Design a Vegetarian Meal

Let’s talk about what elements constitute a well-balanced vegetarian or vegan meal.  I find that this is one of the more misunderstood concepts.  Often when the urge to become vegetarian is fueled, the resulting diet becomes what I call  “pizza and coke vegetarianism”.  A diet centering around sugar, white flour and cheese IS vegetarian, ceases support of Confined Animal Feeding Operations and  soothes the conscience, but does it serve the body?  I don’t believe it does.  This interpretation of vegetarianism can lead to weight gain, mineral deficiencies and poor health in general.

Eating a mostly vegetarian diet is not a new thing. Press on Jonathan Safran Foer’s book  Eating Animals points out that Gandhi, Thomas Jefferson and Aristotle questioned the practice of eating meat.  But throughout history, most common people who ate a  vegetarian diet did so not because of ethics, but economics.  Meat used to be expensive.  I would guess that is why many cultures who were agriculturally savvy started putting grains and beans together – inexpensive foods that when combined can offer the amino acids needed to create protein in the human body.

In my cooking classes we practice making vegan, vegetarian and omnivorous meals so that students get a feel for how to create balance regardless of philosophy.  The well balanced vegetarian meals we make in class are not centered around white flour and cheese but focused on combining a whole grain and a bean.  The structure looks like this:

Whole grain
Legume or traditional soy food

Vegetable (green)
Vegetable
Digestive
(raw, fermented, cultured, pickled, bitter)

This meal structure provides the full array of amino acids so that protein needs can be met while conveniently providing ample complex carbohydrates.  By traditional soy food I mean products such as tofu, tempeh, miso as opposed to soy hot dogs and burgers (see To Fu or Not To Fu).  The emphasis on vegetables provides abundant vitamins and anti-oxidants.  The digestive element, including a small portion of something raw, pickled or fermented, does just that – aids digestion (and p.s. flavor).

In the vegetarian diet  one needs to be aware of providing a B12 source.  B12 can only be reliably found in animal products.  If you include dairy products or eggs, you’re covered.  If you are vegan, you will need to include a regular supplement.  This meal structure is high in fiber too.  If you are working to lose weight or keep weight off, combining whole grains and beans may give you more satisfaction with less calories than white flour and cheese or meat and potatoes.

Many of the menus posted on Cookus Interruptus reflect this structure.  It’s pretty fun to meal plan this way.  Think Golden Spice Rice with Vegetable Chickpea Curry with Raita Topping:

Whole grain: Brown rice
Legume or traditional soy food: Chickpeas
Vegetable (green): Broccoli
Vegetable: Carrots, onions. cucumbers
Digestive (raw, fermented, cultured, pickled, bitter): Yogurt (also B12)

I bet you guys have dozens of meal plans that fit into this structure.  Share darn it!

10 thoughts on “Design a Vegetarian Meal

  1. Ever since you mentioned this method of meal planning (in one of the videos?), I’ve used it pretty successfully for lunches. For my brown bag lunches, I cook a week’s worth of beans and rice on the weekend and store it in the refrigerator to serve as a base for improvised meals that may include green peppers, green onions, cilantro, and salsa for example, whatever I have on hand. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s healthier and cheaper than fast food.

    What I haven’t figured out is breakfast. Perhaps I’m too set in my ways to imagine good breakfast meals using this idea. Any suggestions?

  2. Aah yes, ye olde white bread + cheese + fake soy meat vegetarian diet. I started down that path in college and it led to weight gain and tooth decay. Eventually, I did get more balanced and lost most of the weight. Curries and stir fries and in general, menus from parts of the world other than Europe/America make it much easier to incorporate all 5 of the ingredients you mention.

    I didn’t jump on the digestive wagon until recently, but now in the depth of winter I’m having trouble working it into every single meal. I’ve resorted to putting a spoonful of plain yogurt on top of just about everything.

    (We’re not exactly vegetarians anymore either, but that’s a different story.)

  3. OK, I’ve decided to creep out of the shadows and confess that I am a long-time vegetarian who does, on occasion, eat fake meats. I read labels and avoid soy protein isolate. One of my favorites, which, sadly, is no longer available is tempeh burgers (Superburger from Turtle Island). I also enjoy Tofurky brats, made with tofu and vital wheat gluten (no SPI) and Field Roast sausages, made with vital wheat gluten (no soy at all).

    While most of our dinners more closely resemble your recommended structure, I find these products tasty, satisfying and nice to fall back on when we’re in a hurry. The Field Roast smoked apple sage sausages are yummy with a potato and egg breakfast.

  4. Cynthia,
    Could you provide more information about soy protein isolate and why you don’t approve? Perhaps there is an article you could point me to. What do you recommend for veggies who want the tradtional egg breakfast? We have been eating veggie sausage and bacon, but I just looked at the label and discovered SPI is an ingredient in both of the brands I buy. Love your stuff – and my kids do, too!

    1. Hi Heather,
      Soy protein isolate is the key ingredient in imitation meat and dairy products made with soy, including baby formula, energy bars and some brands of soy milks.
      To make SPI a slurry of soybeans are mixed with an alkaline solution to remove the fiber, then precipitated and separated using an acid wash and finally neutralized in an alkaline solution.
      Acid washing in aluminum tanks may leach aluminum into the final product. The resultant curds are spray dried at high temperatures to produce high protein powder.
      I prefer not to eat things that I could not possibly make in my kitchen. I also feel that powders and kibbles are lifeless food from an energetic point of view. Try scrambled tofu or fried tempeh for breakfast. More info in blog post “To Fu or Not To Fu” on this site.

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  6. Can you give more examples of the fermented/cultured/bitter/pickled elements? Miso is fermented, yes? (My husband can’t do yogurt/dairy). Topping it with cilantro and a bit of raw (not toasted) seaweed, I assume that would fit the bill? I don’t do my own pickling; I have tried, and my results are very mixed. We buy Bubbie’s sauerkraut, but sauerkraut I think might taste strange on a stir-fry dish with asian flavors… but maybe I should try it. Alternatively, I am thinking maybe a miso sauce would work, since that is cultured. What qualifies as a bitter ingredient? Tahini?

  7. Hi Natalie,
    You are on the right track – miso is fermented. Bubbie’s sauerkraut is great. I make my own kimchi and have that or pickled ginger with Asian flavored dishes. Mostly looking for toppings or flavorings that have live enzymes (raw) or friendly bacteria (cultured or fermented). Raw chopped herbs are perfect. Salsas and slaws – great. Raw, unfiltered apple cider vinegar works (yummy with butter on cooked greens). Citrus zest, coffee, unsweetened chocolate, beer – are examples of bitter. Raw greens such as dandelion, escarole, sorrel and mustard greens are bitter and can be part of a salad.

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