Flash Says…

Catering for a vegetarian

Posted on: 2012-02-07

Catering for a Vegetarian

Imagine the scene: someone is bringing a guest to dinner. Casually they tell you “oh, by the way, she’s a vegetarian”. Uh-oh, what do you feed them? To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, here is a common scenario:

Host: I’ve spent ages making them something special! It’s taken twice as long to get this meal ready!
Veggie: Oh no, she’s made me something special… polenta… but I HATE polenta… and she’s given me enough for four people!

Don’t panic! Catering for us veggies can be painless – here are a few tips to make it go smoothly.

If you remember just one tip, let it be this:

  • If you’re serving meat and veg, just make a cheese sauce for the veggie (it can even be made in advance and microwaved) and let them have the same vegetables as everyone else, with cheese sauce instead of meat. This allows them to be included, it’s tasty and it’s a balanced meal. Plus, it’s less work for you!

Here are some more general tips. I speak from the point of view of someone who’s been veggie from the age of 11 (by choice). Of course I do not speak for all vegetarians, but I hope I can cover most bases. I’d love to hear comments from other veggies particularly if their views differ and they can offer further advice.

  • Check what the veggie will not eat – expect that all kinds of meat and seafood are out. Generally, animal products such as lard, suet and gelatine are also out (so check dessert ingredients too). Ask whether free-range eggs, milk and veggie cheese are ok, and avoid others to be on the safe side.

  • Check whether there is anything the veggie really cannot face. Although it is your house, and you should feel free to carry on as normal – in fact the veggie will probably feel bad if you don’t – it can still be offputting if someone leaves the table to be sick. Foods that can be particularly hard for some vegetarians to deal with are: food on the bone (e.g. people gnawing chicken legs), food with faces (e.g. whole shrimps, whole fish), food with a strong smell (e.g. crab pate, smoked salmon) and the sound or sight of meat being carved, or ripped apart (e.g. ribs being cracked from racks). If it is possible to carve in the kitchen rather than at table, it is much appreciated.

  • Cheeses can be veggie, or non-veggie (containing animal rennet). Note that there is no such thing as vegetarian Parmesan – if it’s labelled as Parmesan it is bound to contain animal rennet – however there are vegetarian “Italian style” chesses which you can use instead, such as Bookham’s “Not Just A Pasta Cheese”, and Sainsbury’s Basic range “Italian Hard Cheese”. If an item is not labelled as being suitable for vegetarians, it may be that it contains non-veggie cheese. Pesto is a regular offender for this as it contains Parmesan (some supermarket’s fresh pestos are ok, or you can make your own). Look for the veggie logo when shopping just to be sure all ingredients are compliant.

  • Veggies eat normal food, they just don’t eat meat and fish! If you are serving something you would not normally eat, chances are that they would not normally eat it either! Which leads onto…

  • Don’t make them something “special” of their own! It will take you longer, and you may have no idea of their taste. It is a nightmare to be looking at a pile of inedible spiced lentil mix, especially when you know the cook spent ages on it.

  • …but if you do make something separate for the veggie, only give them enough for one person! Even if your recipe served four, please don’t make them sit behind a mountain of food. However much they eat, they may feel bad at leaving the rest. Serve a single portion and keep the rest in the kitchen – offer it when they clean their plate, if you wish.

  • And if you will make something separate, allow the vegetarian to join in with the meal and have some of the other things on the table too. Don’t stop them from having the vegetables “for everyone else” if they fancy it. You want to include them in the meal, not exclude them – otherwise why invite them?

  • Don’t worry about serving a balanced meal (squeezing vegetable protein, mushrooms or lentils into everything…) just worry about serving something tasty. It is only one meal, the veggie won’t get ill if it isn’t perfectly balanced!

