This post is from KS Contributing Writer ‘Becca Stallings of The Earthling’s Handbook.
When you need a meatless meal for a Friday in Lent, do you instantly think of cheese pizza, fish sticks, or macaroni-and-cheese? Those options please most kids, but they’re not especially healthful or interesting. Especially if you’re going meatless year-’round or more than one day a week, you really need some more options.
Meatless meals are hard when you’re used to eating meat, potatoes, and a vegetable each on its own part of the plate–because what else can you put in the meat space? Here’s a different way to think about your meals that will also help you think about loving your neighbors!
Learning About Other Cultures
Cultures around the world eat different styles of food, and many of these styles are easy to enjoy without meat. As we try different meals, we can talk about the people who traditionally eat this way. Some of them live in faraway countries–what is it like there? Some of them live in our neighborhood–how are we different and the same?
Try serving food in the style of a different culture each Friday of Lent (or each Meatless Monday) and talking with your family about people and cultures nearby and far away. You can make this a big project or just a casual conversation topic. You can focus on learning geography or praying for the branches of our human family around the world. You can talk about politics, history, agriculture, nutrition, poverty, environmental stewardship, traditions–or just make it about what tastes good!
My family has been eating a low-meat diet since before the kids (now 14 and 4 years old) were born. My partner and I gave up meat and fish 6 days a week for Lent 2002, and we just never went back to eating meat the way we used to! You can read all about our motivations and what we’ve learned.
One of our main lessons is that the typical American/British concept of what goes on a dinner plate is very limiting. Not only is it difficult to make without meat, but it’s just boring. The flavors of other cuisines make food more exciting, with or without meat! A bonus is that these cuisines often integrate vegetables into the meal so you can’t help eating them–and they’re yummy!
Here are some ideas for meals your family might like. It’s hard to predict what kids will try and which new tastes they’ll like! Try not to be intimidated by picky eaters. Show your enthusiasm for the food, link it to bigger ideas, and consider serving sauce on the side or choosing “salad bar” style meals where each person can decide how much of which food goes into his bowl.
Korean Vegetarian Food
One of my recent victories as a mother is finally making Bee Bim Bop for my family! We first discovered Linda Sue Park’s catchy-rhyming picture book in our local library when our son was 2 or 3. Although he was excited by the idea of making and eating Bee Bim Bop, somehow I never quite got around to it for more than a decade.
Each person gets a bowl with some rice in the bottom and adds her choice of toppings. Then you grab your chopsticks and mix it all up!
We used The Wanderlust Kitchen’s recipe, except that I forgot to buy scallions and we decided not to include eggs. This meal was easier than it sounded–there’s a lot of chopping and several separate things to cook, but all the cooking processes are simple and very quick. I think we actually spent less than the hour she suggests for total prep+cook time. My partner Daniel made the pickled vegetables and sliced the mushrooms during the afternoon; I did everything else when I got home from work and had dinner on the table 35 minutes later.
Our 4-year-old Lydia was resistant to the idea of eating anything unfamiliar that night…until she smelled the toasted sesame oil and I let her taste a cucumber slice seasoned with it. Then, seeing the array of dishes on the table got her interested in trying more of the things. It turned out that she loved the pickled daikon and ate lots of it! You just never know what kids will like.
The rest of us loved the gochujang sauce, but it was too spicy for Lydia. Daniel and I agreed that it tastes kind of like steak sauce or hoisin sauce, and we have a bottle of each in the refrigerator, so we gave Lydia samples of those sauces. She thought they were all right but ultimately preferred to have no sauce on her bowl.
This meal is a great example of planned leftovers. We had several delicious lunches of Bee Bim Bop.
Although I’d never made this specific meal before, the basic concept–seasoned vegetables and protein over rice–is one we eat a lot.
Chinese Vegetarian Food
Stir-fry is a nice quick way to cook food–usually, I can get it all chopped and cooked before the rice is done (about 20 minutes). Learn to stir-fry, and it’s easy to make many Chinese restaurant favorites from recipes–or just make up your own combination of classic Chinese seasonings with vegetables. Use , peanuts, tofu, edamame, or fish as your protein.
Fried rice is a classic way to turn leftover vegetables and rice into a different meal! Making use of every bit of food is a way of taking less for ourselves so that there’s more for our neighbors. Do you think of fried rice as a side dish? Change your perspective and focus on what you get to eat while fasting! A bowl of fried rice with peas and carrots and mushrooms and egg, zinging with ginger and soy sauce, is a feast.
