*Editor's Note: This post has been edited to include more helpful links. Please to enjoy!
Back in May, you, the Veggie Might/CHG readership, responded to my call for suggestions with some terrific ideas that I will continue to incorporate into posts and recipes. You also asked some great questions. Today, I’d like to address one that stood out. Kate in NJ said...
My teenage daughter is teetering on the edge of vegetarianism. As a Nutritionist, I have no problem being sure she gets what she needs from a meat-free diet. However, I would love some tips on making meals that are easily converted to suit my carnivore husband and son. I really do not want to make two meals each night. Thanks!
This is an issue that many families face, and as kids grow-up, make new friends, and cast wide their social nets, they are more and more likely to encounter people with a wide variety of diets. Hopefully, this primer will help smooth the transition and give you some ideas for family meals that keep everyone happy.
1) Know the facts.
Not everyone is a nutritionist. The first question I am asked about my vegetarian diet (still!) is “Where do you get your protein?” If I was a championship bodybuilder, I could understand the relevance, but alas, I have a pretty standard existence and moderate exercise routine.
Vegetarians can get a full complement of proteins and amino acids from plant sources such as beans, legumes, nuts, grains, seeds, and, yes, soy. The body can’t tell the difference between animal and plant derived protein; and as long as you eat a variety of these foods throughout the day, you’re covered.
The same goes for iron-rich leafy greens, beans, and whole grains. They get a boost when eaten alongside foods high in vitamin C, like broccoli and tomatoes, so the more diversity in your diet, the healthier you’ll be.
Calcium is another easy fix. Even if you avoid dairy, there are so many plant-based and calcium-enriched sources available, you should not have reason for concern. Leafy greens (them again!), tofu, legumes, and molasses (really) will strengthen those bones and teeth.
The only nutrient people can't get from plants is vitamin B12. However, it’s easy to find in fortified cereals and everyone’s favorite food topping, nutritional yeast.
With a little label reading and a few minor adjustments, your newly vegetarian friend/self will be healthy and happy for a long, long time. For the record, I’ve been doing it for 18 years with excellent check ups from my doctor all along the way. If you still have questions about nutrition, the Vegetarian Resource Group can help. This handy PDF, Vegetarian Nutrition for Teens, gives you all the info you need in a quick reference format.
2) Keep an open mind.
When I announced to my parents that I was becoming a vegetarian, my dad teased me all summer with questions and taunts about having Piglet for dinner. I pouted, proclaimed how much healthier I was, and that meat was evil whenever I could.
In retrospect, we both handled the situation badly, but patience won the day. Dad eventually stopped asking if I would ever eat meat again, and I started asserting myself in the kitchen instead of at the table. He is proud that I educated myself and stuck to my convictions, and I make him kick-ass vegetarian food that makes him forget all about Piglet.
The moral of this story is cut a new vegetarian some slack. They may have had an epiphany, of sorts, and will need some time to get acclimated to their new diet digs. And along with a vegetarian diet comes a lifestyle—sometimes. Everyone is different. So don’t get all “but aren’t those leather shoes?!” on them right away.
Be patient; give them time to find their sea legs; and help them out when you can by suggesting veg-friendly restaurants or offering to make the pasta with both marinara and meat sauce.
And new vegetarians: cut your omni family and friends some slack too. It will take time for them to get adjusted to your new diet/lifestyle. They don’t want to be lectured, and they don’t want to feel guilty every time they sit down to a meal.
And if they ask questions like “Are you going to get enough protein?” or “Aren’t all vegetarians anemic?” you can just smile and say, “Yep,” and “Nope,” and move on to more neutral topics like the war in Iraq or the New York State Senate.
3) Get a vegetarian cookbook and cook together.
The best place to learn about vegetarian cooking is in the kitchen. Start with an anthology-style cookbook that has a glossary of ingredients, tips for cooking, food storage suggestions, and a variety of recipes from comfort food conversions to more exotic dishes for experimentation.
[If you’re not ready to commit to a $20 or $30 cookbook, check your local library and test drive a few. Then you can plunk down the cash on the ones you will really use.]
My first vegetarian cookbook is still one of my favorites. For Christmas the year I converted, my parents gave me the Vegetarian Times Cookbook. Not only did the gift let me know that they were beginning to accept my lifestyle choice, it gave us a chance to try out some recipes together while I was home from college.
Mom and I had fun experimenting with ingredients I’d never heard of, like tofu and tahini. One of the first recipes we made was Stuffed Mushroom Caps with tofu. Mom thought it would be a hoot to take them to our big family Christmas Day gathering.
