Vegan Cooking for the Unenthusiastic Omnivore

PanDogNote: This post contains discussion of meat, dairy, and eggs. If you don’t want to read that material, stop now.
Simply view this unrelated but excellent image of a dog in a panda hat (taken by Ms.TheVeganAsanaJr2, aka Emmie) and then go off on your merry way!

I’ve written before about the challenges of cooking for a multivore family, and that continues to be something that I get asked about frequently and that occupies my own attention, with a family that has vegans, vegetarians, and very committed omnivores. Luckily for me, my family has always been supportive of my vegetarian and vegan journey; however, I think that is partly because I’ve always treated it as my journey, not as a forced march. In this post, I offer some additional tips and thoughts on how to be the primary cook as a vegan in a household where other members are omnivores.

1. Recognize that your choice is about you.

When you first become vegan or vegetarian, you may find that you suddenly know things about factory farms or animal husbandry or meat processing that you never realized. You may begin to feel that if everyone knew these things, of course they would be vegan. That’s wrong and not really fair. Lecturing family members (or anyone, really) about a vegan diet is no different than lecturing others about why they should convert to your religion. People don’t appreciate it and it likely won’t go well. You are the person that you have authority over. Choosing a vegan/vegetarian diet for you is a choice for you, unless the others in your house voluntarily go along (or you have children that you feel are too young to make a good choice).

2. Everyone has their limits. Know theirs. Know yours.

With six children in TheAsana house, we couldn’t afford (literally or metaphorically) for everyone to want a different dinner. So, that just doesn’t happen. But, everyone got a short list of three items that they just could not stomach in any form (we made an exception such that “meat” became a category that someone could say no to). Some people only had one item (i.e. the dreaded mushroom), while others used all three. But, this gave me, as the cook, a clear list of things that I needed to make substitutions for when they were a main ingredient, so that the naysayer had something to eat.

Similarly, if you have not always been a vegan/vegetarian in your current family, you may not be able to stop having meals with meat in the house entirely (particularly in a family that includes children). So, it is important to establish what your absolute limits are. Many vegans can eat at the same table as someone having a meal containing meat. Many can cook meat for others, as needed, but not consume it themselves. In my house, while I will still cook meals containing meat, I will not (can not) cook the “big dead bird” type of meals and limit meat preparation that requires extensive handling. I also can’t do it every day.

3. Be willing to negotiate. 

You probably have full stop no-can-do items (see #2), but after that, there is room for negotiation. If you can’t stand the idea of making hamburger patties, could you cook them if someone else made them or you buy them prepared? Is there someone else in the house who can do some meat prep on the weekends for ease later in the week? Can you establish some compromises on how often meat will be included in a meal? It may seem silly to actually hash it all out, but it really can be helpful in establishing expectations.

4. Get creative!

My grandmother told me that you can catch more flies with honey (or agave) than you can with vinegar. You can also win over more people to the idea of eating vegan food once you show them that vegan food tastes good. This can happen pretty easily if you start with foods where the meat/dairy/egg isn’t the focus and play to the strengths of a vegan diet. Vegan pancakes are lovely, and no one needs to even know until they finish eating. Spaghetti with marinara sauce, maybe even with some TVP thrown in, is a delicious and filling meal. Nachos with refried beans are a fan favorite in a lot of houses, as are bean burritos. And who doesn’t like biscuits and gravy (if it’s you, don’t tell me)? You can also make vegan items that have meat and cheese on the side for adding to the plates of people who eat them (ground beef and cheddar for nachos, sausage with the pancakes, meatballs for the pasta).

Basically, the goal should be that people don’t feel punished or shamed for not having made the choice that you made, and begin to see vegan food as a normal choice, not as an unattractive and overly health option that is primarily berries and leaves.

At the end of the day, there is one person whose eating habits you really get to control, and it’s you. You may be able to draw a line in the sand of not having meat served in your house or not cooking it, but you can’t make others be ok with that choice, any more than they can make you be ok with a non-vegan diet.

Tips for Making the Vegan Transition

IMG_0986webI have been a vegan for a longish time now (8-9 years) and a vegetarian for almost two decades. I am often asked by vegan-curious folks (sometimes vegetarian and sometimes omnivore) about how to make the switch. There is not one best way to make this switch, but having tried to be vegan a couple of times before it really took, I do have a few thoughts that I share with people contemplating the change, and I share them with you here.

