4 Ways to Personalize Your Eating Plan

How to be flexible and pick your favorite ideas from different diets

Ever notice how people are always trying to get you to pick a side? Dog or cat person, paper or plastic, cake or pie. The food world is filled with people who say their diet is "right": vegetarian, vegan, Paleo, raw, gluten-free. I listen to friends, read their Facebook posts and tweets and peruse articles and books in the course of doing my job.

When I'm learning about an eating plan, it makes sense. Then I hear about a different one, and that makes sense, too. But when it's time to cook or eat, everything flies out the window. Sometimes I feel like I'm getting food-ideology whiplash.

Rather than subscribing whole hog (so to speak) to one regimen or the other, I take the gems I find in each and incorporate them into my eating style.

What I've plucked from the Paleo diet

I agree with its emphasis on avoiding processed foods and refined sugars. But unlike the hard-core Paleos I know, my family eats dairy (always full-fat and organic) and small portions of bread and pasta, usually whole-grain. I also sometimes cook high-quality grains like millet, barley and farro; they make tasty side dishes and cold salads when mixed with lots of vegetables. If I have leftover millet, I'll simmer it with almond or coconut milk and enjoy it for breakfast.

What I've plucked from the vegan diet

Like my vegan friends, I care deeply about the impact of our meat-loving habits on the environment and the treatment of factory-raised animals. My family eats a lot of vegetarian meals, so you'll usually find plant-based proteins in my fridge, freezer and pantry, such as tofu, tempeh, beans, seeds and nuts. Yet we stray from veganism by also including eggs, fish and, to a much lesser degree, poultry and meat in our diet. I always buy organic and/or Certified Humane eggs (which means that the facility raising and processing the hens meets strict standards). When I do buy poultry, it's organic, and if we grill a small steak, it's grass-fed.

FYI, if you're new to tempeh, it's similar to tofu in that it's made from soybeans, but it has a grainier texture. It's fermented, so you may find it easier to digest if you're sensitive to soy. I like to grate it and use it in place of ground beef for "meatballs" and Bolognese sauce, both of which are tasty with spaghetti squash. Or I simmer it for 30 to 40 minutes in a mixture of soy sauce and apple and orange juices, then grill (try it on kebabs).

What I've plucked from the Mediterranean diet

I'm big on both produce and lean protein, especially fish. (I check seafoodwatch.org to make sure I'm buying a sustainable type, like arctic char or Pacific halibut.) There's always a can of skipjack tuna from Trader Joe's in the pantry, which I mix with shredded carrots, relish, avocado and a little mayonnaise for a fast lunch. Produce usually dominates my plate, so I keep a variety on hand. Now that it's summer, we have eggplant, summer squash, corn, cucumbers and radishes—plus the vegetables we're never without, like lettuce, broccoli and carrots. Tomatoes live on the counter (don't refrigerate them; they get mealy) next to onions and garlic, and my husband and daughter grow herbs and peas on our little balcony. The fridge is also bursting with berries, peaches, plums, nectarines, cherries—whatever we get at our local farmers market.

Some people call our family's style of eating flexitarian. I love that word: itarian evokes vegetarian but starts with flex—as in flexibility, which for me is what a busy lifestyle and passion for food requires.

Bringing it all together

What does my diet look like day to day? During the week, I usually have eggs and fruit for breakfast. Lunches are leftovers, or I pick up a salad. For dinner, we typically go vegetarian or have fish: Recently I tossed some tilapia on the grill next to asparagus and baby zucchini, all drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with salt and pepper. Or I'll make a quick vegetable-tofu stir-fry. Everyone in my family loves to snack; for me, it's fruit, nuts, plain yogurt, a smoothie or the occasional cold-pressed green juice.

As a flexitarian, however, nothing is off-limits. Every couple of months, I crave a juicy burger. I'll have it and not think twice. If I'm at a special restaurant, I'll order what looks best, whether it's vegetarian or not. Invite me over, and I'll happily eat whatever you're cooking—and probably grab seconds, too (and hit you up for the recipe).

So, mostly vegetarian but always, always flexible. And by the way, I like dogs and cats, cake and pie. Please don't ask me to choose.

Go on, share!

What do you keep in your fridge, freezer and pantry? E-mail me at beth_lipton@timeinc.com.

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