So far it has been quite easy and practical for me to eat mostly plant-based food in my life. When I go to restaurants I choose restaurants that have good veg options.
It's not just vegans who want plant-based food. Ovo-lacto vegetarians are happy to be served it and basically never complain about vegan food, except maybe pizza. Kosher and halal observers will often skip meat at gatherings unless they can verify the status of the meat. Even omnivores when polled tend to agree that battery cages should be banned, despite themselves eating eggs from such sources -- lots of omnivores are "reducetarians," trying to eat less meat and fewer animal products, both for cruelty and environmental reasons. You can make it easier for them to achieve their goals.
Gatherings remain sometimes annoying -- I go to a lot of gatherings where food is served for the group, and I've seen gatherings that go great for vegans and ones that have gone quite poorly. I'm talking planned dinner parties for 5 people, up to weddings with 140 people. And I've done a decent amount of event organizing myself. One of the changes I'm feeling best about in the last year is that I've started offering plant-based food by default when I'm hosting. It's quite easy and is a great way to ensure that everyone gets enough to eat! And it is a moral win under most frameworks. But it does take a bit of planning (and also a bit of courage!)
Vegetarians and vegans are often offered inadequate food
Thankfully there are enough vegetarians in the world that there's pretty much always a "veggie option" at gatherings. But such options are not always healthy, nutritious or vegan. Examples of things going wrong:
- Fancy meals (weddings/other catered events) where the veggie option was "high-end ratatouille" or something similar: thinly sliced roasted potatoes, squash and kale chips, arranged quite beautifully on the plate, nestled into a little bit of tomato sauce and garnished with a sprig of parsley. Beautiful, and quite tasty -- but no protein anywhere on the plate, and I'm left hungry, wishing they had brought out 3 plates instead of 1.
- A gathering where they served fish and grilled veggies, but didn't make enough grilled veggies for everyone; vegetarians had to stop the omnivores from eating the only vegetarian food
- Pasta with various toppings, but all made with egg noodles
- Breakfast with only cereal, fruit, meat, eggs and yogurt, and no soy milk
Guests who are inadequately fed then have to supply their own food or go hungry, both of which makes their experience a lot worse.
When presented with such options I can't help but feel like the planners aren't trying, and it gives me a bit of despair. Especially the weddings and other professional caterers -- they have the skills to do a good job and it feels like instead they intentionally decided to do a bad job. It sucks that they are making plant-eaters feel like second class citizens. A lot of event planners seem to assume that omnivores strongly prefer eating animal meat.
Default to plant-based food for all
We should move to the opposite assumption: omnivores will be happy eating plant-based food as long as it's sufficiently tasty and nutritious. This was true for me when I was an omnivore, and it seems to remain true for my omnivorous friends. Omnivores eat meat because it's tasty and healthy, not because they intrinsically value meat-eating.
Making everything plant-based by default is a courageous position to take. You may expose yourself to criticism from people who are not accustomed to the food. But in my experience, if you provide good and healthy food, such criticism tends to vanish or be quite muted.
It's still ok to offer non-vegan add-ons for those with special needs or strong preferences! For example, omnivores will often complain about the taste of vegan cheese, which (as of this writing) is usually not very good. Dairy cheese is relatively low-cruelty compared to eggs and meat, and is often easy to add as a topping, so I'm generally in favor of offering dairy cheese even though I don't eat it myself anymore.
Breakfast can often be an annoying meal to plan, since people have so many non-plant-based comfort foods that they like to eat. Fortunately we can pretty easily put together a low cruelty breakfast:
- Always offer oat or soymilk with breakfast. These milks are cheap and shelf stable, so are quite easy to stock up on. By now, most milk users will be fine even if you are exclusively offering plant milks. (Oatmilk is the tastiest but has no protein; soymilk is great for protein and also tastes pretty good.)
- If you prepare oatmeal, prepare it plain and allow people to top it however they like.
- If you offer meat, offer vegan meat like Beyond Sausage as a baseline.
- If you offer a hot egg-like thing, make it a tofu scramble or Just Egg by default but maybe allow egg lovers to request it with chicken eggs.
- If you offer pastries, bread or bagels, make sure some of your carb base is egg- and butter-free, and also offer a plant-based spread like vegan cream cheese, peanut butter or hummus. Avocado is a crowd pleaser too.
- If you offer yogurt, offer vegan yogurt too (e.g. cashew yogurt).
- If you make French toast or pancakes, make them vegan by default. French toast can be made with flax eggs. Pancakes can be made with applesauce. Both of these substitutes are cheap and pretty much as good as the originals, so you can usually serve them to omnivores with no objection.
- In a protein pinch, vegan baked beans are good and easy.
Snacks & Hors d'Oeuvres
Here are a bunch of crowd-pleasing ideas that are vegan-by-default or can easily be made vegan with little quality loss. Most are reasonably nutritious too.
