“What’s for dinner?”
I’m not sure why, but I dread this question each and every night. It’s not that I don’t like cooking – quite the opposite, really. But it’s more that I find it exhausting to try to come up with unique and creative ideas for dinners night after night after night. I know a lot of you struggle with the same thing.
I’m not a meal planner. I never head to the grocery store with a list of recipes or ideas in my head. Instead, I go with a short list of items we are out of, and from there I see what is in season and what’s on sale. Then I get it all home and try my best to make sense of it.
I’m often asked about meal planning and how to build nutritious and filling vegetarian dinners. So I thought I’d walk you through what goes on in my head – and my kitchen – on most nights.
The thing I hear most often from people who are just starting out as vegetarian is that they end up eating exactly what they ate before – minus the meat. I think this happens because most people enter into cooking focused on protein. In culinary school, we always had to “pick our proteins” first, and then work our meals around that. I think this is something easily done by a seasoned vegetarian, but when you’re just starting out and still have little knowledge of what veggie proteins even exist, this makes meal planning feel overwhelming (and is a reason why many people give up after a such a short time!).
Now don’t get me wrong, protein is important and of course you still want it, but I actually craft my meals centered around the carbs. I think we can all agree – vegetarians and meat eaters alike – that carbs are both delicious and essential. For me, it’s much easier to think in terms of “do I want pasta or potatoes? Millet or rice?” – and then I continue to build the meal from there.
Let’s start with an example. Last night Casey was in the mood for pasta. I surveyed the pantry and narrowed it down to gnocchi, spaghetti, or penne. With gnocchi selected, from there I decided we’d do basic marinara sauce and then bulked it up with additional frozen vegetables and peas. Cheap, simple, and fast – but a complete meal nonetheless.
Pasta is easy though, so here’s another example. We had a bag of fingerling potatoes leftover from our CSA haul, so I chopped them up and roasted them for dinner a few nights ago. With the potatoes cooking in the oven, I looked for complimentary and nutritious options to round out our plates.
I always try to fill at least 50% of our plates with vegetables. Sometimes this means a big salad or pile of green beans. Other times this means a big mound of starchy potatoes with a small side of greens. It all evens itself out over time. On this particular night, we balanced our potatoes with a sauté of zucchini and field roast veggie sausage. Starch, veggies, and protein – all on one plate.
Back to my original point about the carbs. If I know we are in the mood for some sort of noodles, I try to make sure we have more than just a bowl of carbs and sauce. Edamame and peas are great ways to add protein to pasta dishes and noodle salads.
But for all this pasta talk, most of the time we actually start each meal by choosing a grain. If we’re having brown or mixed rice, I’ll try to pair that with tofu or lentils, along with a heaping helping of roasted veggies or something like raw kale salad. I aim to get a variety of colors on the plate!
If the grain of choice for the night is quinoa, I don’t worry about any additional protein sources – quinoa serves double duty (it’s source of complete protein on its own!).
Vegetarian meals tend to be lower in calories than their meaty counterparts, which is why I think it’s easier for me to focus my meals around more calorie-dense carbs. The other way I build meals is by focusing on one particular ingredient – something special I picked up at the market, or something that looks like it needs to be used up soon.
If I have a big head of purple cabbage in the fridge, I start with that. Maybe I want to warm it with apples. Or maybe I should leave it raw and make an Asian slaw. Either way, it’s a starting point, and the rest of the meal can develop from there.
Of course this rule doesn’t apply to every meal. There are always going to be exceptions – like nights where we eat soups and salads – but most of the time this is how we build our dinners.
I know going meatless can sometimes seem overwhelming, particularly at the very beginning. It seems like there is less to choose from, and it can make meal planning feel daunting. In my personal experience with going vegetarian, even though I technically have fewer protein options available, I eat a much more diverse and balanced diet now than ever before.
What used to be chicken or fish? – has turned into tofu, lentils, beans, quinoa, grains, salads? – our options feel endless. Hopefully the next time you feel stuck answering “what’s for dinner?” these building blocks can help to get a satisfying and delicious meal on the table.