I Cooked My Family Vegetarian Dinners for 30 Days and Here's What Happened
Serving up kid-friendly meatless meals for a month can be a delicious undertaking. Plus, it's healthier for you and the environment—and could save you money too.
Pictured Recipe: Sweet Potato & Black Bean Chili
For someone with a picky-eater kid whose favorite foods are bacon, steak, A.1. sauce and chicken (in that order), you have to wonder what crazy sort of thinking got into my head when I decided to cut meat from our family dinner rotation for a month.
It sort of started as a whim, but lately I've been feeling like our family is just eating way too much meat. It's expensive. Eating more plant-based meals is a healthy choice, better for the planet and could save us money too. So one day, when my husband and I sat down to tackle the weekly shopping list, I said, "What do you think about me cooking only vegan dinners this week?"
He blinked once and replied, "Sure? But what kind of food would we eat?"
"Lots of stuff!" I claimed defiantly and set to task pulling together a month's worth of vegan dinner ideas for families, including delicious things like falafel with tahini sauce and vegetable lo mein.
I showed the recipes to my husband and he got excited. He agreed: this kind of vegan eating looked really delicious. We planned out our meals for the whole week, choosing recipes that we were both excited to try. The Hubs even offered to make the sweet potato chili for dinner that night.
Day 1: Later, as we sat down to our meal, the kids did not cry. (Crying/not crying is my family's version of thumbs-up/thumbs-down when it comes to family meals. We're working on that. Every. Dang. Day.) In fact, they loved it. Score! I proclaimed proudly, "See? And it's totally vegan!"
"Oops," Hubs said as he pointed to two glasses of milk he'd just poured for the kids and the Cheddar cheese he had just dumped in everyone's bowls of chili.
"OK, let's take baby steps," I said. And we agreed that maybe we'd just focus on vegetarian for now. With two food allergies (tree nuts and eggs) to manage on top of everything else, that felt like a more reasonable goal for our family.
Vegan or no, this Sweet Potato & Black Bean Chili recipe is a perennial favorite in our house. We make big batches so that we have leftovers to freeze. This time around my daughter was so into it, she asked that I heat up leftovers in the morning to pack in a thermos for her lunch.
Day 3: Black Bean Tacos for taco night. I love to pile these babies high with condiments, veggies and avocado. The kids eat them plain with corn on the side. Everyone's happy.
Day 6: Spicy Vegetable Lo Mein. This recipe made me want to own a wok, but I made do with a large skillet. We served it with chopsticks to get the kids excited. They were curious about the shiitakes and even tried them, but ultimately picked them all out.
Pictured Recipe: Chickpea Curry
Day 8: This meatless dinner thing was only meant to be for a week, but I was rediscovering a new inspiration in our meals. I was enjoying looking for new recipe ideas-and eating things besides chicken and potatoes. The kids were doing ... OK.
So, as my husband and I sat down to plan our weekly grocery list, I said, "I want to try this vegetarian thing all month. Can we do it?" I knew I was asking a lot. But he agreed. Love that man.
Day 10: I'd be lying if I said it was all smooth sailing. There were a lot of tears in the second week, especially from my son who has a hard time with anything green. He cried at the falafel. But the rest of the family loved it.
Day 15: The third Sunday, the Hubs came home from the grocery store with a pound of bacon. It appeared my stalwart in this no-meat challenge was wavering.
Day 16: Taco night with beefless beef. A hit!
Day 17: Cheese lasagna (cue tears). It was the plainest, cheesiest lasagna I could possibly make. And he cried. Child, imploring, "Daddy, when can we have steak again?"
"Mom's doing a vegetarian thing right now."
"What do you like, Buddy? Because we know what you don't like, but is there anything you actually like?
"Um, I like steak."
Is this going well? Too early to tell?
At least we know what's for dinner tomorrow night.
Day 18: Pizza-cheese only.
Day 22: We went out to eat at a restaurant for Sunday lunch and everyone in the family ordered steak, except for me.
Days 23-30: The last week of our meatless dinner month, we pulled together all of the recipes from the weeks before that everyone had loved and had them again. Because, why make it any harder than it needs to be?
And yes, we did eventually eat the bacon, sprinkled on top of a cheesy soup, but I made the Hubs cook that night.
What did the kids actually eat?
I won't bore you with the list of foods that inspired tears from my children. That's not really helpful anyways. But here are the recipes that they actually LIKED!
