Sunday, February 26, 2012

Meals that can go both ways: How to please vegetarians and non-vegetarians

I know there are families out there where everyone sits down to the same meal each evening. Individual tastes are accommodated, but overall there is one meal that everyone eats.

I also know that there are households where multiple meals are created every day, to cover variations in taste, dietary requirements, and, perhaps, views on meat.

As a child, my family was somewhere between the two. For most of my childhood, there was one main meal prepared each evening and that is what we all ate. This is quite remarkable in hindsight, as it's an approach that became less and less tenable as my siblings and I grew older. What's more, my Dad has 'meat and three vegetables' tastes - he's not a big fan of spice, legumes or tofu, and would definitely take mashed potato over rice - whereas my Mum hasn't eaten red meat for some 30 years now, and spent some of her childhood in Jamaica and Africa, gaining a taste for spice and for vegetarian dishes.

Somehow, it worked for a while. If we had a barbecue, there were meat sausages and burgers for my Dad and us children, to go along with chicken and some vegetarian salads or side dishes. My Mum also made us spaghetti bolognaise on occasion, and she never actively restricted our intake of red meat. Most of the time, though, it was chicken, fish or vegetarian options (for the latter, think legume-based soups or stews, vegetarian lasagna, spinach and ricotta filo triangles...). My Mum didn't work outside of home when we were young, and she prepared meals that by and large everyone enjoyed. My Dad bought his work lunch each day, and I guess if he was craving red meat that's when he would have it.

That started to shift when I was about 12. At that time, my brother turned vegetarian. He had always disliked fish (and still does) but at the age of 8 he decided that eating animals was something he wanted nothing to do with. Thus, my Mum gained an ally for her vegetarian dishes, but an extra challenge when considering what to make for dinner. This was complicated by the fact that I was lactose intolerant as a child and teenager, and haven't liked cheese from a young age - many vegetarian dishes, particularly back then, were heavy on cheese.

So, we started having meal variations. If we had chicken, my brother had a vegetarian replacement. If we had vegetarian pasta with cheese, mine was cheeseless.

This general pattern persisted for another 7 years or so. But then I started moving away from chicken - occasionally was fine, but I didn't want it twice a week. My brother swung the other way and started eating meat, including lamb and steak and other dishes he'd barely tried as a child. He is still anti-fish, but these days will eat just about anything else.

In the years before I left home, therefore, it was rare for everyone to eat the same thing in the evening. Usually there were 2 alternate meals (there were 5 of us), and generally the difference was that one was meat-based and one was not, or that one was chicken / fish whilst the other was beef. My Mum and I tended to share the evening meal preparation at that point, with help from my siblings and Dad, so having additional cooks with their additional opinions probably contributed to this too.

When I moved out, there was a period where it was just my own meals, and thus just my own tastes, that required consideration when eating at home. When Mr Bite moved in, there was a shift back to thinking about another person, but that change wasn't too significant (he doesn't really eat red meat and his family is largely vegetarian). However, when I decided to drop chicken completely, I took myself back to preparing different meals some of the time. If I have family or friends over, I'm also mindful that not everyone necessarily wants vegetarian food. There are times when both vegetarian and non-vegetarian options are required.

The good news is, it doesn't have to be hard.

And so, after that very long preamble, here are 5 dinner options that can be easily tweaked to be vegetarian (or even vegan) or meat-based. Please excuse the photos, some are before my new camera and some are just poor shots!


There was a reason I picked pizza when I hosted friends for dinner 4 days after we returned from Tasmania.  It is easy, and it is versatile. 

On that occasion, I went with a few varieties of vegetarian pizzas, but it is also easy to add ham or chicken to one pizza (or one half a pizza) whilst leaving the rest vegetarian. Similarly, it's easy to leave off the cheese, or use soy cheese, for those who want a cheese or dairy-free option.

Tomato and basil with cheese (top) and spinach, pumpkin and coriander with  feta and sweet chilli sauce (below)

I've also found that even meat eaters are quite happy to enjoy vegetarian pizzas - perhaps because properly prepared vegetarian pizzas have more toppings and better flavours than a generic ham and pineapple from a local take away chain!

Vegetarian with and without cheese


When I make burgers at home, we both have vegetarian ones. However, at barbecues with my family, veggie burgers are an easy way to fit in with the barbecue theme without actually eating meat. 

There are now so many veggie pattie options available that this makes for a very straightforward meal, whether you buy the pre-prepared variety or make your own. I'm not sure I'd like to make meat patties from scratch, but many deli's and butchers now sell them ready to cook, so even if you are accommodating meat eaters it doesn't have to be hard.


