Cooking for a Vegan: It’s easier than you think

Show Them Some Love

If you’re reading this article, you might have a vegan friend, colleague or family member coming over. Maybe you’ve known the person was vegan for a while. Maybe you just found out. In either case, I applaud you for doing research that will help you cook for your vegan guest. That says you care and that means a lot. Pat yourself on the back, because whether you realize it or not, many people don’t even try to find out what to cook for a vegan family member or friend. The person just shows up and there is nothing they can eat except carrot and celery sticks….maybe a salad.

Melody's Chickpea Tostadas

Melody’s Chickpea Tostadas

You’ve taken a great first step. The next thing you should do is ask your guest a few questions:

  1. Is there anything in particular that you enjoy eating at these types of events? You could even ask them to give you a recipe.
  2. Do you eat soy?
  3. Do you eat gluten?
  4. Do you eat honey?
  5. Do you have any food allergies? (this is a good question in general)

Those five questions will let your guest know that you care as well and believe me…that’s a big deal. Here’s something to keep in mind as you try to fight frustration and irritation while facing this challenge: Many vegans did not stop eating animal products because they didn’t like the way they tasted. They didn’t stop eating animal products because they wanted to be difficult guests. Many vegans stopped eating animal products because they learned something so horrific, so earth shattering, that they knew that there was no way they could ever eat animal products again with a clear conscious. We are considered ethical vegans. It violates our personal code of ethics to consume animal products. For us it’s an issue of wrong and right. This stance makes our lives difficult, particularly in social situations. So, we sincerely and immensely appreciate any concern and steps taken by others to consider our needs.

Okay, enough of that. I just wanted to make sure you had an idea about where your vegan guest might be coming from and encourage you to continue being thoughtful as you select something to purchase or cook for him or her.

What Vegan Really Means

That word carries a whole lot of stigma. I’m not exactly sure why, but it does. Because of this, people have different ideas about what it means, when it comes to what vegans eat and don’t eat. I’m going to stick to the food-related definition.

Someone who follows a vegan or plant-based diet does not eat any animal products. Animal products include

  • Beef
  • Poultry (chicken, duck, etc.)
  • Lamb
  • Venison (and whatever else people hunt)
  • Fish (including shellfish)
  • Animal secretions (eggs, milk, honey [this is controversial for many])

Vegetarians are different than vegans because vegetarians eat animal secretions. I suspect that they generally have an easier time in social situations because of this seemingly small difference in diet.

As a progression of that list, vegans don’t eat foods that are made with animal products. These include foods like:

  • Cheese
  • Chicken and Beef Broth
  • Yogurt
  • Butter
  • Gelatin
  • Many products labeled vegetarian (interesting, huh?)

Okay, so we’ve covered the items and categories of food that vegans don’t eat and you’re probably wondering….What’s left?

What Vegans Eat

These are all items that you could cook for a vegan.

  • Vegetables
  • Fruit
  • Beans (includes products made with the soy bean)
  • Grains (includes rice)
  • Seeds
  • Nuts

Also, most dried pasta does not contain animal products. Keep in mind that the key to awesome cooking is usually in the preparation, which usually (hopefully) includes amazing seasoning.

There are no limits in the seasoning/spices aisle. The condiments aisle is usually pretty safe as well, since most of these items contain very few ingredients and they usually don’t include animal products. I’m talking about things like ketchup, mustard and vinegar. You’ll have to check the label for salad dressings, even those that are labeled as vinaigrettes. The truth is that it’s not a bad practice to read labels anyway. I won’t jump on that soapbox. I’ll stay focused.

I realize that that list looks really short, but let’s take a look at traditional dishes that are actually already vegan.

Foods That Are Already Vegan

Remember that vegan doesn’t mean the food has some kind of special ingredients or properties. It just means that it doesn’t contain animal products.

Check out this list of foods that you could cook or provide for a vegan:

  • Pasta with marinara sauce and veggies
  • Pasta with lemon, garlic and tomatoes
  • Noodles with peanut sauce and veggies
  • Hummus/bean dip
  • Falafel (without tzatziki sauce)
  • Salsa and chips
  • Salad with a vinaigrette
  • Sweet potato or russet potato fries
  • Bagels
  • Rice
  • Roasted potatoes
  • Baked potatoes
  • Steamed vegetables
  • Corn/bean/vegetable relish
  • Sorbet
  • Oatmeal (made with water)
  • Many snacks – Fritos, Pretzels, Potato Chips, Oreos

Easy Vegan Substitutes

What you may not know is that this is a great time to be a vegan. There are a ton of substitutes in many common supermarkets for animal based products. In addition to the items listed, specialty stories like Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s will have a nice variety of quality meat substitutes as well. Morningstar makes a pretty good vegan veggie burger that would be perfect for a cookout. And So Delicious ice cream is a favorite among many vegans!

