My husband and I live on a tight, graduate-student budget, so we’re constantly looking for ways to make our grocery budget stretch further. Like most families with limited means, we buy things on sale, make food from scratch, and use coupons. However, we also have vegetarian dinners two days a week. Meat is an expensive part of our grocery bill, so limiting the amount we use in a given week is certainly helpful.
Here, I offer a few tips on successfully incorporating vegetarian dishes into your family’s normal routine. I’ve also gathered six of our very favorite vegetarian meals. They are filling, tasty, and easy to create, even for beginner cooks, thus making them a welcome part of our meal rotation.
Making vegetarian meals filling
As you consider introducing vegetarian meals to your family, be sure to do your research and achieve a balanced diet. We favor beans, lentils, eggs, nuts, cheese and some protein-rich grains as a way to make our meals more filling. But some of these options can be fatty (and expensive) if not incorporated responsibly. That’s why I serve these meals with healthy sides and stagger vegetarian meals throughout the week instead of back-to-back.
Overcoming the weirdness factor
For some people, like my husband, eating vegetarian meals regularly is sort of a strange concept. To overcome this, I usually only add in one new meal at a time. I can better judge how much he likes it this way as well as providing a gradual change that is easier to accept. I also serve the meals with a familiar presentation (see “sloppy Sams” below) and always use plenty of spices since some vegetable dishes tend to be bland. Lastly, I only mention in passing that the meal is vegetarian, if I mention it at all. That said, if my husband specifically requests a meaty meal that night, I try to cater to it so that I’m not pushing vegetarian meals on him against his will.
Now, onto the meals!
This dish is a revamp of the more traditional “Sloppy Joes,” with the simple substitution of lentils for ground beef. Lentils cook amazingly fast (unlike other dried beans) and add a flavorful, slightly earthy character to the dish. Lentils also decrease the fat content while maintaining a similar texture and presentation. I love to throw all of the ingredients in the crock pot in the morning, add a little hot sauce for kick, and serve them that night with a side of sweet potato fries and a salad.
If you love breakfast food as much as I do, don’t limit pancakes and eggs to mornings. Cook them for dinner, too. Adding chopped nuts to a waffle batter that is already rich in grains makes for a hearty and comforting meal. Besides, you can double the recipe and freeze the leftovers. At my house, a waffle fresh out of the toaster is our favorite breakfast-to-go.
Chickpeas are another favorite meat substitute at my house. Since I learned this dish from an Indian friend, I think I can safely say it’s even relatively authentic. Canned chickpeas are easy to find in most grocery stores, right next to the other cans of beans, and lose any metallic flavor and unnecessary saltiness if you rinse them before adding them to your dish. I usually substitute two cans of chickpeas for every pound of meat the curry recipe calls for, and I try to let it simmer as long as possible to let the flavors combine.
If you want an extra serving of vegetables, try serving it over cauliflower rice. Simply run raw cauliflower through your food processor until grain-sized pieces form, then sauté to desired tenderness with salt and pepper. My husband and I actually prefer to eat our rice this way.
It’s amazing how little you miss beef or chicken in Mexican dishes with enough other flavors and textures. You can try multiple kinds of beans and potatoes, as well as adding in grilled zucchini or yellow squash to give your burrito filling more body and nutritional impact. You can also experiment with cheeses and traditional Mexican flavors like cilantro, lime, or chipotle. Wrapped up in a warm tortilla, you may wish you had made this meal vegetarian a long time ago.
Soup and grilled cheese sandwiches
This combination makes for a light yet comforting vegetarian meal and is a favorite for Sunday night at my house. Canned soups are fine, but for flavor, nutrition and sometimes price, I prefer to make my own. We even coordinate our cheeses with our soups for a slightly more ethnic meal, like mozzarella with tomato-basil soup or pepper jack with tortilla soup.
Stir-fry with eggs
I love making stir-fry because it’s so easy. Using eggs means I don’t even have to remember to defrost the meat. With stir-fry, you can pick and choose your vegetables or you can buy a frozen stir-fry blend. However, I recommend cooking frozen vegetables on a higher heat, so they don’t become mushy. Once your vegetables are almost done, crack in a couple of eggs and stir. The cooked eggs will cling to the vegetables giving you a little bit of cheap protein in every bite.
Hopefully the idea of serving vegetarian meals to your family doesn’t seem so daunting now. With such simple classics as stir-fry, grilled cheese, burritos, and pancakes on the menu, your family may start requesting these meals meat-free.