How to Feed a Vegetarian
Meeting the Needs of Meatless Eaters
-- By Stepfanie Romine, Staff Writer
It’s 6 o’clock. Your guests should be arriving in less than an hour. Then your friend calls. Guess who’s coming to dinner? Her new boyfriend, who's a vegetarian.
One night at the dinner table, your teenage daughter announces that she’s vegetarian and will no longer be eating meat, fish, dairy, or eggs.
That throws a wrench in your plans, doesn’t it? What do vegetarians eat? Is he going to start spouting off about animal rights as your husband carves the Christmas ham? Is she going to expect an entirely separate meal?
You can relax, even if you don’t know much about vegetarian cooking. Have no fear. Cooking for a vegetarian is easy, and by the time you read our guide to feeding a vegetarian, you’ll be all set.
You probably have quite a few vegetarian meals in your repertoire and likely have at least a couple of vegetables and meatless foods on the menu or in the fridge.
As the name implies, vegetarians eat vegetables, but vegetarian cuisine is vast and exciting. With a few simple tips, any meal can accommodate a vegetarian, whether you have five minutes’ or a week’s notice.
First up, let’s figure out what “vegetarian” actually means. Some people call themselves “vegetarians” but eat fish or chicken, and others are much stricter about what they’ll eat.
- Pescetarian: Someone who doesn’t eat meat but eats fish or seafood.
- Flexitarian: A hip and trendy word for what some people call a semi-vegetarian. Someone who isn’t a vegetarian but eats several vegetarian meals a week and might be selective about what types of meat she does eat (such as organic chicken only) and how often.
- Vegetarian: Someone who doesn’t eat any meat, including poultry, game, fish, and seafood, or any meat by-products, such as broth, gravy, or fat, or foods cooked with meat. A vegetarian may or may not eat other animals products like eggs or dairy (ovo-vegetarians do eat eggs, lacto-vegetarians still eat dairy products, and ovo-lacto vegetarians eats both eggs and dairy).
- Vegan: A strict vegetarian (see above) who doesn’t eat anything that comes from an animal—no meat, dairy products, eggs, honey or other animal by-products.
How to Feed a Vegetarian: The Do’s and Don’ts
- DO be honest. Please don’t try to sneak meat, broth, or seafood into a vegetarian's food. If you put bacon in the broccoli salad, chicken broth in the risotto, or lard in the pie crust, tell your guests.
- DO invite them. I would have invited you, but I didn’t think you’d...feel comfortable, eat anything I served, enjoy yourself, etc. Even a serious lack of veggie-friendly food isn’t going to stop the fun if the people and atmosphere are warm and inviting.
- DON'T apologize. You eat meat. Some people don’t. You don’t have to apologize for eating meat in front of a vegetarian.
- DON'T make a big deal about it. Vegetarians have various reasons for not eating meat, but some of those reasons might not be ideal dinner table or cocktail party discussions. Perhaps save the discussion for another time.
- DON'T be afraid to ask questions. Ask what foods your guest eats and likes. Perhaps you’ll find a new family favorite or elevate a vegetable from side dish to entrée status.
- DO ask your guest to bring a dish. Most vegetarians have experience cooking for themselves. Let them bring food to share, if they wish. Many will do it without being asked.
- DON'T be offended if he brings food. Many vegetarians don’t want to complicate your duties as host. They will often bring something they know they can eat and share with others, so don't take it personally.
- DO cook enough food. Make sure there is enough of the vegetarian dish for everyone to try (because they will) and for the vegetarians to take seconds.
Consider a DIY meal. Put all the toppings or sides in separate dishes so everyone can accommodate their own lactose intolerance, aversion to spice, or vegan diet. How about a burrito bar? (Make some soy crumbles or sauté onions, peppers, and mushrooms for everyone.) What about a pasta buffet? (Serve pasta, sautéed vegetables, sausage or grilled chicken for the meat eaters, Alfredo and marinara sauces, and cheese, then let everyone build a bowl.) Or what about a pizza party? (Buy or make pizza dough, then let everyone make their own pizzas. Kids love this!)
Separate the meat and vegetables. Cook and serve meat in one dish, vegetables in another. If you had planned to roast yams with the ham, use two dishes. Making pasta? Cook sauce and set some aside before adding sausage or meat. Serve gravy on the side, and if you’re adding bacon to your baked potatoes, serve it separately. When grilling, clean part of the grill thoroughly or use foil to cook vegetables or veggie patties.
Use separate serving dishes, utensils and cutlery. That’s actually just a good kitchen tip in general: Never put cooked food on a plate or in a bowl that held raw meat, and use separate cutting boards and knives for vegetables, meat, and poultry.
More Ideas for Those who Have a Vegetarian at Home
Learn where meat hides. Sometimes meat sneaks in to foods that you wouldn’t suspect. Some common foods that contain meat or seafood: Caesar dressing (anchovies), Thai curry and many Asian dishes (fish sauce), and canned “vegetable” soups (beef or chicken broth).
Salads are great. Serve a large green salad before or with the meal, which ensures a healthful option for all. With a couple of hard-boiled eggs or a handful of nuts, that salad can be elevated to a vegetarian entrée.
Where’s the beef? Try to offer a balanced meal. Vegetarians sometimes have to be creative to get adequate protein, calcium, and nutrients. Help them out by serving a balanced meal where plant-based proteins (chickpeas, black beans, or lentils) fill in the place where meat might have been. This boosts the protein content, filling power, and helps round out a meal. Beans and legumes are a cheap and easy way to add vegetarian-friendly foods to a meal. Open, rinse, heat, and eat.
Egg them on. Eggs are super easy and fast to cook. Scrambled, hard-boiled, poached, or fried, you can whip up a vegetarian entrée in no time. Try a veggie packed frittata or quiche.
- Go flexitarian. Once a week or more, try something new, such as tofu, seitan (wheat gluten), or tempeh (a fermented soy food). Plenty of familiar foods can be both delicious and vegetarian: Lasagna, almost any pasta, chili, stir-fries, and soups (use veggie broth) can all be made without meat.