A friend was recently discussing a visit from her adult daughter, who had decided to be vegan. My friend — the Mom — was lamenting how difficult and inconvenient it is to plan vegan meals that everyone would like, cook the meals and worst of all — figure out how to bake a vegan birthday cake. No one else in the family is vegan, but everyone now has to jump through hoops to accommodate this young woman.
Vegan diets are in my wheelhouse. I wrote a book about vegetarian and vegan diets for the parents of teenagers. I frequently prepare meals that are vegan by default, but I’m not a full time, dedicated vegan myself. Nor do I intend to be.
What Is A Vegan Diet?
A person following a vegan diet eats nothing whatsoever that comes from an animal. Some vegans even shun honey — it’s from bees. The list of prohibited foods includes:
- meat and poultry
- all cured meats (sausages, bacon, deli meats, etc)
- all dairy foods, whether from cows or goats or any other animal: no milk, cheese, yogurt, cream, sour cream, butter
- anything made with any of the above ingredients. This can be a very long list:
- ice cream, pudding
- some breads
- sauces like mayonnaise (eggs) and fish sauce (fish)
- any dressings made using mayonnaise
Like my friend, you might be wondering what’s left? Well, plant-based foods:
- nuts, seeds and nut butters
- legumes (dried beans like lentils and kidney beans)
- foods made from legumes, such as tofu (soy)
- cooked grains (rice, quinoa, oats, etc)
- foods made with flour. Most breads are OK. Pie crust would be OK if made with a non-dairy fat like margarine, vegetable shortening or coconut fat
- vegetable oils
- herbs, spices, vinegars
- non-dairy “milks”
- sugar, maple syrup, agave syrup, molasses, other sweeteners
Vegan diets are associated with plenty of health benefits: high fiber, high intake of many vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, filling (making it easier to control weight). But there are drawbacks. It’s difficult (or impossible) to get adequate amounts of some nutrients. B12 only comes from animal foods, so a vegan diet will have none. Strict vegans are known to have inadequate B12 levels, sometimes with serious consequences. This is a particular concern for pregnant women, as B12 is critical for fetal growth and brain development. Intake of calcium, zinc, iron, omega-3 fats, vitamin D and protein could also be at risk.
Plenty of young people adopt vegan diets with little understanding about potential health consequences. They’re inspired by animal welfare or the environment or some other popular cause. With some people, the vegan diet takes on religious overtones, complete with proselytizing wayward meat-eating family members.
Nagging proselytizing aside, I object to the adult vegan offspring expecting Mom and Dad to accommodate their lifestyle choice. Vegan cooking can be complicated, especially baking. Preparing all those beans and grains is time consuming. And a vegan diet means going out to a restaurant as a family may be impossible.
Of course, the solution for many vegans now is fake meat and fake milk. Soy burgers make life easy; just slap a couple on the griddle. Serve oatmeal with almond milk or, now, oat milk (seriously redundant). I personally dislike all of those products for a variety of reasons, but if your adult vegan kid wants to use them, that’s their choice. But if environmental sustainability was a reason to go vegan, think again about all those highly processed and individually packaged fake meat and dairy products. It takes a whole lot of water, energy and chemicals to make soy beans or quinoa resemble ground beef.
Almonds — a currently popular basis for “milk” — are grown in orchards, dependent on vast amounts of irrigation water. How is this better than grazing cows? Not to mention, almond “milk” is extremely low protein and devoid of much nutritional value, other than some vitamins or minerals that may be added by the manufacturer. For all the agricultural, water and energy input required to make almond “milk”, the consumer gets precious little nutritional payback.
What to do
If my adult vegan child was coming to dinner, I’d put the responsibility for menu planning on her/him. They can bring the food, or if staying at your home, they can shop for and cook the meals. If you or other family members feel that you won’t want to eat what they’ve prepared, you can arrange for alternate foods to be available. That way everyone is happy with their choices, and you — the parents — aren’t scrambling around trying to learn vegan cooking on the fly.
If you do feel like you want to give it a try, there are plenty vegan recipes on the internet, not to mention vegan cookbooks and magazines. Some cuisines are easily adaptable to vegan meals:
- Mexican/Central American
- South/East Asian
The added benefit of these cuisines is use of spices, herbs and sauces to enhance the flavor of plant foods.
I personally would not indulge someone else’s dependence on fake meat. I’ve tried them. They do not cook like the real thing, they taste nothing like the real thing. If you’re expecting a plant-based simulation of Italian sausage in your vegan spaghetti sauce, think again. If your vegan visitor wants to buy and cook those for their own use, that’s their choice.
Vegan Birthday Cake??
My advice: don’t even go there unless you love experimentation and are an experienced baker. The recipes I see are some variation on a regular cake recipe minus the eggs. Or some exercise in food chemistry using flax or chia seeds soaked in water, or aquafaba as egg substitutes.
Take it from me, these substitutions do not work like real eggs, not at all. You might end up with something resembling a very dense and crumbly sort of scone/shortbread. Flax can have a strong fishy flavor, thanks to the high omega-3 fat content. Not exactly what you want a cake to taste like. If you’re got a bakery or specialty food store nearby, just buy a ready-made vegan cake. If not, maybe some arrangement of scones or shortbread, made with coconut oil instead of butter, would work.
Vegan dishes — made with real whole foods and interesting seasonings — can be delicious. So if a visit like this inspires you to explore new recipes and new foods, that’s great. You don’t have to be a vegan to enjoy the benefits of vegan cuisine.