The Flexitarian Diet or 80/20 Rule of Eating

If you’ve considered going vegan or vegetarian, but don’t want to live without the occasional BLT, the Flexitarian Diet might be the ideal solution for you. Put simply – a Flexitarian eats mostly plant-based foods and allows some animal products in moderation. You might also hear it referred to as the 80/20 rule.

Here, we’re sharing an overview of the Flexitarian Diet, its benefits, why some people chose to adopt it, the best types of foods to eat, plus one week’s worth of meal ideas.

The benefits of the Flexitarian Diet

What is a Flexitarian?

The word “Flexitarian” was coined to describe people who are mostly vegetarian, but who make the occasional exception and eat meat or fish once in a while. For example, eating turkey on Thanksgiving, or ordering a meat dish rather than going hungry if there is nothing vegetarian on the menu.

Now, if you are a strict vegetarian, or a strict anything, for that matter, you may be thinking, “No way!”

But this isn’t about sacrificing your most sacred beliefs for the sake of convenience. (There are definitely situations where you won’t want to go Flexitarian, as we’ll see in a moment.)

Instead, think about it as a mindset you can apply to your life wherever and whenever it is appropriate for you and your family. It’s a kind of consciously relaxed, not-quite-perfectionism that makes room for real life… while still setting higher standards.

Flexitarianism isn’t limited to those interested in limiting their meat consumption.

You can apply a Flexitarian approach to other dietary restrictions as well, or indeed to just about any discipline. If you avoid sugar in your family, but allow your kids the occasional taste of cake and ice cream so they don’t feel left out at birthday parties, you’re already going flexi.

Why Go Flexitarian?

The Flexitarian approach has obvious benefits, especially during the holidays. Perhaps the most common reason to bend the rules is to ease the pressure of social interactions. You might find it worth breaking your no-sugar rule and accepting a small piece of Aunt Martha’s famous Triple Chocolate Fudge Disaster in order to avoid her obvious disappointment that you don’t appreciate her contribution to the festivities.

The Flexitarian mindset allows you to make these decisions consciously ahead of time so you can relax and enjoy the occasion, rather than feeling pressured into breaking your rules and beating up on yourself afterwards for caving.

Flexitarianism can also help you ease into a healthier or more positive habit with a minimum of stress and/or resistance from your family. For instance, if you are working on reducing your kids’ video game exposure, and suddenly find yourself at a gathering where all the kids are plugged in, consider relaxing your rules for the evening.

That way you’ll be removing the temptation for them to sneak behind your back, and allowing yourself to relax and enjoy the party without having to play the role of video police for the evening. Allowing occasional indulgences can help avoid the tendency to develop resistance to a new habit, and teach kids the value of self-regulation.

80/20 Rule Examples

Back to food, here’s why some people chose the 80/20 approach.

A family friend is a personal trainer. Throughout the work week, he plans his meals and eats mostly protein, healthy fats, and lots of fruits and veggies. On the weekends, he still eats mostly real food but if there’s a football tailgate or party, he eats and drinks what he wants. Sometimes on a Sunday morning, he takes his kids out for donuts or French toast. Some of those weekends, his workout switches to yard work. But others, he reads and takes naps. He’s in great shape in his mid 40’s and says the balance works for him.

“After my kids were born and I started breastfeeding, I became more focused on the food I put in my body,” explains mother of two and business owner, Jennifer Aprea. “I really wanted to do a plant-based diet, but my body craves certain proteins, particularly eggs. Since I know my family won’t conform to a fully vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, and I don’t want to deny my body certain healthy cravings, I live a flexitarian lifestyle. Mostly plant-based, low sugar (but not zero sugar because I just can’t), mostly whole/non-processed foods, and when I do eat meat it’s mostly white, lean meat. It’s easy to stick to, I feel healthier, and my family has no trouble eating along with me.”

“I tend to get obsessive, and food is one of the ways this manifests poorly,” shares elementary school teacher and mother of three, Lindsay Heim. “Going Flexitarian helped me in several areas of my life. I’m letting go of my need to control things by allowing for little margins of error and not beating myself up over them. It has really changed my life for the better.”

