Having Vegetarians for Dinner

Vegetarian Meal Planning

We bite but don’t be afraid.

By Kevin R.R. Williams

NUTRITION A friend was planning a meal for about a dozen people. Upon my acceptance of an invitation, I was plied with a long list of dietary questions. It was as if the family was in a state of shock that I accepted. One might think they were inviting Gordon Ramsay over to film an episode of Kitchen Nightmares.

Do you panic when learning that a vegan friend or family member is coming for dinner? Do you avoid having vegetarians over because you, "don't know how to cook vegetarian food?" In the movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Aunt Voula exclaimed, "What do you mean he don't eat no meat?" Then before a silenced room she continues, "Oh, that's okay. I make lamb." A few adjustments can minimize preparation, alleviate the hysteria and prevent you from serving lamb to vegetarian guests.

What Do Vegetarians Eat?

People often use "vegetarian" as a catch phrase. It's prudent to clarify whether diners are vegetarian or vegan. Also, some who call themselves vegetarians say they eat chicken. (Humor them. These vegetarians in their own mind are more accurately called flexitarians.) Cooking for vegans can be a bit more challenging. They avoid all animal products — including cheese, cream, butter and eggs and sometimes honey. There are even raw vegans who, as the name implies, eat no cooked food. It's possible that your guests are pescatarians, which means they eat fresh fish but no other animal meat.

Some people have become vegetarians due to dietary restrictions like lactose intolerance or celiac disease. Even people who eat meat may have restricted diets. You don't need to memorize all the categories of vegetarians. What matters most is finding out what your guests do eat. You might simply ask them, "What is your preferred source of protein?" Like my hosts, inquire if dairy or starch is in their diet. Also ask whether they eat fruit. Diabetics may have fructose restrictions. Then plan a balanced meal from a variety of food groups.

Planing a Balanced Vegetarian Meal
Food Group Food Source
Protein Beans, soy, lentals, nuts, seeds, tofu, tempeh, quinoa, textured vegetable protein (TVP), eggs, milk, cheese, leafy green vegetables like spinach, green beans or peas
Grains (Starch) Whole-grain wheat bread, biscuits, crackers, tortillas, rice, pasta
Vegetables Broccoli, carrots, lettuce, squashes, zucchini, eggplant, cucumbers, potatoes, corn
Fruits Apples, cherries, oranges, melons, tomatoes
Dairy (Calcium) Milk, cream, butter, cheese, yogurt, for vegans: fortified orange juice, almond or soy milk
Flavor Enhancers Onions, garlic, shallots, fresh tyme, rosemary, oregano, sea salt, chillies, cracked pepper

There is some nutritional overlap among food groups. For example, beans provide protein and carbohydrates (grains). Green beans are vegetables and good sources of protein. This need not be confusing. It just means, many foods satisfy multiple benefits. Protein is not only an essential nutrition, it is more filling than vegetables and starch. On the ChooseMyPlate.gov chart, "dairy" represents calcium, which can be acquired through various fortified beverages. If you can't cover all food groups, it's fine. You are just cooking one meal, not an entire nutritional program for the week.

Tips for Serving Vegetarian Meals

  • Vegetarian food should also taste good to reasonable omnivores.
  • Buy seasonal fresh produce since this will likely be the hero of their meal.
  • Use vegetable, not meat, broth. Prepare meat separately. Allow guests to add it.
  • When serving both vegetarians and meat eaters, divide sauces in half, adding meat to one version and veggies to the other.
  • Whole-grain breads are healthier and more filling than bleached white breads.
  • Tofu, tempeh, bulk TVP and quinoa require experience for tasty results.

Meal Suggestions for Vegetarians

  • Stick with a simple recipe. Guacamole and chips is a universal favorite appetizer.
  • Fajitas, beans and (brown) rice and salad allow diners to build tacos with toppings of their choice.
  • Minestrone soup or casseroles can be prepared in a crockpot.
  • Pasta primaveria (noodles and vegetables) with garlic bread and salad is simple.
  • Grilled or stir-fry fresh veggies over brown rice is a healthy alternative.

Though simplicity is satisfactory, if you wish to impress vegetarians with your culinary versatility, you can find many recipes on Pinterest in our Mouth-Watering Veggies board. Privately prepare new dishes a week in advance. If it's successful, it should taste good regardless of your personal dietary preference and you will have eliminated much last-minute anxiety. If it isn't appetizing, don't spit it out and exclaim, "Yuck, I don't know how do they eat this!" Likely it isn't seasoned properly or is a poor choice. This advance prep without the doorbell ringing gives you time to alter the menu.

Pleasant Surprise

So how did that dinner turn out? The host prepared two main entrees — chicken marsala with steamed asparagus for the omnivores. Vegetarian moussaka, much like a Greek lasagna that traditionally contains lamb, was a appreciated. Organic ingredients were cooked with great technique. Apple pie was served for dessert.

The large number of meat eaters who are curious enough to try vegetarian dishes surprises most cooks. Often vegetarian entrees are the first to go. So invite vegetarians over for dinner and everyone may eat A Bit More Healthy.

Tags: dietitians, dinner party, entertaining, home chefs, hostess, hosts, nutritionists

Image by Ducky Cards licensed from iStock Photo.


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