Eating vegetarian is a personal choice and it isn’t for everyone. However, many people find that reducing their meat intake not only improves their health, but that it also helps their wallet, as vegetarian protein foods are often cheaper than animal proteins. Plus, with climate change on the social conscience, new emerging data touts the earth-friendly benefits of reducing our dependency on farm-raised meats.

If, like me, you were raised on “meat and potatoes,” meatless meal planning may leave you scratching your head. And if your family is accustomed to having meat at every meal, they may be resistant to the idea. How can we overcome these obstacles?

First, let’s clarify what is defined as a “vegetarian meal.” It is a meal that does not include any meat, poultry, fish or other seafood. It may also exclude dairy and/or eggs. Lacto-vegetarians include dairy products in their diets, and ovo-vegetarians include eggs in their diets. A vegan meal excludes all forms of animal-derived ingredients, including eggs, dairy products, gelatin, honey, whey, etc. There are more options when preparing vegetarian meals compared with vegan meals since vegan diets restrict more foods.

Because meat and animal products are good sources of important nutrients like protein, iron, calcium, and vitamin B12, there is worry that a vegetarian or vegan diet may put one’s health at risk. This is a valid concern, especially if you are not familiar with how to get these nutrients from other sources. But there is no need to fret. With a little research and a proper planning, you can create nutritious, tasty vegetarian or vegan meals.

What are appropriate vegetarian or vegan substitutes that contain these nutrients?

  • Protein: Vegan sources include nuts, seeds, soy foods (soy milk, tofu, edamame, tempeh), beans, legumes and seitan. Vegetarians may also choose to include dairy products and/or eggs.
  • Iron: Legumes, many iron-fortified cereals, nuts (especially cashews), leafy green vegetables, and tofu are all vegan friendly options. Vegetarians may also include eggs.
  • Calcium: Vegan sources include leafy green vegetables (kale, collards, broccoli, spinach) and fortified soy or nut milk. Vegetarians may also choose to include dairy products.
  • Vitamin B12: Nutritional yeast, nori (dried seaweed), and shitake mushrooms are vegan friendly sources. Eggs and dairy products also contain B12, and may be included in some vegetarian diets.

Creativity in the kitchen

Vegetarian or vegan cooking can foster creativity in the kitchen. Broccoli and cauliflower can be grilled like steak, eggplant and mushroom can be sautéed to a “meaty” texture, and nuts (combined with a few other ingredients) can be ground down to a gooey, cheese-like consistency. The possibilities are endless, with more recipes being shared each day through platforms like social media.

Try starting with just one meatless meal a week. For recipe ideas, check out these yummy vegetarian dishes from the Phoenix VA!

For more information on vegetarian diets, take a look at this list of myths and facts. Also consider contacting your local VA dietitian (RD) for more information on vegetarian or vegan diets and assistance with meal planning to meet your goals!

Bethany Oxender, MS, RD, CSOWM, is a MOVE! Clinical Dietitian at the Ann Arbor VA Medical Center who specializes in weight management. Before finding her current home, she had the good fortune of learning from dietitians at the Cleveland Louis Stokes VA Hospital and Aleda E. Lutz VA Medical Center in Saginaw, MI. She is an active member of the American Nutrition and Dietetic Association, authoring multiple articles for their Food & Nutrition Magazine.

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Published on Oct. 13, 2019

Estimated reading time is 2.9 min.

Views to date: 175


  1. Earning money from home October 21, 2019 at 8:35 am

    I’ve been a vegan for about 4 years now and I can say it has drastically changed my health for the better (an improvement). I originally was 206 lbs and didn’t do much but as I shed the weight I was able to do more; since I didn’t have a lot of choices for junk to eat I was kind of limited to eating correctly

    Good post overall and encourage others to be vegan or some variation of eating less from animal.

    Sending my best,
    Paper Boy

  2. MARK RITTER October 20, 2019 at 2:13 am

    My wife is dedicated to a plant based diet. I respect the health benefits and enjoy sharing many of the delicious dishes with her. Also fast food restaurants are no longer part of my meal plan. However, not every home meal includes a creative hearty recipe so beef, pork, chicken, or fish occasionally remain part of my diet. I intend to make the complete transition when I’ve accepted the extra effort of a meatless diet. A recent trip to Asheville, NC showed me plant based eating is easier if you live in a community that fully supports this lifestyle. Asheville provides a choice of fun restaurants dedicated to plant based diets.
    Also, please understand these new “meat-free”5 products are for people want to eat meat. A true “veggie” has no interest in a product that impersonates the greasy fatty texture of meat (that we all love). Here’s to your health.

  3. Donald Maddy October 17, 2019 at 11:06 am

    As a vegetarian since 1961, I have had many opportunities to experiment in the kitchen. I love cooking and baking. Consequently I have developed several vegan complete proteins that anyone can make in their kitchen. It is so handy to make these ahead of time, freeze and when needed for a meal, just retrieve from the freezer and thaw and cook. Even though these are already “cooked” I further enhance their flavor by adding certain seasonings etc. don

  4. Suzanne Moore PhD October 17, 2019 at 12:47 am

    Kudos to Ms Bethany Oxender, MS RD, Hooray for an educated, well informed nutritionist. Please write more articles for this website on the topic of weight loss and diet for good health. I have taken the meat, eggs and dairy out of my diet thereby decreasing fats and truly eliminating cholesterol from my diet. I have lost weight as a side benefit of taming my cholesterol without drugs and I wasn’t even over weight (BMI 24.5) when I started! 25 pounds down without even trying or restricting the quantity of what I ate (BMI of 19.6 now). Everyone knows that it gets harder to shed pounds when you only have a few left to go. If I can do this anyone can! Just be vigilant about reading labels and switch to foods you batch cook yourself so you aren’t caught without the right kind of fuel (not fried) for your body. Lots of good batch cooking videos on Youtube!

  5. Davido Naija Music October 14, 2019 at 10:07 pm

    Lovely post. We all go Vegie. That’s the best way to a better life with good health.

    • andy blossy October 17, 2019 at 2:07 am

      I agree nothing against proteins ! My physical conditioning is much more robust using some of the real super food options,,,,beans, brown rice, leafy greens esp. This article is right on ! I am happy to see this in Veterans publications. Am a Marine , Vietnam , combat v , and I never take my eye off the idea of staying light and as strong as a 73 year old can be.. We were all trained so well the rest of our lives can be just as well balanced with these suggestions.

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