87 Make a double batch of this quick vegetarian chili, full of black beans and sweet potatoes, and eat it for lunch the next day or freeze the extras for another night. We love the smoky heat from the ground chipotle, but omit it if you prefer a mild chili. Serve with tortilla chips or cornbread and coleslaw. Squash & Red Lentil Curry
25 This healthy red lentil curry recipe has a rich flavor and complexity that tastes like it takes hours to prepare. Butternut squash and coconut milk combine with the lentils to make a hearty vegetarian dish. Serve with brown rice or naan bread. Black Bean Tacos
1 Mixing mashed canned beans with whole beans and seasonings makes an incredibly simple taco filling from your pantry. Top these speedy 5-ingredient tacos with lettuce, tomato and salsa or any of your favorite taco toppings. Two-Ingredient-Dough Margherita Pizza
1 You won't believe how quick and easy it is to make this healthy pizza. Thanks to a two-ingredient dough that combines self-rising flour and Greek yogurt, there is no need for a rise time. Just roll, top and bake, and you'll have a delicious dinner on the table in under half an hour. More Healthy Recipes
1 Skip takeout and make a healthier Chinese lo mein at home that's packed with vegetables. Make sure you drain your noodles well before adding them, as wet noodles will turn your stir-fry into a soggy mess. For a less spicy option, omit the sriracha hot sauce. Falafel
4 Tuck these tasty chickpea patties into whole-wheat pitas and top with tahini sauce (see associated recipe, below). Be sure to soak the chickpeas overnight for the creamiest mixture. The quick-soak method won't work for these pan-fried falafel patties. Chickpea Curry (Chhole)
27 Made with convenient canned beans, this quick and healthy Indian recipe is an authentic chickpea curry that you can make in minutes. If you want an additional vegetable, stir in some roasted cauliflower florets. Serve with brown basmati rice or warm naan. Elise's Sesame Noodles
45 Whole-wheat pasta bolsters fiber and nutrients in this popular Asian noodle salad. The recipe is from Annelise Stuart of Germantown, New York. More Healthy Recipes
So Good Faux Meat!
1 Crumbled extra-firm tofu is a great stand-in for ground beef for a meatless meal. This vegan substitute is perfect in lasagna, tacos, soup and more. We boost the flavor with garlic powder, paprika and tamari, but feel free to add your own flavorings. Szechuan Tofu & Green Bean Stir-Fry
31 This spicy vegetarian stir-fry is a great way to use green beans when they're bountiful and inexpensive at the supermarket. You can also try it with other vegetables, such as broccoli or peppers, just make sure to cut them into small pieces so that they cook quickly. Coating the tofu in cornstarch before you cook it gives it a light crust. Coconut-Crusted Tofu with Peach-Lemongrass Salsa
8 The crunchy-crisp tofu and our spicy-sweet salsa are inspired by that restaurant-chain classic, deep-fried coconut shrimp. Make it a meal: Stir fresh cilantro into basmati rice and serve alongside. Try sliced bananas drizzled with "lite" coconut milk for dessert. BBQ Carrot Dogs
8 Shock everyone with this recipe for veggie dogs that actually taste like hot dogs. They're an amazing (and healthy!) vegan alternative to traditional meat hot dogs. Serve in whole-wheat hot dog buns and top with all your favorite toppings, such as sauerkraut, relish, ketchup and mustard, for the ultimate barbecue meal. More Healthy Recipes
What I Learned
So how did we do? We made it through the month. Everyone did great. The kids were exposed to the new flavors, we saved some money on meat, and I was able to find new dinner inspiration. These were some of the tricks that helped us get through:
1. Planning is key: Planning out our meals at the beginning of each week helped us get excited for what was to come. Both of us looked around in magazines and on the web for recipe ideas that we wanted to try. I created a shared doc on my phone that both my husband and I could access that included each day of the week listed out with exactly what we were having for dinner that night (including sides) with all of the recipe links in one place, so that we didn't have to go hunting for them during the weeknight rush. Planning your meals also means you can prep ingredients ahead of time if that's your MO.
2. Keep it simple: Trying new recipes can be fun and inspiring, but if you're planning meals for weeknights, just make sure they're achievable. Keep the ingredient lists short, and read the recipe ahead of time before you commit.
3. Be flexible, for your sanity: Trying to get your kids to eat (and enjoy) a healthy meal is hard enough as it is. In our family, we've got food allergies to deal with too, which limits our options. I wanted to challenge our family to get out of our comfort zone, branch out and try a new way of eating. But I also wanted us to enjoy our meals-and not feel restricted. Because, ultimately, I'd love if our family eats more vegetarian dinners forever. Not just for a month.
4. Get the kids to help: This is a big one. Really, the biggest reason for the tears is that the kids just want to be involved in the decision-making process. They want to have some control over what they're eating. Having them help choose the recipes, and even prepare the meals, made them more likely to want to eat them.
5. Compile a recipe hit list and keep them in the rotation: You don't need to reinvent the wheel every week. If there are recipes your family loves, keep eating them! Our family has black bean tacos almost every week.