Ask the Nutritionist: How Can I End The Food Fights?

I’m a vegetarian, but my boyfriend is not. What advice do you have for those of us in “mixed culinary relationships”?
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I’m a vegetarian, but my boyfriend is not. What advice do you have for those of us in “mixed culinary relationships”?

I’m a vegetarian, but my boyfriend is not. Going out for dinner every night isn’t an option, and we don’t have time to make two separate meals. What advice do you have for those of us in “mixed culinary relationships”?

If the issue were as simple as “he likes chunky, and I like creamy,” the answer would be easy: Keep two jars of peanut butter in the cupboard. But it’s not. If you’re a vegetarian, chances are statistically high that your significant other isn’t. You’ve already learned that people with different eating styles face challenges, only one of which is figuring out what to make for dinner. How you respond to those challenges can have a substantial effect on the health of your relationship. In your case, here are a few ideas that may help.

Find the vegetarian “least common denominator.” Draft a list of entrées you can both enjoy that also happen to be vegetarian. Examples: bean burritos, pasta primavera, stuffed shells, vegetable lasagna, vegetarian chili, mushroom pizza, and soups such as lentil, split pea, black bean, broccoli, minestrone and potato-leek. You might even consider meals that are vegetarian as prepared—such as stir-fried vegetables—but to which nonvegetarians can easily add meat if they choose.

¦ Add some “transition” foods to your repertoire. Meatless burger patties and soy crumbles, soy “hot dogs” and breakfast links and similar products that look like familiar meatbased foods often taste great and appeal to many nonvegetarians. (In fact, the companies that make them usually target health-conscious nonvegetarians as well as the vegetarian market.) These foods can be used in the same ways as their meat counterparts, making it possible to have burgers on the grill and beans and franks. You can also make pasta sauce and chili with soy crumbles instead of ground beef.

Go ethnic.Experiment with Indian mutter paneer (curried vegetables with cheese over steamed basmati rice), Spanish vegetable paella or West African peanut soup. Many ethnic foods are vegetarian and may appeal to both of you. If you like, test the foods at a restaurant first, decide what you like, then re-create those dishes in your own kitchen.

Beyond meals, you’re also going to have to decide whether—and under what conditions—you’ll have meat in your home. For instance, do you mind the smell of meat cooking? Would you mind if meat touched your pots and pans or dishes? Maybe meat cooked outdoors on a grill would be acceptable to you.

Maybe you and your boyfriend could agree to bring only precooked meats, such as deli meats or roasted chicken, into your home, and serve them on disposable or separate plates.

How the two of you deal with the food issue may be different from how another couple approaches the problem. Whatever you decide to do, though, negotiate and compromise until you find a solution that you both can live with.

It would be a whole lot easier if we ate the same way. How can I encourage my significant other to go vegetarian?

Keep in mind that arguing and cajoling are seldom effective at motivating other people to go vegetarian (or to make any big life change, for that matter). In fact, pushing and prodding may backfire and create resentment and conflict. Instead, be a good model of the behavior you’d like others to adopt, and you’re more likely to get somewhere.

For example, if your partner isn’t ready to make the switch, quietly go about your lifestyle, and let your actions speak for you. Chances are good that your significant other will notice, get interested and maybe come around, at least part of the time. Play it cool, let others observe you enjoying good food, then let them choose for themselves.

Of course, if you want to entice someone over to the vegetarian side of the table, a little marketing wouldn’t hurt. Go a little out of your way to make your food look extra enticing. (Garnish, anyone?) Solicit input from your significant other— and kids, if you have them—on what you’ll make for dinner. If others have a hand in the planning and cooking, they’ll be more likely to enjoy the meal. Just be yourself, and teach by example.

Dealing with a partner who eats differently than I do is one thing, but it’s even more complicated when kids are involved. As a vegetarian with a nonvegetarian spouse, how do we deal with the issue of what to feed the kids?

First, it’s important to point out that vegetarian diets can be healthful for children of all ages and can help establish eating habits that support good health into adulthood. The Vegetarian Resource Group (vrg.org) has some helpful online resources that focus on the health and nutrition aspects of vegetarian diets for kids; it also provides help with meal planning.

If it’s important to you that your children eat only a vegetarian diet, you’ll have to work out the terms with your partner. (If you have difficulty doing that on your own, a third party, such as a family counselor, may be able to help.)

You can also use the “least common denominator” approach for family meals. There are plenty of kid-friendly vegetarian foods, such as macaroni and cheese, alphabet soup, meatless pizzas, omelets and baked, stuffed potatoes.

You might want to make a rule that meals at home are vegetarian, but at a restaurant or a friend’s house, it’s every man, woman and child for him- or herself. That approach is especially practical when it involves children old enough to make food choices on their own.

Some families include meat in one dish but also serve plenty of meatless dishes and salads. Everyone can choose for themselves what they prefer to eat. Above all, don’t push or go overboard in your eagerness to get others interested. Others will respect you for—and maybe even come to share—your choice.