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The vegetarian in the family: how to satisfy everyone

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Emily Angle Emily Angle | 12:04 UK time, Tuesday, 22 May 2012

It's National Vegetarian Week. A recent survey of the vegetarian food market states that as many as 3.8 million people describe themselves as ‘mainly vegetarian’ – e.g., they eat fish – and 1.9m describe themselves as ‘strictly vegetarian’.  It’s likely that someone in your family may announce one day that they are no longer eating meat.

In the modern household there will be many different tastes and diet choices. I'm a meat-eater but (oh, am I going to say it?) some of my best friends are vegetarian. I can imagine the day when my kids push away their plates of spaghetti bolognese, and I want to be able to continue the tradition of a family meal without double the cooking.

Wild rice salad with avocado and radish

Wild rice salad - mastication enough for a meat-eater?

The majority of us should probably reduce our meat intake anyway, for cost, environmental and health reasons. A veggie in the house is a great reason to explore meat-free dishes. But how does a home cook cope with satisfying everyone?

Meet (not meat) in the middle
As a regular meat-eater, I know that I feel a little skittish and unsatisfied after a few days of veggie meals. This is probably less to do with the lack of abundant protein (we generally consume way more than we need), but I suspect it’s to do with texture.

Meat-eaters miss both the chewiness and the savouriness that comes from a bit of meat. Chewing meat slows down the consumption of dinner (unless you’re consuming some pappy fast food burger that is specifically designed to be consumed faster than the brain can register it being eaten).

Wild rice, pearl barley or bulgar wheat might seem a bit seventies, but I find they do make a dish significantly chewier. Nuts add texture to pasta dishes or salads with salty, creamy cheeses – you don’t have to go so far as a making it into a loaf. It may sound ridiculously simple, but some chargrilled ciabatta, crisp and toasty, drizzled with fruity olive oil can add bite to some grilled vegetables or a summery tomato salad. 

Roasted vegetable stack with halloumi

Halloumi - is it the vegetarian answer to bacon?

The combination of savouriness and sweetness in a piece of nicely cooked meat is also harder to recreate in vegetables. Not impossible, by any means.

Nigella Lawson in her wonderful book Feast describes halloumi as ‘vegetarian bacon’ – the salty savouriness and chewiness of this squeaky cheese is a great stand-in.  Smoked foods – mozzarella, tofu, garlic – are also good when missing meaty flavours.

Miso paste, mushrooms and tomatoes add umami – the savoury flavour found in soy sauce or Marmite - use liberally, balanced with plenty of fresh herbs so that dishes aren’t relentlessly brown.

There are recipes that are vegetarian and contain a range of textures, flavours and satisfying savouriness – as anyone who’s cooked from Yotam Ottolenghi’s books will know. But these recipes do need seeking out, and they are going to be more work than throwing a chop under the grill.  Still, I find every recipe gets easier and quicker with practice and adding a few sure favourites to your repertoire is a good start. Here are some personal faves:

Meat on the side

Some households will still require a meaty dinner regularly. Some vegetarian mothers I know accept the cooking of meat for the rest of the family (though they never feel completely confident about it). One friend keeps veggie portions in the freezer for these nights, or she hoovers up leftovers.

I think there’s a trick to finding one meal that can suit everyone. Instead of starting to plan your meal around the meat, plan it around the vegetarian dish and treat the meat as a side dish.

Make a bunch of beef meatballs and keep them in the freezer, so that a veggie tomato sauce for pasta can get a beefy boost when needed. Also, lamb meatballs are great to throw into a chickpea and vegetable tagine over some couscous, or can be part of a tapas or mezze dinner. Vegetarian curries feel very natural and are incredibly versatile. A little tandoori chicken on the side, and everyone wins.

We naturally base dinners around leftovers. Pea soup can be topped (or not) with shreds of ham, a peanutty Asian noodle salad has the option of shredded roast chicken. Put the effort into big Yorkshire pudding (with vegetable oil in place of dripping) and vegetarian onion gravy, and a bit of leftover roast beef is there for those that need it. (Maybe veggie sausages, too.)