  • Don’t serve imitation meat, such as Linda McCartney pies and sausages, or Quorn, unless you are certain that your guest likes it. Many veggies who don’t eat meat on principle will be reminded of meat and grossed out, and veggies who don’t eat meat because they dislike it won’t like imitation meat any better! In addition, if you’re not used to eating Quorn it can go straight through you – many people (not just veggies) reported this to me, a very unpleasant effect. Instead, how about serving Goodlife Leek & Cheese Sausages (or similar) in place of meat? They resemble croquettes so should be inoffensive.

  • Some other easy ideas, which you might serve for everyone not just the vegetarian: spinach and ricotta cannelloni (available in most supermarkets in the fresh pasta section), ratatouille with potatoes & green vegetables, cauliflower cheese or potato gratin and vegetables.

  • If you are making stuffing, why not cook some of the mix in a separate dish, so the veggie can have some too? (Obviously, this doesn’t apply to sausagemeat stuffing!)

  • If you make veggie gravy, many of the mixes (e.g. Bisto) are quite dull. The best I’ve found is Bisto Best, roast veg flavour. Add a teaspoon of balsamic vinegar and/or mint sauce to sharpen it up a little and make it more interesting. Taste it and see if you’d want it on your own food!

  • It is less of an issue to serve a veggie a separate dessert. All the veggies I know would rather have this than no dessert at all!

  • During the meal, please treat the vegetarian naturally, don’t draw attention to them or make them feel awkward. Be as welcoming as to any other guest, no matter what you think of their beliefs – after all, you have invited them to your home and surely want them to feel comfortable.

  • Don’t ask them about their vegetarianism around the dinner table. They will feel awkward, and if they are descriptive their reply may well put you off your own meal! However, feel free to ask them what they like to eat for future reference.

  • Remember that the veggie is usually apprehensive about eating with people who aren’t used to cooking for them. They probably feel just as awkward as you, and are willing the meal to go well just as much as you!

So remember, if in doubt simply serve whatever you’re having, minus the meat or fish, plus a veggie gravy or a cheese sauce, or perhaps a cheese ‘sausage’, and you’ll be well away!

A few notes for caterers or restaurateurs:

  • Please be inventive and give just as much care to your vegetarian dish(es) as you do to the others. It is so depressing to see mushroom risotto on every restaurant menu, or vegetarian lasagne in every mass-catering situation. Don’t see vegetarian food as a problem to be addressed but as an opportunity to be creative.

  • If possible, offer a choice of dishes. Perhaps some of your other plates could be adapted to be vegetarian on request? Indicate this on the menu.

  • Please avoid making the vegetarian dish also be the gluten free and low calorie option. Not all vegetarians are on a diet. If you want to provide low calorie and gluten free options this is laudable, and so much the better if one of them is also vegetarian, but please offer a “normal”, hearty vegetarian dish too! Don’t cram us into a “one size fits all” option.

  • Indicate which of your desserts are vegetarian on the menu – even if they all are! Many places neglect to do this, and the waiters often have to ask the kitchen. It is better if we can see which dishes we can choose from without having to make an issue of it. (Of course, I am assuming that you are already marking which main, starter and side dishes are vegetarian!)

I hope these tips have helped anyone who is daunted by the prospect of catering for vegetarian guests. But if in doubt – just ask them what they like!

This post is adapted from my older version written in 2009, which can be found here .


11 Responses to "Catering for a vegetarian"

Really interesting – when I was a veggie people always used to make a big fuss about it but I never struggled to feed myself with interesting and varied foods and have catered for veggie friends with minimal fuss.

Rather ironic that the advert at the bottom of the article is for a big juicy burger! 😉

Hi Sarah, thanks for your comment. I have a friend who caters for veggies and vegans by default despite being a meat eater herself, but I have had bad experiences (usually with boyfriends’ parents) where you’d think I was an alien! It doesn’t have to be hard but I guess for some people it’s a different way of thinking.

