How to avoid the dining-table divide

IT'S a dining-table dilemma that's affecting more and more families: how do you feed a mixed household of vegetarians and meat-eaters without going to the trouble of planning, preparing and cooking two separate meals?After herself starring in this kind of kitchen-sink drama, Sharon Buthlay reckons she's found the answer.

IT'S a dining-table dilemma that's affecting more and more families: how do you feed a mixed household of vegetarians and meat-eaters without going to the trouble of planning, preparing and cooking two separate meals?

After herself starring in this kind of kitchen-sink drama, Sharon Buthlay reckons she's found the answer. Following fruitless searches over the years for a book that would make life easier, she's written one of her own.

Meat and 2 Veggies shows how the same ingredients can go a long way towards satisfying both carnivores and those who avoid animal produce. It's only when they come to the critical fork in the road that the meals go their separate ways - crispy beef or marinated tofu in a stir fry, for example. Sharing the basic components reduces the workload significantly.

With vegetarianism said to have doubled in popularity in the past decade - the number of devotees rising by 5,000 each week - catering for mixed parties of diners is going to become more common.

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Sharon's recipes cover main meals, breakfasts, lunches and snacks that can be put together in advance and eaten for packed lunches and picnics, or for when the children come home ravenous. There are also ideas for special occasions such as Christmas and Hallowe'en, brunches, suppers, barbecues and more formal entertaining.

All the main dishes, and many of the other suggestions, follow recognised healthy eating guidelines that provide plenty of protein, carbohydrates, fibre and essential vitamins and minerals - and are low in sugar, salt and fat.

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Sharon's well aware of the extra effort involved in catering for a diverse household. She's been a fully-fledged vegetarian for about 25 years, and daughter Laura - now 20, and a cabin crew member working from Stansted Airport - joined her at the age of eight. Meanwhile, husband David and son James, who's coming up to his 19th birthday and is in his first year at university, are fond of meat.

Mum's always combined a busy working life with doing the cooking, and has always sought quality ingredients: free-range eggs, for instance, and organic poultry meeting RSPCA standards of good practice.

Over the years, too, she's carried out considerable nutritional research, and bought quite a few cookery books, to make sure the family was getting what it needed; that Laura, particularly, was receiving enough protein, iron, vitamins and minerals from her vegetarian diet.

Over the years Sharon has collected many recipes that she's adapted to cover both bases, as it were. When she put forward the idea of a collection to plug the perceived gap in the market, a publisher Hill bit and the book was written in nine months.

A confirmed fan of Delia Smith's easy-to-follow approach, the Suffolk author opted for a similar step by step format - one devoid of distracting glossy photographs and fiddly recipes - designed to allow the most novice of cooks to prepare a tasty meal without angst.

The key things, she feels, are knowing when to divide the food into vegetarian and non-vegetarian portions, and also knowing what foods go together.

“When I was writing the book, I was at the stage where both children had moved out and I was getting calls: 'Mum, how do you make mashed potato?' 'Mum, how do you fry an egg?'” she smiles. “I've written the book very much with Laura and James in mind.”

Sharon recognises that the pace and demands of modern life have made it hard for people. Home after a long day at work, many of us are short of time, and faced with hungry children, and resort to takeaways or off-the-shelf processed foods.

She also feels there are two camps within the current high-profile foodie world, as portrayed by the media: with Gillian McKeith “it's all got to be mung beans and wheatgrass; or there's Nigella, who's 'eat anything if it's covered in butter or cream.'

“I think one of the main reasons for wanting to write the book is to help people realise that you can create a mixed meat and vegetarian dish, but also that you don't have to be superhealthy or a chef.”

She's hoping some restaurants might also take a peek between the covers and draw inspiration. Bury St Edmunds, not far from the family's home, is very good at looking after non-meat-eaters, Sharon says. But when they went to one of her husband's favourite restaurants in the Cambridge area, to celebrate his birthday, there wasn't a single vegetarian option. “And sometimes, at places, it's either mushrooms, aubergines or goat's cheese. There are so many more possibilities.”

Food was an important part of Sharon's world from an early age. Her mother and father both came from big families, so large gatherings for weddings and christenings were commonplace. “I think I was about 16/17 when I started helping out doing the food at these parties. I enjoyed it, but it was never enough for me to do the cheese and tomato sandwiches, so it got to be that I would end up catering for them. I would plan them and everybody else would butter the bread and help out. I loved it.”

