • Dessert: Low-fat plain greek yogurt with fresh berries and a drizzle of honey (page 204).

You do a wonderful job of introducing new and flavorful foods in The Flexitarian Diet recipes. What tips can you offer  to get the kids to try new foods?
Be a Role Model.  Kids will eat what they see their parents eat. Don’t ask them to eat something unless you are eating it, too.

Put Kids to Work. Get kids involved in planning, shopping and preparing food. They will be much more likely to eat something they had a hand in preparing.

Be Patient and Persistent. It may take kids (or picky adults!) up to 14 times of repeated exposure to a food before they begin to enjoy it. Even though they may not like it at first, don’t give up. Try preparing it in different ways since repeat exposure is the key to retraining adults’ and children’s taste buds to like something.

Most Americans do not get the recommended amounts of fruit (at least 2 cups) and veggies (at least 2 ½ cups) per day. What are your favorite ways to increase these foods into the diet of the average American?

  1. De-bitter them with fat, sugar and cooking. When preparing vegetables that tend to taste slightly bitter, add moderate amounts of sweet condiments such as BBQ sauce or sweet & sour sauce.
  2. Use flavor-flavor training.  Pairing a disliked food with a liked food will help people start liking the disliked food. So, if you aren’t a broccoli fan, top it with your favorite cheese and in due time, you will begin to authentically like broccoli alone. Have picky eaters in the family? Check out our 25 Top Tips for Picky Eaters.
  3. In sight-in mouth. Keep produce easy to grab and within reach. Research shows the closer we are to food and the more we see it, the more likely we are
    to eat it. So, don’t hide produce away in a crisper drawer; keep it eye-level in the fridge and out in a fruit bowl. Best advice: keep a daily veggie tray on hand so you can easily grab fresh produce to snack on with low-fat dip or use the precut produce to throw in pasta, stir-fries or sandwiches.
  4. Make fancy fruit-based desserts. Dessert after dinner can be special and healthy when fruit is the focus. Make things like cinnamon baked apples, broiled bananas with walnuts, chocolate dipped strawberries and grilled peaches with yogurt to provide that satisfying sweet without all the empty calories.

Your book does a great job exposing readers to new and exciting grains they may never have tried before. What’s one of your favorite grains and what’s your favorite way to prepare it?
Quinoa is my favorite whole grain because it is super quick to prepare, super nutritious and super tasty. Curried quinoa salad on page 99 of The Flexitarian Diet is a great way to eat quinoa.

For more great reading recommendations, check out our Recommended Reads!

Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD, LDN, is a registered and licensed dietitian and a national spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. She is the online nutrition expert for Lifetime Television, writes a food and nutrition blog for USA Today and teaches healthy cooking classes at The Chopping Block Cooking School in Chicago. She is an advisory board expert for Fitness magazine, hosts a regular healthy eating segment called “Take a Bite” on NBC Chicago and is a national nutrition expert interviewed annually in over 200 media outlets such as Dr. Oz, CNN, Dateline NBC, People Magazine, and WebMD. She writes for magazines such as Health, All You, Fitness and Ladies Home Journal and is the author of The Flexitarian Diet (McGraw-Hill, 2009). Dawn has over 10 years experience working with clients managing obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart disease and cancer. For more information on The Flexitarian Diet visit www.dawnjacksonblatner.com. To buy her book, visit any major on-line retailer.



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About the Author

Lauren is a registered dietitian specializing in eating disorders and sports nutrition in the Greater Los Angeles area. Lauren is passionate about normalizing and enhancing the eating experience and works to encourage each of her clients to "taste their food with all five senses." Lauren also teaches the cooking classes at ANJ, where she strives to create a fun, community atmosphere while empowering each client to truly experience the food as they create meals for themselves and each other.


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