The one question I get the most in my life (if we side step the “Where does a vegetarian get her protein?” atrocity), is “What do I feed my vegetarian daughter/girlfriend/brother?” The first time I was asked this question, I drafted an email that I’ve since been editing and resending to each subsequent person — I think the total is around 15 now!
I stopped eating meat at a pretty young age and was fortunate enough that my mother also didn’t eat meat. There were no arguments, no demands for compromise, and no attempts to trick me into meat, which I know can be a long struggle for many young vegetarians. I can’t stress enough what a negative impact those actions can have — there’s no reason to ever do that to the vegetarians in your life! My parents both worked outside of the home and worked long hours, so our meals were not always the healthiest. In high school, I stepped in as the head cook of the house, which was amazing for me in many ways. Most notably for today’s post, I had to cook for meat eaters.
The household I grew up in had 5 people – 2 vegetarians, 3 meat eaters. Later, my older sister stopped eating red meat which threw another layer of complexity into the mix. Let me stress that my family hasn’t always been the most adventurous of eaters. My vegetarian-mother can’t have beans or soy very often, plus my sisters and dad have long lists of foods and spices they won’t eat, which rarely overlap. Also, a brother-in-law who doesn’t eat anything green. ANYTHING. Every home is going to have a different experience, but I’m drawing insight from first cooking for 2 different diets and now cooking for one type of diet. In my home now, I cook vegetarian meals. Josh is a grown man and capable of making his own decisions, so if he wants to add meat to his meal (or have a separate meaty meal) that’s his prerogative, but I do not cook it for him.
The first important thing is to realize you can’t feed a vegetarian pasta for every meal. Yes, pasta is delicious. Yes, I love it too. But no, pasta cannot be the main component forever. Nor can processed and packaged meat substitutes be — some are really tasty, I get that, and they’re amazing when a weird craving strikes or you’re low on time, but they’re not very economical long-term. Here are a couple of my strategies that I’ve used over the last 10+ years of cooking.
Naturally Vegetarian Meals I hope something came to mind other than salad! Here are a few suggestions of meals people don’t already associate with meat, so they can’t complain that it’s not there. Here’s a couple jumping off points.
1. Mac and Cheese: There’s the standard that everyone loves or get creative by adding vegetables or nontraditional flavors like buffalo sauce (my vegan recipe is based off of Coffee & Quinoa’s vegetarian dish).
2. Pancakes/French Toast/Waffles: No one complains about brinner and your vegetarian will be perfectly fine without any sausage or bacon the side (though the rest of the family can have it). A side of scrambled eggs and a bowl of fruit are good alternative side dishes.
3. Eggplant Parmigiana: A vegetarian classic!
5. Quiche: Whether simple cheese or veggie packed.
Make Flexible Meals No, I don’t mean bendy like old carrots. A flexible meal is a meal where you can swap out just one component to add or remove animal protein. This way, everyone gets what they want with minimal extra effort. Let’s assume that your side dishes are already something the whole family can enjoy. For the purposes of below, vegetarian proteins are things like beans, lentils, nuts, and even faux-meats you can find at most supermarkets in the freezer. Great examples of flexible meals are:
1. Tacos: Make regular taco meat + black beans seasoned with taco seasoning or 10 minute TVP tacos. The vegetarian options can be made in the microwave or even a slow cooker, so there’s barely any extra effort here. Read your packet of taco seasoning to make sure there’s no beef fat. Want nachos? Just make two pans and leave the animal meat off of one pan.
2. Sloppy Joes: Same concept as tacos. If you don’t want left overs, split one recipe of sloppy joe sauce (or one can) between 1/2 portions of animal protein and vegetarian protein, like lentils (Manwich copy cat recipe coming soon!). I liked making a full portion of each and spicing up leftover sloppy joe meat with chili powder to serve over hot dogs (and vegetarian hot dogs) for chili dogs the next night.
