12 Tips for Maintaining a Whole Food Plant-Based Diet in a House of Meat-Eaters

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“I want to eat a more whole food plant-based diet — but my boyfriend would never stand for it!”

“I’d like to eat more plant proteins, but I married a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy, and there’s no way I’m making two meals every night.”

If these are your excuses for not trying a more plant-based lifestyle, it’s time to change your tune. We’ve talked to people just like you, working wives, husbands, moms, and dads who were able to eat a radically different diet from their spouses and make it a breeze.

Why Eat Two Diets?

There are a lot of reasons why you might have two different diets in one house.

Amy McElroy is a gluten-free vegetarian for digestive reasons, but her husband and one of her daughters are “fairly well-rounded omnivores,” and she has a second very picky teenage daughter.

Jordan Silverman has been a vegetarian since high school due to environmental, ecological, and animal rights reasons. Two high school learning opportunities in particular “made an enormous impression,” he says. “Everything substantially stuck with me, and that was 23 years ago and I never even considered going back.”

Silverman is raising two children and he allows his kids to make their own choices when it comes to their food. He says that their plant-based foundation definitely makes meat a rarity for the 9 and 6 year olds. “For us it’s a bit like trying television-when we go to friends homes, we try it. . .we try a bit of meat and a bit of TV, but we rarely bring either back home.” He does, however, occasionally make meat at home for his sons.

Andy Kolovos is also a long-time vegetarian, having made the switch at 17 for what he says was a question of his teenage identity. “Being a vegetarian was a ‘punk rock’ thing to do in the ’80s,” he says. Today, the 44-year-old father of two has retained his vegetarian lifestyle more for ethical reasons than anything else. However, he does not impose his choices on his household. “I view this as a personal choice I’ve made, and it is not one I have ever forced on a partner–or now my family,” he says. “My wife is omnivorous, I’m a vegetarian and my kids eat what they like.”

Maggie Rogers says that even though her children are grown, when they come together in the summer, the table has a variety of spreads for anywhere from 14 to 24 people. “Each July we rent a large beach house for two weeks and I do the cooking,” she says. “My family consists of the following eaters: carnivores, vegans, vegetarians, eat fish/don’t eat fish, picky children, and gluten-free. Some are both gluten-free and vegan.”

From vegetarians to pescatarians to vegans to omnivores, there are often a variety of preferences all living under one roof. Add to that the presence of food allergies and aversions, and you might find yourself in this situation.

How to Approach Cooking One Meal For Many

When there are several different diets to accommodate in one household, you might be afraid of becoming a short-order cook, making something different for everyone. But our cooks say that’s not necessary; they have a few different ways of making sure everyone leaves the table satisfied.

Cook for the Lowest Common Denominator and Include Sides

Many of our home cooks approach the meal by cooking for the lowest common denominator. In other words, cook for those who eat the least variety, and make add-ons for those who want a bit more on their plate.

“Cook the meat separately for the meat eaters to add to whatever else you are cooking,” explains McElroy. “If they don’t like your sides, etc. they can dress up the meat however they choose.”

Christine Santucci has both pescatarians and vegetarians in her household. A typical meal in her home is “a vegetarian main with some odd sides. We like grains and do a lot of bowls, especially with an egg or sliced avocado on top.”

Silverman says that in his house, most nights dinner is “our basic ‘something on a bed of something else’ recipe. Seasoned veggies on a bed of couscous, roasted roots on a bed of spinach, stir-fried veggies and tempeh on a bed of quinoa, veggies on a bed of lentils, etc.” The same holds true when meat is involved for his children; he just has the bed without the topping.

Rogers says that when she’s cooking her family feasts, she prepares a vegan base and lots of sides. “If its a beet and arugula and candied walnut salad, the feta is served on the side,” she says. Meat is generally cooked on the grill, and meat-eaters can add it to their plates as they see fit.

Allow the Meat-Eater to Take Care of the Meat Portion

When the meat-eaters are your kids, it can be hard to force them to take control of this part of the meal, but when it’s your spouse, you can always ask him or her to lend a hand.

Kolovos says that in his family, his wife, who is not a vegetarian, does most of the shopping and the cooking. “In all cases she accommodates, sometimes overly so, my needs,” he says.

“Our dinners are usually plant protein based in some way–we eat a lot of rice and pasta, beans, and not infrequently, tofu. My wife will occasionally make herself some beef, pork, or chicken. There are times my wife will prepare two parallel versions of the same meal–a vegetarian version and a meat version.”

In Kevin Clayton’s house, the meat is prepared by the meat-eater and is generally cooked out of doors. “My wife asked me to not cook meat in the house because of the smell,” explains Kevin Clayton. “Also, it’s so easy to grill , and I know how to grill well, that I can cook the meat the way like it.”

But while in Santucci’s and Kolovos’ families, the pickiest person is not the one cooking, in McElroy’s family, she does most of the cooking, which means she’s often handling the meat she doesn’t eat. “It doesn’t bother me to cook meat,” she says. “I even miss eating some kinds. It just destroys my stomach.”

Make Meals that Can Be Modified

While many of our home-cooks live with folks who are willing to change up their diets a bit, Angela Cavalier and Holly Leber, who already wrote about her experience with this in “Love You, Hate Your Food,” both live with extremely “meat-and-potatoes” men. Cavalier’s fiancé claims, “I eat more than meat and potatoes. I also drink beer.”

