"Meat adaptable" cooking to please veggies and meat-eaters alike (+ bonus lentil taco recipe!)

June 13 | Guest post by Cass
Ancho-Lentil Tacos
Photo by Rachel K, used by CC license.

Maybe you are starting to make Meat-Free Mondays a regular at your dining table. Or maybe you are one-half of a vegetarian/meat-eating couple. Or maybe you are trying vegetarianism for the first time. It can be confusing to find where to start when all you can think of are foods with meat.

I have been a vegetarian since I was 12 years old. My husband grew up eating traditional American fare, without much variety. So when we started dating seven years ago, and then eventually got married, we had to figure out how we'd eat meals together. The usual trouble is that some meat-eaters think vegetarian food is weird, or others don't see the point in eating a meal if there is no meat included.

First we started out cooking meals for each other without any meat — traditional American food that is usually made without meat: salads, pasta dishes, cream-based soups. But that got old very quickly for both of us, as I wanted more adventurous dishes, and my partner wanted meat. So over time, we have started cooking meals that are what I call "meat adaptable."

Here are some tips for meat adaptable cooking:

Start with recipes you know and love, and try just omitting the meat.

Many recipes are easily adaptable this way. I recommend recipes that have hearty sauces, so your meat-eating loved ones aren't left feeling deprived and hungry.

You may have to make more of this food to satisfy hunger, because animal protein fills you up quickly, while it may take more plant foods to satisfy that same hunger or need for calories. These are usually the recipes that go over well, because they are familiar and satisfying.

Try meat substitutes

This does not have to mean processed soy or tofu! My favorite substitute is replacing the meat with beans or lentils, which works best in recipes needing ground beef. Try this with your casseroles and stews. But don't be afraid to get adventurous:

  • Cheese, add cubed to cold dishes, or shredded and mixed in to baked dishes.
  • Mushrooms replace larger pieces of meat, especially grilled.
  • Peas replace ground beef, especially in stews or curry. They're very high in protein.
  • Roasted or grilled vegetables replace meat just about anywhere.
  • Chopped walnuts replace chopped meat, especially mixed in to baked dishes (casseroles).
  • Vegetable stock/broth or salted water replace meat stock/broth in soups.
  • Poultry/steak/grill seasoning can be added to pump up the flavor in dishes where meat was omitted.
  • Liquid smoke can be added to recipes with omitted pork or beef (try it in split pea soup!).

Find a commercial meat substitute that tastes good to you. In my experience, many meals become palatable if we do use some sort of commercial soy product. We especially like the "prime" flavored burgers, and my partner likes the soy chicken strip meal starters. They are often convenient, comparably priced to meat, and cook quicker and more conveniently. These are a real winner that I keep stocked in my freezer.

Cook meat on the side

If all else fails, for the meat-eater who still insists on eating meat, try cooking it on the side. My George Foreman grill is a serious cornerstone to my marriage.

I will cook a great vegetarian meal, and then my partner will grill a chicken breast to eat with it. This tactic works for just about any meal. Chicken is especially versatile, and can be eaten as a whole grilled breast, chopped and added to salads, or shredded and added to sandwiches, stews and sauces.


Luckily my husband is a real sport when it comes to meat adaptable cooking. His favorite recipe that I cook, is vegan(!) and something he never adds meat to:

Lentil tacos

Ingredients:
Serves 3-4, and works great as leftovers

  • 1 Tbsp. Corn oil (optional)
  • ½ yellow onion, diced
  • 1 cup dry lentils, any color, rinsed
  • 2½ cups water
  • ½ packet, or 2 Tbsp. taco seasoning
  • 1 chipotle pepper in adobo sauce (or more for extra spice)

Instructions:

  1. Heat oil in a large saucepan, add onion and cook until tender.
  2. Add lentils, water, taco seasoning and chipotle pepper all at once.
  3. Cook on medium heat for about 30 minutes, until the lentils are cooked through. Be careful not to let the lentils get too dry, you want a bit of sauce.
  4. Serve immediately, and scoop into regularly-prepared taco shells.

Suggested toppings: Cheese, sour cream, tomatoes, lettuce, and salsa. But feel free to add the toppings you like, such as spanish rice, avocado, grilled peppers, fresh cilantro, vegetarian refried beans, etc.
These also can be served cold as an easy taco salad ingredient.

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  1. When my husband and I were dating, we did a lot of "meat on the side" dishes. We would cook together, and I would do a veggie version while he cooked meat to add to his. It got us hanging out and cooking together, and he didn't feel forced into vegetarianism against his will. Worked out great. 🙂

  2. Yummm lentil tacos! Neither my husband nor I are vegetarian, but I have never cared for ground beef and it makes him sick. I do lentil or mushroom tacos all the time. The lentils are especially nice because I can make a huge batch in the crock pot and then freeze dinner portions to just microwave later. It's amazing how well they work!