Part of the attraction was the satisfaction that came from making food look appealing. “I'm quite artistic. I'd never been very good at art - though I've always loved writing - and it comes out in interior décor. I think it's the presentation of the food; I've always believed that 50% of enjoying your food is what it looks like.”

Sharon, who hails from East London, dabbled with vegetarianism when she was about 15.

“The school took us to an abattoir - don't ask me why; I think it was a careers thing - and I thought it was horrible. I stopped eating meat for a year, but my mum's Irish and they're big meat and potato eaters and she just didn't know what to do with me. I ended up eating cheese all the time, which is fattening and not very exciting. I gradually drifted back to eating meat.”

Later, having moved out to Essex, she “did the usual dinner party scene that you do in the early years of marriage” and began to experiment more with food.

Sharon became a confirmed vegetarian a few years before having children. “I'd got interested in how meat was produced. There were a lot of programmes around that time. They showed all the mechanised meat processing and the 'slurry' being collected, and we had CJD and BSE scares, and the hormones and antibiotics. It was becoming clear to me that it wasn't really a healthy option.”

The final straw was a visit to France. “Their meat is very lightly cooked and I think I had a coq au vin somewhere in the Dordogne, and everything was in it - I think even the chicken's feet were in there - and it really put me off.”

Work has played a big part in Sharon's life. She was a conveyancing secretary before climbing the career ladder to become a legal executive; then, when she was about 35, she qualified as a licensed conveyancer and worked for firms in places such as Bury St Edmunds, Ipswich and Sudbury.

Working in property law proved “very stressful, though enjoyable”. David was in estate agency in Suffolk; but change was in the air. “I was stressed out with combining property law and young children, so suggested we go into catering, because I'd always loved it. We still used to do a lot of dinner parties and family parties.”

In the 1990s the couple opened a sandwich bar in St Nicholas Street, Ipswich, called Chequers. “But, being me, everything had to be cooked on the premises. I'd buy a dozen turkeys each weekend; I wouldn't used processed meat.”

The salads were fresh, and Chequers made its own cakes and pizzas. Sandwiches were delivered to offices and outside catering opportunities appeared involving one of the big insurance companies and other businesses. Things snowballed.

The enterprise at one time had nearly a dozen employees, and Sharon enjoyed many aspects of the life, such as getting to know the regular customers and the satisfaction from a good job well done. “But I found I was working 16 hours a day, seven days a week.” The family was by then living in Cavendish. “I would drive to work at three o'clock in the morning, sometimes.” And she was still cooking the evening meal . . .

Something had to give, and the couple sold the business after a couple of years or so.

She went back to property conveyancing for a few years, but the stress of the job was still there. “One of the partners in the firm I was working for had a heart attack through stress - he was in his early 50s. Another friend of mine in the same profession died of a brain tumour. It just seemed that everyone was getting ill and I got very down about it all.”

David had started a legal marketing company from scratch, toiling in a back bedroom while also contending with a full-time job. The business linked conveyancers with potential customers.

The internet revolution ratcheted everything up, and Sharon left her job to work with David from their then home in Rougham. Offices followed in Bury St Edmunds, and before long they had 15 staff. It was back to working all hours, with overheads and hassle. So, a few years ago they moved it all back home again and today manage it, with aspects of the work outsourced to other companies.

Sharon reckons it accounts for two or three hours of her day. “So, having always wanted to write . . . I now have the time!”

She's completed two books in 18 months. Meat and 2 Veggies was actually the second to be finished but the first to be published. The first - The HIP Way to Buy and Sell Your House: How to Use the New Home Information Pack to Improve Your Move - was delayed because of the uncertainty over the Government's plans.

The Home Information Pack will be introduced on June 1. Sharon's book explains what the changes are all about and gives advice on the stages involved in buying and selling a property - often one of life's nerve-racking experiences.

She's not about to rest on her laurels. In fact, getting two books published is only the start, if she has her way.

“My main thing is writing novels - and I've not actually finished one yet, I have to say, because these came in! But I've probably got the plans, titles, synopses for four or five novels. And I'd like to do another Meat and 2 Veggies. I've already got a folder of recipes.

“I've also set up a web site” - - “I'm still in the process of putting it all together, but what I want to do is encourage people who have a problem in adapting a recipe to send it to me and I'll adapt it for them and send it back.”

Meat and 2 Veggies is published by Spring Hill/How To Books. List price £9.99; online price £8.49 via (ISBN 9781905862054). The HIP Way to Buy and Sell Your House (ISBN 1845281527) is out at the end of May. List price £10.99; online £9.34

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