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Normally when cooking for vegetarian friends I focus on making the food interesting, since a one-off meal isn't going to throw them too much. However, we will be having a vegetarian stay with us for several weeks, and I am concerned that if I don't deliberately plan meals that provide what we'd normally get from meat in some other way it will be a problem over that length of time.

I am aware of the need to provide iron and protein, and that cheese, nuts and spinach are good things to try to include. I'm hoping to avoid soy and tofu, as my wife and I don't like either, and any meat imitation products are out since it's the taste/texture that's an issue, not principles. What else do I need to bear in mind / try to include? Any tips welcome.

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Remember to check for allergies against nuts before serving. –  Pulse Jul 13 '10 at 23:31
Do you know what kind of vegetarian they are? I'm assuming ovo-lacto vegetarian, they eat dairy and egg, since you didn't specify but if you don't know it's worth checking. –  Kiesa Jul 14 '10 at 1:39
It's also worth noting that some "vegetarians" don't consider fish to be meat and thus eat it. Like @Kiesa says, it's worth checking exactly what they do and don't eat. –  Lee Jul 14 '10 at 2:43
I'm not sure that questions about nutrition are really appropriate for this site. –  kevins Jul 14 '10 at 17:21
@Kevin Selker In this context, I'd say it's fine. –  ceejayoz Jul 17 '10 at 3:20

8 Answers 8

up vote 19 down vote accepted

The big difference between a healthy meat-eater's diet and a healthy vegetarian's diet is simply where the protein comes from.

The proteins our bodies use are made up of 22 amino acids, 8 of which we cannot make in our bodies but need to get from outside sources. Different food groups have strengths in different ones of those 8 amino acids.

To make a complete protein, getting a balance of all 8 of those amino acids, combine:

  • grains and legumes/beans/peas/lentils
  • grains and milk products
  • seeds/sesame/sunflower and legumes/beans/peas/lentils

Some examples: pasta with cheese, rice and milk pudding, cereal with milk, cheese sandwiches, rice-bean casserole, lentil curry on rice, corn tortillas and beans, pea soup and toast, hummus, sesame seeds in bean soups and casseroles, wheat bread with baked beans.

For a layman's primer on this subject, check out the book, Diet for a Small Planet.

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+1 for the scientific details and examples –  hobodave Jul 17 '10 at 4:05
Note that you don't have to get all 8 essential aminos in every meal, as long as you eat a variety throughout each day. –  kevins Jul 17 '10 at 14:43

Don't neglect beans and lentils. Other than soy and hemp, lentils are among the most concentrated plant-based protein source. Fava beans, black beans, and chick peas (garbonzo beans) are also good.

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Sprouted beans and lentils are a great way to add variety - take a couple of days to grow, and can be used as an ingredient or added to salad. –  codeinthehole Jul 19 '10 at 16:34

" ... I am concerned that if I don't deliberately plan meals that provide what we'd normally get from meat in some other way it will be a problem ..."

I think this is a common misconception. In fact most people in "developed" countries get more protein than they need (and protein is essentially the only [Edit: energy-providing] nutrient in meat other than fat).

Imagine one person who only eats meat (steak, fish, etc.) and one person who only eats plant food (beans, nuts, grains, leafs, fruits, veggies). I think it's obvious the carnivore will have more nutrition problems than the vegan.

Green leafy vegetables have loads of iron and calcium, and protein is not going to be a problem if you eat a variety of foods. Note that you don't have to get a complete protein in every meal--so if you have toast for breakfast (=grains) and salad with nuts or beans on it for dinner, then you're set for the day. It's really not so hard as many meat-eaters think.

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I suspect the concern arises from dealing with people who won't eat milk/cheese/eggs, as in addition to excluding these common sources of nutrients themselves, such behavior also excludes many common recipes for grain-based food (breads, pastries, pasta...) It's fairly easy to avoid meals that are primarily meat-based, but avoiding animal-connected products entirely is a much, much more difficult proposition. –  Shog9 Jul 14 '10 at 17:15
Right, but most "strict vegetarians" or "vegans" know how to adapt themselves; they probably won't be expecting meat-eaters to know how to cook for them. In any case, avoiding processed foods and cooking everything from scratch allows you to avoid using animal products in many more things (and it's better for you!). –  kevins Jul 14 '10 at 17:21
"protein is essentially the only nutrient in meat other than fat" You complain of misconception, then say that? Beef, chicken, and fish have substantial amounts of vitamins B6 and B12, niacin, iron, phosphorous, zinc, etc. Salmon has vitamin D and Omega-3 fatty acids on top of those. –  ceejayoz Jul 17 '10 at 3:23
@ceejayoz: Yes, there are some vitamins in meat, I guess I was thinking in terms of nutrients that provide caloric energy, in which case the statement is correct. Of course, vitamins and minerals are important for metabolism, but it's still the case that plant foods far outclass meat in terms of vitamins and minerals. –  kevins Jul 17 '10 at 14:36
Note that B12 is the only really difficult thing for vegetarians (especially vegans) to get, and it's generally only possible via fortified foods and certain nutritional yeasts. Iron may be as well, depending on how varied your diet is. Proteins are not a problem unless your diet is very restricted, as plant protein sources are plentiful as stated by the OP. –  Bruce Alderson Jun 21 '13 at 20:26

I highly recommend reading parts of Diet for a Small Planet.