- Cut veggies & hummus
- Salad (preferably with beans, vegan feta, roasted tofu, tempeh or other plant-based protein)
- Bread/crackers and cheese/jam/spreads. (Cheese is very popular, but please offer vegan cheese, hummus and/or peanut butter also)
- Samosas, dumplings, spring rolls, scallion pancakes (check ingredients list)
- Stuffed peppers, stuffed mushrooms, stuffed grape leaf wraps
- Chips and dip:
- Bean dip
- Vegan artichoke dip
- Avocado toast
- Vegan meatballs
- Nachos with vegan cheese, vegan sour cream/crema/queso, beans, guac, pickles, fresh tomatoes, etc. (In my experience, vegan nachos will not upset cheese lovers unless the nachos are too 'dry' and they can't dip them into some fatty thing)
Take care to avoid honey -- a number of snacks (e.g. some granola bars, nuts, and baked goods) contain honey by default, which many vegans don't eat.
Lunch & Dinner
You'll probably want to design these meals on your own since there's so much variety. But I'm going to offer a few principles:
- Don't plan your meals around meat, but do plan them around protein. As I noted above, omnivores will usually be happy eating plant-based meals if they contain enough calories and protein.
- Good proteins to design a meal around include ground beef substitutes like Impossible and Beyond Meat; vegan sausage/chorizo like Beyond Sausage and Field Roast and soyrizo; textured proteins like seitan, tempeh and TVP; beans and lentils; and of course tofu.
- Mushrooms are delicious but they are not protein; if you want to offer a mushroom burger as meat alternative, make sure it has some other kind of protein also.
- Wherever possible, design your meal to be plant-based by default. If you want to, offer cheese and meat "add-on" options for people who eat those things.
- If you start with a carb base, make sure it is plant-based. Egg noodles are not. Many breads, especially white breads like hamburger and hot dog buns, have eggs or milk. (protip: at least in US stores there is a bolded section at the bottom of the ingredients list highlighting allergens, including animal eggs and milk.)
A few meal ideas I really like to make that tend to be crowd pleasers:
- Vegan black bean burgers
- Bean and veggie chili served over potatoes or rice (bulgur wheat and TVP are both excellent texture + protein additions)
- Curries and stews, like thai curried tofu with rice
- Stir fry meals, like pad thai or general tso's tofu
- Pasta/noodle dishes, like Szechuan peanut noodles with chiles and TVP "chicken"
- Spaghetti (bonus: choose a high-protein pasta) with tomato sauce and Impossible meatballs
And a few things that are popular but can be especially disappointing for vegans and so I don't recommend:
- Pizza is kind of unhealthy, doesn't have much protein, and vegan pizza is not very tasty. Until someone develops tastier vegan cheese, it's best to just stay away from pizza. Which is sad, because I like pizza, but there are tons of other options!
- Restaurant veggie sandwiches are often stupidly low in protein. You can do a good job on this if you try, but places don't often try by default.
As a mom feeding 6, and wanting to partially move away from always serving chicken, this is great. I will bookmark this post to refer back to it later. Thank you.
Do you have any suggestions on what to read about how to get protein from plants? My kids are growing, and totally need protein.
This is a really minor point but for many who keep Kosher they also won't have vegan or plant-based food (particularly those that are at all processed) unless it is certified
A much needed post
Awesome post! A great resource regarding plant based eating is nutritionfacts.org, for anyone interested
I submitted criticism to the red teaming contest that was (in part) about the lack of exactly this kind of post, so I'm really happy to see it. And I agree with your broad points of going vegan by default, providing lots of options, and having animal products available but off to the side.
But I want to quibble about one one and a half things...
How sure of you are this? My understanding is all of the !milks have some combination of issues: gluten contamination, taste, allergens, lack of protein, lack of trace nutrients, texture, or astonishing amounts of simple sugars.
Similarly for !meat: nothing has the taste and the nutrition and the texture and the lack of allergens. I also know lots of omnivores (including myself) who would rather than an honest plant-based protein source like legumes or tofu than something in the meat uncanny valley.
Dairy and meat aren't perfect either, even before the ethical issues- lactose intolerance is common, and poorly handled meat is dangerous. Which is why I really like the mix-and-match idea.
Yeah I’m quite surprised that he thinks that non-vegetarians would think soy milk tastes as good.l as cow’s milk in cereal.
It reminds me of the time I ate fake-mince bolognese with my vegan friends, and they were so impressed that it tasted exactly like real mince - but to me, who had recently eaten real mince, it tasted like cardboard. I think vegans/vegetarians forget what animal products used to taste like to them. Which is helpful psychologically in staying vegan, but unhelpful when you’re trying to persuade someone to do this sort of switching-out.