1. Make a commitment. It doesn’t matter if you decide to go “cold tofurkey” on all animal products or if you phase them out one at a time. The key is to think it through and make a firm choice.

Decide what you plan to do and then write it down. If you are going to give up one item at a time, make an actual schedule and mark it on your calendar. If you are making the switch all at once, make yourself a list of things to eat (see below) instead of the animal products you normally consume.

Waffling on it, or just trying to move toward it by reducing overall consumption makes the whole process take longer, because there are going to be situations where it is a challenge to avoid animal products, and if you haven’t already made a firm choice and established your boundaries, you aren’t likely to make it though those.

2. Research alternatives before you start. You know what your animal product weaknesses are. Think about how you will replace them in your diet. Is it cheese? Milk? Jerky? Honey? Burgers? Almost anything can be replaced with something vegan that will satisfy the same taste urges, but you have to figure out what it is, and that’s easier when you aren’t starving or trying to cook dinner in 20 minutes.

There are so many sites online that can help you in this process. I like to think that this is one of them, but it’s certainly not the only one. Since this month is the Vegan Month of Food (VeganMoFo), there is a wealth of informational links available for you at Check it out!

3. Think about ways to maintain your usual ratio of “fun” to nutritious foods at first. If you are accustomed to having Doritos every night for a snack, and you go vegan and only eat fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, you are going to be an unhappy camper.

There is plenty of vegan fun (or “crap” depending on your frame of reference) food, so it is not necessary to deprive yourself. You can start changing the ratio after you get more comfortable with the overall choice. In fact, if Doritos are your go-to snack, I have an idea for you!

4. Be open to prepared foods for a while. I am not a big fan of them, but when you are first starting a vegan diet, it might be easier to microwave a Boca burger and some veggie baked beans, or an Amy’s meal, than to come up with a menu on your own. It’s more expensive and you don’t have as much control over nutrition, but that will come.

If it’s a choice between going vegan and eating some prepared foods, and not going vegan at all, then take the prepared foods. Mainstream vegetarian brands (Boca, Morningstar, Gardenburger) have some vegan items, but be sure to check the labels for milk and eggs. Lightlife brand has mostly vegan items, but again the label should be checked. Tofurkey brand is, I think, all vegan.

5. VARIED diet. I really can’t stress this enough. If you start out by eating salads for every meal, with the same set of four ingredients, you are going to get bored and frustrated and are more likely to crack and order an extra large cheese pizza from Pizza Hut.

Buy a cookbook or find a blog or website you like to peruse.  Even if you never actually  use any of the recipes, you will get some ideas about how to eat in a vegan style, and will probably be shocked by the amazing variety of choices.

If you make your meals interesting enough, then you will probably find that you forget what you aren’t eating. In fact, you may find that the things you thought you would miss aren’t a problem at all. I was sure that giving up cheese was going to be awful for me, but, it really wasn’t (and my cholesterol dropped 65 points giving up dairy and eggs).

Happy veganizing!


Cooking for a Multivore Household

Previously posted on Elephant Journal

Many vegans/vegetarians live in households where not everyone shares the same food ideology.  And, sometimes, those veg-heads are the primary cooks in the house.  In TheVeganAsana house, the spousal couple consists of a vegan and an omnivore with strong carnivore leaning.  The little asanas are a mix of vegan, vegetarian, omnivore, and what I like to call “carbivore.”  So, we are most certainly a multivore household.  Over many many years of being in this situation, I have developed some primary principles that I use in dealing with the day-in-day-out of cooking for 6-8 people with different dietary paths.  (n.b.  Of course, some will opt to say that they will only cook veg food, and/or only have veg food in the house.  In my case, I consider it a compromise of marital and family happiness).

1.       There is a huge difference between meh and retch.

If you have spent any time in the presence of a child, you’ve probably witnessed the “I HATE ____” phenomenon of meal time.   The hated item one day could be peas, the next day mushrooms, then beans, and maybe even a harmless macaroni noodle.   The sentence is almost always uttered with either vehemence or total disinterest.  But, my philosophy on this is that there is a significant difference between “I don’t really enjoy this item,” and “I’m going to gag if I eat this.”  There are many things that I disprefer, including making dinner every night.  But, it won’t kill me and I won’t break a tooth, so I tough it out and do it.  The same is true for food I don’t love.  If I can tolerate it, I eat it, and I expect others to do the same, because ultimately food is fuel.  I never signed on to make everyone swoon with delight at each meal.  There are many ways to deal with the difference between these two states of dislike.  For a while, in my house, we had a 3 item limit on the “this will gag me” foods.  This worked until we had a child with some pretty serious texture sensitivity who would literally hurl at the table if he put foods with a certain set of textures into his mouth.  So, the limit had to go, but we still follow the general idea.  If I know someone will actually gag (said child still cannot consume tofu even chopped into tiny slivers), then I don’t serve that item to him/her.  This policy, obviously, applies to the vegans/vegetarians in the house, who actually would retch if served meat.  So, they aren’t.

