Cooking for Vegetarian Guests

We may get commissions for purchases made through links in this post.

Although I’m a vegetarian, most of my friends are not, and my large extended family (mainly living in very small rural areas) are not used to cooking for vegetarians at all, which means I have to explain a lot when I’m invited over for a meal. As people get more aware of vegetarianism, and the various types of vegetarians/vegans or reasons for vegetarianism, I hear a lot of people expressing confusion or anxiety around how to make sure a vegetarian guest will be happy with a meal.

First, it’s always okay to ask ahead of time what your guest will and will not eat. While I eat both eggs and dairy, I’ve had family members assume that fish (or even chicken) will be okay, and having to reject the bulk of a lovingly prepared meal on the spot is not pleasant for anyone involved. Since vegetarians vary about limitations, it’s best to be aware of the specifics ahead of time.

At a large gathering where only one person is a vegetarian (especially a holiday like Thanksgiving or Christmas), your guest probably doesn’t expect every part of the meal to be vegetarian, or even to have a separate “main dish” prepared for him/her. Just make sure that at least some of the side dishes are meatless – don’t put real bacon bits in salads (keep them on the side if you wish), for example. If you can, try to find a side dish that’s a nut-based recipe or uses legumes for protein.. Your guest would probably be glad to offer some recipe sources or suggestions, or even to bring a favorite dish for others to try.

Don’t assume that vegetarians can just pick the meat out of a pasta sauce, stir fry or off of a pizza – the flavor of the meat is usually still noticeable, and the risk of missing a bit will take all enjoyment out of eating the meal. As a general rule, most vegetarians, even those that eat eggs and dairy, don’t eat meat-based gravy or chicken or beef stock. Where it’s possible, try to substitute vegetable stock or vegetarian gravy, but where it’s not, be sure to inform your vegetarian guest of the content. In most cases, vegetarians are happy to be accommodated in whatever way you can, and they don’t expect that no one else will be eating meat in their presence, or that you will have a pan available that’s never been used for meat.

While it may seem counter-intuitive, a lot of vegetarians would prefer not to talk about their reasons for not eating meat in front of large groups – it makes it much easier if any required questions can be asked and adaptations can be made ahead of time, and if the dishes that are meatless are just pointed out to your guest at dinnertime. While it may be a politically or ethically motivated decision, for many, the choice not to eat meat is also a very personal one. Explaining it, or even justifying it to those who find it silly, doesn’t make for pleasant dinner conversation and can make it more difficult to enjoy a family gathering.

And again, your vegetarian friend or family member isn’t trying to make your life more difficult, just making the choices that are best for him or her for whatever reasons. Just focus on the fact that getting together for a meal is primarily about the company and the companionship, and keep any necessary adaptations to the food as simple as possible and enjoy yourselves.