    • I would love to see a make-ahead or freezer meal version of today's post, and this sounds like a good start! 🙂

    • The lentil tacos can be made with canned or pre-cooked lentils. Reduce the water to 1/2 C. and cook until hot and bubbly, not the full 30 minutes.
      It is a lot quicker, but gets less flavor penetration.

      1 agrees
    • Great suggestion!
      I've also had good results cooking Asian food with peanuts, almonds and endamame.

      1 agrees
  3. Love the suggestions! And I am definitely trying your lentil taco recipe. In the past I've made spaghetti "meat sauce" with lentils, so I bet I will love lentil tacos too!

    My husband loves his meat, and I am mostly a vegetarian, although I will occasionally eat fish. We normally alternate between a vegetarian dinner + leftovers for a few days and then a "meat-adaptable" dinner + leftovers for a few days. He needs more calories than I do, so adding meat on the side is a good strategy for us. It can be difficult to find vegetarian meals that are hearty enough for him, especially since he doesn't like eating large salads.

    Vegetarian meals: variations on homemade pizza, pancakes/fake sausage patties, enchiladas/rice, burritos, daal with naan, fake chik patties/french fries, mushroom lasagna, mushroom black bean quesadillas, quinoa casseroles

    Meat adaptable meals: tacos (tofu for me, hamburger for him), macaroni and cheese/veggie (add hot dogs), greek veggie sandwiches on pita (add chicken breast), pasta salad (add chicken), lentil soup (add hot dogs), burgers (veggie for me, hamburger for him)

    Completely separate meals: every couple of weeks we don't even try to eat the same thing- he makes meatloaf and mashed potatoes and i make a vegan salad, soup with weird ingredients, or something with tons of cilantro!

    It helps that my husband is great with always keeping the meat on a plate in the fridge and using a separate cutting board and utensils from my veggie stuff. Our system works pretty well, but I love seeing articles like this for new ideas. 🙂

    2 agree
    • This sounds like you're already doing a lot of what my partner and I do. He loves to cook separate meals for himself some days because it feels like freedom and creative expression — I like to encourage this.

  4. We're also a meat-adaptable couple. Thank you so much for this awesome new term! We end up doing a lot of multi-part meals, like tacos (you can add your own elements, like you pointed out), pitas with grilled things and hummus, chili (with sauteed or ground meat on the side), etc.

    As far as hearty meat substitutes, grilled or roasted yams/sweet potatoes are AWESOME in tacos, nachos, etc. And I've had great success with homemade seitan. So easy! So adaptable!

    1 agrees
  5. Thanks for the recipe! It was awesome to have something that's not ground beef for the taco seasoning! I made Cilantro rice and a side salad it was a lovely reminder of home (I'm living abroad in Korea). So simple too! Thank you.

  6. I am not a vegetarian anymore. However, I rarely have meat in the house, because I find it horrifically expensive. My boyfriend is a big meat fan though, so thanks for ideas to cook when he comes over!

    1 agrees
  7. I'm so glad I came across this post! My husband and I have both been trying vegetarianism (at his urging) for about 3.5 months and have had a couple "flexible" scenarios (i.e.: we folded and had some nibbles of free-range chicken) when we've been unsure of how to proceed without using meat while still getting enough protein and iron. I'm still getting used to tofu. Thanks for the list of meat substitutes!

    • I am not a big fan of just chunks of tofu. I've heard marinating firm tofu and then grilling "steaks" is tasty. I can't get over the texture most of the time.
      But if you like regular chicken, try the meat-free chik'n strip "meal starters" that are so widely available now. My husband likes them a lot.

    • The issue with iron is that in plant products is often comes along with calcium. Iron and calcium bind together to result in your body getting neither when eaten together–fortunately this effect seems to be a per-meal issue as it happens in the digestive tract, so it only lasts about 3 hours. Leafy greens are supposed to be a great source of both, but in practice tend to just frustrate many people by giving them a deficiency when they rely on them too much for their iron or calcium content. So when trying to make sure you're getting enough iron, make sure you're keeping the calcium completely unbalanced in that meal.

      Another trip-up that I notice from a lot of (especially experienced) non-meat eaters is the fallacy that beans and peas and other starchy foods are high in protein. One serving of beans (half a cup) has one full meal's worth of starchy carbohydrates, and only about a quarter serving of protein. Vegetables that are high in protein–for vegetables–like mushrooms tend to be a little better, but most "plate assessments" for protein/carbs/veggies take into account the protein that's in the pasta and the broccoli, and that's part of the reason a serving of meat is only four ounces. Adding starchy foods as meat replacements unbalances a lot of the nutrition you're expecting to get. It's a major factor in why so many vegetarians are still struggling with obesity.

