How to Make Vegan-Friendly Meals for the Holidays

Read these tips for cooking vegan holiday recipes.
Whipping up something edible for Thanksgiving this year? Chances are, you might be trying to dance around at least one dietary consideration from a member of your group. I’m here to help you successfully pull off that dance — even if you have two left feet in the kitchen.

People have their own reasons for dietary restrictions, but I can promise you one thing: we’re not trying to make your holiday planning more difficult.

My husband and I have been eating a plant-based diet for years, so I’ve been around for a few holiday seasons. Normally, I bring a dish that is plant-based that everyone can enjoy; that way, we have at least one dish we can eat without drawing attention to ourselves by asking about the ingredients of everyone else’s dishes.

Of course, we’ve also been considered in the meal planning of gracious hosts that know about our lifestyle choice. Let me tell you — as someone who hates making a big deal about this personal choice, I love being considered ahead of time; it takes the stress out of avoiding a scene when the food’s being passed around. Those who are considerate enough to ask usually have the same question: “What can you eat?”

Below, you’ll find the basics of what foods are included in a vegan lifestyle, what easy food swaps you can use that make meals vegan-friendly, and other tips to keep in mind if you’ll be serving your holiday dish to others with dietary restrictions.

What can vegans eat?

The majority of people are familiar with the term vegetarian, meaning someone who doesn’t eat meat. But there’s an encyclopedia full of other terms like ovo-vegetarian (no meat, eats eggs), pescatarian (no meat, eats fish), ovo-pescatarian, raw vegan, etc. — enough to make your head start spinning.

I get it; it’s a lot.

“Veganism” falls under the lore of being a super-strict diet, and many assume vegans probably can’t eat anything but leaves. Vegans do exclude all animal products from their diet (anything produced by or made up of animals — super strict vegans don’t even eat honey), but that does leave a myriad of plant-based foods to choose from.

While you can technically be vegan and live on white pasta and Oreos, my husband and I much prefer the term “plant-based.” Health-conscious vegans eat beans, legumes, vegetables, fungi, fruit, nuts, seeds, and grains/pseudo-grains. Our meals include lentils, rice, leafy greens, root vegetables, berries, almond milk, vegetable stock, quinoa, cashews, dates, nutritional yeast — and the list goes on! And contrary to popular belief, vegan meals can be superbly delicious.

Basic food swaps to make meals vegan-friendly

Some of the most commonly not-thought-of ingredients end up tipping the scale in making a meal not vegan-friendly. Make the following swaps to make sure your effort counts.

Vegans don’t eat cheese. There are vegan cheese alternatives, but unless you’re melting them into your recipe, the consistency and taste just aren’t the same. If your salad needs cheese, serve it on the side to make it easy for plant-based family members to pass up if they so choose.

In fact, vegans don’t consume any dairy, so before you reach into your fridge to add a splash of milk, make sure you’re reaching for a soy or almond milk alternative if you’re aiming to keep the recipe vegan-friendly.

Butter — depending on your family’s kitchen, it might be a staple in browning veggies or the like. If you’re trying to veganize your meal, switch it out with oil or water in your stovetop cooking.

Another non-vegan food that sneaks into holiday recipes is animal broth/stock (chicken, beef, bone, etc.). Make sure to buy vegetable stock instead — you won’t lose any flavor and your vegan friendlies will have another choice on the menu.

Lastly, eggs always seem to end up in baking recipes because they’re the perfect coagulant. But there are alternatives that are healthy and vegan-friendly. A “flax egg” is one alternative you can make by combining flaxseed meal and water, mixing, then letting it chill in the fridge until it’s sludge consistency (about 15 minutes). Don’t want to buy flaxseed meal because you’re worried you’ll never use it again? Flaxseeds have been shown to prevent breast cancer, reverse high blood pressure, and reverse prostate cancer; even if you’re not concerned about any of the above, sneaking flaxseed meal into your (or your family’s) oatmeal, soups, smoothies, or pasta couldn’t hurt.

Vegan-friendly meals you can make for the holidays

The holidays are usually pretty meat-heavy, with turkey or ham being main dishes. Obviously, if you’re the turkey-supplier, you can’t really veganize a meat-specific dish. But if you’re up for offering an alternative on the side, your plant-based pals will certainly appreciate the thoughtfulness.

If you’d like to offer a vegan-friendly dish and keep that “roast” feel, try a seitan roast. You can buy a large block of seitan (wheat gluten) and cook it as you would a normal roast, or you can make seitan from scratch and even stuff it!

Perhaps you’re the potatoes supplier. That’s actually great news for you, because it’s the easiest recipe to veganize! Just swap out vegan butter for regular butter (now found in most grocery stores in the “healthy living” refrigerated section) and use almond milk for regular milk. But what about vegan-friendly gravy? A hearty mushroom gravy pairs perfectly with mashed potatoes and seitan.

As a side dish, you really can’t go wrong with perfectly spiced roasted veggies. This recipe is even suitable for relatives who are on a heart-conscious, oil-free diet.

But if you’re looking to shake things up this year, what about supplying a hearty chili that you can dump in the slow cooker and forget? I’ve used this vegan chili recipe at past holiday gatherings, and it’s meat-eater approved! (Just make sure to swap out the Greek yogurt in the chipotle creme topping for coconut or almond yogurt.)

If store-bought is your M.O., just read the nutrition labels. If the allergens aren’t in bold, the ingredient lists usually include “contains milk, egg, [etc.]” at the end. Just remember that vegans can’t eat milk or egg derivatives, but soy and wheat are A-OK.

Other tips for vegan-friendly holiday meals

Whether you have someone in your gathering that definitively has a dietary restriction or not, these tips will keep the vegan-friendly food and conversation flowing:

  1. If you’re still planning your holiday menu, reach out to friends and family about dietary restrictions. At the very least, it shows you care.
  2. Label your dish — if you just don’t have time to swap out ingredients or make a side alternative for specific dietary restrictions (sometimes there are too many to count!), at the very least, labeling your dish with what it contains is a great courtesy to offer. If you don’t want to detail every ingredient on a sticky note, just include any main considerations: dairy, egg, meat, wheat, oil, fish.
  3. If you notice someone is paying specific attention to ingredients, don’t assume you know why. Just remember that people subscribe to dietary restrictions for a multitude of reasons. It could be doctor ordered or a newly realized allergy. Even the reasons for being vegan are plentiful, so don’t make assumptions.
  4. If you’re curious to understand someone’s reasoning behind a restriction, politely ask. Chances are, that person would be happy to share (obviously, if his or her body language reflects the contrary, don’t push for an answer). Despite what the memes say, the truth is that many of us don’t choose a restricted diet to be the poster child for that lifestyle.

I’m not authorized to speak for all of us, but as a vegan, I appreciate your open mind and thoughtfulness in the simple fact that you’re considering making a vegan-friendly dish for the holidays. May we all take another step toward inclusivity, even around our family dinner tables.

Grotto quote graphic about how to cook vegan for holiday gatherings: "May we all take another step toward inclusivity, even around our family dinner tables."

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