This is such an obvious option that I'm almost embarrassed to include it in this list. However, it is one of the first adapted meals I had experience with, and it is so versatile that it really does deserve mention.

I am not actually a big fan of pasta - I prefer rice, or potato - but it is one of our 'go to' meals when we are away on holiday and self-catering. This is because it is (i) easy and (ii) can be made using whatever ingredients you're able to find. Our versions are either vegetarian (tomato-based) or a bit like a tuna  bolognaise (Mr Bite's specialty dish), and we have managed to create these across the globe, including in Slovenia's capital, Ljubljana, when our nearest supermarket had no English speaking staff and we recognised virtually none of the brands.

It still turned out well!

Impromptu Ljubljanian pasta

Now, this isn't a post about meals you can easily make on holiday. However, the fact that one can create an enjoyable pasta dish using ingredients from just about any supermarket, anywhere in the world, highlights that pasta dishes are incredibly versatile, and they can also be tweaked to suit meat or non-meat tastes. 

After my brother and sister started requesting meat, my Mum would routinely make a meat bolognaise for them and my Dad, and a lentil bolognaise for herself and me. It worked well. A simpler version could include a jar of commercial pasta sauce, some meat added to one saucepan, and some canneloni beans added to the other.

Ginger noodles two ways

Stir fry

I find the most time consuming part of stir fries is the chopping of vegetables. Having two pans on the go to cook chicken as well as tofu is no trouble at all, and I probably do this every other week. After browning the chicken and grilling / sauteing the tofu, I toss about half of the chopped vegetables into each pan and add sauce / seasoning to each separately. If you don't like cutting up meat, you can even buy pre-prepared stir fry strips these days (albeit at a price...). 

Although Mr Bite will eat tofu if I give it to him, he is always happier with chicken, and this way I can also tweak the sauce and seasonings to suit each of our tastes. Definitely worth one extra pan to wash up.


With lentils...
I imagine that most Mexican food could be adapted to be vegetarian or non-vegetarian, but I've never really been a big fan of nachos or tacos. Burritos and fajitas, though, I very much enjoy.

I like mine with lentils and plenty of vegetables, including grated zucchini. My Mum is similar. The rest of my family and Mr Bite prefer theirs with chicken, optional avocado, and topped with cheese.

When I make them at home, Mr Bite and I have the same tomato-based salsa sauce, the same grated (carrot and zucchini) and cut (capsicum) vegetables, the same burrito bread, and then simply swap lentils and mushrooms (me) for chicken (him) and either do (him) or don't (me) add cheese.

With chicken and cheese...
Of course, tofu fillings are also an option.

The tofu wrap at the Purple Possum Wholefoods & Cafe, Tasmania...

The options with burritos and wraps are almost endless and they make for an easy meal however you choose to prepare them.

What are things like in your house? Are you all vegetarian or non-vegetarian, or do you find yourself making variations on meals? I'd love to hear how others deal with different tastes and food preferences!


  1. This is a very impressive post. I am very lucky, and need to remind myself to be thankful more often, that since the moment I moved back to Australia as a vegan, Andy has been absolutely willing to eat vegan. So we've always just cooked one meal. For the first year, he stuck with cow milk and sometimes ate eggs for breakfast, but he's even given those up as largely inconvenient (because I'm fairly intolerant of eggy breath, and make life difficult for him, I expect!).

    I wonder if it never occurred to me that we might have separate meals because that just wasn't a *thing* in my house growing up. We only ever had one meal for the whole family, with the occasional extra veggie that just my parents ate (sauteed onions, which made me gag, and sometimes brussels sprouts or beetroot which only my dad ate). Though, we did often have modular meals - make your own tacos, pasta with various options for sauce and/or cheese, etc. I reckon those are the best for choosy eaters.

    1. This is really interesting - and I suspect you're right in that if you never experienced separate meals, you just wouldn't think to do it. I like your modular meal approach though, and can see that it would make non-separate meals a lot more practical (and I suppose overlaps with some of these suggestions in a way). It's nice to hear that Andy has been happy to make the transition to veganism and clearly it is now working well for you as a couple!

  2. I know exactly what goes on. We are a family of five and I always seem to be cooking meals to suit a variety of specifics. Tonight I only had time for one meal so I cooked chilli con carne but left out the chilli for those who don't want it and put a jar of jalepenos on the table for those who wanted the extra heat. It isn't easy but you can make it work.

    1. Oh yes, you are right in the thick of it ;) Even those 'only time for one meal' nights aren't really one meal - you've got the spice variations and the consideration of different tastes still to factor in! You're right, though, it can work and it doesn't have to be impossible.