On roast or casserole days, the amenable vegetarian probably still needs something tucked away to enjoy separately. But hopefully, these times can be infrequent enough to ensure that the family meal is a shared one.

Do you cater for a mixed household? What are your tips for integrating different diets in the family dinner?


  • Comment number 1.

    We have two vegetarians, one meat avoider and three omnivores in our household, I often cook pasta with a tomato based sauce which I can split into two pans, one with meat and one without. Wraps are a good option as you can cook the peppers and onions in with the spices and can then add chicken which can be cooked separately either plain or with extra spice depending upon taste. Unadventurous it may be but on roast days my vegetarians like a nice quorn fillet with their dinner. Quorn is a good alternative on any day and there is no reason why meat eaters shouldn't enjoy it too, although you can't pretend it is meat it is very tasty.

  • Comment number 2.

    Quorn mince makes a wonderful vegetarian ragu for lasagne and bolognaise -also for shepherds pie. Dried porcine mushrooms, soaked in hot water then both added to the sauce gives a lovely meaty flavour.

  • Comment number 3.

    Why didn’t the BBC get a vegetarian to write a piece about National Vegetarian Week rather than someone who thinks that “halloumi is the vegetarian answer to bacon”? What makes you think vegetarians need a substitute for bacon? The whole blog post seems to denigrate and belittle vegetarianism with snippy little comments and barely concealed digs at veggies.

    I find your comment “I know that I feel a little skittish and unsatisfied after a few days of veggie meals” astonishing. It probably just means you’re not very good at cooking vegetarian food…

  • Comment number 4.

    I think the article is about catering for a vegetarian in a meat/fish eating household. My reading is that is not the author of the article, but Nigella Lawson (from her book Feast), who thinks that “halloumi is the vegetarian answer to bacon”, and is being quoted.
    I had a problem with family meals for a few years until my daughters gave up vegetarianism and became omnivores. It can be quite hard to please everyone in the family! I sometimes felt that I was running a caff rather than cooking family meals

  • Comment number 5.

    @ Mrs Vee, my partner that I've been with for 12 years is vegetarian and has been since we met. I am the family cook and I like my meat. I think I'm very good at cooking vegetarian meals, yet I also “know that I feel a little skittish and unsatisfied after a few days of veggie meals”. It doesn't mean a person is not good at cooking vegetarian meals, it means they like meat. Get over yourself.
    To everyone calling people who eat mean and veg omnivores, you seem to misunderstand that word. We are all omnivores, as we have the capability to eat both meat and veg. A personal decision not to eat meat and instead to focus only on a vegetarian diet does not make you a herbivore, herbivores do not have the digestive ability to digest meat.
    I found this article interesting and helpful as a meat eater who cooks for a veggie. I think it was enhanced by the fact that it was written by a meat eater.

  • Comment number 6.

    As a "mainly vegetarian" I cook mainly vegetarian meals for the family, with occasional meat dishes on the side as described above. Very occasionally we will have a barbeque or a roast dinner and then I will usually have something ready made, like vegetarian suasages for myself.

    The super ingredient for me is red lentils which I use as an alternative to mince. Just add dried lentils instead of mince and add extra stock. A teaspoon of marmite in the stock is great if you want a more meaty flavour for something like a cottage pie or sun dried tomate paste for things like bolognaise.

    My problem with family meals is fitting in all the different likes and dislikes more than vegie or non vegie meals!

  • Comment number 7.

    I am astounded at the comment that veggies feel unsatisfied by lack of chewing! I am not a vegetarian but do enjoy veggie food for a change and find it less heavy at lunchtime. My hubby has always finished his sandwich well before I have finished chewing my way through raw veg and salad, chickpeas etc etc. We like to go to Bostons when out and he hoovers up his egg & bacon roll while I spend ages on one of their yummy salads. We both like Morrocan style tagines with veg and pulses. Bags of chewing involved in veggie food I reckon!!

  • Comment number 8.

    Some great tips on how to cook for different people's food preferences! There are only two in our house, and whilst neither of us is vegetarian it can still be a chore to find foods that we both enjoy every day.

    I also like the idea of a vegetable curry with separate meat on the side - a good idea if I fancy something a bit lighter, as my husband is a real carnivore!


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