How to Cook for a Vegan as a Hardcore Omnivore

vegan lasagna

At one point in my life, I uttered these words: “If it doesn’t have meat, it’s not a meal.” Not only is the meat-based protein on my plate likely my favorite element, it’s probably the most plentiful. I’ve also said, “Butter makes everything better.” While probably not the best two attitudes for my health, I can’t imagine a meal with no meat and no dairy. As the vegan lifestyle has become more prevalent, I’ve found myself wondering a bunch of things. Why do people choose to be vegan? What do they eat? How do they get all their nutrition? How do they indulge in tasty treats? Confused and ignorant, it became abundantly clear that if I ever were to host a vegan, I’d be clueless, and I’d bet other omnivores with a taste for meat, cheese, and butter struggle with this too. Then, it hit me! I should explore it further and tell the world what I discover.

So, that’s what I did! I looked through my contacts searching for a vegan and remembered a lifelong friend, Rebecca Dieschbourg (who is practically a cousin) lives the vegan life, and is going to graduate school for nutrition sciences and food policy at Tufts University. If there’s anyone I should speak with, it’s her. After talking to her for nearly two hours, I gained a lot of insight, and came away with an overdue and much appreciated understanding of how I could cook for a vegan. Here’s how our discussion went:

How long have you been a vegan?

I think it’s going on 8 years.

Wow, that’s a while. What prompted the switch?

The switch, for me, started out as ethically motivated. I learned about certain industrial farming practices and didn’t want anything to do with them. Then, I discovered we don’t really need meat, so I first went vegetarian. I was still eating dairy, and then made a slow transition, day by day, away from it until I was vegan.

What are your favorite parts of being vegan?

It reduces or eliminates a lot of significant health risks. I feel great and I’m preventing the onset of chronic diseases every day.

You’re in grad school for nutrition science and food policy, right? What are you learning about the vegan diet?

Vegan, technically, is more a lifestyle. You’re avoiding animal products in your life, so, for example, from a fashion-perspective, that means no leather or wool. Diet-wise, vegan is more about being plant-based. The healthiest diets are predominantly plant-based. Now, they don’t have to be completely vegan to be healthy, but the science shows if the bulk of your diet is plant-based, you’re setting yourself up to live the healthiest life you can. As a vegan, you’re talking about stocking this plant-based diet with four categories of food: grains, legumes, vegetables, and fruits. Generally, in a day, I want 50% of my diet to come from grains and legumes, and the other half from fruits and vegetables.

quinoa salad with roasted vegetables

Chowhound

As a meat-eater, what do I have to be on the lookout for if I’m cooking for a vegan?

The biggest, sneaky ingredient is dairy. Vegan means no animal products of any kind. So no eggs in veggie patties, no egg white wash on bread, no dairy, no fish, no fish oils. You need to pay really close attention to any ingredient list. There are dairy products used as additives in a lot of processed food. For instance, you could buy certain broths thinking you’re in the clear that actually have dairy in them. You absolutely want to look out for hidden milk or egg products in a processed, packaged food.

What are some of the biggest omnivore mistakes or misconceptions when cooking for a vegan?

As a vegan, I’m often asked, “Well, what do you eat, then?!” A lot of omnivores don’t really know what to do, where to begin, what to make. The good news is there are so many online resources you can consult to give you ideas for what to make!

As an omnivore, I’m concerned about protein content and balance. How do you manage to keep a balanced diet?

The half of my plate that’s grains and legumes provides most of the protein and makes me feel satiated. The common misperception is that vegans can’t get enough protein. Not true. There’s protein in everything. When considering balance, there are three things I focus on: 1) Eating mostly whole foods; 2) Variety in the types of food I’m eating (i.e. switching up my grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables); and 3) Ensuring a good color mix for my fruits and veggies. I eat the rainbow! These guidelines are what I use to get the nutrients I need. Subsisting on starchy, processed foods alone won’t get me a balanced diet. Vegan tells me what not to eat. It doesn’t tell me what to eat, and there’s a less-than-healthy way to go vegan. As a vegan who focuses on health, I stick to the three guidelines I just mentioned for a whole-food, plant-based diet.

Take me through some tips and tricks for a full-course meal. Let’s start with appetizers. What should I be thinking about, and what are some of your favorites?

