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Vegetarian cooking: Dos and don’ts for non-vegetarians

Stop stressing about cooking for vegetarians! Learn how to adapt your recipes and impress your guests with these easy tips. Even if you’re a dedicated meat eater, you’ll be surprised at  how simple it is to cater to vegetarian diets.

Overhead shot of Thai pumpkin curry in a white dutch oven with rice on the side.

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When you host friends for dinner, you plan your menu, set the table, and make sure that everything is perfect. So, when you hear one of your guests is vegetarian, it can completely throw your plans.

Vegetarianism has become increasingly popular in recent years, and 1 in 10 Americans say they follow either a vegetarian or vegan diet, but hosting a vegetarian doesn’t need to be scary. With a few adaptations, you can create a meal that is both delicious and stress-free for everyone. While it may seem challenging to modify your usual cooking habits to accommodate a vegetarian, it’s easier than you think.

The first thing you’ll need to do is to ask your guest what they can or can’t eat, as there are different types of vegetarians;

  • Lacto-ovo vegetarian: Will eat dairy products and eggs but excludes meat, poultry and seafood.
  • Lacto vegetarian: Will eat dairy products but excludes eggs, meat, poultry and seafood.
  • Ovo vegetarian: Will eat eggs but excludes dairy products, meat, poultry and seafood.
  • Pescatarian: Will eat fish and seafood but excludes meat and poultry.
  • Flexitarian or semi-vegetarian: This flexible diet primarily focuses on plant-based foods but allows for occasional meat consumption.

The good news is that many dishes that you probably already make are naturally vegetarian, dishes such as falafel, spaghetti marinara, or ratatouille. These are all familiar dishes that vegetarians and meat eaters alike can enjoy.

Cooking for vegetarian guests is a fun challenge to get more creative with meals. I like to focus on using plant-based proteins as a supporting ingredient to a vegetable main course. Using items like beans, lentils and grains creates a balanced meal everyone can enjoy.”
— Gina Matsoukas, Running to the Kitchen

Low angle shot of a chickpea burger on seeded bun with all the fixings.


Check the ingredients

It is essential to examine the ingredients list of food products carefully. Just because a dish doesn’t contain visible meat, it may still not be suitable for a vegetarian diet. A good example is Parmesan cheese, which includes animal rennet and is therefore not a vegetarian option. Fortunately, many vegetarian substitutes are available today, including hard Italian cheeses, and they are indistinguishable from their non-vegetarian counterparts.

Other ingredients to look for include gelatin, Worcestershire sauce, marshmallows, meat broths, and some red food dyes. Look for the filled green circle in a green outlined box symbol on the product; if you see it, then it’s suitable for vegetarians.

Planning a vegetarian-friendly menu

Your guests mustn’t feel like an afterthought; you want them to feel like they’ve had a full meal and not just a collection of side dishes.

For an informal occasion, pizza is a great choice. There are so many different vegetarian pizza toppings, and the classic Neapolitan pizza is naturally vegetarian and perfect for serving; you don’t need to make a special effort for this delicious dish.

Start with a vegetarian soup like Mulligatawny or Indian Lentil Dal; an appetizer like Samosas or Paneer Pakora; or a refreshing salad like Kachumber Salad or Spicy Cucumber Salad.

Lots of Thai and Indian curry dishes are vegetarian, too, like Thai Pumpkin Curry, Chana Aloo Masala, and Palak Paneer.

If you like Asian noodles, there are lots of ways to use them in vegetarian meals. Try Veggie Pad Thai, Vegetarian Dan Dan Noodles, Gochujang Noodles or Thai Peanut Sauce Noodles.

A dinner party usually calls for a special main course, and a mushroom wellington shows that you have put a lot of thought and effort into the dish. Or try Butternut Squash and Goat Cheese Phyllo Pie for a stunning main course. Pair either of these with vegetable sides and you have the perfect meal.

Remember to check any dipping sauces or condiments for hidden animal products. You can find meat-free alternatives to many of these, like vegan fish sauce or vegan Worcestershire sauce.

Are guests staying overnight? That’s no problem, fry up an egg, whip up some waffles, or treat them to a hashbrown casserole or Japanese Souffle Pancakes in the morning. There are so many different dishes to choose from.

Finally, remember to ensure that any pre-packaged or processed foods you’re using are vegetarian-friendly. With some planning and creativity, you can create a delicious and satisfying meal that your vegetarian guest will appreciate.

“My family members are a mix of vegans and meat-eaters. We usually make two main dishes for gatherings — one meat and one veggie option — so no one feels left out. Pasta dishes and tacos are favorites for everyone because we can serve a variety of vegetarian and meat options, and each person can build their own plate.”

— Susannah Brinkley Henry, Feast + West
low angle shot of the dish with a hand lifting noodles with chopsticks.

Adapt classic dishes

You can adapt your favorite dishes to be vegetarian-friendly.

Lasagna: replace the meat with layers of roasted vegetables, like zucchini, spinach, and mushrooms, to create a delicious veggie lasagna.

Tacos: use vegetarian refried beans or seasoned tofu instead of meat, and load up on fresh veggies and salsa.

Chili: swap the ground beef for a mix of beans, like kidney, black and pinto, and add extra veggies, like mushrooms, bell peppers and corn.

Pizza: use a vegetarian-friendly crust and top it with your favorite veggies, like tomatoes, olives, and mushrooms.

Stir-fry: replace the meat with tofu or seitan and add plenty of fresh veggies with your noodles, like bok choi, snow peas and bell peppers.

Shepherd’s pie: use lentils, mushrooms or a meat substitute, like textured vegetable protein, instead of ground beef.

Spaghetti bolognese: swap the meat with lentils, mushrooms or a store-bought meat substitute, and use a vegetarian-friendly pasta sauce.

Burgers: use a vegetarian patty made from black beans, chickpeas or seitan, and load up on toppings like avocado, tomato, and lettuce.

Meatloaf: replace ground beef with lentils, nuts or a meat substitute, and use vegetarian-friendly breadcrumbs.

Fajitas: use grilled portobello mushrooms or a meat substitute, like seitan, and serve with plenty of fresh veggies, guacamole and salsa.

In the kitchen

If you are cooking both meat and vegetarian meals, use a separate cutting board and utensils when preparing vegetarian food to prevent cross-contamination with meat products.

All too often, vegetarian dishes can be bland; remember to use seasoning, taste frequently, and adjust accordingly.

Use different serving spoons to dish up the meat and vegetarian dishes; the vegetarian will only be able to eat your food if you do.

low angle shot of a samosa cut in half so that you can see the potato filling inside.

Don’t pressure your guests

It’s not unusual for vegetarians to be challenged about their diet choice, the temptation to try to persuade them that they should eat meat and that ingredients in certain foods don’t count as meat is strong. Please don’t do it; it’s unfair and puts your guest in a difficult position, and it’s a surefire way of ensuring they never come to your home again.

As you can see, hosting a vegetarian guest is easier than it first appears. If you talk to them, find out what they can and can’t eat, and then plan a menu that everyone can enjoy, it’ll be a stress-free occasion. And who knows, you may even enjoy it.

Mandy is the enthusiastic creator of the vegetarian website Splash of Taste; she makes meat-free cooking fun and easy. When Mandy’s not cooking and writing, you’ll find her traveling, exploring countries and cuisines, and spending time with her chihuahua. Download her free 5 x Easy Vegetarian Meals eBook.

This article originally appeared on Food Drink Life.

By on May 3rd, 2023

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