      So when I'm switching meat out for something, I try to be conscious of what I'm adding in with that protein. I try to switch out the starch with a higher protein alternative as well, and that tends to balance the proportions a bit better. I rarely end up with too much protein, but neither do I end up overloading my plate with carbs under the delusion that because I'm replacing my meat with beans they're a protein source and not a starch. If I'm overloading my plate with carbs, it is completely intentional ;).

      1 agrees
  8. I am not a veggo but I do like to eat quite a lot of meat free meals, my partner on the other hand is happy for maybe one vegetarian meal a fortnight. Meat optional chicken pasta is a good one. I make a tomato based pasta sauce with tonnes of vegetables in it (tin tomatos, tomato paste, basil, mushrooms, onion, garlic, zuchini, carrot, spinach, pine nuts) and we get a roast chook to go along with it. Then I serve up my meal sans chicken and partner just shreds off some chook and throws it in. It works well for creamy mushroom pastas as well.
    Tonight I'm making a vege bake for tea, I'll have it with a side of steamed bok choy and snow peas. Partner is going to cook himself up a chicken kiev to go with it.

  9. I'm far from being vegetarian, but at home we try to have meat-free meals fairly regularly and the one ingredient I've found that everyone loves is bulgur. It cooks up like rice (2cups water to 1cup bulgur) and completely takes on the flavour of whatever you're cooking it with. It has the texture of cooked ground meat so I use it in 'meat' sauces, lasagna, dirty rice – basically anything that calls for a ground meat. AND…this is child approved – my 4, 12, and 17 year-old all enjoy it.

    • That's a great idea! It does have a chewier texture. Next time I make my tofu/lentil "meat" sauce for spaghetti I will throw in some bulgur too.

    • Like bulgur, quinoa is a good grain to use like this, too – and has a bit more protein. My 5 year old nephew just loves quinoa!

  10. Great article! I've been trying to make my meals less meaty. I knew about the mushroom trick to add to stuff to make it have the texture of meat but peas and walnuts blew my mind.

    Something I like to do is chop up mushrooms and add to my ground beef for spaghetti, it bulks up the amount of non-pasta without removing a lot of flavor.

    • I started serving my marinara sauce over a bed of very-lightly-sauteed mushrooms (usually cut the slices into rectangular strips, it makes it seem like a mini penne pasta). Also, strips of kale cut into noodles and sauteed is good too, and what my partner prefers instead of mushroom pasta. Sometimes I still add a half serving of whole wheat pasta, but it reeeeeeeally cuts back on that refined starchyness.

  11. I've been trying to eat healthier for a while. Last year I decided I wanted to do the Meatless Monday thing. Luckily for me, my husband is open to just about any type of food, and, as he said, eating vegetarian one day a week is certainly not going to kill us. I've also been trying to just get more vegetables into our diet.

    My first vegetarian meal that I cooked was eggplant parmesan. I prepared it exactly the same way as I did chicken parm, but instead used a peeled, thick slice of egg plant in place of the chicken breast. It was quite tasty. I've also subbed additional squash for chicken in a Morrocan style tagine dish that turned out quite well.

    In dishes where I simply omit the meat, I've found that I don't feel as full and will be hungry an hour or so later. I am still learning how to get enough protein into my vegetarian dishes.

    For non-vegan vegetarian meals, I have learned to embrace egg dishes. You can do a lot with a frittata, plus you get an easy source of protein. Poached eggs are apparently a thing in cooking these days. I keep seeing recipes that have a poached egg on top. I tried one that was poached eggs over spiced red lentils and it was fantastic!

    I've recently began experimenting with cooking tofu. I've found that if you are not expecting meat, tofu can be quite good. Don't try to pass off the tofu as a meat substitute. It's not. The texture is wrong, and if you're expecting meat, this will weird you out. If you're expecting tofu, the texture isn't an issue. Tofu doesn't have a lot of taste by itself, and takes on the taste of whatever you cook it in. So far I've only subbed it in Asian dishes, with excellent results. This past Monday it went into Pad Thai.

    I've also been trying out different ravioli. Usually, I'll use a mixture of some kind of vegetable and cheese as the filling. The filling can usually be made ahead of time (this works well if you need to roast your vegetables). I cheat and use store bought wonton wrappers instead of making my own dough. My favorite so far has been roasted butternut squash ravioli with spinach and walnut pesto.

  12. When my partner and I moved in with his parents, it was in part because they need help cooking their meals. His dad was supposed to be eating vegan or vegetarian, a quest that ultimately failed, but that's a story for a different day.

