Your Guide to Preparing Delicious Vegan Meals in Less Time
Dinner is often the biggest challenge for people considering going plant-based. Think about a typical evening meal in your house. Most likely, you’re picturing a plate with a starch, some meat and a vegetable, and maybe a small salad on the side. The mistake most prospective plant-based eaters make is imagining the meat disappearing (and possibly the starch, if it was cooked with butter or topped with sour cream) and leaving them with very little to go on.
I think this is why it’s so easy to over-complicate plant-based dinner ideas. You get into the mindset of having to re-create your entire meal plan, and it’s overwhelming. But I’ll let you in on a secret — adopting a plant-based diet doesn’t require you to turn dinner prep into a cooking show. You probably have some meals you eat on a regular basis right now, and you don’t have to change a thing about that plan besides swapping out the animal products and processed foods in favor of whole plant ingredients.
If you follow these four tips, you’ll never run out of simple plant-based meals for dinner. As a bonus, you’ll speed up prep time and be able to enjoy more leisurely evenings.
1) Use a Template
Remember the plate you pictured? That’s the template of your current dinners. Getting started with plant-based dinners is easier if you think of your new meals in the same way. Templates are better than recipes because they give you a basic formula you can follow with any ingredients you have on hand. There’s no pressure to hunt down specialty ingredients or run to the store if you’re missing just one tiny piece of the puzzle.
Here are some of the easiest templates for a plant-based evening meal:
- Beans & Rice: Brown rice, beans, sauteed veggies, your choice of spices
- Soup: Broth, veggies, beans or lentils, greens, salt-free seasoning
- Chili: Red or black beans, no-salt canned tomatoes, chili powder, onions, peppers, other veggies as desired
- Pasta: Whole wheat or brown rice noodles, marinara sauce, beans and/or greens
- Stir Fry: Ginger and garlic, tofu or tempeh, every single veggie in the fridge
Experiment with these formulas to find the combinations you like best. The more you practice, the easier it will become. (For more tasty template ideas, check out Mark Reinfeld’s amazing book, Healing the Vegan Way or the masterful Plant Power by Nava Atlas. Both are great for inspiration!)
2) Make a Plan
You’ve probably heard over and over the importance of planning weekly meals in advance, and that’s because it’s good advice. Chances are you already approach cooking with this mindset. The family comes home and expects tacos on Tuesday or pizza on Friday or whatever your tradition happens to be. If you use templates to come up with plant-based family dinner ideas, you can have a pasta night, a bean and rice night and a soup night every week without ever getting bored.
Sit down at the beginning of the week, and write out a list of the template “recipes” you want to make. Choose your ingredients based on sales at local stores or what’s in season at the farmers market, and take note of the items you can stock up on, such as pasta, beans, canned tomatoes or frozen veggies. Get the family involved in the process so that everyone is on board with the plan and you don’t get caught off-guard by your teenage son suddenly demanding a burger five minutes before dinner on soup night.
3) Become a Batch-Cooking Queen (or King)
Nothing makes for a quick, easy plant-based dinner like batch cooking. I touched on this a bit when I talked about breakfast and lunch, and it works just as well for the evening meal. The concept is simple: Instead of cooking a new dish every night, prepare meals and batches of ingredients once or twice a week.
The easiest way to do this is with an electric multi-cooker like an Instant Pot. These “set it and forget it” appliances can be used as pressure cookers, slow cookers, rice cookers and more, so you can prep your meals when you have time and let them cook while you go about your daily routine. Invest in a cooker large enough to prepare multiple servings of food for the number of people in your family so that you can maximize your batch cooking time.
You can either cook double or triple batches of foods from your “templates” (chili and soup work particularly well) or components like beans, rice and pasta sauce. While the food is cooking, you can even prep ingredients for side salads and store them in airtight containers in the fridge to throw together while reheating leftovers during the rest of the week (they’ll stay fresh for about four days). Store your batch-cooked ingredients or meals according to the directions for lunch leftovers, and there will never be a night where you’re at a loss for what to eat.
4) Schedule a Splurge
Once you become familiar with preparing your template recipes and adapting them for batch cooking, it’s time to get creative. Borrow some plant-based cookbooks from the library, browse Finding Vegan or search through the numerous blogs penned by aspiring chefs across the web to find something mouth-watering that strikes your fancy. Set aside time to shop for any special ingredients, and pick a day when the whole family will be home to prepare the dish together.
Turning a complex recipe into a family “party” takes the fear out of tackling a lengthy ingredient list and makes the finished product more satisfying for everyone. Don’t wait for a holiday or special occasion to try your first “crazy” plant-based dinner recipe. Make them any time of year, and don’t forget to make extras so that you have leftovers to serve during the rest of the week!
So what favorite dinner dish will you start with? There are so many options, don’t be surprised if you find yourself wanting to try them all. Enjoy a new quick plant-based dinner every night — without driving yourself crazy or spending your life in the kitchen.
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