3. Soup: Any soup can be made with vegetable or mushroom broth instead of chicken or beef. Simply make that swap in soups like broccoli cheese. For soups you’d like to add ground meat or chunks of meat to, add all of the other (vegetarian) ingredients to vegetable broth and then ladle out an appropriate amount to a separate pot. Add your meat to one pot and beans to the other. My favorite beans in soup are cannellini, but I know several vegetarians who rave about chickpea noodle soup. (Side note: there are also several vegetarian versions of beef and chicken broth, like from Better than Bouillon)
4. Casseroles: Have a favorite rice+veg+chicken casserole? Swap out the cream of chicken soup for a mushroom soup (or other creamy vegetarian soup) and spoon out some of the rice and veggie mixture to a smaller casserole dish before you add meat to it. Add a veg protein to the smaller casserole dish or bulk up with extra veggies.
4. Pizza: The great food equalizer, right? Some vegetarians (not me!) are okay with going halvsies on a pizza, i.e., meat on one side, vegetables on the other. Pepperoni grease seems to leak all over and it makes me uncomfortable, so I always go the personal pizza route if I can’t get everyone to agree on toppings. This is also a chance to get your kids/husband/boyfriend/etc into the kitchen and helping out! Simply portion out the dough into individual sized circles (larger for adults, smaller for kids) and top with what YOU want. Another good idea is making mini (cupcake sized) deep dish pizzas like on Two Healthy Kitchens and switching up the toppings on each.
5. Fajitas: Make vegetables in one pan and animal protein in another. If you want to kick up the protein for the vegetarian, microwave a can of black beans or vegetarian refried beans to use as a side or additional fajita topping.
6. Sandwiches: I know I’m not the only person who appreciates a good sandwich! If you let everyone build their own, everyone’s happy. Larger grocery and health food stores also carry faux-deli meats, like by Tofurky or Light Life, but I’m always happy with a double cheese sandwich with tomato and lettuce. If you’re in the mood for a specialty sandwich, like a Reuben, try to think of an easy swap for meat. I like sliced, sautéed mushrooms in place of corned beef on my Reubens and tempeh on my BLTs.
7. Saucy Dishes: Love a saucy dish like chicken tikka masala or saag? Split the sauce between two pans. Add meat to one, a vegetarian protein (or even just broccoli, yum!) to the other. Easy peasy. Just make sure to keep the sauce vegetarian.
Skip “Scary” Ingredients No one in your family is going to be willing to try a new, vegetarian recipe if you throw tofu at people who are afraid of tofu. Try using proteins they are familiar with and already like (beans in a chili recipe or nuts for example) and slowly work your way into new territory. If you have a recipe you know everyone loves, try going half and half with meat and the “scary” ingredient for the non-vegetarian part of the family. There’s a chance they might love it and you can move forward making just the vegetarian dish next time. Another swap for ground beef is finely chopped mushrooms (I sometimes add finely chopped carrots, too), potatoes, or eggplant. Some people never notice if you seamlessly use a soy-meat crumble in their favorite recipe, but don’t try to trick someone who it might upset.
Keep Leftovers in the Freezer There’s no shame in freezing leftovers for later. If you want to make a meal there’s just no vegetarian substitute for (like a roast – I’m still stumped on that one!), pull a fabulous recipe from last week out of the freezer for the vegetarian. I recommend freezing in single size portions if you have just one or two vegetarians. Freeze the meaty leftover dinners too – that way if you want to get creative and try something new, you have a fallback if someone is extra picky. This is great if you made a big recipe of let’s say meatless meatballs for just one vegetarian. This way you have those pre-made for the next several times you make regular meatballs for everyone else. If you don’t have any leftovers and are stumped on a substitute for your vegetarian, I don’t know a single vegetarian that would say no to a good, old fashioned PBJ.
Even with all the tips in the world, it’s still an adjustment at first. I’ve had many, many times where I just ended up making two dishes because it was easier than hearing people complain. But keep in mind that if you’re taking the time to cook for someone, it’s obviously someone you care about. The small amount of extra effort is worth it and arguing about why they should just eat what you made is not worth the resentment you’ll get later.
Have any tips to share? Questions? Please leave them in the comments!
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