Family Plant-Based Diets

Surviving Family Dinner When One Child Is a Vegetarian

According to a 2014 survey from the Vegetarian Resource Group, one-third of 8- to 18-year-olds say they eat vegetarian meals at least once a week, and 4% of all adolescents and teens identify as vegetarian. A 2016 poll by that same group found that 3.3% of adults are vegetarian or vegan. Numbers aside, whether it’s once a week or every night, having one vegetarian at your dinner table when everyone else eats meat can pose a mealtime dilemma … or a delicious opportunity!

When my boys were young, everyone ate pretty much anything and everything. But over the years things changed. My husband, Tim, became a pescatarian; my son Simon came home from college after one semester and announced he no longer ate meat; and my son Josh, well, he lives and works in New York City, so he’ll eat whatever is put in front of him. (He’s more desperate than he is particular.) As a mom and a dietitian, I love to please everyone at my table, but even I have my breaking point. So instead of running ragged at dinner and making myself crazy making different meals for different family members, I discovered ways to be flexible and strategic. Check out the tips and tricks that have worked wonders for my family and see how they work for you, your clients, and your patients.

Try Meatless Monday: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. An easy way for families to keep everyone at the table happy, whether they eat meat or not, is to give Meatless Monday a try. Meatless Monday is a campaign that encourages people around the world to eat one vegetarian meal per week (on Monday) and to build on that habit over time. Instead of spending hours in the kitchen preparing one separate dinner for the vegetarian at their table, parents can make a meatless meal that everyone will love. The Meatless Monday website is packed with tips, resources, and recipes, so families who may be at a loss for vegetarian ideas can quickly adapt to this new style of eating.

Make soup: Vegetarian soups and stews can be hearty and filling, and they can leave even the most ardent meat eater feeling satisfied. When it comes to creating veggie-based soups at home, the sky’s the limit. Start with a base of vegetable broth, milk (or a dairy-free alternative), or canned tomatoes (crushed, diced, or sauce) and then build from there. Turn to chewy-textured whole grains like farro, barley, brown rice, whole wheat pasta, or wild rice; try protein-filled chickpeas, lentils, beans, and other pulses; and add sautéed veggies to the mix including onion, garlic, mushrooms, spinach, kale, carrots, corn, celery, and more. Need inspiration? Here are three soups that my family slurps up happily whenever they’re served: Instant Pot Barley, Carrot, and Chickpea Soup; Lentil Alphabet Soup; and Macaroni Minestrone Soup.

Offer meat-free burgers: Veggie burgers are a simple alternative to beef or turkey burgers. You can find them frozen or fresh at the supermarket or make them from scratch. Store-bought options make it easy to toss a few on the backyard grill along with the family’s usual patties, and everyone still gets to enjoy their favorite toppings: lettuce, tomato, onion, sliced cheese, peppers, and avocado. We’ve tried our fair share of veggie burgers over the years—my boys’ go-to is Gardenburger’s Portabella Veggie Burger made with brown rice, mushrooms, spinach, and oats—and when I have more time on my hands, I love to grill whole Portobello mushrooms and use them as the “burger” between our whole grain buns.

Make steak … with cauliflower: This is one of my favorite veggie “hacks” ever. If you slice a head of cauliflower into “steaks” and then bake them, you’ll end up with hearty veggie steaks that mimic the mouthfeel of an actual steak. Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit, but the texture is comparable and oh-so-satisfying. From experience with my own family, I’ve had luck serving Cauliflower Steaks with White Beans as a main dish and Roasted Cauliflower Steaks with Pistachio Pesto as a fun side. Learn how to make cauliflower steaks here.

Use meat-free grounds: Faux ground beef crumbles can be found in the produce or frozen section of most grocery stores. Hearty and substantial, they look like ground beef and taste like it, too. Beyond Meat uses pea protein to make their “Beefy” crumbles, and another product, Yves Original Veggie Ground Round, is made with soy and wheat protein. Meat-free grounds work wonders as a vegetarian swap in tacos, lasagna, and Bolognese sauce. Don’t believe me? Try my recipe for Spaghetti Squash with Meat-Free Bolognese Sauce. (Sautéed chopped shiitake mushrooms add an even meatier texture and umami to the dish.)

Build-your-own nights: Pizza, nourish bowls (aka protein or Buddha bowls), and tacos are easy to adapt to individual tastes and diet preferences. They’re customizable, so serve up a build-your-own dinner one night a week. For pizza, set out a bunch of toppings—broccoli, mushrooms, sautéed bell peppers, shredded mozzarella cheese, fresh basil, and lean cooked chicken or sausage—and let everyone create their own pie, some with meat and some without. Do the same for tacos using beans, sautéed ground beef or turkey, shredded cheese, corn kernels, diced avocado, salsa, and fresh cilantro. Nourish bowls also are a great way to personalize a meal for each family member. Set out bowls filled with plant protein options—cubes of baked tofu are nice—as well as grilled shrimp, chicken, or sliced steak. Round out your offerings with cooked whole grains, roasted sweet potato, diced avocado, broccoli, or any other favorite vegetable.

Eat breakfast for dinner: Why limit everyone’s favorite meal to the morning? Shake things up and offer breakfast for dinner. Most breakfast foods are naturally meat-free anyway, so why not make breakfast the star at dinner? Meat won’t be missed when everyone’s favorite blueberry or pumpkin pancakes are on the menu. Other vegetarian dinner options include a simple omelet stuffed with sautéed vegetables and low-fat shredded cheese, scrambled egg tacos, a vegetable frittata, or my Spinach Quiche Patties, featured in the September 2018 issue of Today’s Dietitian. For family members craving the flavor of meat, try veggie sausages, sold in the supermarket freezer section.

Do you have one vegetarian in your family? Do your clients struggle at mealtime when different eating styles are at play? What are your best tips for preparing one meal (or a slightly modified meal) that satisfies everyone?

— Liz Weiss, MS, RDN, is a mom of two with a specialty in family nutrition. She’s the voice behind the family food podcast Liz’s Healthy Table, and the blog and website by the same name. Liz has written several cookbooks, including No Whine with Dinner: 150 Healthy Kid-Tested Recipes From the Meal Makeover Moms, The Moms’ Guide to Meal Makeovers: Improving the Way Your Family Eats, One Meal at a Time!, and the playful new coloring book series Color, Cook, Eat!. Liz hosts the Meal Makeovers video series for CNN Accent Health, which runs in doctor’s offices nationwide.

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