What to Eat on a Flexitarian Diet

The good thing about the Flexitarian Diet is that it’s not overly restrictive. A great comparison is the 80/20 rule.

The 80/20 rule comes from the Pareto principle (also known as the law of the vital few, or the principle of factor sparsity), which says that roughly 80 percent of the results come from 20 percent of the effort. So, a good goal for food is to eat real, fresh, whole foods 80 percent of the time and don’t stress over the other 20 percent.

One note about that other 20 percent: the key to a successful Flexitarian diet and a healthier mental state is to release guilt around it. If you’ve eaten great all week and then beat yourself up for having pizza and a drink or two on the weekend, you aren’t reaping the benefits of this flexible lifestyle. In fact, chronic stress is worse for your health than smoking five cigarettes per day.

When centenarians share their secrets to living past 100, they sometimes include vices like daily cigars or soda. But some scientists and doctors say that this is due to the ritual and the enjoyment the person gets from it. These people are reveling in their daily ritual – not stressing out about it.

If you need some hard and fast rules about what you’ll eat on the Flexitarian diet, here you go.

  • Vegetables
  • Healthy fats
  • Fruits
  • Whole grains
  • Plant-based proteins
  • Eggs
  • Oils, Herbs, and Spices
  • Meat (in moderation)

When NOT to Take a Flexitarian Approach

There are three situations when flexitarianism is not the answer:

When you have deeply held moral or religious beliefs. (For example, if you are orthodox Jewish you obviously can’t be flexitarian about eating Kosher.)
When breaking a particular rule will have dire and serious consequences – either immediate or delayed.

If you or your child has food allergies. If your child is celiac, there’s no wiggle room on gluten consumption. What can be a little trickier is when the consequences aren’t immediate. Take the video game example again. Perhaps your child is easily overstimulated, and likely to be a complete basket case the day following excessive gaming. In this case you’re probably better off sticking to the usual rules.

When moderation is a challenge for you. Many recovering alcoholics rightly refuse even one sip of anything alcoholic, because they know that the tiniest taste will send them all the way back to the bottom of that slippery slope. Even if you are not an alcoholic, you may be aware of some areas where you just can’t seem to control yourself. For instance, can you eat just one piece of a large bar of chocolate? Or once you take a nibble, are you virtually guaranteed to find yourself gobbling down the rest? If so, you are probably better off not allowing exceptions to your rules governing that particular area.

Even if you can’t or don’t want to bend the rules in one area of your life, you can still take a more flexible attitude by making concessions in other areas that don’t compromise your values. The key is to relax your expectations consciously, temporarily, and only if doing so results in a higher quality of experience.

Sample Flexitarian Meal Plan for One Week

Grab our printable meal planner and get started with this one-week flexitarian meal plan to help you get started.

Breakfast: Tofu scramble with mixed veggies and spices
Lunch: Salad with greens, corn, black beans, and avocado
Dinner: Lentil soup with whole-grain bread and a side salad

Breakfast: Einkorn flour waffles with fresh organic berries
Lunch: Spinach wrap with hummus, vegetables, and roasted chickpeas
Dinner: Grilled salmon, baked sweet potato, and green beans

Breakfast: Avocado toast and poached eggs
Lunch: Burrito bowl with brown rice, beans, and vegetables
Dinner: Zucchini noodles with tomato sauce and a side salad

Breakfast: Coconut raspberry, kiwi smoothie bowl
Lunch: Roasted tomato soup and Kale Caesar salad
Dinner: Baked chicken and cauliflower rice

Breakfast: Greek yogurt with blueberries and pumpkin seeds
Lunch: Sweet potato + wild rice harvest bowl
Dinner: Pizza night – make your own or order out

Breakfast: Blueberry pear oatmeal skillet
Lunch: Chickpea salad pita sandwich with fresh fruit
Dinner: Black bean burgers with avocado and sweet potato fries

Breakfast: Steel-cut oats with apples, milled flaxseed, and cinnamon
Lunch: Quinoa salad with dried cranberries, pecans, and feta cheese
Dinner: Roasted garlic chicken bone broth soup and a side salad

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