An omnivore parent asks what protein-packed meals to make her vegetarian son without becoming the family’s short-order cook. I recommend a family favorite—Mollie Katzen’s Carrot Mushroom Loaf—and share tons of tips from my posse of vegetarian and cooking-geek friends.
My 11-year old son has been a solid vegetarian for 6 months or so after flirting with it for about a year. I need to know basically how to feed him.
I’m tired of giving him little slices of teriyaki tofu when the rest of the family has chicken for dinner. I don’t want to prepare big, separate meals. Half of us won’t eat soy/tofu.
Every day for lunch at school he brings a falafel burrito. I bought the last 19 the store had and then I need to find something else. He doesn’t like pb&j or most sandwiches.
I’m scared he’s not getting enough nutrients, because he’s really narrowed down what he’ll eat. Also, we’re doing something wrong because he is actually putting on a lot of belly weight since he’s doing this. Maybe just too many carbs?
I’m also not a wiz in the kitchen so easy is nice. 🙂 Many thanks my friend for your help!
Thanks for writing in today. Before I launch in, I want to start with a couple of caveats:
- I am not a vegetarian.
- I am not a nutritionist.
So, now that you know that you are officially getting vegetarian menu advice from an amateur omnivore—I feel like I should be paid for being an adventurist omnivore, but no one is offering me money for eating—we can get going. Are we good? Great.
(I do, however, have a host of terrific vegetarian friends, as well as other “cooking-geek” folks like me, who regularly make all kinds of foods and have a bunch of yummy vegetarian cooking suggestions. More on this later.)
It can be really frustrating, as the home cook with lots of people to feed, to have to differentiate meals. I know this can be a struggle for parents of kids who have food allergies, aversions, or have simply chosen a different diet (like your son.)
I have a cousin who has celiac disease and must completely avoid gluten. One of her three children has a potentially-fatal peanut allergy. Another child has a potentially-fatal tree nut allergy, and has also become a vegan who wants to avoid all added fats that aren’t naturally occurring in foods. I’m not sure what her third child can or can’t eat, but I can bet you (because this is how these things work) he has some aversion to a staple in the other family members’ diets. The fact that my cousin ever has a smile on her face in the kitchen is a total miracle.
The great news is that, with a little practice, your son can maintain an incredibly nutrient-rich, healthy diet as a vegetarian. I’m all for helping kids become autonomous in the kitchen—what better life skill can you give a burgeoning adult than the ability to feed themselves? The fact that he has chosen a diet which is different from the rest of his family makes this autonomy even more important to foster.
Take him to the library, investigate vegetarian cookbooks, watch his eyes light up over particularly recipes, then get that kid in the kitchen!
You mention that you are sick of feeding him teriyaki tofu. Is he sick of it? Is it high in sugars and other unhealthy stuff, or is it relatively nutritious? Is this something he can reasonably prepare for himself as you make other dishes, including salads and/or vegetables in which he could partake?
I ask, because if it ain’t broke…well, you know how that ends.
Being concerned that he receive enough nutrients and maintain a healthy weight is reasonable, and I daresay something that many parents feel, particularly parents of picky eaters.
From my research, several factors could lead someone who has recently gone on a vegetarian diet to gain some weight. Filling up on high-calorie carbohydrates—particularly processed carbohydrates—or overindulging in cheeses, nuts and oils in lieu of proteins can pack on pounds. Assuming that vegetable-based = healthy can be another pitfall. Not following reasonable portion guidelines or digging into too many sweets can also be a leading causes of weight gain (just like for omnivores, of course.)
I’m assuming that, once your child gets into a pattern of meals in which he has a) variety, to keep things interesting, and b) balance, mixing proteins/fats/carbohydrates along with some occasional sweets and treats, this may not be as big of a problem. Again, please seek out medical or nutritional guidance for your son if this continues to be an issue.
Remember all those vegetarian friends I mentioned earlier? They offered up a wealth of recommendations for your son, and in particular, they suggested dishes that all of you can enjoy together. Just as I am encouraging your son to become more autonomous in making differentiated meals, I suggest that you find as many ways as possible to make dishes that please everyone, with meat as an option for those who partake. Don’t just take my advice, though. Here’s some veggie-cooking wisdom:
“Chickpeas and quinoa are great for protein. Make a quinoa burrito bowl with quinoa and black beans and your favorite add ins, mix with enchilada sauce, top with shredded cheese and bake.” —Michelle
“We have meat and non-meat eaters at my house. Taco night is an easy, accommodate everyone kind of meal, but one cannot eat tacos every night. Quesadillas (some with ham, some without) goes over well here too. Lots of pasta dishes, stir fries where meat cooked separately and added later. Bring on the tofu!” —Leslie
“Anything with lentils has lots of protein—lentils are so wonderfully versatile!” —Tugba
“There’s tons of yummy nut butters that are much better than pb. Sunbutter almond butter and cashew butter are delish.” —Amanda
“The big lessons I learned were variety (at least a little) and avoid refined carbs. Things like chips, cereal, white bread, and crackers tend to make people headachy and hungry a few hours later. Eat whole grains and pair carbs with fat to help avoid weight gain.” —Kimberlee
“Lentil soup, bean soups, refried beans, veggie tacos, avocado, sweet potato—black bean and sweet potato taco/enchiladas.” —Andrea