  3. I have a couple of cookbooks for dishes that cater to both veg and non veg whcih I find interesting. I am not good for catering to meat eaters and try and keep my home mostly meat free but we have a lot of family meals where we have to cater for vegetarian. Both bbqs and mexican feasts are quite common and work well. In our house the separate meals are because Sylvia wants food so plain and wont eat most of our meals.

    Isn't it funny that your brother went veg and then gave it up and then you have started eating less meat? At least your mum would be very sympathetic and accommodating of your diet

    1. Those cookbooks sound good. I do like reading about your approach to extended family gatherings, because it sounds like you represent vegetarian food and need to do so in a way that still fits in with meat eaters! You seem to manage it well. And yes, your challenges are quite different, with Sylvia's plain tastes - but at least she likes tofu ;)

      I do still find it amusing to think of my brother's meat transition. The strangest thing was that it happened almost instantly - no meat to steak overnight!

  4. I don't have many people over, other than parents... but my own parents are kind of strange. My mom loves everything and my dad hates everything green and healthy. He will eat whatever I make, though, because he loves me.. haha. (I even got him to eat a massively vegetable filled lasagna, sort of forgetting that he hates vegetables when I made it!) Pizza's (individual size) are great for groups- everybody can put whatever they want on their own/ bring things they want to contribute that you might not have (IE: meat.)
    Growing up, we all ate the same junk until I was about 12.. then I went vegan and at that point, we all "Cooked" (Ie, heated stuff up) for ourselves anyway. The first meal I made for myself was spaghetti and jarred tomato sauce and I was SO proud! My mom wasn't really into my veganism and hated having to buy different things for me.. but it worked out. We all took care of ourselves!

    1. Your description of your Dad made me smile :) Pizzas are such a great option, I like the bring your own ingredient approach too.

      It was really interesting to hear how your transition to vegan worked in your family! I didn't realise (or had forgotten...) you were so young at the time. You did well learning how to cook and manage a vegan diet by yourself!

  5. what a great collection! I definitely find that dishes like pizza and pasta are great options when catering for 'both' crowds. And risotto!

    1. Ooh, yes, I'd forgotten about risotto. Definitely a good option!

  6. Other than a couple of minor things, we are lucky to be a family who eats everything. However I regularly cook for friends who have either preferences or intolerances and I do use all of your suggestions.

    One other favourite is a hearty morrocan vege tagine and cous cous and roast lamb. The whole meal is dairy free. For vegetarians, the tagine is enough of meal, the lamb satisfies the meat eaters and if anyone is gluten free you can just replace the cous cous with quinoa!

    1. I had tucked away the memory of you having gluten free friends...that is one thing I've never catered to and I think throwing it in to the mix might just throw me completely! I like your morrocan tagine and cous cous idea though, in part simply because I like the sound of the flavours and dish. I might just try it in the vegetarian form :D

  7. I'm really glad that we were a one-meal family, although I do understand that making multiple meals works for other families. That said, these days I wish my mum would accept that I prefer not eating meat, but at the same time I understand why she's wary of me making that decision, so I'm happy to eat meat (or, preferable, seafood) when we go out to dinner.

    If/when a Mr Wayfaring Chocolate comes along, I hope he'll be willing to eat a lot of dessert and vegetables :P

    1. I'm sure he will :) Because Mr Wayfaring Chocolate will be perfect for you and clearly perfection (even in its loosely defined, flexible form!) will necessarily require dessert and vegetables.

      It's really interesting to hear everyone's family differences on this topic. I am starting to realise that my Mum might have been more flexible than average!!

    2. Although I should clarify that I don't mean to imply that flexible is better in this multi-meal situation :) In fact, quite likely not better because it gave her considerably more work...

  8. It sounds like you have a lot of ideas that work well for you and Mr Bite. There was only one meal in my family when I was growing up and I must have carried on that tradition. My son stills eats meat although he has to eat vegan meals at home because that is what is on offer.

    Some other communal meal ideas that haven't been mentioned and work well for our extended family gatherings are Indian curries and Middle Eastern feasts.

    1. Middle Eastern is a cuisine I get inspiration for from your blog, but rarely thought about prior to seeing your recipes. I think I need to experiment more!

      I like your stance of just one meal. Clearly it can work, even with meat eating boys!

  9. Thanks for writing on this topic! I totally understand what it's like trying to accommodate for different diets--my family has tons of different allergies. Although most of our family dinners are totally allergen-free, we have lots of types of breads and milks to choose from for breakfast and lunch.


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