9 Tips for Cooking Better Plant-Based Meals
If you’re not sure how to start a plant-based diet but know it’s a goal this year, we have some great tips to offer you for cooking vegetarian-friendly food that tastes great. We’ll also share some vegan and vegetarian dinner ideas as well as what to expect from our plant-based diet meal plan.
If one of your New Year’s resolutions for 2021 is to eat less meat, you’ve come to the right place! Plant-based eating has become increasingly popular over the past few years, and it’s no surprise. As a culture we’re becoming much more aware of the drawbacks of eating a lot of meat, including on our health, the environment, and the animals involved in industrialized livestock agriculture. At the same time, we’re learning more and more about the health benefits of a plant-based diet, not to mention how much money it saves.
And just as important, vegetarian and vegan cooking has come a long way since the days when “the vegetarian option” was a sad-looking iceberg salad with the same three ingredients each time. Now, many of our meal plan service members choose to make the vegetarian version of recipes we provide, not because they never eat meat, but just because they sound delicious!
For more on the benefits of meatless meals, check out our post 3 Reasons to Eat More Meatless Meals. If you’re already onboard and ready to dive in, then read on for our tips to getting started with plant-based meals.
Plant-Based Diet Challenges
But first, let’s talk about why making the switch to meat-free meals is challenging for many home cooks. Understanding what obstacles you’re likely to encounter will help you avoid those obstacles so that your plant-based eating goals can stay on track.
- It’s easy to go back to old habits. If you’ve been cooking one way your whole life, it’s natural to default to what’s familiar. Especially during busy or stressful times, it’s hard to add one more thing to your plate by taking the time to convert your favorite meat-based recipes into plant-based ones, or to seek out new plant-based recipes. (This is one reason many Cook Smarts members love our service so much — we do all the planning and converting for you!)
- Many vegetarian recipes lack variety. Vegetarian recipes often rely heavily on pasta, cheese, and tofu. And while we love all three of those foods from time to time, they’re not exactly enough variety for either a healthy diet or for really enjoying the wide range of plant-based foods available to us.
- It’s hard to create balanced plant-based meals when you’re not used to it. Though well-balanced, plant-based meals have huge health benefits, learning to cook plant-based is not always as easy as swapping a can of beans for a hunk of meat. As a result, many new vegetarians find themselves eating less protein and more carbs than they ideally would, causing a possible craving for meat. (And yes, you can definitely get enough protein without eating meat or dairy! Check out our Guide to High-Protein Vegetables for some of our favorite powerhouses.)
9 Tips for Cooking Better Plant-Based Meals
We know you’re ready to get cookin’, so without further delay, here are our favorite tips for improving the plant-based meals you make — whether you’re just getting started with meatless cooking, or have been doing it for years.
1. Know your substitutes
To turn any meat-based meal into a plant-based meal easily, it’s helpful to know which plant-based ingredients make good meat substitutes and which won’t work out quite right. For instance, tofu can be marinated and baked like you would chicken in a roast chicken recipe, but doesn’t make a great chicken substitute for chopped chicken in something like chicken noodle soup. Similarly, lentils work well as a ground beef substitute for tacos, but don’t hold up as well when making vegetarian meatballs.
Take the guesswork out of substitutions with our Quick & Easy Guide to Vegetarian Meat Substitutes so that you can keep using your tried-and-true favorite recipes with plant-based ingredients and still have them turn out great.
What can I use instead of meat? Learn how to substitute meat with vegetarian alternatives with our Vegetarian Guide to… Read more.
2. Find brands you like
If you’re going for meat substitute products rather than subbing with foods like beans, lentils, seeds, and nuts, it’ll take some trial and error to find the products that are right for you. Some taste similar to real meat, while others don’t try to replicate meat at all. Some nail the textures but fall short on flavor, or vice versa.
Don’t try one brand and assume you dislike everything in the same category, but instead keep tasting until you discover the products that fit your preferences. These products have evolved a lot in the past decade or so, and you may be surprised at what you find! Check out our Getting Started With Meatless Cooking article to read recommendations from plant-based Cook Smarts users for the products they prefer.
3. Experiment to learn what you like
Beans can be mashed, air fried, or mixed into rice. Lentils can be puréed into soups, put on salads, or mixed into spaghetti sauce. Chances are good that you’ll like some of these uses more than others, so just like we recommend trying out a variety of meat substitute brands, we also recommend trying out a bunch of different ways to use the plant-based foods you’re cooking with now. Also keep in mind that there are many different varieties of beans and lentils (not to mention nuts, seeds, and other sources of plant-based protein). Some are better for certain uses than others, and you may love some and dislike others.
4. Learn how to prep and cook amazing vegetables
If you grew up in a meat-and-potatoes family (or even if you didn’t!), chances are good that vegetables were sort of an afterthought — low on flavor, mushy, and often waterlogged. We find that many people don’t know how to cook vegetables well, or they’re scared to try new veggies. But when done right, vegetables are so much more than just the boring side dish you include because you “should.” Vegetables can be fun, beautiful, and make your meals so much more flavorful when you know how to cook them!
Sometimes that means tossing them in a marinade or vinaigrette before roasting; other times it means topping them with a sauce before serving; and still others it means sprinkling them with fresh herbs to bring out savory or sweet flavors. (One of the best parts of our meal plan service is that we encourage you to try new vegetables and teach you how to make them delicious!) For short video lessons on prepping a wide variety of produce, check out our Produce Prep Guide.
