Cooking for Vegetarians This Holiday Season: Five Tips

I adore my mom. She is one of the greatest human beings I know. But when it comes to cooking vegetarian food for me at Thanksgiving, I’m afraid I just have to remember that “It’s the thought that counts.” When I first became vegetarian nearly eight years ago, mom tried hard to make a vegetarian Thanksgiving for me that included (very dry) vegetarian stuffing, and…spaghetti. Poor mom! Like most die-hard meat-eaters I know, she thinks that just because it’s vegetarian, it also has to be bland. Not true! Here are some tips for Thanksgiving if you’re cooking for vegetarians:

1. The holidays are a hard time of year if you’re vegetarian, so go that extra mile.

Vegetarians eat more than spaghetti and green salads, but at holiday parties, family get-togethers, and at the homes of their in-laws, it seems that pasta and green salad are often their only options. Some vegetarians I know just suffer happily with a shrug of their shoulders, while others feel forgotten and left out. These days, there are a wide variety of faux meats that certainly aren’t the “real thing” but at least will make your vegetarian friend or family member feel like you are including them on the holiday.

There’s Tofurkey, which some vegetarians hate but personally I think is very tasty and turkey like. Be careful about overcooking it! Tofurkeys dry out even more easily than the real thing. And have you ever had overcooked tofu? Mmm, tastes like tire rubber. If you don’t make a faux turkey or ham, then at least make one special dish for your vegetarian friend to let them know that you’re thinking of them.

2. Don’t forget: there’s a difference between “vegetarian” and “vegan.”

Find out if your friend or family member is a vegetarian (that’s no meat – yes, including fish) or a vegan (that means no animal products whatsoever, including dairy products and egg products). There are many egg and dairy substitutes for your vegan friend, including soy cheeses and milks. From my own experimentation, I have found plain soy milk (not vanilla!) can usually be substituted where milk is called for without too much difference in the final taste.

However, just to warn you, it does tend to make whatever you’re cooking thinner. Regarding soy cheeses, make sure your vegan friend doesn’t have a problem with casein, a dairy protein, before you buy that soy cheese. Most soy cheeses are not truly vegan, so check the ingredient list before buying.

3. Don’t get stressed out: much holiday fare is already vegetarian!

While my mom hasn’t quite mastered the vegetarian stuffing yet, she makes a killer cranberry sauce from whole cranberries. This is already vegetarian! So is her green bean casserole and several other of her holiday signature dishes. So instead of fretting about what to make your vegetarian friend, think first about all the great recipes you already have stashed for the holidays, and see if there is a simple way to make them vegetarian.

For example, leave the ham out of the baked mac ‘n cheese this year, and your vegetarian friend will eat it with gusto. Many casseroles that call for meat can be made without, or the meat can be substituted with one of the many faux meat options.

4. You have permission to get creative with the grill.

Over the past five or six years, my mom has stopped cooking the turkey in the oven and has turned to the grill instead. There are other things you can grill while you’re at it that will be suitable for your vegetarian friend. There are vegetarian sausages, vegetarian burgers, vegetarian hot dogs, and even vegetarian bratwursts. All of these taste good with a little barbecue sauce, some love, and a few turns on the grill.

Another thing mom has made that everyone enjoys is grilled Portobello mushrooms. These fat, juicy mushrooms almost remind a vegetarian of eating meat (in a good way). Grilled veggies are also very yummy. Just try not to let too much of the meat juice spill over onto your vegetarian friend’s food. Some vegetarians are very sensitive to animal protein and can actually get sick if they eat something that’s been mixed with animal juices.

5. When in doubt… ask!

The best way to make sure you are satisfying your vegetarian friend’s appetite is to ask ahead of time. As mentioned previously, some of my vegetarian friends absolutely hate faux turkey, while others find it pretty scrumptious. Since they’re expensive, before you go out and buy an entire Tofurkey, ask your friend first.

You can also ask if they have any special requests that they might like for holiday dinner, or if there’s anything in particular that they cannot eat. Some vegetarians will be too shy to ask for anything in particular, but just the act of asking will be appreciated. On the other hand, they might have a great idea for a dish, and introduce you to something you turn out to love, too.

Over the years, as I have introduced my mom to more and more vegetarian options, Thanksgivings at our house have gotten easier. I am happy to report that this year I am looking forward to her excellent cranberry sauce, my favorite casserole (which she has taken the beef out of), and NO spaghetti! Thanks, mom! (And, in case you’re wondering, I might just sneak a piece of real turkey when no one is looking…)