Nutrition Articles

How to Feed a Vegetarian

Meeting the Needs of Meatless Eaters

It’s 6 o’clock. Your guests should be arriving in less than an hour. Then your friend calls. Guess who’s coming to dinner? Her new boyfriend, who's a vegetarian.

One night at the dinner table, your teenage daughter announces that she’s vegetarian and will no longer be eating meat, fish, dairy, or eggs.


That throws a wrench in your plans, doesn’t it? What do vegetarians eat? Is he going to start spouting off about animal rights as your husband carves the Christmas ham? Is she going to expect an entirely separate meal?

You can relax, even if you don’t know much about vegetarian cooking.  Have no fear. Cooking for a vegetarian is easy, and by the time you read our guide to feeding a vegetarian, you’ll be all set.

You probably have quite a few vegetarian meals in your repertoire and likely have at least a couple of vegetables and meatless foods on the menu or in the fridge.

As the name implies, vegetarians eat vegetables, but vegetarian cuisine is vast and exciting. With a few simple tips, any meal can accommodate a vegetarian, whether you have five minutes’ or a week’s notice.

First up, let’s figure out what “vegetarian” actually means. Some people call themselves “vegetarians” but eat fish or chicken, and others are much stricter about what they’ll eat.

  • Pescetarian: Someone who doesn’t eat meat but eats fish or seafood.
  • Flexitarian: A hip and trendy word for what some people call a semi-vegetarian. Someone who isn’t a vegetarian but eats several vegetarian meals a week and might be selective about what types of meat she does eat (such as organic chicken only) and how often.
  • Vegetarian: Someone who doesn’t eat any meat, including poultry, game, fish, and seafood, or any meat by-products, such as broth, gravy, or fat, or foods cooked with meat. A vegetarian may or may not eat other animals products like eggs or dairy (ovo-vegetarians do eat eggs, lacto-vegetarians still eat dairy products, and ovo-lacto vegetarians eats both eggs and dairy).
  • Vegan: A strict vegetarian (see above) who doesn’t eat anything that comes from an animal—no meat, dairy products, eggs, honey or other animal by-products.
Here is some helpful (and humorous) advice about feeding a vegetarian and anyone else with dietary restrictions. We’ve called upon experts, SparkPeople members, and personal experience to offer tips to help everyone break bread in peace.

How to Feed a Vegetarian: The Do’s and Don’ts
  • DO be honest. Please don’t try to sneak meat, broth, or seafood into a vegetarian's food. If you put bacon in the broccoli salad, chicken broth in the risotto, or lard in the pie crust, tell your guests.
  • DO invite them. I would have invited you, but I didn’t think you’d...feel comfortable, eat anything I served, enjoy yourself, etc. Even a serious lack of veggie-friendly food isn’t going to stop the fun if the people and atmosphere are warm and inviting.
  • DON'T apologize. You eat meat. Some people don’t. You don’t have to apologize for eating meat in front of a vegetarian.
  • DON'T make a big deal about it. Vegetarians have various reasons for not eating meat, but some of those reasons might not be ideal dinner table or cocktail party discussions. Perhaps save the discussion for another time.
  • DON'T be afraid to ask questions. Ask what foods your guest eats and likes. Perhaps you’ll find a new family favorite or elevate a vegetable from side dish to entrée status.
  • DO ask your guest to bring a dish. Most vegetarians have experience cooking for themselves. Let them bring food to share, if they wish. Many will do it without being asked.
  • DON'T be offended if he brings food. Many vegetarians don’t want to complicate your duties as host. They will often bring something they know they can eat and share with others, so don't take it personally.
  • DO cook enough food. Make sure there is enough of the vegetarian dish for everyone to try (because they will) and for the vegetarians to take seconds.
Beyond Broccoli: Tips on What to Cook

Consider a DIY meal. Put all the toppings or sides in separate dishes so everyone can accommodate their own lactose intolerance, aversion to spice, or vegan diet. How about a burrito bar? (Make some soy crumbles or sauté onions, peppers, and mushrooms for everyone.) What about a pasta buffet? (Serve pasta, sautéed vegetables, sausage or grilled chicken for the meat eaters, Alfredo and marinara sauces, and cheese, then let everyone build a bowl.) Or what about a pizza party? (Buy or make pizza dough, then let everyone make their own pizzas. Kids love this!)

Separate the meat and vegetables. Cook and serve meat in one dish, vegetables in another. If you had planned to roast yams with the ham, use two dishes. Making pasta? Cook sauce and set some aside before adding sausage or meat. Serve gravy on the side, and if you’re adding bacon to your baked potatoes, serve it separately. When grilling, clean part of the grill thoroughly or use foil to cook vegetables or veggie patties.