“I’m the vegetarian in my family…The key for me with the two-meal thing is finding recipes that I can just add some meat to for the other people. Salad with grilled chicken is a popular one around here. Pasta with vegetables and shrimp or scallops. Burgers for them, veggie burger for me, with all the same fixins. Pot pies or shepherd’s pies, and I take my portion out before the meat goes in and bake it in its own little dish.” —Amy
“Quinoa. Lentils. Chickpeas. Many delicious soups and stews can be made with these and enjoyed by vegetarians and meat lovers alike. Also, vegetarian sausage can be browned and then added to just about anything.” —Perri
“Choose as many whole family veg meals as possible. I have for most of my children’s lives used “crumbles” for tacos, meatloaf, and chili and any other recipe calling for ground beef because I hate browning ground beef. My youngest was concerned I was feeding the veg kids meat. She had no idea that she almost had never been served a meal with ground beef. Encourage [vegetarian kids] to go through cookbooks and websites to choose meals they can make/help with (veg kids in the kitchen are sanity savers and it broadens the child’s abilities and interests in various foods.)” —Tarrant
“Our whole family is vegetarian. I echo many of the suggestions above. We use meat substitutes, eggs, beans, lentils, nut butters. Our kids love the fake bacons and nuggets as well.” —Annette
“We love make-your-own burritos because they are easy to customize. One kid can have a quesadilla, one kid can AVOID having one molecule of cheese. We use vegetarian refried beans, but it’s also easy to make your own. Put out flour and (warm) corn torillas, beans, salsa, cheese, various toppings.” —Jennifer
“Peanut butter, quinoa, hummus, beans, tofu, cheese … it’s important to remember that very few middle class American kids are actually at risk of not getting enough protein. There’s protein in most foods. Two of us are veggie at my house and two aren’t. So, we do a lot of meals that can be done a variety of ways—baked potato bar with bacon and fake bacon options (plus broccoli and cheese = complete meal). Taco night has meat and refried beans. Falafel, pasta … all things that it’s easy to add or not add meat as the person wants.” —Marta
“No meat does not mean just tofu. Yuck. Offer trail mix, yogurt, seeds, nuts…protein is pretty easily achieved and we don’t ever think about it. Whole food, plant based should be her go-to. It’s just a matter of finding things that they do like and consistently offering different choices. The child may not like roasted broccoli the first time, but may like it the 10th. When going vegetarian, it takes a while for the taste buds to change….for anyone.” —Jayna
“My kids grew up eating veggie burgers, black bean burgers, nuts, nut loaf, yogurt, cheese, TVP, veggie lasagna, and they loved the veggie sausage.” —Ann
“Adding spices and avocado makes my tongue think I’m really living the lush life. Also have started rolling up a variety of goodies in corn tortillas (hot off the stove).” —Laurel
“I am a vegetarian, hubby is usually one, and our daughter eats it all. Quinoa is high in protein and it along with other grains can be cooked in vegetable broth to enhance the taste bulgar wheat can also be added to soups and other liquid/sauce dishes to give it some texture (I just throw it in uncooked and let it cook right in the liquid/sauce). Butternut squash, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin are very versatile. They can be used for soup, pasta sauce, roasted, in Mexican food and many other dishes. Just add meat on the side for the others. Use marinades and sauces on vegetables. Buffalo cauliflower is really good. I often pair a high protein grain and vegetables with meat on the side. Also, everyone in my family loves the veggie bacon, likes or loves the veggie sausage and really likes black bean burgers. An easy black bean burger recipe is 1/3 can of pumpkin to one can of black beans. Add chili powder, corn, or whatever suits your taste. You can fry them or we put them on parchment paper and bake them in the oven.” —Libby
“I throw seeds and tree nuts in almost everything to add protein. Latest love is chopped toasted hazelnuts with green beans.” —Cecelia
“Hemp seeds! I’ve been adding them to my morning oats and they’re not even noticeable, but they have protein, omega-3 fatty acid, iron, and tons of other minerals. I’m in love!” —Meredith
“We also make a brown rice and lentil pilaf in the rice cooker that is sooooooo simple. And really quite good. Just follow the 1:2 ratio for brown rice: water, but sub out lentils for about a quarter of the rice. Then add a bunch of chopped vegetables like carrots, onions, celery, etc. and cook like brown rice. Add garlic, olive oil, salt, pepper, etc. before serving.” —Jennifer
“Avocados and guacamole huge healthy staple. Baked potato night is fun, you can load it with all kinds of toppings – veggies, cheese, sour cream, soy crumbles. Sweet potatoes every day haha. Egg frittatas and salads. Fruit salads and granola. Different kinds of grilled cheese (like Brie and apple). Smoothies. I could go on forever.” —Miranda
I could go on forever, too, thanking these friends for their wonderful recommendations. I could also eat all this food and never miss meat, which I hope will also be your family’s reaction!
In that spirit, I’m going to recommend one of our family’s favorite no-meat meals, Mollie Katzen’s Carrot Mushroom Loaf from The Moosewood Cookbook (*Amazon Affiliate Link.)
Carrots. Mushrooms. Cheese. Breadcrumbs. Herbs. Who needs meatloaf, anyway?
I’m also going to break all the food website rules—this is really an advice column, after all, breaking rules is appropriate—and not provide the recipe details here. Why?
You should get this cookbook. Start at the library, I’m guessing they have this classic. It is worth a look. From starters to salads to pastas, this straight-forward cookbook is delightful and the recipes within it are crowdpleasing.
Spoiler alert: the pound cake is just about the best recipe for pound cake I’ve ever made. That certainly won’t help you with your son’s diet at the moment, but it is not to be missed.
I mean, just look at this gorgeousness!
*Amazon Affiliate Link: As always, should you choose to click on this link and make a purchase, I may receive a portion of the proceeds. Thank you!