While I disagree with a lot of their activism, their dietary facts are spot on. If you want to know how to eat healthy as a vegetarian, start here. The biggest thing I learned from this book is the different vegetarian ways to make a complete protein. Eating as a vegetarian is not just a matter of omitting meat -- it's knowing what to substitute for meat.

(Apologies for basically reproducing my answer here but it applies even more directly to this question.)

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As long as we're giving book recommendations, I have to plug this one: amazon.com/China-Study-Comprehensive-Nutrition-Implications/dp/… –  kevins Jul 14 '10 at 16:45

In general, if you provide a varied diet with lots of whole foods, you should be ok. Some ideas:

  • Indian-style meals, such as dals and curries, can often be made vegetarian and provide a nice mixture of legumes, grains, and vegetables.
  • Quinoa is slightly higher in protein than brown rice and can replace it in many cases.
  • Vegetarian lasagnas made with ricotta or cottage cheese would be a good source of protein.
  • If your main complaint with soy/tofu is the texture, you might consider edamame with an Asian meal.
  • There are a lot of vegetarian quiche recipes.
  • Assuming no allergies, peanut butter is great.
  • Use lots of vegetables. They shouldn't be a side-dish so much as a second main dish. Especially green vegetables can be good sources of iron and calcium. Adding vitamin C to food also increases the iron absorption.

The Vegetarian Resource Group has a selection of information about nutrition with a vegetarian diet.

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First, if you're having anyone over with diet restrictions and you are unsure what they would like: ask them.

Presumably they eat several times a day, and have learned to be healthy without a great deal of ongoing effort.

As several other responders have pointed out, it's not nearly as hard as people think. Protein levels in most developed nations are much higher than is required for good health. Using beans and lentils (please not brown, they are boring try green or red) is a good addition. Watch out of tofu if you haven't cooked it before. Tofu can be great, but not on it's own, it have techniques that go with it. Also cook things YOU want to eat. Generally that's a good way to cook for company. If you enjoy the food, and feel good easting it day after day, likely so will they.

One final suggestion would be Simply in Season. Along similar lines as the older Diet of a small planet mentioned by Dinah.

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The two main things that we vegetarians have to "cope with" is finding protein and the B family of vitamins. B vitamind are found in all sorts of nuts and seeds. However, I have found that we Westerners usually prefer to have it easy, so a bowl of cereal with vitamin enrichment will work fine. In my experience, most cereals have plenty of B and A vitamins in them, as well as folic acid and other added nutrients.

For protein, the trick is to mix grains or seeds with lentils or beans. It's easier than you might think, as it has cropped up in every culture on the planet. Remember that eating meat on a daily, or even weekly, basis is a relatively new thing. Some great cultural exapmples:

  • Middle eastern Pita (flatbread) with Hummus and pine nuts. You don't even need to make your own hummus these days, it can be easily bought.
  • Indian style bean or lentil curry or dahl, with whole grain rice. Whole grain is important, because the vitamin B1 comes from the part of the rice that is removed to make white rice.
  • British style baked beans on toast. I recommend whole grain bread, but it's not critical.
  • Mexican style tortillas with beans and guacamole. Avocadoes are an amazing source of B family vitamins.
  • Anything with mushrooms in it. Mushrooms are almost entirely protein, and include all protein types.

Not a single dish I've mentioned here takes more than an hour to make, including cooking time. The trick, ultimately, is not to worry too much. The body usually knows what it needs, and will crave something to fix that. I get cravings for peanut butter or yellow cheese when I'm getting low on protein ;-)

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Here are some meal ideas:

  • lentil soup or stew with salad and bread
  • refried bean taco night with all the trimmings
  • veggie chili with cornbread (this recipe gets rave reviews from meat eaters)
  • pasta with a creamy Alfredo-style sauce, veggies, and Great Northern beans
  • avocado/cucumber/cream cheese sushi maki and big bowls of miso soup with mushrooms and spring onions
  • ful meddames and pita
  • grilled three-cheese sandwiches with tomato-garlic soup
  • spinach and cheese omelets or fritattas with salad and potatoes
  • chickpea curry with cumin rice and carrot raita
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Quick note ('cause I did a double-take on the second suggestion): 'round here (Southwest US), a lot of refried beans are cooked with lard. Which is delicious. But definitely not vegetarian. Check labels... –  Shog9 Mar 15 '11 at 14:56
I always buy the vegetarian kind, or make my own. Many commercial, canned refried beans no longer use lard, I've observed. Or maybe that's local (Pacific NW). Good point, though! –  goblinbox Mar 17 '11 at 4:18

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