Learning to Cook for the Vegetarian in the House

Before I had children, I knew one thing for sure: I wasn’t going to become some kind of short-order cook as a mom. Then my tween daughter declared she was going vegetarian.

When I was in my 20s (and pre-kids) I used to marvel at a family we knew: The kids ate everything. The dad, a chef, had a pretty straightforward reason why: He cooked one thing; they ate it (or went hungry). End of story. I want that, I thought. I swore to myself I would never become some short-order cook as a mom.

I’m not religious, but I do believe in that Yiddish saying, “Man plans, and God laughs.” For many, many years, I got exactly what I wanted. My children ate mostly everything: Mussels? Sure! Duck? Yum! And bring on the Brussels sprouts! There was nary a chicken nugget in my freezer. Of that fact, I was proud. However, now that my eldest is in middle school — full of opinions and a desire to get under her mother’s skin — she recently declared: I’m a vegetarian.

This was reminiscent of a (short-lived) phase in elementary school when her friend group included two pescatarians, a vegetarian, and someone who was dairy-free. She was the only omnivore, and — in the 21st-century Los Angeles world we live in now — she didn’t fit in. I put a couple of boxes of fish sticks in the freezer and some canned tuna in the pantry and told her to have at it. Her pescetarianism lasted about two weeks.

This newfound vegetarianism seems to be sticking around though, rooted not just in social pressure but also sobering facts from documentaries she’s watched at school. And it’s forcing me to rethink how I shop and how I cook.

Making it work. For everyone.

Early on, I agreed to a few things:

  • As a family, we would all try to eat lower on the food chain. Meatless Mondays, check. This would be good for everyone.
  • She could obviously order as she pleased when we ate out. (Dim sum, I will say, can get hard).
  • I would always make sure take-out orders included vegetarian options.
  • We would never make a big deal of her diet if she agreed not to make a big deal of ours (i.e. no “gross” or “ew” if someone at the table is eating steak).
  • I would always have some kind of vegetable protein in the fridge for her to swap in — incredible meat patties and sausages, tofu, lentils, black beans. Flexitarian go-to's like avocados, eggs, nuts, and cheese were already weekly staples.

That still left me, however, to figure out how to re-think family dinner with a vegetarian in the house, without it being pasta, pizza, pasta, stir fry, rinse, repeat.

These go-to recipes have helped:

Indian Chickpea Coconut Curry

It’s not just curry to the rescue, it’s chickpea curry to the rescue. While my little tribe has differing opinions about eggplant, mushrooms, and tofu (my go-to meat replacements), everyone agrees on chickpeas. In this recipe, from Everyday Easy Eats, the chickpeas prove hearty and toothsome enough to feel satisfying for everyone. The flavor profile is on-point, without the need for a whole pantry of new spices. And since it’s a curry, it’s easy enough to set some aside and add chicken to the other half for a one-dish, two-ways effect.

Indian Chickpea Coconut Curry

Really Easy Mushroom Risotto

I love risotto. I love the meditation-like stirring required to make it. I love the silky texture. I love mounds and mounds of Parmesan. And, in this classic vegetarian recipe from the BBC, I love how rich the porcini mushrooms taste. Luckily, just about everyone in the house feels the same. And as a bonus, you can stuff leftovers with mozzarella, roll ‘em in breadcrumbs, and have arancini the next day.

Really Easy Mushroom Risotto

Sweet Potato Tacos

It’s hard to underestimate the pleasure of taco night when you’re trying to feed children — and especially when you’re trying to accommodate a vegetarian. The toppings stay the same: crumbly white cheese (I like feta), crema, pickled red onions, cilantro, perhaps some shredded lettuce or cabbage. Now I just add roasted sweet potatoes to the buffet (which might also include fish or chicken or beef for the omnivores) without that much effort. Smitten Kitchen’s recipe is one of my all-time faves.

Sweet Potato Tacos

Braised Chickpeas with Tomato, Spinach, and Feta

Yes, it’s chickpeas to the rescue again! You can riff endlessly on this shakshuka-esque recipe — for one, by adding eggs — and it stands up every time. Serve with pita and a mezze platter for a full vegetarian meal, or add skewers of meat so that people can assemble plates to their own liking.

Braised Chickpeas with Tomato, Spinach, and Feta

Vegan Korean Bibimbap

I grew up eating Korean food, mostly of the BBQ variety. It never really occurred to me that you could have bibimbap, for instance, without a bunch of sweet soy-garlic-green-onion-sugar marinated beef as the backbone. But of course you can. Mix-it-yourself rice bowls in the spirit of bibimbap (or really from any culture) lend themselves perfectly to feeding a family that sits across the vegan-omnivore spectrum. Plus, you can put an egg on it — and that makes everything better.

Vegan Korean Bibimbap

So what did I learn from the vegetarian in the house?

Through the course of this process, I’ve changed not just the way I cook, but the way I think.

The lower we eat on the food chain, the better.

We all benefit from me rethinking my approach to family dinner. It’s not just healthier, it’s more affordable.

Think meat-adjacent, not meat-centric.

You can make enchiladas suizas, rice, and beans for everyone — and basically “sprinkle” shredded chicken meat on top, instead of layering it inside. It’s fine.

You still get to eat all the things.

I thought somehow that “accommodating” the vegetarian in the house would limit what we would get to eat. Hardly! I still get to do Thai on Tuesday or Indian on Sunday, and I am starting to appreciate, more and more, how meat is treated in other cultures — as a garnish (or even optional!).

It’s been a revelation.

Just don’t tell my daughter.