We swore Dad to secrecy until the platter was empty. He munched smugly on ham biscuits while my aunts, uncles, and cousins shoved mushroom after mushroom into their maws. Mom just about burst telling everyone they ate tofu. To my surprise, they thought it was great. If one thing can bring my family together, it’s good food.
Here are some more vegetarian cookbook ideas to get you motivated:
Vegetarian Times Complete Cookbook—An extensively updated version of my first veg cookbook. I don’t go to it as much, but it’s comprehensive and a great place to start.
Moosewood New Classics—Perfect for a family in transition. There are a few fish/seafood recipes and a few vegan dishes. It has something for everyone, and a terrific glossary in the back.
150 Vegan Favorites—Don’t be scared by “vegan” in the title. This is probably the most used cookbook in my kitchen, and I love cheese. The slim volume contains primarily one-pot meals that are hearty, flavorful, and stick-to-your-ribs fantastic.
4) Have build-your-own meal nights.
Okay, let’s get practical. You have a family and they need dinner. As CHG reader Clea suggested, “pasta, pizza, ...burritos...” These are prime candidates for build-your-own meals.
We used to have taco/burrito night when I was a kid—long before I was a vegetarian. It’s still a favorite way to have a family meal. Mom puts out tortillas, bowls of chopped tomatoes, onions, peppers, cheese, ground meat, and now, refried beans, and everyone makes their own to their liking. Top it all with guac, salsa, and you’re good to go.
A pizza party is another way to satisfy many tastes. You can customize a pizza in halves, thirds, or depending on the size of your family, make one meat and one veg. You were probably going to make two anyway. Kris has a great pizza recipe right here to get you started.
Stir fry may not seem like a build-your-own dish, but bear with me. Start with the base vegetables, like carrots, celery, peppers, and onions stir fried with garlic, ginger, and soy sauce.
Then, in separate pans, fry up some tofu and whatever meat you like with your veg. Dish out the proteins in bowls alongside bamboo shoots, water chestnuts and mung bean sprouts. Gather the clan around, and let each person choose his or her own adventure.
You create build-your-own-meal nights with pasta, quesdillas, omelets...the list is endless. Get the kids involved in the prep and it’s that much easier.
5) Don't underestimate side dishes.
Maybe it comes from learning to make meals from sides at non-vegetarian group meals over the years, but I love sides. Given a choice, I’d pick the veggie plate almost any day.
As long as there is variety, you really can’t go wrong serving your mixed-diet family a meat and a few side dishes that really rock. The veggie person will have plenty to eat, and the meat eaters won’t feel deprived.
Maybe other vegetarians will disagree, but I don’t need an “entrée” to feel well-fed. I’m not much for faux meat, or meat analogues, as they are sometimes called. They’re fun on occasion, and certainly aided my transition from omnivore to veghead. But fake meat can be high in fat, sodium, and other preservatives, so I enjoy the stuff in moderation.
My idea of the perfect meal is any bean/green combo alongside rice or quinoa and a green salad. These are two of my favorites: Tunisian Beans and Greens and Quinoa with Mustard Greens and Mushrooms. Some people call these side dishes. I call them feasts for a queen.
6) Be willing to try something new(ish).
Many American classics are easily convertible into vegetarian delights with diners none the wiser. Some are vegetarian to begin with; mac and cheese and mashed potatoes come to mind.
Meatless chili and pastas can easily satisfy everyone. But every now and then, try something new. Flexitarianism is the new green, so why not take the opportunity to try an adventurous vegetarian dish with the whole family.
Lentil loaf is one of those classic and classically scoffed at vegetarian dishes that is so worth the time and effort. It’s so hearty and delicious. Or give these tempeh kabobs a try. (Scroll down for recipe; note: shoyu is soy sauce.) Seriously, both these recipes are so good. I’ve served both to meat eaters and received raves.
For more meal suggestions, check out Cooking4Carnivores, a blog about a mixed-diet couple who happily coexists in one kitchen. She’s a vegetarian; he’s a meat-eater. She created a blog to document their culinary adventures in compromise. There are tons of fantastic menu ideas for the veg/non-veg family, not to mention her gorgeous photography.
Best of luck to anyone out there who is transitioning to vegetarianism. I hope this helps. Keep us posted. It’s not always easy, but it doesn’t have to be stressful. My folks adapted pretty quickly, and for that, I will always be grateful. Mom and Dad, you’re the bee’s knees.
Readers, do you have any suggestions? What tricks have you tried to keep the peace at mealtime? Give us a shout in the comments section.