The transition from a vegetarian diet or an omnivore diet to a vegan diet can be a challenge—not only for the person making the change, but for anyone who might be cooking for him/her.
Because the choice to become a vegetarian or vegan can sometimes occur during the childhood or teen years, parents can find themselves in a position of needing to cook for a diet that they don’t fully embrace and worrying about nutrition in that diet. As I have previously posted, it’s not as complicated as it might sound to find food for a vegan. For the person in the kitchen, a good way to start thinking about meal planning for a vegan diet is to break it down into manageable bits.
For each individual “cooked” meal (so, I’m assuming this is mostly dinner, but it might sometimes be breakfast or lunch), try to fit in the following:
1. A grain – Grains tend to be a primary source of vegan food. This can include basics like pasta, bread, and rice. For diets that are high in bread, pasta, and rice, it is recommended to work toward including more whole grain pasta/bread and more brown rice, rather than always selecting white items. In addition to breads, pasta, and rice, grains can also include things like couscous, wheatberries, cornmeal, bulgar wheat, grits, and quinoa (not really a grain, but works like one). If you are attempting to also maintain a gluten-free diet, there are a significant amount of grains that are safe and with a little research, you’ll see that there is still plenty of variety.
2. A protein – Some nutritionists now argue that we don’t need as much protein in our diets as previously believed. However, we likely still need some, and frequently people feel that they need a protein item in a meal to feel really satiated. Vegan protein does not mean that you have to cook with tofu every day, though it can. Tofu is very versatile and can be added to many food items with very little impact on flavor. New tofu eaters may find it more palatable if it is more “dry.” This can be accomplished by using a tofu press or by freezing a block of extra firm tofu and then thawing in a colander before use. Tempeh is another easy way to fit protein in. Tempeh comes in prepared blocks. They can be chopped and added to other items, sliced and fried (we love it with bbq sauce), or eaten right out of the package. Soy burgers (Boca is a popular brand) are quite popular with new vegans and have a taste quite similar to a burger. But, you don’t even have to head into soy to get protein in. Nuts and beans are also high in protein. Kidney beans (mmm, nachos), pinto beans (yum, burritos), black beans (oooh, black beans and rice), garbanzo beans (mmm, hummus), navy beans (yum… soup) are easy to fit into diet and most cooks have a good variety of recipes that are bean based. Nuts can be added to recipes or used as a base item. A peanut butter sandwich on whole wheat bread gets in protein and a good grain!
3. 2 vegetables/fruits – If a new vegan doesn’t like fruits and vegetables, it is going to present a challenge, because they are pretty important in any sound diet. But, veganism doesn’t mean fruits and veggies have to be eaten plain and raw. Vegan “butter” is easy enough to find. Olive oil makes a nice addition to many cooked veggies. Fruits can be eaten plain, cooked into recipes, or blended into smoothies. If you are unaccustomed to eating many vegetables, set a goal of trying 1 new item every week or every other week. Kale makes a good starter green, as it has a relatively mild taste and can be added to many other foods (including marinara sauce, beans, and even mashed potatoes).
Over the course of a day, try to add in some calcium and iron (which can often be folded into the three above). Calcium can be found in many soy products (including soy milk), vitamin fortified juices, and dark leafy greens. It’s not a bad idea to add a calcium/magnesium supplement to the vegan diet. Similarly, iron can be found in unexpected places. Soybeans, quinoa, spinach, molasses, white beans, and lentils are among some of the non-meat sources of iron. There are also vegan iron supplements available in most places that sell vitamins, and a little supplementation may ease concerns about iron sufficiency for the vegan and the cook. Don’t feel bad about supplementing with vitamins. People with an omnivore diet also benefit from supplementation. It’s not the veganism that is the issue; it’s the challenge of making sure you’ve covered all the bases regularly. For smaller meals, you don’t have to hit grains, protein, and fruits/veggies, but across the course of the day, try to work on getting a total of 6 or more servings of veggies/fruit, 6 or more of grains, and 2 of the protein category, along with any supplements.
While cooking for a new vegan may require a little more planning, so that you avoid a constant diet of salad and peanut butter sandwiches, it’s really not as hard as it can sound at first. Attention to the dietary needs of a vegan isn’t that different than attention to the dietary needs of omnivores, and, in a household where cooking has been relatively auto-pilot, having a vegan in the house may actually result in everyone having a better diet.