Five Hard Lessons Learned About Cooking Without Meat, Eggs, and Dairy for People Who Don't Want to Change

I've cooked all my life--since standing on a chair helping my mom make family dinners like salami pizza and tuna on toast (gross!). I love cooking for others and get so jazzed when they like a dish they've never tried before and love it. After going vegetarian in college, I started specializing in gooey cheese and egg dishes, and most of them got the kind of praise I thrived on. 

But once I gave up eggs and dairy, in addition to meat, I found it harder and harder to get the rave reviews I craved. I went into a slump. 

After a particularly long time without sufficient accolades, I decided to be more analytical about what was going on. I started a “problem dishes” list and took notes about anything people said about them. I realized pretty quickly that it was not that I’d lost my cooking skills. It was the choice of dishes and the mis-match with the omnivore palate.

So this post is devoted to the types of dishes I’ve learned to steer clear of when feeding omnivores who aren't open to animal-free eating, are vocal about not wanting to indulge your "crazy" experiment, or who are just new to the idea and are picky about what they eat. 

At the end of this post, I talk about why there's hope--people do change and do open up to new eating experiments, but at first you will need to meet them where they are. 

The problem with traditional egg or cheese dishes

Vegan versions of fondue, omelet, quiche, cheesecake, pizza, or other traditional egg or cheese dishes are a tough sell when cooking for omnivores. I've come to love egg-less omelets made with chickpea flour, and I've sampled many dairy-free cheeses and found a few I've liked. But in the past when I’ve served omnivores dishes like quesadillas or pizzas with dairy-free cheese , they’ve fixated on the differences in taste and texture and said they didn’t like my versions as much as the traditional ones. 

It makes sense, right? They’ve been eating these dishes one way all their lives. Then they’re suddenly asked to try it with substitute ingredients that do taste different. Especially with comfort foods, “different” means “bad” to most people.

Vegan macaroni and cheese is the worst, in my experience. I could fill a Dumpster with what I’ve thrown out after tasting a few bites of the many recipes I’ve tried.  There are better and better substitutes for cheese sauce that get close to the mac 'n' cheese taste (like Heidi-Ho), but I still wouldn’t recommend trying it for a dinner with reluctant omnivores.

The problem with meatless versions of traditional meat dishes

When cooking for omnivores, I used to try meatless versions of meat dishes, like meatless wings, pot pie, meatballs, or meatloaf. I thought I’d meet the omnivores halfway and show them how versatile this new style of cooking and eating could be. But the the meatless versions  called for tofu, tempeh, seitan, or meat substitutes, and most omnivores are very suspicious of these foods. They think tofu is spongy and tasteless. They can’t pronounce “seitan.”  Before they take a bite, their brains are preparing them to hate it.

There are some new meat substitutes that are getting excellent reviews. A brand called Beyond Meat sells Beefy Crumbles, Chicken-Free Strips, and other products that are flying off the shelves in some markets. My experience has been that omnivores can taste that even these products are not meat, and the omnivores are quick and proud to tell you so. You may have family members who like the substitute meats, but I’m still going to avoid meat substitutes for omnivore guests whose reactions to vegan foods I don’t know well, because the unprepared omnivore’s brain will tell the taste buds to reject it.

The problem with bland dishes

Some meatless dishes are not flavorful enough for the omnivore’s palate. I’m talking about dishes like rice casseroles, pasta salads, or stuffed vegetables with minimal added spices.  Many are healthy, but they lack pizazz. Without meat or cheese in the dish, the omnivore needs something sparky and interesting to fill the void. Granted, a lot of animal-based food is under-spiced and bland, but omnivores would claim that the meat and cheese flavors are sufficient in themselves.

I learned this lesson the hard way one week when I cooked two dinners in a row that my omnivore husband roundly rejected. (I’ve recruited him to be my primary taste tester.)  The recipes came from a legendary vegetarian’s cookbook—I won’t mention the name because this was not her fault.  One dish was a red pepper and walnut pesto sauce for pasta, and the other was a baked pasta dish with roasted asparagus and onions. My husband pronounced each of them to be bland and insubstantial. (I adored both of them and ate all the leftovers during the next few days.) How could these wonderful, subtle dishes not appeal to him? That taught me a lot about the need for one or more strong flavors to pop in each dish—even better is a layering of distinct flavors. The omnivore needs spicing to compensate for the missing meat and cheese flavors.

The problem with food that’s too dense or too squishy

Texture is key.  Omnivores will be all over the texture if it’s not “right.” They love to point out when meatless food is spongy or soggy or else dry and dense like a brick. Of course, their idea of the right texture is meat, cheese, and eggs, so it makes sense that they’d be sensitive to the texture of dishes that don’t have the feel of these foods in their mouths.

I've had some doozies when it comes to texture failures.  I remember Mexican Skillet Pasta...  I adapted it from a meat recipe (probably a mistake right there), and by the time I substituted textured vegetable protein for the ground beef, added corn because it looked so nice, used canned enchilada sauce (huge mistake!), and cooked all of them too long with the bow tie pasta, it was a big gloppy mess that neither my husband nor I enjoyed. 

On the squishy end of things, I spent an entire afternoon once making the VegNews recipe for vegan boeuf bourguignon. The broth was fantastic, the spices just right, the vegetables tender, but the seitan’s texture was like water-logged marshmallows. My husband couldn’t stomach the seitan after just one bite. He nibbled at some of the vegetables and requested we skip the second night of this dish.  I hated the texture, too, and ended up throwing most of the dish away. I scrawled a big “X” across the seitan part of the recipe in my notebook. That's when I realized that texture was a critical element of any dish that would win an omnivore's praise. 

The problem with desserts that are dry or “too healthy”

I’ve found vegan baked goods to be the best way to chip away at omnivores’ skepticism. Many of my baked goods have been dubbed by omnivores to be the best in their category, period.

A lot of recipes for vegan baked goods call for whole wheat pastry flour. There’s nothing wrong with that, and the results can be fantastic, but I’ve learned the hard way to try out a recipe first before serving it to guests. I once broke that rule and tried a new recipe for vegan gingerbread cake to take to my church’s coffee hour. The ingredients looked reasonable, and the spicing looked intriguing.  Well, the cake turned out dry—I mean brick-of-sawdust dry.  It was the only sweet offered, so people had to try it. No one (including me) took seconds, and it certainly didn’t get any compliments. I was embarrassed.

I also avoid raw versions of well-known desserts, like “raw apple pie,” “raw fudge cake,” “raw molten lava cakes” (there really is such a recipe). The unsuspecting omnivores will taste the difference between the raw versions and their familiar versions, and the raw versions will lose.  No amount of insisting on the great flavors or the health benefits will change the fact that the raw versions taste different and, therefore, worse. Raw versions are for people who are open to eating differently.

Don’t lose heart…

So what’s left to make for new omnivores in your life? There are actually a lot of meat-, egg-, and dairy-free dishes that will please most omnivores, even if they start out skeptical.  I know this, because I’ve learned from my mistakes and figured out a lot of dishes that have been successful at omnivore gatherings. Please see my recipe recommendation section for a bunch of recipes that are consistent with the lessons learned here and should please most omnivores.