The summer I left for college, I think I surprised nearly everyone in my family when I told them I wanted to be a vegetarian. None of my friends were vegetarian; no one in my family ever requested much in the way of recipes for vegetarian meals. I’m still the only complete vegetarian in my family, so when I am home visiting I see it as a challenge to make simple vegetarian meals that everyone will like.
I think what many people don’t realize is that a lot of American favorites are already or can easily be made vegetarian, such as PB&J sandwiches, pizza, and macaroni and cheese. If you want to incorporate more vegetarian meals into the rotation in your household, it’s simple to ease into it. Rather than serving up a Tofurkey, you may want to consider a do-it-yourself taco bar with plenty of beans and cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, bell peppers, and onions. Another fun and easy idea is a “breakfast for dinner” night. Typical breakfast favorites like French toast, waffles or pancakes, muffins, omelettes and parfaits (layered cereal or granola, fruit, and yogurt) are all easy vegetarian meals—and probably favorites—your family already loves.
So, your breakfast night was a hit and your family is already open to trying more recipes for vegetarian meals. What do you do next? When I am low on inspiration, I enjoy looking to other cultures. Perhaps your family is already familiar with the Asian concept of stir-frying, which utilizes a medley of vegetables in accompaniment with rice. You can use soy sauce to season, or another of your favorite sauces, such as Teriyaki. For protein, you can go with the classic tofu or simply crack and scramble an egg into your pan. One of my family’s favorite meals, however, is a Japanese one-pot meal known as sukiyaki. While it is often made with meat, I prefer to substitute thinly sliced, browned tofu. Italian minestrone soup, ratatouille (you can even make a movie night out of it!), and noodle dishes are other vegetarian meals your family is probably already familiar with. You can easily use a jarred sauce, but roasted tomatoes with oregano and basil help take a homemade sauce to an entirely new level. If you think your family will miss the meat sauce, the addition of roasted eggplant or portabella mushrooms can easily lend that meaty flavor to the dish. If you’re looking for something new to add into your vegetarian meal planning, you may wish to try Moroccan couscous, with aromatic spices and dried fruit, or perhaps an African peanut stew.
Soups are also great vegetarian meals. Split pea and lentil aren’t your only options, though—you can easily create recipes for vegetarian meals by substituting a few ingredients in non-vegetarian recipes. Rather than using chicken and chicken broth in your noodle soup, try adding garbanzo beans (chickpeas). Instead of ground beef in your chili, swap the meat for beans, tofu, seitan, or ground soy crumbles (found in the freezer section). For your favorite potato soup, add some tempeh bacon instead of real bacon on top.
If you just want to substitute meat in a dish, there are packaged products like those made by Boca (I like to use the soy crumbles in stuffed peppers, chili, my mom’s “hamburger soup,” etc.), Lightlife (lunch meat substitutes), Smart Dogs (hot dogs), and Morningstar Farms (I enjoy their grilled chik'n patties and chik’n nuggets as an occasional treat). What you should realize, however, is that these products are not meat and so you should not expect them to taste exactly as such. I would also advise against buying prepackaged products often, because they can get expensive. Hopefully these vegetarian meal ideas have encouraged you to explore your options. It’s about time we busted the myth that “vegetarians only eat salads!”