“For him, for it to feel like a meal there has to be meat,” says Cavalier. “For me, for it to be a meal there has to be veggies. I think that is the biggest discrepancy between how we see meals.”

Cavalier says that, “The very first time I made dinner for my guy it was cheese manicotti. He said, ‘it’s pretty good, but next time put some meat in it.'” It was at this point that Cavalier decided that she would start making her casseroles — and many of her other meals — “half-and-half.” From burritos to pastas to pizzas, Cavalier often makes two versions of the same thing, adding meat to one and leaving the other vegetarian.

Leber has a similar approach. She does not eat red meat, and her boyfriend doesn’t eat any vegetables. As a result, she plans for two meals made of the same base.

“I do most of the grocery shopping, trying to plan for as much crossover as possible, i.e. chicken and quinoa, but he’ll have more of each and I’ll have mine over salad,” she says.

Tips for Pulling it Off

Does this still seem like a challenge? Well… it is. But it’s not unsurmountable. Here are some tips from our experts to help you feel comfortable doing this at home.

  1. Embrace ethnic food. Santucci says that she regularly prepares Korean, Indian, and Asian meals.
  2. Don’t scoff at tofu. Kolovo says that even his picky eaters like it, and Santucci says it makes regular appearances on her dinner table.
  3. Think outside of the usual main dish protein, veg, grain dinner formula,” says Santucci. “It is very freeing and you probably will end up eating a tastier and more varied diet.”
  4. Make it fun! “One of my favorite activities is cooking with my children,” says Silverman. “Every second we’re in the kitchen together, no matter how tough work was, no matter how tough really anything feels, the moment we’re all in the kitchen together-all is right with the world.”
  5. Don’t make it more stressful than it is. “There isn’t much in life truly worth getting upset about,” says Silverman. “When it comes to food, the degree to which it can bring us together, bring us peace, bring us time with family, bring us time with friends, bring us time with new communities, embracing the few extra minutes it takes to tend to the meat eater (or the veggie), or the few extra minutes for the changing-tastes of kids, is much more worth the time required for the chef to adapt as opposed to the time it takes to challenge others’ changing tastes.” Leber agrees. “People have asked me, ‘how can you be with someone who doesn’t eat vegetables?'” says Leber. “I think that’s a pretty shallow question. A person’s eating habits shouldn’t be what determines a relationship.”
  6. Learn to enjoy cooking,” says Clayton. “Then all of your meals can be fun and delicious. Good vegetarian food almost always is more interesting than meals with meat.”
  7. Ask for help. McElroy teaches her kids to cook so that they can prepare what they like at home. And Cavalier often prepares the sides and asks her fiancé to make the meat protein. You may have some pleasant surprises when you bring someone else into the kitchen! “Some of my favorite moments come from this,” she says. “He will say, ‘your vegetables are better than my…’ (Insert whatever protein he made).”
  8. Invite the picky eaters in your house to try new things… “(Nik) never thought he liked veggies because he only had steamed or boiled or canned veggies growing up,” says Cavalier. “With roasting, grilling, sautéing, and even blanching I have opened his world to veggie preparation and enjoyment. He used to think a potato was good enough as a side. Now he will ask what vegetable we are having with it. A small win for me.” But there’s no need to take this too far. Leber has found a few things that her boyfriend likes as well. “He’s pretty stubborn about what he doesn’t like,” she says. “However, he has admitted that mashed potatoes made from turnips, rutabaga and cauliflower aren’t bad, if not a direct facsimile.”
  9. …but don’t force it. While Silverman says his kids love most of what he makes, it’s important to accommodate other peoples’ tastes and diets, as much as you would as with pure likes and dislikes. “My older boy could drink balsamic vinegar by the gallon while my younger boy likes to go easy on it,” says Silverman. “And my younger boy will eat eggplant like it’s growing in his drawers, while my older boy rarely touches it.” For some, this is a matter of principal or diet, and there’s no reason to force the issue. “After almost 25 years of not eating red meat, I’m worried about how it would affect me, so I draw the line there,” says Leber.
  10. Compromise. There are a lot of ways to compromise, so you’ll need to find the ways that work best for your home. Cavalier says she tends to eat vegetarian at lunch and cook a meat protein at dinner. And Leber says that compromise comes in many forms. “If we get Chinese takeout, he’ll order a chicken dish (usually orange chicken) instead of a beef one, so I can eat the broccoli that comes with his,” says Leber. “He’ll also keep meat separate from sauce for pasta so we can both use the same sauce.”
  11. Be appreciative. Don’t overlook the effort that the people in your life are making. “Appreciate the food accommodations people make for you–and let them know that you appreciate it,” says Kolovos. “And from the other side, honor their choices as well.”
  12. Cater to the lowest common denominator first. “Go heavy on the vegan options,” says Rogers. “They are delicious and healthy. It is okay to take a break from meat now and then. Everyone says they feel lighter and better, not stuffed, not uncomfortable, when eating the many salads I serve each night.”

So now there’s no excuse. It’s time to investigate the wonderful world of plant proteins. Our experts agree — you won’t regret it.

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Dinner party image via Shutterstock

Emily Monaco is a food and culture writer based in Paris. Her work has been featured in the Wall... More about Emily Monaco