5. Explore a variety of cooking techniques
Variety is the spice of life, and that’s just as true with cooking techniques as it is with ingredients. We all have our defaults, whether that’s grilling or sautéeing or roasting in the oven, but changing things up will keep your plant-based meals interesting and allow you to choose the best cooking method for any given meal.
6. Don’t try to wing it (yet)
Follow a recipe until you get a better understanding of how plant-based meals work and what you do and don’t like. It’s not too complicated once you get the hang of it, but in the meantime, no one wants to eat meals that just seem out of balance. Seeing how recipes are put together will give you a better understanding of what proportions of ingredients to use, how to balance textures and flavors in a dish without added meat, and how much of each type of ingredient fills you up.
7. Understand the purpose of each animal-based ingredient in a recipe
If you’re starting with a non-plant-based recipe and want to convert it into a plant-based recipe, it’s helpful to understand why the recipe developer did what they did. For instance, oil can often be used instead of butter in a recipe, but there are times when it just won’t work. If you’re making a cold sauce or topping for a dish, such as miso butter, it’s better to use a plant-based butter because oil will be too thin.
Another example: Egg serves as a binder in foods like meatballs or baked goods, meaning it helps the finished product to stay together instead of crumbling. Rather than just leave out an egg to make a dish vegan, you’d want to substitute in a plant-based alternative, such as ground flaxseed mixed with water. Without understanding why an ingredient is included in the first place, it’s impossible to know how to swap it out effectively.
8. Add some extra umami
Vegetarian meals sometimes feel like they’re missing something because meat can provide umami flavors that balance out the other flavors in a dish. Without that umami, the flavors often seem thin. But meat is far from the only way to get umami into a dish — using umami-rich, plant-based ingredients can go a long way toward making up for this deficit.
These ingredients include miso paste, soy sauce, mushrooms (fresh or dried), tomatoes (especially concentrated versions, such as tomato paste), and vegetarian dashi. Keep in mind that many of these ingredients contain significant amounts of salt, so you may need to reduce the added salt in a recipe to keep things from getting too salty. For an example of how this can work, see our Slow Cooker Split Pea Soup, which uses ham in the original version of the recipe and adds miso to the broth in the vegetarian version.
9. Give your body time to adjust
Just like when introducing new foods to kids, it helps to keep tasting ingredients you may not like at first to see if your tastes change. We naturally crave the foods we eat frequently because our gut microbes demand more of what they like to eat. Eat more sweet potatoes, for example, and the microbes that like sweet potatoes will flourish — and they’ll tell your brain to start craving sweet potatoes too. That’s one reason dietary changes are so hard at first but quickly become second nature. (Aren’t bodies cool?!) So keep tasting those “just okay” foods and your preferences will quickly catch up.
How to Stick to a Plant-Based Diet
Like any substantial habit change, sticking with your new plant-based cooking habit will be challenging at times. But there are a few major things you can do to keep yourself going when you’re tempted to go back to what’s familiar. Here’s what we recommend:
Plan Meals in Advance
At the end of a long day, our brains are too tired to make the best decisions for us. It’s normal to want to default to what’s quick and easy if you don’t have a plan, so making those decisions in advance, when you’re able to think clearly and keep your long-term goals in mind, will make it easier to stick with plant-based eating for the long run.
Aim for Variety
No one wants to eat the same thing over and over, week after week. If you get bored with your plant-based meals, you’re much more likely to start to add back in foods that you’re avoiding or limiting. So make meals more fun by changing up your ingredients, cooking techniques, flavors, and textures (as we discussed in the tips section!).
Find Friends who Share Your Goals
Whether in person or online, it helps not to go it alone. Connect with others who are also aiming to eat more plant-based meals, and you can share tips and tricks, recipes and ideas, and have support when you feel yourself losing motivation.
Sign Up for Cook Smarts!
Make all of the above easier by trying out Cook Smarts meal plan service. We provide you with 4 meals per week of real, healthy food, and there’s a vegetarian version of each recipe that’s low- to no-dairy. We also have a Facebook group full of helpful, kind Cook Smarts users who are always ready to offer tips for making ingredient swaps or help you decide whether an ingredient can be successfully left out of a meal. We offer a 14-day free trial so that you have plenty of time to test out some recipes and explore our extensive recipe archives! Start your trial now or learn more about our vegetarian meal plans here.
Getting Started with Plant-Based Meals
Our users have raved about these recent plant-based meals:
- Black Bean Falafel with Couscous and Coriander Zucchini: For a fully vegan meal, use oil in the couscous instead of butter, use ground flax and water instead of the egg (1 tablespoon of ground flax + 3 tablespoons of water = one egg), and look for vegan mayo.
- Mushroom and Cabbage Potstickers with Szechuan Green Beans: The vegetarian version of our popular homemade potstickers taste as good as a restaurant’s, with fragrant ginger and garlic and a made-from-scratch dipping sauce.
- Lasagna Soup with Lentils and Ricotta: Toggle to the vegetarian version of this meal for the plant-based option. You can use cashew ricotta and leave out the optional Parmesan for a fully plant-based meal.
- Avocado and Edamame Poke Bowl with Spicy Garlic Mayo: The vegetarian version of our popular poke bowls balances sweet and salty, creamy and crunchy. Vegan mayo would make this a fully vegan meal, or just drizzle on a tiny amount of chili garlic sauce without diluting it (careful, it’s spicy!).
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