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How to Cook for a Vegetarian Dinner Guest

Don't make her pick the meatballs out of the spaghetti, and other tips


You’re thrilled when your son announces he’ll be in town next weekend — and bringing that new girlfriend you’ve been hearing about. You’re already daydreaming about making your barbecued meatloaf (his favorite) when he adds, “Sandra’s a vegan.” A sense of worry creeps over you. While you have nothing against people who follow vegan or vegetarian diets, you’ve just never cooked for one. Plus, you’re not entirely sure what “vegan” means.

Today, followers of plant-based diets are increasingly common, citing health issues, concern for the environment, or animal advocacy as their motivation for the diet. The good news: it’s easier than ever to accommodate a non-meat-eating dinner guest.

Vegetarian Dinner Guest: Put This in Perspective

First, relax. Not only are you anxious to please your guest, he or she is just as eager to make a nice impression on you.

If you’re an adventurous cook, this can be a great time to experiment. Get online, browse some recipes, and try something new.

— Reed Mangels, nutrition adviser, Vegetarian Resource Group

“Most plant-based eaters would do anything to avoid causing problems at someone’s house,” says Sharon Palmer, author of Plant-Powered for Life. “They want you to feel relaxed and unstressed.”

Your thoughts may be all about the menu, but remember that in the long run, your guest probably won’t remember what you served. What will be memorable is how comfortable and welcome you made him or her feel.

Find Out Specifics

There are many variations on plant-based diets. So first, find out more about your guest’s preferences.

Universal to vegetarian and vegan diets is the exclusion of meat, poultry, game, fish, shellfish or by-products of slaughter, according to the Vegetarian Society.

Beyond that, there are some differences between vegetarians and vegans. A vegetarian may or may not consume dairy products and/or eggs, so ask about those items. A vegan follows a more restrictive diet — all animal products, dairy products and eggs are off the menu. Also avoided are products derived from animals (such as honey) and some less obvious items, such as refined sugar (some of which is filtered with bone char) or gelatin (derived from cow or pig products).

Other dietary variations exist. For example, a flexitarian follows a plant-based diet most of the time, but occasionally eats meat. A pescatarian follows a plant-based diet, but consumes fish and shellfish.

Keep to Your Comfort Zone

Once you know your guest’s preferences, consider your own. Sticking to your cooking style is also important.

“If you’re an adventurous cook, this can be a great time to experiment. Get online, browse some recipes, and try something new,” suggests Reed Mangels, a nutrition adviser to the Vegetarian Resource Group and lecturer in the Nutrition Department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Ethnic dishes can be a good source of ideas, she suggests. “Hindu meals are vegetarian, such as a curried rice dish, or a stir-fry using tofu or beans instead of meat.”

If tried-and-true is more your thing, there are plenty of everyday dishes that fit the bill.

Options include “pasta with a hearty tomato sauce with some diced peppers, mushrooms and veggies. You can even add vegetarian sausages, or chick peas,” suggests Reed. “Or a nice hearty bean or lentil soup, with bread and a salad.”

Although all your dinner guests aren’t plant-based eaters, make it easy on yourself: Prepare one meal that satisfies everyone.

“So many of us enjoy plant-based meals and we don’t even realize we’re doing it,” adds Palmer, citing examples such as vegetarian chili, pasta or a taco bar. By offering plenty of extras — diced avocado, lettuce, peppers, tomato — no one will miss the meat.

Serving the same dish to everyone will also help your guest feel at ease.

De-emphasize the Food

Beyond a casual acknowledgement that the meal conforms with your guest’s limitations, don’t draw too much attention to the issue.

“No need to overly inform people ‘this dish is vegan’ – it’s just another dish,” says Mangels.

Similarly, don’t inquire more than usual if everything is OK, or ask too many diet-related questions. Even if you’re genuinely curious about the lifestyle, save the detailed discussions until you know each other better.

It can seem intimidating to venture into new cooking territory, especially when entertaining. But with a little research and planning, you’ll soon find your way around.

Additional Tips

Getting up to speed on any new diet takes time. Here are some tips to follow with a plant-based guest:

  • Don’t serve fish: Unless your guest specifically says he or she is a pescatarian, vegetarians and vegans do not consume fish.
  • Watch for gelatin: It’s unappealing to many plant-based eaters, so avoid dishes containing Jell-O and marshmallows. Also, replace those gummy candies in your candy dish.
  • Swap the broth: Meat broths can ruin an entire dish for a plant-based eater. Check what’s in your Thanksgiving stuffing or that harmless-looking bowl of vegetable soup. Many dishes come out fine using vegetable broth.
  • Consider your condiments: Worcestershire sauce, fish sauce, honey and mayonnaise are all processed with animal products. So they’re off limits if your guest is a vegan.
  • It’s all or nothing: Don’t expect your guest to pick around bits of meat in a dish, or explain that something only uses a “tiny amount” of a meat item.

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