Use separate serving dishes, utensils and cutlery. That’s actually just a good kitchen tip in general: Never put cooked food on a plate or in a bowl that held raw meat, and use separate cutting boards and knives for vegetables, meat, and poultry.
More Ideas for Those who Have a Vegetarian at Home

  • Learn where meat hides. Sometimes meat sneaks in to foods that you wouldn’t suspect. Some common foods that contain meat or seafood: Caesar dressing (anchovies), Thai curry and many Asian dishes (fish sauce), and canned “vegetable” soups (beef or chicken broth).
  • Salads are great. Serve a large green salad before or with the meal, which ensures a healthful option for all. With a couple of hard-boiled eggs or a handful of nuts, that salad can be elevated to a vegetarian entrée.
  • Where’s the beef? Try to offer a balanced meal. Vegetarians sometimes have to be creative to get adequate protein, calcium, and nutrients. Help them out by serving a balanced meal where plant-based proteins (chickpeas, black beans, or lentils) fill in the place where meat might have been. This boosts the protein content, filling power, and helps round out a meal. Beans and legumes are a cheap and easy way to add vegetarian-friendly foods to a meal. Open, rinse, heat, and eat.
  • Egg them on. Eggs are super easy and fast to cook. Scrambled, hard-boiled, poached, or fried, you can whip up a vegetarian entrée in no time. Try a veggie packed frittata or quiche.
  • Go flexitarian. Once a week or more, try something new, such as tofu, seitan (wheat gluten), or tempeh (a fermented soy food). Plenty of familiar foods can be both delicious and vegetarian: Lasagna, almost any pasta, chili, stir-fries, and soups (use veggie broth) can all be made without meat.
This has been a public serving announcement from your friendly neighborhood vegetarians, most of whom would never expect you to go out of your way to accommodate them. But your vegetarian friends and loved ones will appreciate your consideration, and chances are, you’ll become a more experienced (and healthful) host in the process.

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Member Comments

  • Not sure vegan is good for you.
  • I used to have a big BBQ twice a year. Had at least 50 people there at a time. I prepared all the food and included the standard BBQ fare, but also some vegetarian dishes. I don't think anyone who came was vegetarian, but I would often prefer those dishes. They would include a veggie pasta salad with lentils, a baked pasta dish, a fruit salad and for those who did eat fish, peel and eat shrimp. I am a bit surprised at some strong comments. It's almost like who's right and who's wrong. Not a lot of tolerance and it's a bit sad.
  • No, please do not "egg them on" without checking! Many vegetarians and all vegans do not eat eggs. The commenter below me refuses to do anything for vegetarians. Okay. There's still things you can avoid - like being rude or intolerant, lying about ingredients etcetera.
    Many of us are coming from a place of kindness (to animals) and we appreciate kindness in return (to us.) But hey, if you don't want to have us over, we are probably fine with that.