Appetizers can come from any group of grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables. You want it to be fun. Dips are a really nice option. Hummus, guacamole, salsa, and spinach and artichoke dips (non-dairy) are great!

spinach basil hummus

Chowhound

Okay, how about a salad. Salads seem like a no-brainer. Anything to keep in mind there?

Any salads will do as long as you don’t use meat and cheese. But you don’t want just any salad. You want something tasty! It doesn’t have to be all greens. It can have some grains and beans in it, chopped, and mixed with a simple oil and vinegar. Lemon juice is another simple dressing option that will be easy and delicious.

Great, how about soup? As we get into the fall/winter seasons, I like heartier soups. I love cream of chicken with rice. That’s obviously a no-no. How do I make a soup hearty, delicious, and vegan?

I think the best way to get a hearty soup is by adding a lot of ingredients to it. Use more starchy vegetables—like squash and sweet potato—and some grains, like lentils. Using grains and legumes will give the soup a heartier quality. Also, add some whole grain bread or croutons for a more filling bowl!

vegetarian chili

Chowhound

Alright, you just mentioned bread. I like to have bread on the table. That’s not a problem?

Nope! The good news is fresh bread is mostly dairy free. You have flour, a yeast starter, salt, and water. Just double check the ingredients before you buy the bread and you should be good to go. You’ll have a lot of options.

That’s awesome! I had no idea. So, as an accompaniment to bread, I like using butter, which I also use a fair amount of when cooking. What are my options here?

Butter is fundamentally fat with salt. Salt isn’t an issue for a vegan. And, as far as fats go, you can use sources that are dairy-free—unsaturated oils, like olive or canola, or vegan butters. Vegan butters are good if you’re looking for something solid at room temperature that you can spread on toast because they contain saturated fats. Now, because of this, butter is not necessarily a health food, even if it’s vegan, so if you’re looking for the healthier option, I’d stick with vegetable oils.

That’s great! Alright, main course: Typically, I like a meat, a veggie, and a starch. I’m hazy on starches. First, what do I need to think about there?

Most starches in the form of grains are naturally dairy-free. If you like pasta, you have to be careful. Some pastas are made with eggs, but not all. Find a pasta without eggs and you should be good.

vegan mac and cheese

Chowhound

Okay, next thing: As a meat-lover, I want to be satisfied by the same meal I’m cooking for my vegan guest. Is that possible?

If you want a vegan meal that would appeal to you, there are a lot of meat substitutes that taste similar and have similar texture. My husband likes the Beyond Meat products. They are really impressive and taste remarkably similar to the real deal. He likes their burger patties and chicken strips. That said, if you’re cooking for me, I’m not necessarily looking for food with similar taste and texture to meat.

Good to know. Last course: Dessert! A lot of my favorites use cream, milk, butter, and eggs. How do I make some of those favorites for a vegan?

All your favorites can be made dairy-free. There are also a lot of naturally dairy-free desserts. Easy options involve using dark chocolate and fruit, and buckeyes [a mix of peanut butter or almond butter, sugar, and dark chocolate] are great. You’ll find a lot of dairy-free, coconut-milk-based ice creams too, which are heavenly. Added bonus: Vegan desserts are naturally cholesterol free!

vegan cupcakes with cegan buttercream frosting

Chowhound

What are some vegan alternatives to common ingredients?

Nowadays, there are alternatives to pretty much everything. You have almond milk, oat milk, cashew milk, or soy milk. You can get all kinds of dairy-free cheeses made from nuts or coconuts—anything from cream cheese to cheddar slices. There are meat substitutes, like we talked about. There are even vegan eggs!

I had no idea! Okay, last question. If I were to have you and your husband over for dinner, what would your ideal meal be?

Probably vegetable lasagna. It’s easier than it seems and always turns out delicious!

vegan lasagna

Chowhound

This conversation has opened my eyes to the world of vegan eating. I started out unsure of myself, but now I think I could actually cook a meal for a vegan friend. I might even invite Rebecca and her husband over for a tasty vegetable lasagna meal! Hopefully, this has imparted the same guidance and courage to other meat-loving or dairy-loving omnivores looking to cook for their vegan friends.

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