You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. This saying was going through my mind as I watched my future father-in-law pick at the crisp-tender green beans that I had carefully steamed, shocked in ice water to lock in the color, sautéed in olive oil and fresh garlic, and topped with kosher salt, cracked pepper, and slivered almonds. I was trying hard to impress my boyfriend’s family by cooking my first dinner for them; Big Ed declared the green beans were “raw” and wouldn’t eat them.
I thought of this saying again one year later when we all went to Olive Garden for dinner. The spaghetti my father-in-law ordered came with a marinara sauce. After ascertaining there was no meat in the sauce, all Big Ed ate that night were a couple of breadsticks and a nibble of salad.
Here was a man who had grown up with the canon belief that every dinner should contain a meat-based protein, and he wasn’t about to change his point of view just because the world’s nutritional norms were changing. Even through lent, which forbids meat or fowl on Fridays (starting this year on February 22), there was always fish on the Friday-night menu.
How do you get a man like that, or an entire family like that, to eat a meatless meal once in a while?
The Meatless Methodology
I was reminded of that question last September when my son’s elementary school sent out a back-to-school memo celebrating the “Meatless Monday” movement. Though the first Meatless Mondays campaign originated during WWI to conserve meat for American troops (and used again during WWII), the current movement was initiated in 2003 by the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Supported by popular chefs, politicians, and celebrities (including Mario Batali, James Cameron and Philippe Cousteau), the movement has been adopted by many restaurants, city councils and school districts to promote healthier living and reducing our carbon footprint.
It’s pretty easy in my household to have meatless meals–we all enjoy pasta with marinara or pesto sauce and bean burritos. But what about those families who have members—kids or adults—like Big Ed? How do you get a staunch meat-eater to try and maybe even enjoy a vegetarian meal?
After much thought, I decided upon three ways to introduce meatless meals to a staunch meat eater: through deception, as a substitution or in the starring role.
The deception tactic is the easiest from a cooking point of view but rests on ethically shaky ground. Bluntly, it is hiding the fact a dish is made without meat, such as adding textured vegetable protein to spaghetti sauce. It looks like ground beef with a similar texture, and with the strong flavors of spaghetti sauce, its flavor is hidden in a mask of garlic, basil and oregano. No one’s the wiser, but no one has learned to love a true meatless meal, either.
A lot of meat eaters will occasionally capitulate to a stand-in for a typical carnivore meal, such as veggie burgers, soy “chicken” nuggets or “smart” hot dogs. The highest praise for such a meal is usually along the lines of “it tastes just like meat” or “it’s almost as good as the real thing.”
The good news is that you aren’t being deceitful and your loved one is willingly eating a vegetarian meal. The not-so-good news is that you are not endearing a vegetarian meal to your carnivore in any way–you are only providing a stand-in, a temporary one at that, for what they feel should be the proper star of any meal: meat.
The Real McCoy
The star of this meal is a dish that luxuriates in its ingredients. Featuring vegetables, legumes, beans and/or grains, the point is the taste and joy of sharing a vegetarian meal with loved ones, not disguising or substituting with a misguiding agenda. Eating these meals will encourage more flexibility at mealtime and possibly even engender a fondness for vegetarian entrees. Unfortunately, these meals are the hardest sell to suspicious palates.
But its not an impossible task. Know your picky eater’s favorite foods and flavor combinations. Usually, there is a vegetarian meal that combines the flavors he or she craves. Does your husband love Italian casseroles? Feed him eggplant Parmesan. Does your daughter love taco night? Indulge her with black bean tacos with a tableside topping bar. If your son cannot get enough General Tso’s chicken, stir-fry a batch of Ma Po Tofu. Enlighten them to the possibilities.
Today’s meatless meals are no longer flavorless beans with limp brown rice. There’s a world of flavors out there, just waiting to be enjoyed. And with a little prodding, maybe the carnivore in your life will start enjoying a more flexitarian lifestyle.
Baked Eggplant Parmesan
Delicious with either homemade or jarred tomato sauce.
Based on a recipe by Mario Batali
Ma Po Tofu
This vegetarian version of the classic Chinese stir-fry delivers the wonderful, splcy flavor of the original.
Based on a recipe by Elaine Louie