FoodSubstituteRecipe Ideas
MilkSoy Milk, Almond Milk, Hemp MilkMashed Potatoes
ButterEarth Balance SpreadBaked potatoes, mashed potatoes, apple pie, candied yams, sauteed/grilled vegetables, popcorn
Mayonnaise Vegenaise, NayonaisePotato salad, coleslaw
CheeseFollow Your Heart, DaiyaGrilled cheese sandwich
BrothVegetable brothVegetable and bean soups
HoneyAgave nectar
Cream CheeseTofutti cream cheeseBagels with cream cheese

If you purchase one of the products listed above, you should consider using what’s left in the container for your family instead of sending the partially used container home with your guest. You can cook a few meals that are a little healthier and taste the same. It’s true!

Veganize It!

Since you’re now armed with the knowledge that cooking for a vegan can be a lot easier than you realized, let’s look at a few more dishes that can be easily made without animal products. Some are linked to recipes.

Show off Your Culinary Skills

If you’re cooking for a vegan and you have pretty good skills in the kitchen, you might want to try some of these recipes. Your guest will be really impressed and you might just discover a way to make Meatless Mondays interesting. Note: Some of these recipes may include special ingredients that you may not find at a local supermarket.

Pat Yourself on the Back Again…

…if you read this entire article. I know it was long, but I wanted to give you enough information and resources to inspire and encourage you to cook a dish for your vegan guest that would not only please them but be easy for you. Share any ah ha moments you had while you read this article in the comments below.

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  • Greggory Hackney

    Hi Michelle,
    Sorry for the delay in my reply, but I think I have some ideas for you.
    I am more than willing to share my ideas about having fun in the kitchen. It is a never ending source of challenge, play-time and exploring your inner “mad scientist”, as well as being a canvas, or, “tabula rasa”.
    Sure, sometimes things don’t work out the way you plan; whilst I hate the waste, I recognize that when you want to “express yourself” you have to take these things in stride. “Failure is the perfect condiment to success” ~ Truman Capote.
    By far, mushrooms are the most versatile, as they can compliment, offer a platform, or shine on their own. Spinach is very versatile, as well, but others have tried to impose limitations. Barley, having a “voice” that is harder to manipulate can still be toned with spices and preparation. And all depend on variety, the effect you wish your guests to experience, and if you care to offer a dish that features each, separately, or you want to include them in your menu.
    For a light start, I suggest something that sounds prosaic, but can begin your “theme”. As I don’t measure ingredients, you’ll have to dive in and make your own determinations.
    So, a limited hassle option is a salad, with spinach; but, instead of the usual, make it the frame for your showcase. Roast your barley at about 375 degrees, bringing the plant oils to the surface and giving it a crunchy texture; lay a bed of spinach as your base, add mushrooms, pieces of berries, melon and cucumber, or a bit of citrus. Treat your barley as you would nuts and croutons (add those, seasoned with a hint of garlic and basil). A vinaigrette of rosemary-infused oil and balsamic vinegar and pineapple will provide a nice foil to the salad, but use a small tureen for serving. For a choice option, infuse your oil with cherry preserves and mix with a vegan cream, or even Vanilla Boost (I lack a working knowledge of substitutes). I recommend lively colored, chilled plating.
    Another option, if you wish to stretch your resources, might be oven-baked mushrooms with chipotle and lime, at a low temp, and offered in a basket with a hot-stone. Line the basket with a bit of cloth, such as copper lame’ and decorated with orange slices, skin separated a bit and hung around the edges. For the next act, have barley gnocchi stuffed with rice and a milder pepper (a “behind the wings” constant in a full meal gives it a continuity) in a variety of colors, with a side of glazed carrots (I would say “honey glazed”, but again profess ignorance) , served on, warm white plating (it allows the diner to focus on the visual array of the course, and the plates can be warmed in a low-temp oven, briefly. Also, gnocchi doesn’t require a huge amount of prep time). Finally, use your spinach as a big finish ( A word; make your ingredients available for seconds, but serve in small portions. This is your show, and if there are favorites, then the option exists for seconds or take home). Be the showman! Invent! Create! Give them something to further amaze them with your prowess! Soak your spinach in a citrus WATER, freeze in cubes. Pull out a set of goblets (easy to find for a very reasonable price) that you have chilled, pull out the blender. Add unsweetened Dark Chocolate powder and a hint of Grand Marnier. blend until you have a slurry, pour into the vessels and top with an orange twist sprinkled with a shake of chili powder and serve.
    While I “clean as I go”, I also have a stead-fast rule; “I cooked, y’all can help me clean!”. It lets your guests feel as is they are a PART of the creations you have shared, offers the chance to deal with leftovers, and turns people from “audience” ( which you should bask in!!!) to participants in the social aspect that is necessary to a successful dinner party.
    Mind, this is just of the top of my head, and is offered as a springboard. But, offering food is a basic. It is my firm belief that it should offer more than something on a plate and should involve all of the senses; as a former cook, I believe that you should show-off, a bit. You can learn more sharing a meal with another than any “confessional” or analysis. It is more humanizing, as eating is a basic human need. But, social connection is another, so what better way embrace those needs with good food, good company.
    Well, Michelle, I suppose you have nodded off by now, but I hope that I have inspired you to get into the “lab” and see what you come up with. As ever, I enjoy our correspondence, and am always up for another challenge.
    Be well!