As for the ads, I have no control over them… I don’t see them because I’m logged into WordPress. Let’s hope they start showing something more appropriate 😉

I wouldn’t want to go completely vegetarian but there is a lot of meat dishes I don’t like so I do quite often order vegetarian options. The canteen at my work is pretty good with their daily vegetarian option but I did once have a bit of trouble getting them to stop labelling soup with bacon or ham in it as vegetarian. They did finally get it on about the 3rd attempt and it hasn’t happened again since.

Hi Hazel, thanks for commenting. My dad often used to order vegetarian as he too didn’t eat a lot of meat and when in doubt it was easier to go veggie. Your canteen sounds like it was a bit confused! Perhaps they didn’t understand the difference between a vegetable soup and a vegetarian one?

The problem I have is getting food to be cooked separately; for example at chinese places they often just swill the wok out with water and use it to cook veggie food, often with bits of the last dish still sticking to it in places. And at a Mongolian Grill place I spent ages choosing my food, then I asked them to cook it on a separate part of the hotplate to where meat was cooked, and they didn’t listen. That was all my food binned, and I had to start choosing it again and then join the back of the queue again… sometimes they would put foil down and cook veggie food on that, but often not. What a shame and a waste of food!

The people who work in the canteen are generally perfectly nice but not very bright so that may well have been the problem. The soups were pea&ham and red lentil&bacon so it was fairly obvious to me that they contained meat.

My favourite example of getting a bit confused about vegetarian food was in the window of a cornish pasty shop in Birmingham. They had carefully labelled all their pasties that contained vegetarian cheese, even the bacon and cheese one. As far as I’m concerned the bacon rather cancels out the vegetarian cheese!

I had mongolian like that once in Stockholm, probably the most unusual place I’ve eaten but it was very nice.

Great post Flash. I’m lucky that my friends and family are all very veggie-friendly, but your points for catering organisations were very on the nose. I’m so sick of being told “A veggie option? Oh, we have baked potatoes…” and sometimes even then the only topping they have is cheese and they have no idea if it’s vegetarian or not!

im not a veggie, but have a few friends that are. i am gradually learning about the differences in things like cheese, and even sweets i didnt realise that had geletine in. im lucky that my friends do like quorn so when theve come over for dinner they’ve had quorn sausages. your right that in catering there isnt a huge amount of veggie options and i do think this should change.

Excellent article, but as a veggie, I’m not convinced by the cheese sauce over veg idea!!!

Fair enough – what would you prefer to eat? I’m just trying to think of something very simple which means veggies are included, the host doesn’t have to go to much trouble, and that is edible – and then over the meal you can discuss things you would prefer for next time 🙂

If you have any other suggestions for quick fixes to the “Fred is bringing his veggie girlfriend to dinner at short notice, what do I give her?” question I would love to hear them, I realise there must be far more ways to do this than just the solutions I’ve come up with. Please do add suggestions!

I may be biased as my favourite thing when I was growing up was cheesy peas… I recall one birthday where I had peas in cheese sauce followed by veggie jelly which then came in a lurid almost fluorescent colour… not sure that’s QUITE what I’d go for, 25 years later!

Thanks for reading & commenting, and I would love to hear your favourite easy veggie dishes / solutions.

Oooh, oooh, I thought of something I wanted to add. The “extra veg plus cheese sauce” answer to a veggie coming for dinner should ABSOLUTELY NOT be used by food establishments. I’m flippin’ sick of going to a carvery (because believe it or not society, us vegetarians often want to go for lunch with a group of people who are mostly omnivores!) to be told I can have “extra vegetables”. No, no, NO! I want something a bit more substantial than that!

Oh yes! It’s a good fuss-free emergency option for someone who doesn’t know what the veggie likes and hasn’t much time etc. but no, a restaurant or other food establishment should have a SEPARATE, well thought out, tasty option. It’s one thing scraping something together for a last minute veggie guest at your house, quite another when you hope to actually attract paying customers. Places forget that it’s not just the veggie’s custom you are turning away, but everyone in their party. When I’m with my family that’s a whole table of 9 they’ve just rejected…

Great comment!

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