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Cooking Vegetarian Dishes is Easy with Smart Meal Planning

by Allison Task, author of Lighten Up, America! and our 12 Healthy Habits Coach

I am one of those people who, as soon as I’m told I can’t have something, I must have it. It doesn’t matter if I like or don’t like that thing; just tell me I can’t have it and it’s the only thing I crave.

This personality trait is one of the things keeping me from a vegetarian lifestyle, I think.

I am much more likely to embrace a flexitarian lifestyle, where I aim for regular vegetarian meals, but still use a small amount of meat on occasion, or as part of a meal. It’s a flexible lifestyle. So, instead of sitting down to a weekly steak dinner, I’d rather slice a couple ounces of perfectly grilled skirt steak on top of a big salad – and enjoy that meat the same way I’d enjoy a sprinkling of blue cheese or caramelized onions.

Flexitarian can refer to the way I plan a meal, or my week. If I have a vegetarian dinner guest, I’ll plan a vegetable heavy meal, but not build a meal entirely around that person’s preferences to the exclusion of everyone else at the table. At meals, there are large platters of vegetables, grains and protein; people can take what they want from those platters.

Planning meals around a vegetarian's diet isn't difficult. Everyone starts with the same base--vegetables, grains, fruits. Meat is just an added layer for those who still prefer it. Credit: Paper Boat Creative / Getty

The simple truth of vegetarian cooking is that, unless you rely on processed food and frozen meals, you need to plan ahead and cook the food you eat. Vegetables and grains need prep. And one of my favorite ways to cook vegetables is with roasting or grilling.

Now that’s a good thing, because these two cooking techniques are among the simplest. Maybe not as quick as sautéing, but you don’t have to stand over a roasting pan the way you stand over a skillet.

So let’s say I’m making a big flexitarian Sunday dinner. Let’s make a base that everyone can enjoy: some vegetables and some starch. Into my oven goes a sheet pan of asparagus, and since they cook in about the same time, I’ll add some string beans and cherry tomatoes too. I’ll toss in another sheet pan of baby potatoes.

Since the oven is hot, maybe I’ll roast some strawberries when the vegetables come out, or apples and pears depending on the season. If I’m feeling ambitious, maybe I’ll make a crostata (free form pie).

I can toss a salad while everything else is cooking, maybe marinate some canned tuna on the side (for those who would like to add it) and since our vegetarian may be low on protein for this meal. I could add a couple hard boiled eggs or canned garbanzos to the salad. With the grilled beans, tuna and egg… We could be on our way to a delicious Nicoise salad, flexitarian style. Yummm!

There will be more than enough food for everyone, and I haven’t made the vegetarian feel left out, nor have I forced the carnivores to adopt someone else’s regimen.