  • Michelle Johnson

    Okay…3 ingredients – Mushrooms, barley and spinach!

    I play sometimes in the kitchen, but many times I’m working on creating a recipe myself. I have a soft spot for them only because I’ve seen what happens when people who pass on don’t share them and they can never recreate the delicious dishes that the person made. That’s always sad to me. Recipes allow you to share the food with people who don’t have the privilege of eating it with you :) By sharing my recipes here and on YouTube, my family was able to cook lots of vegan dishes for me during Christmas! I’m still excited about that. Left to their own devices, I probably would have had to take my own food and my dad’s oven is waaay off and possibly too old and antiquated to fix.

  • Greggory Hackney

    PS Knowledge in the kitchen, or in life has its place, but nothing beats the experiences that you can initiate and own. So, let it be fun, soul-filling and, above all, being the showman is worth the applause!

  • Greggory Hackney

    Good afternoon, Michelle,
    As something of a teacher, I love a good challenge, so perhaps we can have some fun.
    Delightful lady, one of the first things that I stress is that recipes are NOT bibles, but a springboard. Sure, I have a great collection of cook books, but they are there for the times when I am presented with a dish I have never made. Find the basics, shelve and use your kitchen as a creative meditation space; don’t let snotty purists dictate what you “should” be doing. Making multiple delights is a sort of physically-active activity, but also make sure you are having fun.
    Like yoga, you will stretch and bend; like a dancer you are performing and finding your rhythm.
    So, here is an idea; give me 3 ingredients and I can show you a differing perspective. I love doing that sort of thing! Of course, I need aversions, allergies and such.
    One of my last catering gigs was for 160 people, with exactly that. My partner and I live in a townhouse, so kitchen space is small, (I’m bragging a bit, but I have, more than once, created a 5 course meal, with hand-made rolls, on an outside grill) for 20.
    To me, a meal should evoke ALL senses; make your guests salivate when they walk in the door! And NEVER be afraid to experiment; okay, sometimes an idea doesn’t work, but don’t toss it (unless it has a flavor, like scorching, that is Hell to fix). Slap it in a freezer bag, and play with it later. You can still save the day with delivery or common ingredients; in your spare time, you can always make things to stockpile!
    So, madam Michelle, “bring it”; I’d love to help you and your site greatly, as you have helped me with understanding and a wonderful space, not to mention a wonderful missive.
    With warmest regards,

  • Michelle Johnson

    Oh no! It’s frustrating when you lose your work. I’m glad you started over :)

    Thank you!

    I love your description of yourself :) My manager at work used to be a chef and I bombard him with questions all of the time. I wish I had that kind of knowledge and experience when it comes to food.

    Vegan cuisine is a little different and if you search the web you’ll find a wide variety of dishes that people consider delectable :) I don’t always agree, so I try to create and adapt recipes that taste great to me and that I can take to work and my colleagues will agree. Non-vegans are the best taste testers!

    I would love to try some recipes that you come up with.