Mexican Vegetarian Food
Burritos, tacos, and quesadillas all are quick and easy to put together and adaptable to various ingredients. Beans are packed with iron and fiber as well as affordable protein! Katie shows how you can quickly cook dry beans without soaking using your Instant Pot. Experiment with black, red, pinto, and other beans. Try different types of chili powder and/or peppers.
My 4-year-old has lost her appreciation for spicy beans and is grumpy about most beans and most spicy food now…so we make her a serving of mildly spiced Mexican food with plenty of cheese and raw sweet peppers on the side, while the rest of us enjoy the spicy beans!
Check out Katie’s homemade tortilla recipes, especially if you have grain sensitivities.
For a different twist, try this homemade chipotle simmer sauce that mimics a packaged product. It goes well with the usual Mexican-food accompaniments of tomato, lettuce, bell peppers, sour cream, and cheese–but it includes some ingredients from other cultures, like fish sauce and thyme. Here’s an opportunity to talk about how people from different places can pick up each other’s good ideas!
Another “melting pot” recipe is my mom’s Mexican Pizza, which uses up odds and ends on a cornbread crust.
Native American Vegetarian Food
You could live in the United States all your life and never eat in a Native American restaurant. The traditional cuisines of the thousands of tribes who once thrived in this land are virtually unknown in our popular culture. Do you even know which tribe once lived in the place where you live now? Researching that, and what the natives of your local area used to eat, would be a great family project!
The Iroquois called corn, beans, and squash The Three Sisters because these vegetables can grow together in the same field, taking care of one another. This ancient agricultural practice is not just efficient and good for the soil. It also produces three foods that taste great together and are nutritionally complementary: beans for protein, squash for vitamins, corn for carbohydrates.
You don’t have to be a farmer to enjoy these Three Sisters! Frozen corn, canned or pressure-cooked beans, and frozen or canned pumpkin will do. (We baked all the squash from our CSA farm share in the autumn and froze some of it for later.)
I like to brown some onions in oil, then cook up the Three Sisters and serve the mixture in a bowl, topped with cheese, with corn chips for dipping. I also add sweet peppers if we have them, because my kids like them and they’re very nutritious–and bell peppers, too, are native to the Americas.
Chip-dip for dinner might seem fun and silly, but take a closer look: It’s low-impact and frugal to leave more resources for sharing with others. You can talk about making good choices in agriculture to care for Creation. You can talk about all that was taken from the tribes and pray that God will guide us toward a more peaceful and respectful world. All kinds of educational possibilities!
In my experience, both preschoolers and older kids are fascinated by the story of why Native Americans sometimes are called American Indians, when they were never from India at all! By the way, the term Native American also carries some baggage, and some people prefer to be called Indian (but some people from India have strong feelings about that!) or to be called by the name of their tribe, ideally the real name instead of a European corruption or the name of a nearby river. . . .
These things are complicated, yet they’re also simple. Even young children can understand how American Indians suffered from being misunderstood by people who spoke a different language and held different assumptions about property and manners. We can pray for understanding and compassion when we encounter people whose behavior surprises us.
Older kids can research the question, “Are there now more American Indians or more Indian-Americans in the United States?” and all the many factors affecting the numbers of these two groups that (despite the names) are no more related to one another than any other two groups. Meanwhile, let’s have some more food!
Indian Vegetarian Food
India has the world’s lowest rate of meat consumption, with at least 20% of people eating no meat at all. They’ve come up with lots of great ideas for vegetarian meals!
Masoor Dal means red lentils. This shelf-stable protein cooks much more quickly than green lentils and has a soft, flaky texture that appeals to many people. (Check out The Dal Glossary–all about 8 kinds of lentils!)
One of my family’s favorite meals is red lentils with Indian spices and grated carrots. You can make this mildly spiced for sensitive little tongues! It has a sweet flavor that many kids–and many adults who think they don’t like lentils–enjoy.
Green lentils boiled or baked with garam masala (spice blend) and salt have a nice basic flavor that some people like plain and others want to eat with toppings–fried onions are my favorite! Add some butter or oil to the lentils toward the end of cooking to enhance yumminess. Here are my instructions for easy baked lentils so you can give your attention to the vegetables!
Palak Paneer is basically Indian-flavored creamed spinach with tomatoes. Normally it has chunks of cheese in it (paneer is a firm, white, grainy-textured cheese) and the vegetables are puréed to a pudding-like consistency. I made this with a glob of cream cheese and a glob of yogurt, and I didn’t bother puréeing. It was delicious anyway!
We don’t always have to make recipes the way they’re made in restaurants. I bet real people in India making dinner for their families don’t always use a blender or have paneer on hand. This is Palak Paneer like your neighbor might make it!