2.       You are not a short order cook.

Your house is not Mel’s Diner, and Flo does not work there.  This means that making multiple meals to suit everyone’s desires is just not going to happen.  Again here, there are  multiple options for how this unfolds.  In some households, it might mean that anyone who doesn’t like the meal can help her/herself to a PB&J.  In my house, due to point #1, everyone eats what is served, or they don’t, but it’s what is available for that meal.  In 22 years, we haven’t had anyone starve.   If someone doesn’t get quite as much as he/she might like at dinner, there is always a piece of fruit to have later, or a bigger breakfast in the morning.

3.       Something for everyone.

While #2 means not making a bunch of separate meals, it is utterly possible to manage to have something that each person (typically) can eat at each seating.  Tonight, for example, we had spaghetti squash with cilantro, jalapeno, tomatoes.  I know full well that 2 of the kids are just not going to eat that, because they find cooked tomato gross and also don’t do well with squash (see previously referenced gagging).  So, I served a spinach romaine salad and baked chicken breast on the side.  Everyone at the table had at least 1 thing that they could reasonably be expected to eat.

4.       Protein on the side.

While I’m not sure we really need as much protein in the diet as is often suggested, I do understand that people (myself included) sometimes feel like a meal isn’t quite “done” without a protein item.  So, I often put the protein on the side and let people add at will.  In tonight’s meal, baked chicken was the side dish that was optional.  If I make spaghetti with marinara sauce, I might brown some faux sausage and also some meatballs and let people add it to their pasta as they like.  Edamame, nuts, and garbanzos make good protein side items for salads or rice dishes, or even pasta.  Most dishes that traditionally have ground beef in them can be made without it, and have it added by the individual, and so on.

5.       Develop animal product prep. strategies that you can live with.

This is crucial in a household where the cook is a vegan or vegetarian and others aren’t.  If there is a belief that some meals will involve animal products, decisions have to be made about how that can happen in a way that the cook can tolerate.  This might mean that someone else cooks all the meat items.  It might mean that the herbivore does make meat items, but places some restrictions on what those items will be.  In my house, this has gradually evolved into a basic principle that I will not cook anything that involves complex meat preparation.  I’ll put a chicken breast on a plate and sprinkle some seasoning on it, or I’ll bake some sausage links.  I’ll even throw a roast into a crockpot now and then.  But, I’m not going to do a Cornish game hen or fry chicken.

6.       Mealtime is not the time for recrimination.

In a household where there are multiple perspectives on diet, it’s perfectly reasonable that there will be strong feelings about food choices.  I would prefer that no one in my house ate meat.  But, this is not a discussion we are going to have at mealtime.  We also are not going to discuss factory farming, livestock hormones, or potential dietary deficits in a vegan diet during dinner.  Meals together are a time for bonding and enjoying the food, and – while we will engage a lively political debate now and then – arguing over who is right about food choices is not going to enhance either of those things.

Lest this all sound really complex, here are a few specific suggestions for multivore friendly meals that I find quite appealing around TheVeganAsana household:
–  Nachos – create your own with beans, cheese/faux cheese, veggies, salsa, sour cream (dairy or soy), meat or faux meat crumbles, guacamole, corn, jalapenos, olives, etc.
– Spaghetti with marinara sauce, meatballs on the side, and a big salad
Pancakes (vegan), sausages (faux and meat), and fruit
Chili (vegan) with cornbread or other fresh bread
Make your own wraps with hummus, baba ganoush, bean dip, and a variety of vegetables
Black beans and rice with cheeses and sour cream (dairy and soy), olives, hot sauce, etc.
Potato soup and fresh bread

Cooking for a household is stressful, no matter how you slice it, and adding different dietary beliefs makes that even more complex, but with a little forethought, you can avoid turning your time in the kitchen into a total horror, and prevent your house from becoming Mel’s Diner 2.0.  And maybe you’ll never even have to tell anyone to kiss your grits.

Order up!