Many people tell me they want to start a vegan diet, but creating vegan meals stumps them. I understand where they're coming from, after all, if you're used to making meals that center around meat and are covered in dairy, what do you serve if you take those away?
What's chicken parmesan without the chicken or parmesan? What's macaroni and cheese without the cheese? And certainly meat and three is nothing but three without the meat.
But, I'm here to let you know that making vegan meals is easier than you think. Rather than thinking of substitutions, you can actually make a whole slew of different recipes that center around vegetables, beans, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.
The easiest way to put together a balanced vegan dinner is to picture a round plate and imagine that one half of it should be covered in vegetables, one quarter is whole grains, one quarter is beans or legumes, fruit is for dessert, and nuts, seeds, and healthy fats are adornments. I put together a very simplified drawing to give you an idea of the proportions of a balanced vegan dinner.
Even if you're not having a specific whole grain with a vegetable and a bean, you can use the proportions when assembling your dish.
Notice that a full half plate is dedicated to vegetables. Most Americans don't even eat vegetables, let alone half their meal as vegetables. You should aim to eat from every color of the rainbow every day, as you can see in this list of fruits and vegetables. Dark, leafy greens are especially healthful and should find their way into your stomach at least once a day.
The only vitamin that you can't easily get from plant based foods is vitamin B12. There are many foods that are enriched with B12, like nondairy milks, nutritional yeast, and cereals, and some foods that have natural analogues to B12, like spirulina and other seaweeds. But, just to be safe, you can add a B12 supplement into your daily or weekly diet.
One quarter of the plate is whole grains. The easiest way to ensure that the grain you are eating is whole is to look for that word at the grocery: "whole." For example, regular pasta's ingredient list says something like this: durum semolina. The word "whole" isn't on the list, whereas with a whole grain, it should be the first word.
Make sure that you aren't eating the same grain over and over again. The most common grain in Western diets is wheat. It's so easy to eat whole wheat in the United States right now that it's possible to go for days or weeks without eating another grain. Variety is key to a healthy, balanced diet and to making exciting, delicious and healthy vegan meals.
The last quarter of the dinner plate is reserved for different types of legumes and beans.
This is your protein section where, if you ate meat, you would stick your steak.
There are so many different types of beans and proteins out there that you need not worry that you will get bored of eating them. Remember that tofu comes from soybeans, as does tempeh.
New vegans can fill the bean requirement with veggie burgers, fake chicken nuggets, and other soy replacements for familiar foods. As you progress in your diet, you can experiment with the vast world of beans.
I keep this dinner plate visual in mind when I make every meal, including if I am making something like a pizza. It can be hard to get the exact balance of grains to veggies to beans, so I try to really pile on the veggies.
I pick a whole grain crust (either store-bought or I make my own crust.) Then I put on a huge amount of pizza sauce(remember, this counts as a veggie!) Next, I load up the pizza with as many veggies and fruits as will fit. A few handfulls of soy sausage or pepperoni, and voila, a complete meal!
If I am making one solid pasta dish, I use the same technique. Whole grain pasta-- there are so many kinds available now that I can get anywhere from whole wheat to quinoa pasta-- double as many veggies, and then about the same number of beans as pasta. Dinner is done.
For nights when I don't want to think, I put together a quick cooking whole grain, cook some beans with onion and garlic, and sautee a few veggies with olive oil and garlic. It's simple, takes 15 minutes or less, and is a completely balanced vegan meal.
You finish up with fruit for dessert and snacks throughout the day. You can eat the fruit straight up, cut it up into a salad and spritz with lemon juice, bake, grill it, or even put it in your dinner with everything else. You can also blend it all into a smoothie or freeze it for a healthy sorbet after dinner.
Again, variety is key to healthy vegan meals because fruits and vegetables have so many different types of healthful components and if you only eat one kind, you are missing out on the benefits of the others.
Once you have the hang out how to create a vegan meal, cooking gets easier and easier. Also, you know what combination of foods to eat when you are at a restaurant.