    What I focused on first was making meals that are, even for the typical meat eater, not (always) expecting meat. Spaghetti, lasagna, various soups (those were the easy ones actually), that sort of stuff. My partner and I would often grill ourselves up a chicken breast or cook up some ground beef to add to it, so we would end up with spaghetti with meat sauce, a 5-bean chili where we would add taco meat, that sort of thing. Because so often we were eating separately anyway (dinner for us is usually about 5 hours later than the parental units prefer to eat it), I started making separate casseroles. Theirs vegetarian, ours meaty–or at least spicier. It's actually even easier because I prefer much better quality ingredients than they are willing to pay for, and I'm on disability with food stamps that I don't share my food with everyone, so all these things conspire to make everyone getting separate meals most days actually easier than trying to make one thing. If we have soup on the menu, I might make them a soup and reheat mine from the freezer. Sometimes I'll contribute 1/4 of the ingredients for the soup, or one of the sides for the dinner, and treat it as if I'd attended a pot luck dinner. Even so, it is easier to make three or four separate mexican casseroles catering to each person's food tastes than to make one and have everyone unhappy. I can make mine with free range chicken or grass-fed beef and olives and organic Non GMO corn tortillas; where Pops gets his standard corn tortillas and corn and beans (and TVP shhh don't tell him) and green peppers casserole; but Mum doesn't like green peppers so we give her zucchini that Pops doesn't like; and the mister gets corn that don't like and doesn't have to eat the olives I do, but he can eat his own blue corn tortillas or make it with chips and throw some pickled jalapenos in if he so chooses. Yeah, that was dinner yesterday lol.

    Mostly, having shredded or ground meats already made up makes it easy for me to make a vegetarian soup or casserole and meatify it for me and the mister.

  13. Veggie stock is time consuming and high effort to make, so my favorite substitution is V8 juice. I can't stand to drink the stuff, but it makes rich and tasty sauces and soups and can be used in just about any recipie that calls for beef stock. I am an avid meat eater, but I do quite enjoly paneer, a delicious mild cheese which has a similar texture to tofu. It's packed full of protien and it tastes great in curry. Take a jar or two of premade butter chicken or tikka masala sauce, sautee the chicken and paneer in seperate pans and split the sauce between the two. Add peas, broccoli, peppers, mushrooms, bok choy or whatever else you desire and serve with rice and naan. That's dinner in 30 mins or less!

    • This is an awesome tip, I've never tried V8 in place of meaty things. We will definitely be trying this!!
      Also, paneer is delicious.

  14. I love this! I just recently bought a cookbook that I believe was originally recommended on an OBH article:
    Everyday Flexitarian: Recipes for Vegetarians and Meat lovers alike
    My husband is an omnivore, and I've been a vegetarian for about (holy crap) 8.5 years now (which was a good while before we started dating). If you ask him, he will say he just likes "good food", and is quite happy to eat most vegetarian meals I cook. I am happy to cook meaty meals for him every once in a while – my vegetarianism to me means that I don't choose to eat meat, but I know my husband does and I'm just as happy to cook it for him (and he will eat meat whether I cook it or not). This may have something to do with my ego and cooking skills – I like to consider myself a fairly decent cook! I think it sounds weirder than it is – I know my husband will eat a good few "meaty" meals per month whether I'm the one cooking or not, and I know I'm a pretty good cook so I'd just as soon cook myself since I'll be in the kitchen cooking for me anyways. Also I just love cooking!
    A few of my favorite cooking tips that work very well for both of us:
    -We both really enjoy tofu, specifically when cubed to .75-1 inch pieces and fried until golden on all sides. This goes especially well in stir-fries, but is pretty neutral and could go in lots of dishes. Like most tofu it soaks up a lot of flavour, but by frying it first you give it a nice chewy texture without too much moisture.
    -Mushroom broth is my go-to for anything asking for either meaty broth or veggie broth. It has a nice earthy flavour that works well in traditionally meaty dishes, but is neutral enough to work in most veggie dishes regardless of other ingredients. I have made my own a couple times and it is definitely delicious, but for the time-effort/taste ratio I actually really love the Pacific Foods brand mushroom broth, found at Whole Foods. I always keep a few extras in the pantry, I sub this stuff in all the time and it improves everything. My husband is pretty ambivalent about mushrooms (doesn't particularly mind the taste but doesn't love it, not crazy about the texture) and he never knows I've cooked with it unless I tell him.
    -It is good to have a commercial meat substitute handy for quick recipe substitution. Our favorite brand is Quorn, which is mycoprotein-based. Their "chicken" substitutes in particular are very tasty, and they are carried in the major grocery stores in our area so are very convenient. My husband will eat it just as often as real chicken and enjoys it, and they have such a large variety of products that it's easy to find something you want to cook with.
    -I've been wondering why all the comments are so long on this post, now after writing mine I see 🙂 Love OBH and the community here!

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