  • Greggory Hackney

    Well, I just wrote a post, but, I am techno-challenged, so I will try again! Thank you so much for your most informative site. I am a retired chef and mixologist and something of a culinary alchemist. Recently, my niece’s new potential girlfriend came to visit for a bit ( I met her Christmas Eve; after a bit of conversation, I found that she was “ova-vegan.) and, I still love to entertain guests.
    My partner and I primarily have chicken and turkey in the house; I love seafood, but quit red meat 25 years ago (while working in a steakhouse, ironically) and Jim’s idea of fish is “Tuna Helper” (YUCK!).
    But, I have had no experience with vegan variety, and I found your site! Most excellent! I was afraid that I would be limited to Green Pepper stuffed with Wild Rice and Beans, perhaps a gazpacho or cold fruit soup, Pumpernickel breadsticks with a Merlot marinara or Avocado seared in Walnut oil, then fried in a tortilla wrap.
    But, your site is not only informative to a novice to the style, with a lot of style, but very friendly as well. I have catered vegetarian, and other styles, but veganism was new to me. And, while quite Southern American, I am very open to the ethics involved; and I like my guests to experience the European dining style, with libations, conversation and presentation (I can be quite OCD about that aspect; a great meal evokes ALL of the senses and olfactory, taste and visual memories are the strongest.)
    So, again, thank you for your help; I have bookmarked your site, and even extend a dining invitation, should you find your way to this area. Now I have a whole new area to “play” in, and offer at my table. As I play, if you would like to know of my results, or have a challenge for me, please, drop me a line at and I will see if I can rise to the challenge; feel free to post that as well and the invite for ideas and such is applicable to all who put their hearts on their plates
    With warmest regards Michelle,
    Greggory Hackney

  • Michelle

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Changing my diet has definitely opened my eyes to a whole new world of food. It’s crazy how limited my cooking was and I didn’t even realize it. I quickly and often find myself going down rabbit holes on the internet looking for a vegan ___ recipe! It’s really fun to experiment in the kitchen and then share the food with people. More times than not, they never would have guessed it was vegan. People have interesting views about “vegan” food and it’s exciting to open their eyes too :) My dad calls it planting seeds.

    I’m glad the article wasn’t wordy :) If you haven’t already, please check out my YouTube channel. I do a lot more there these days, but usually post the recipes and videos here as well. I may have missed 1 or 2.

  • Michelle

    You’re welcome, Kay! There’s definitely a learning curve, but it’s well worth it. I’ve tried more foods since I changed my diet and cooked vegetables I would have never considered before!

  • Kay

    Thanks Michelle, for the information on Vegan diet–my son had mentioned becoming a vegan; this information will be a great introduction for him to see what it is all about.

  • Adelle

    Thank you for such great info. Easy to read, very informative, yet not wordy….even though you thought it was long!

    Lots of my friends have recently become vegan. For some, it was for a greater variety from their gluten dairy free meals due to intolerances and allergies.

    We don’t have allergies in our family and as vegetarians we were able to make simple changes to accommodate our gluten dairy intolerant friends. (Well, my husband does have a significant reaction to macadamia nuts snd avocado, but it really dosnt impact the family!) Then all of a sudden I felt left behind!!!

    My friends were making fabulous vegan food. Scrumptious savouries and deliciously amazing desserts! Actually, unbelievably gooood food. Interesting, full flavoured VEGAN food!

    So I began to broaden my search. I was hungry for vegan ideas. Hungry to know how to make light fluffy cakes, moist rich ‘butter’ cakes, tasty savouries, freezeable savouries, presentable savouries, food I could take (with pride) to potluck(!), food my kids would love, food that would be healthy, higher in protein, low in processed carbs….. You get the picture!

    I’ve found some wonderful blogs so far, but as it’s still early days, I’m still searching. Your blog is most exciting and informative. Well done. I can’t wait to try your recipes. I read your story and applaud you for the steps you’ve taken in your journey. What an inspiration!!

  • Michelle

    Thanks Beth! It’s so good. If you haven’t tried it before, you’re going to like it.

  • Beth Lamp

    Nice blog, Michelle! I’m going to roast broccoli this week.

  • Michelle

    I’m glad you enjoyed it, Betsy! Yes, you can make all kinds of delicious goodness without animal products :) Once you factor in the sugar, I’m not sure if it’s technically healthy, but I’d say it’s health”ier”

  • Betsy

    I really enjoyed this article! I’m glad to really get a clear understanding on what is/is not Vegan. And poundcake, wow?!?! I might have to try that. Surely it is healthier the vegan way!