When my oldest daughter became a vegetarian, it took me a little while to adjust. After years of feeding a family, my kitchen was humming along pretty seamlessly. We’d always been a crew of fairly adventurous eaters who sat down to the same dinner every night.  Did having a vegetarian mean I’d suddenly become a short order cook doling out tailor made meals? Turns out, that wasn’t the case. And it still isn’t, even with two vegetarians now in our midst. But we have made adjustments to ensure that our meatless eaters are covered and everyone is happy. Below are a handful of practical approaches for feeding a vegetarian child in an omnivore household.

Eat More Plant-Based Meals 

It’s a well established fact that eating less meat is good not just for our bodies, but for our planet. Not to say that the omnivores of the house have to give up their favorite chicken and beef dishes, but cooking for a vegetarian can be motivation for including more meatless suppers. The recipes and resources for vegetarian dishes are endless, including this recent review of vegetarian cookbooks on Epicurious, which might prove helpful. I find A Couple Cooks and Naturally Ella to be among the many excellent online recipe sources, not to mention the fact that Mom’s Kitchen Handbook has a whole section devoted to vegetarian-friendly dishes.

Baby bok choy with pork and tofu

Stock Meatless Options

While we eat vegetarian meals more often, I still cook the full spectrum of animal protein on a regular basis. For these occasions, I adjust what I’m cooking so my vegetarians have something on the table, too. I usually have at least a few meatless choices in stock that I can spin into a quick source of protein, such as tofu, baked tofu, veggie burgers, tempeh, edamame, nuts and seeds, nut butters, veggie sausages, canned and dried beans, dried or refrigerated lentils, Greek yogurt, eggs, and protein-rich grains. For pescetarians, keeping shrimp and individually-wrapped fish fillets in the freezer is an easy fix for protein, too. Here are some common ways I work these foods into meals when we’ve got meat on the table:

  • Pull a veggie burger from the freezer when hamburgers are on the grill.
  • Spoon off a serving of spaghetti sauce before you add the meat. Embellish with white beans or lentils.
  • Use baked tofu instead of chicken in main dish salads. You can find a variety of flavors, from teriyaki to sriracha.
  • Defrost a salmon filet or handful of shrimp to bake or broil when meat is the main.
  • Make tuna or chicken-style salads with chick peas instead.
  • Make an omelet when the main dish isn’t meatless.
  • Focus on side dishes that are naturally rich in protein, such as quinoa, wild rice, lentils, and beans, so even if chicken is on the table, your vegetarians can get what they need with the sides.
  • Include pinto or black beans when it’s taco night.
  • Substitute jackfruit tossed with barbecue sauce for pulled pork or chicken on bbq sandwiches.
  • If you’re making pizza, leave a portion of the pie meatless.

Read Food Labels

 It’s easy to get wooed by the “healthy halo” of vegetarian entrees. The truth is, a lot of prepared foods marketed for meatless eaters are hardly healthy. Read the ingredients of veggie burgers, hot dogs, soy products, meatless meatballs, and the like to ensure that they don’t read like a science experiment. Some of my preferred brands include Hodo, Beyond Meat, Hilarys, Dr. Praegers, Don Lee Farms, Upton’s Naturals, and Kite Hill. All that being said, meat substitutes don’t have to play a major role in the diet of your vegetarian. They can get plenty of protein from foods you probably already have on hand, such as beans, yogurt, lentils, and tofu. And as I said in Part Two of this series, your child likely doesn’t need as much protein as you think. 

Empower your Child when it Comes to Eating Out

Learning to navigate in a largely omnivore’s world is part and parcel of a vegetarian diet. The first time my daughter had dinner at a friend’s house after becoming vegetarian, she worried that there wouldn’t be anything for her to eat. At that moment, we agreed on two things: 1. she’d need to speak up about her dietary choices and 2. she wouldn’t expect everyone around her to “hop to” and be a short order cook. When we’re guests at someone’s house, for example, I usually call ahead to find out what they’re serving. If the menu isn’t meatless (and if the side dishes aren’t enough to make a meal), my vegetarians bring something easy to heat up or prepare that fits with the meal. If, for example, burgers are on the menu, we’ll bring a portabello mushroom to toss on the grill. When it comes to restaurant meals, teach your child to be respectfully assertive. There is nothing wrong with requesting a vegetarian side dish be turned into a main or asking the chef to leave the meat out of a particular pasta dish.

The bottom line is, having a vegetarian in the house doesn’t have to upend your cooking routine. In our case, we’ve all benefitted by eating more meatless meals and opening ourselves up to a whole adventurous new world of vegetarian cooking.

P.S. I would love to hear any tips, favorite vegetarian recipes, store-bought brands you’ve liked, or any other insight on feeding a vegetarian child or teen. Chime in below!

P.P.S This is the last in a three-part series on raising a vegetarian child. Head here for Part One and here for Part Two.