(Getty Images/Tina Tiller)
(Getty Images/Tina Tiller)

BusinessOctober 9, 2022

I tried making my family eat a plant-based diet for a week. It didn’t go well

(Getty Images/Tina Tiller)
(Getty Images/Tina Tiller)

Seven days with only veges and fake meat on the menu. How hard could it be for a carnivorous family of four?

My wife screwed up her face. My daughter took the tiniest microbite, made the same face as her mother and spat it out. My son refused to touch it. I chewed slowly, mouth open, trying not to break any fillings, aghast at the culinary horror I had attempted to feed my family, regretting every decision that had led me here.

The packet of fake bacon ripped open half an hour earlier promised so much. “Extra crispy and smoky,” it declared. “Savour this guilt-free pleasure.” I fried it and added it to plates of toast and poached eggs. Rippled with pink and white streaks, it was obviously fake but aptly mimicked bacon’s layers of salted and dried pork belly.

fake bacon
A fry-up with fake bacon. (Photo: Chris Schulz)

But there was no savouring this tofu bacon. I’ll refrain from naming the brand, because I’m sure they tried their best, but the experience was akin to chewing on salty dehydrated cardboard. My daughter had the right idea. I barely touched mine, and scraped the remainder into the compost bin.

It wasn’t the best start to my week-long plant-based project. In the name of investigative journalism, I’d drafted in my carnivorous family to eat nothing but veges and fake meat for seven days. Right now, plant-based diets are being promoted everywhere – supermarkets shelves are stocked with products, some restaurants offer nothing but plant-based creations, and Instagram is full of meat-mimicking meals glowing sustainably.

Unlike Beyonce’s maple syrup diet, or the horrifying Keto fad, the plant-based trend is simple to follow. That’s because the category is huge. At most supermarkets there are no less than three sections dedicated to plant-based products, offering everything from ready-prepped meals to multiple fake meats and vegan desserts, including ice creams and cheesecakes.

At Countdown, plant-based fake meat sits between the steak and chicken. (Photo: Chris Schulz)

We wanted to see if we could replicate a week’s worth of family meals using nothing but plant-based alternatives. On a recent visit to Countdown Mt Eden, I found a shelf laden with fake meats sandwiched between the chilled steak and chicken breasts. I put Sunfed diced beef, Impossible mince and Plan*t chicken pieces in my trolley.

In the frozen foods section, laden with ready-to-eat meals, I added a box of Let’s Eat burger patties. Down the cheese aisle I found the sausages and nabbed packets of tofu-based chorizo and hot dogs. My kids are mad sausage fans, so they’d be sorted, I assumed.

Back home, I wrote out a typical weekly menu for our family of four, pinned it up in the kitchen, told everyone what we were doing, and prepared to experience the plant-based glow.

The complaints started almost immediately. The taste of plant-based bacon had only just left our tongues when my wife spat out her chorizo sausage, which I’d also fried and included with her poached eggs for a Sunday brunch. “The aftertaste,” she winced, scraping the remnants off her tongue. “It’s like … spicy plastic.”

On Sundays, my grandmother used to spend all day cooking roast meals full of bacon-wrapped sausages, giant crispy chickens and duck fat potatoes. It is not a good day to start a plant-based diet. But I am tenacious, and it pleases me immeasurably to see my children get so anguished over perceived hardships like a change to their normal diet. So I forged on.

A plant-based menu to last us for a week. (Photo: Chris Schulz)

That night, I dished up “meatballs”. Using Impossible’s recently launched mince, the follow-up to their controversial burger patties, I made them exactly how I normally would with breadcrumbs, egg, parsley and Parmesan. While they looked the part, they completely fell apart once spooned on top of buttery pasta, turning them into more of a lumpy beef ragu.

“Softer,” said my son, who will eat anything that involves pasta. He’s not wrong and the one upside to using fake beef mince is that you’ll never get left with a lump of gristle in your mouth. Though when a 340g packet of Impossible mince costs nearly $14, and 500g of beef sits around $8, it’s a tough sell financially.

Throughout the week, I continued dishing up non-meat meals that looked like they were made with real meat. The Vege Delight hot dogs were fine, mainly because they were drowned in caramelised onions, mustard and my last remaining bottle of Simon Gault’s now-discontinued tomato sauce. But they lacked the crisp pop and squeak of a proper frankfurter.