    Great article! Thanks for posting it.
  • I refuse to cook a special meal for -tarians any more. On more than one occasion I've been asked to cook for church functions, and then have several different people ask for social've got one that wants no onions, one that wants no garlic, one that wants no meat but garlic is OK, and one that garlic is a demon. I've literally had to cook 4 or 5 versions of the same meal for 20 people on occasion. It gets to be impossible. For example, the "absolutely no onion" people cannot eat my spaghetti a sauce, canned spaghetti sauce, ketchup, ranch dressing, any other off the shelf dressing, seasoned salt, any mixed seasoning whatsoever, most store bought broths, etc. I've gently suggested that they bring something they are able to eat, but have been offended that they aren't catered to, and I cannot cook two entirely separate meals. So, they are no longer invited to any functions at our home. My message to any -tarians is this: when you are invited and you aren't willing to eat what The host serves, be honest. Tell the host you'd love to join but that you will bring your own food because you cannot eat (insert your issue here). Don't expect the host to make a separate meal. That is offensive. Then, at the meal, don't insist that what others choose to eat is bad, or cruel or whatever, based on your own beliefs. That will earn you a disinvite from my table for future gatherings pretty quickly (and it has happened on more than one occasion at my home by ungrateful vegans, onion haters and other haters who have been invited to my home).
  • My husband's work had ONE vegan (he has moved for work now). I researched and adapted a vegetarian recipe into a vegan one just for him at a giant Pot-luck Thanksgiving (or maybe Christmas) gathering. I had to do either turkey or ham, and figured nobody else would make anything he could have as a main (Despite about 60 people bringing things!) I was right, and even his choice of sides was limited since butter, cheese or mayonnaise was fairly prevalent. Non-vegetarians loved it too!
  • Definitely invite a vegetarian! I got to hear all about my best friend's (in a city where we didn't know many people/foreign country) Thanksgiving dinner that she purposely excluded me from because I don't eat turkey and assumed I'd be unable or unwilling to eat anything at all. I guess because the bird is the centerpiece for her. I didn't want to make a fuss about it, but I wish she had known I'm happy to eat sides and have fun like we usually do, or that I could bring something to share. It really isn't a big deal to long-time vegetarians. We're used to all sorts of situations and adapting to them, and are happy to not soapbox on animals rights.
    I had to laugh when I read "Don't try sneaking meat in". I am vegan and I will ask my sister if the sauce, vegetables or whatever has any meat and she will say "Not that you cab tell."
  • I am a vegetarian, and I would bring something with vegetarian protein to eat in case nothing like that was available. A lot of people think, just give them cheese! But that's not always vegetarian. Most cheeses contain rennet, which is from the stomach lining of cows or sheep. Also, they were telling people to only have one or two eggs a week. What's going on with how SparkPeople is always saying to eat a bunch of eggs?
  • I guess if someone told me an hour before supper was ready that they are bringing someone who had special needs they will just have to go with the flow and eat what they can, same with the daughter unless she wants to pitch in and make her supper.
  • I haven't eaten meat for more than 30 years now, and I don't eat most cheese and fish. Even so, I'm in good health and I can have a varied diet... People still have this prejudice about meat, that it has to be the center of a meal, the main protein source etc. I'm always asked if only eat salad, avoiding meat... I guess I eat and experiment many more foods than most people I know, probably!
  • I prefer fresh veggies lightly sautéed with mushrooms and a little sesame oil and a dash or tamari. I like to add things like quinoa or millet to a veggie sauté to add some protein. I also love hummus and black bean dips. I will never pass up lentils or chickpeas either. I do not eat a lot of packaged foods, so fresh is best. Sometimes even peanut butter and apple slices is a nice snack. Just be sure whatever you serve is made with love. If I cannot or will not eat something, it is my decision and issue not yours. I appreciate your efforts.
  • Several of the vegetarians and vegans have commented that they are insulted when people assume that they just eat salad, but no one has said what they prefer. So, what is your favorite dish?
    Barring food allergies, I think it is simply common courtesy to eat what is offered to you. Even when I was a strict vegetarian at home, I did not expect my hosts to cater to my dietary preferences. When I visit friends who are vegans, I expect a vegan meal. When I visit friends who are not, I eat what is offered and don't sweat it. If you are that rigid in your thinking, offer to bring your own food but it is in poor taste to expect a host to cater to you. This is really a first world problem. Be grateful you are being offered a meal.
  • I've read through a lot of the comments and am surprised at some of the things I was reading.

    Somebody mentioned that a vegan dish takes too much effort to make on short notice. Most of my meals on days we don't have a "family dinner" are planned and cooked in 30 minutes or less with very little effort and with stuff laying around the house. There are a variety of quick veggie soups that take a total of 20-30 minutes to prep and make, or like somebody else mentioned steaming/stir-fry up some veggies over rice (add a bit of seseme oil and/or mix up a little simple sauce and you have a filling yummy meal in 30min or less). You know, some of my dinners tend to be a plate of broccoli & cauliflour or a thing of frozen brussel sprouts. Not much for variety, but it's vegan and takes 10-15 minutes and there you go. LoL

    I do appreciate what they said about the allergies though. I'm deathly allergic to dairy and do have an epi pen. Vegan is one of the safest ways to go for me and I prefer it. I'm afraid for my life to eat outside of the house though. I don't eat at restaraunts because they don't listen to what you say about stuff like that and I don't eat at anybody else's house because nobody understands how bad it is. When you say your allergic to dairy they always assume milk and figure cheese and butter and such are okay still. You can't guarentee those foods will remain safe for you to eat (if they even are to begin with) after other people make contact with it. Once on a small trip to Spokane, OR with my mom's friend when I was a teenager, she took me to a vegan restaraunt and I didn't even know where to begin. I'd never been able to eat anywhere before and there needs to be more places like that available everywhere in the world, within reach of every town. The world needs to consider other people's needs instead of going with the majority. It's such an unfair world we live in when a person isn't allowed to eat anywhere because of their health or personal choices. :(
  • I agree with the last comment. It's not always a personal choice. Like the previous poster, for some reason meat makes me sick. It's not an allergic reaction, it just hurts my stomach something awful and I don't really like meat enough to go through that pain. I'm so picky about it to begin with so I only eat a little if I have to for dinners, since I currently do not have much of a say in what kind of food I get to eat around here. If I had it my way I'd be vegan though. I really don't care for meat at all and could do without it and vegan is the safest with my deadly dairy allergy anyway...

About The Author

Stepfanie Romine Stepfanie Romine
A former newspaper reporter, Stepfanie now writes about nutrition, health, fitness and cooking. She is a certified Ashtanga yoga teacher who enjoys running, international travel and all kinds of vegetables. See all of Stepfanie's articles.

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