We’re pulling a multicultural thing with our bread: Flour tortillas heated the right way taste a lot like naan! Place a tortilla directly on the grate of the gas stove burner. Get your tongs. Turn the burner on high. Wait about 10 seconds, then grab tortilla with tongs and flip it. Then flip every 5 seconds until it’s puffy and brown.
Enjoying lentils with fried onions made me wonder aloud, “How is this not mujaddara? Well, that’s Middle Eastern . . .” We turned to Wikipedia and were surprised by what we learned!
Middle Eastern Vegetarian Food
Mujaddara is lentils cooked with rice (or other grain), seasoned with cumin and coriander, topped with caramelized onions. It’s one of my favorite things to order in Middle Eastern restaurants. But I didn’t know that Arab Christians traditionally eat mujaddara during Lent!
I also didn’t know mujaddara is sometimes called “Esau’s favorite.” The story of Jacob offering his brother Esau some yummy lentils in exchange for his inheritance is the first Bible story that really interested my son. But some translations describe those lentils as “soup” and “red stuff,” which doesn’t sound like mujaddara. Any lentil dish you make might be the one that tempted Esau! That gives you an opportunity to talk about this guy who played mean tricks on his brother–that’s only the first round; it’s quite a story!
Any lentil/bean dish is great alongside loubie, a green bean and tomato combo that’s easy to make with frozen vegetables. (You might cook the green beans and tomatoes separately, or cook some without seasoning, to satisfy your kids.)
Another easy Middle Eastern food is hummus. Try Rachel’s recipe–even kids can make it! (I confess that I’ve been saving time by buying hummus at ALDI recently.)
My partner asked for a birthday dinner of hummus, stuffed grape leaves, olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, and pita bread. I had fun choosing an array of olives from a supermarket olive bar, which is also where I got the grape leaves. (This easy dinner prep left me time to bake his birthday cake!)
Olives are mentioned frequently in the Bible, and Middle Eastern food, in general, is what Jesus ate during his Earthly life. Try a meal like this as you think about his final weeks.
Japanese Vegetarian Food
It’s fun to make your own sushi, or if you don’t have a sushi-rolling mat, try making rice balls that you squeeze together with your hands. Tasty fillings are carrot, cucumber, baked tofu, and tamago omelet.
To make tamago, just mix a little sugar, soy sauce, and rice wine vinegar into eggs and then scramble. It’s traditional to make a very thin omelet and then fold it up in layers–but it still tastes good if you just cook it as scrambled egg! (Use a neutral-flavored oil, not olive oil.)
Nicaraguan Vegetarian Food
My family loves Gallo Pinto, a Nicaraguan version of beans and rice–with carrots mixed in and a fried egg on top! With no chili powder or tomato, it’s quite different from Mexican beans. The spiciness is very adjustable. We often make it with regular onion when we don’t have green onions on hand. It’s great with avocado or cucumber, too!
French Vegetarian Food
Use up all your bread heels making French toast, and serve breakfast for dinner! Balance the meal with fresh fruit or a cooked fruit sauce using your odd bits of fruit. Once again, a meal made out of scraps feels like a feast.
We like to have a “French picnic” meal of bread, cheese, and fruit–on a day when the weather isn’t at all suitable for a picnic! This simple meal is quick to prepare and perfect with wine . . . or coffee, if you prefer. Fancy cheeses are affordably priced at ALDI or Gordon Food Service. We had cranberry goat cheese, applewood-smoked cheddar, and ordinary cheddar in case Lydia wouldn’t try the fancy cheeses (but she did, with enthusiasm!).
Apples are delicious with cheese, but if you serve a variety of fruit, everyone’s likely to eat more fruit.
“French picnic” dinner makes me think of Jesus because it’s similar to what we eat on Maundy Thursday at our church. Now that I’m accustomed to eating bread, cheese, and fruit when remembering the last evening Jesus spent with his friends, having that meal always reminds me. And isn’t that another way of doing what Jesus asked us to do? “When you eat and drink, remember me.”
African Vegetarian Food
I don’t want to leave out a whole continent, but I don’t have a great idea for kid-friendly African food that I’ve cooked myself. That’s an area for us to explore this Lent! If you have any favorite African recipes, please leave them in the comments! I know that Ethiopian restaurants offer an array of tasty vegetable and bean dishes; I just haven’t learned to make any of them at home.
Whatever you’re eating, let each meal remind you to love your neighbor as yourself. Different foods remind us of different neighbors. Use a variety of meals to help your family think about all the different people of the world, all the many things to eat and many ways to fix them, and the love we share when we eat together. Invite some friends to join you!
Meatless eating is deprivation in one way, but it can make us more aware of just how rich our lives are, how many delicious sensations can be packed into one humble bowl.