Saturday, November 27, 2010

Redefining Dinner

One of the challenges of going vegan is learning to change our concept of dinner.  What does dinner look like?  What does an appetizing plate contain if we aren’t going to put any meat or cheese on it?  Tonight, while I was cooking the family evening meal, Mr. Nix came into the kitchen with me to “help.”  This is special code language for “playfully harass me while I cook.”  At some point during the shenanigans, he stopped and suddenly shouted, “You know what you need to do?”  I smiled.  “No, Bubby, what do I need to do?”  “You need to make a book called, ‘Side Dish No More,’ and make it all about how you make vegan entrees – you know, the main dish for a meal.”

Tonight’s dinner was an excellent example of how I’ve begun to naturally replace animal fats and proteins on our dinner plate with things most Americans consider only as a side dish.  Our plates tonight held roasted root vegetables, steamed fresh green beans, and jasmine rice covered with a tomato porridge sauce I made up because I didn’t have any flour to make tomato gravy.  It was completely scrumptious, healthy, and satisfying.
It has taken me a year for this sort of dinner to come naturally.  I have spent most of my first year as a vegan having to hunt specific ingredients and meticulously plan menus using online aids.  Today, I am able to stand in my kitchen and look around at the items I have on hand to make a meal for my family, but it took months of laborious work and a lot of trial and error to get here.  That’s because the American dinner plate is all about a meat, a starch, and a vegetable.  If it doesn’t contain these three items, it ain’t a “healthy” or “complete” meal.  I spent the first 34 years of my life cooking that way.  All of my culinary habits involved butter, eggs, bacon grease, meat, and cheese.  Every meal I knew how to throw together, and all of the components I was comfortable using were formed around the 3-part traditional American dinner plate.

Getting out of that mindset takes time because it is cultural and habitual.  I have been grateful more than a few times over the past year that I was already a kitchen person when I went vegan.  I love food, and I love to cook.  I’ve always been a quick study in the kitchen, so that comfort level and experience has served me very well in this year of transition.  For those who are not already familiar and comfortable with home cooking, who don’t know by feel how to mix together or substitute fats and proteins and grains and spices with one another…well, I can imagine that the process of redefining dinner can present a serious obstacle.

If you find yourself asking, “What can we eat?” or saying, “I just don’t know what to make,” on a regular basis, the best advice I know to give is the following:

1.) Learn how to make soups.  Soup is forgiving.  By that, I mean that once you get the basic recipe, soup is really hard to mess up.  For inexperienced or uncomfortable cooks, soup can help you feel confident about trying new things.

2.) Make meals that include three dishes like the one in my picture here.  They bring comfort and familiarity.  Mr. Nix LOVES when I make meals that look like this for him because they resemble and “feel” like the old meat-starch-veggie plate.  Get three different colors on the plate or put three different textures.  Think of it as a crisp-chewy-smooth plate.  Ha ha!  Whatever criteria you use to choose your dishes, always work with three.  It’s amazing how attached Americans are to that three-item plate. 

3.) Get online and find recipes to try.  If you’re anything like me, you’ll end up eating several along the way that turn out with less than desirable results.  My recipe failures this past year have included two cornbread recipes (I finally made my own), a veggie meatloaf (went into the garbage…it was THAT bad), too many pasta recipes to count, an eggplant dish (I still shudder when I think about that one), some tofu attempts…it goes on and on.  These failures are okay because in between the bad recipes, you’ll be learning what does work for you.

4.) Finally, remember that you can’t erase a lifetime of habit in a week or two.  Give yourself time to figure out what you like seeing in that empty spot on the plate where your chicken leg used to be.   I’m still a work in progress after a year.  I mean, I still can’t shake off the egg mayonnaise…but I’m learning.  You will, too.

God bless you and keep you.


  1. Great tips! When you've been taught your entire life that a plate should look a certain way, it can be difficult to step away from that concept--even if the food is really good.

    PS. I just re-discovered your blog. I used to read it and stopped during your hiatus way back when. I was happy to discover that you're back, and apparently have been for a looks like I have a lot of catching up to do. :)

  2. Thanks so much! I'm so glad you're a regular reader. We just got through a huge move, and so I've been thrown off-rhythm again, but I have a few new posts brewing. That should set me back on a schedule with putting up new things again.

  3. It's great when you can just sit back and enjoy a good read. This was one of those good reads. Isn't amazing how your body can adjust so that you don't crave a certain taste or item as much as before? I think you pointed out some key things to be mindful of as a new vegan. We miss your post Mrs. Nix, hope you make it back soon.