The hemp chicken, from Plan*t, is much like Sunfed’s – a funny greenish tinge, tough, and chewy, although very filling. Cooked in a red curry, it was again, fine, but it disappeared into the sauce and was indistinguishable from softened eggplant or kūmara. Burgers made with Let’s Eat patties were tasteless, rescued by a homemade burger sauce. When I offered to turn the remaining hot dogs and chorizo into some kind of devilled dish, my wife whimpered: “Please don’t.”

After all the promotion and hoopla, it was a disappointing return. The only meal that really worked was the final one: a Malay beef curry made using Sunfed’s “bull-free” diced beef. Slow-cooked with coconut cream, potatoes, cardamom, star anise and chilli, the meat fell apart in the first hour, turning the dish into more of a stew. But it was delicious, and had plenty of flavour, with a meaty bite.

Neither of our kids would touch it. Too spicy, they said. They ate leftover ‘meatballs’. Again.

Impossible meatballs
Meatballs and pasta made using Impossible mince. (Photo: Chris Schulz)

The most noticeable aspect of our experiment was how hungry we constantly were. Desperate for nourishment about an hour after each meal, we’d cook up pancakes, smoothies and crumbles to help fill hungry tummies. After six nights, my wife begged for a return to meat. I agreed and pulled a packet of chicken breasts out of the freezer.

The following day, a three-pack of Vince – an award-winning, locally-made, plant-based, dehydrated vegetable mince – arrived by courier. I’d forgotten I’d ordered it and pushed them to the back of the pantry to avoid further complaints. A week on, they’re still sitting there.

There’s no denying we should all be eating less meat. Too much of it is bad for you, and it can be terrible for the planet. As climate change concerns around meat production increase, things like meatless Mondays have become permanent trends.

Vegetarianism and veganism is on the rise; so too are restaurants devoted to that trend. In Auckland, there are dozens of options, from Forest’s fine-dining experience to Gorilla Kitchen and Revive cafe. You can’t help but think something like Monty’s Good Burger, a celeb fave and vegan alternative to American takeaway giant In-N-Out Burger, would work well here too.

The trend has been going for so long there’s already been a backlash. In The Great Plant-Based Con, author Jayne Buxton argues that the benefits of eating a plant-based diet, and the effects on the climate, have been greatly exaggerated, a marketing ploy engineered to help sell more products.

Judging by the amount of product being added to supermarket shelves, the backlash hasn’t yet had an impact. New World has fridges installed full of plant-based food options and they seem to be flying from shelves. Last year, Stuff reported the category was rising 20%. “Customer demand for more plant-based and flexitarian options is huge and it’s a trend that’s not showing any signs of slowing down,” says Foodstuffs spokesperson Emma Wooster.

New World
A plant-based chilled section at New World. (Photo: Chris Schulz)

After our week-long experiment was mostly deemed a failure, I headed to my local supermarket. At the front entrance I was handed a bowl of Plantry’s plant-based lasagne to try. It tasted really good, just like the real thing, but I dismissed any offers to put boxes of it in my basket and headed straight to the butcher to pick up real steak, sausages and chicken breasts as per my family’s requests.

The man in the Plantry apron who had gifted me the lasagna, then failed to get me to buy one, looked forlorn when I walked past him carrying my armful of meat.

On a recent Friday night I came home to a quiet house after a few drinks out with friends. I was starving and foraged to find a single frozen hamburger bun and the leftovers from my family’s plant-based experiment: one final Let’s Eat burger pattie, a slice of that atrocious bacon and some remaining chorizo sausage.

I fried it all up with an egg, slapped it together with burger sauce and sat down in front of the television. On the Netflix series Chef’s Table: Pizza, Italian dough master Gabriele Bonci spreads homemade tomato sauce onto gigantic bases using his fingers and constructs masterpieces with whatever free-farmed, organic, artisanal ingredients he has at hand.

Chef's Table
Gabriele Bonci’s pizza is sold by weight. (Photo: Netflix)

I chewed my tasteless, mostly plant-based burger slowly while watching him savagely slice huge hunks off a gigantic pork roast, then layer them up over his pizza base with cheese and herbs. It looked incredible, infinitely better than the pile of burger mush I was eating. Enjoyed by customers who buy Bonci’s pizza by the slice then gorge themselves outside his Pizzeria tourist trap in Rome, it undoubtedly tastes better too.

But I was drunk, and I didn’t care.

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