Faking It

Today I am delighted
to cede the floor to my dear friend and mother-of-three Naria Halliwell. Astute readers might remember her as the first person to convince me to eat raw kale or the one who media-trained me for my first television appearance so many moons ago. (Fun fact: I was her very first client and now she’s coaching VIPs around the world.) Best of all, something interesting is always happening at her dinner table. I’ll let her tell you all about it. 

My daughter Sofie has never liked meat. From her earliest days, she turned her nose up at steak, refused burgers, and gagged down small bites of chicken. The only meat she was willing to eat was heavily processed (hot dogs, salami, chicken fingers), and for years we were engaged in a nightly battle. I would force her to eat a few bites, thinking I was doing the “right” thing. Then in 5th grade she begged to become a vegetarian (actually a pescatarian, because she’ll occasionally eat fish). I was done fighting. She was old enough to decide what she did and did not want to eat.

Like any other sane(ish) mother of three, I wasn’t willing to make two separate dinners every night, so I started to experiment with vegetarian dinners that Sofie and the rest of her family would eat too. It started with one or two nights a week, but then I (and you and everyone we collectively know) learned more about how maybe meat isn’t so great for our health or the planet and over the course of the past year, one or two nights turned into five or six. My family is definitely not 100% vegetarian, but we’ve cut out around 80% of the meat we used to eat. Sofie is thrilled, I miss it way less than I thought I would…but the rest of my family? Well let’s just say they’re not so happy.

Enter faking it. In an attempt to keep my husband and other two daughters from revolting, I’ve had to get creative. The first recipe that gave me hope that I could cook dinners that resembled our old meat days was Meatless Bolognese. It doesn’t sound super appealing, but somehow the umami of the mushrooms (not to mention a heaping spoonful of Parmesan) make it a realistic substitute.  Don’t mistake me, my farmer’s market pork sausage bolognese would kick this one’s butt, but it does a good enough job on a Tuesday night.  We eat it with an ultragrain quinoa pasta (that I swear is not half bad) as white pasta has gone the way of meat in our house: relegated to special occasions and weekends.

Another good faker is Tostadas with Lentils, Queso Blanco and Pickled Onions. I first discovered this recipe at a local vegetarian restaurant then recreated it at home. Turns out (don’t laugh!) lentils make a decent substitute for ground meat if flavored correctly and heaped with toppings. When I made it most recently, I caved and served some ground beef on the side for Sasha, my youngest and pickiest eater.  I mostly ate the lentils, but did have one scoop of the meat, and I didn’t think it was really any better than the lentils. My husband begs to differ.

The last faker in our rotation is Cauliflower Parmesan.  When we were still eating meat regularly, I could always count on Chicken Parm as a crowd pleaser. Everyone ate it, and ate it happily. I recently tried the cauliflower version, and found that it’s a shockingly good replacement.  It’s not the plain white breast meat that makes Chicken Parm so delicious, it’s the sweet tomato sauce mixed with crunchy breadcrumbs and melted mozzarella. Who needs the chicken when you can have golden fried cauliflower? Obviously, this isn’t my go-to when I’m trying to be virtuous or eat lightly. But even vegetarians (and wannabe vegetarians) need a little comfort food every now and then.

Tostadas with Lentils, Queso Blanco and Pickled Onions

2 cups dried lentils
Vegetable stock
taco simmer sauce (I cheated; see below if you want make your own)
1 small red onion very thinly sliced
juice of 1 lime
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
corn tortillas, 2-3 per family member
few glugs of canola oil
a few handfuls Queso Blanco, shredded
1 avocado cubed

Make Lentils: Cook dried lentils in vegetable stock, according to package directions (about 15 minutes) or until tender. Drain liquid. Add about 1 cup simmer sauce to lentils, turn off heat until just before you’re ready to eat.

Make Pickled Onions: In a small bowl, combine lime juice, red onion, sugar and salt. Let sit until ready to eat, at least 30 minutes.

For the Tostados: Over medium-high heat, brown each tortilla in a thin layer of oil in a cast iron skillet and place on paper towel to drain oil. To serve: pile lentils onto each tostado, then top with avocado, cheese, and onions.

Optional Simmer Sauce
In a small saucepan over medium heat, whisk together the following: 1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes, 3-4 tablespoons chili powder, a shake or two of garlic and onion powder, squeeze of lime, pinch of paprika, cumin, salt, and freshly ground pepper. Simmer 5-10 minutes until flavors meld


Naria’s Meatless Bolognese is from Cook’s Illustrated; here’s another one from Bon Appetit that I’ve been meaning to make forever. The Cauliflower Parm, again, is from the New York Times.

Related: He’s Sweet, She’s Savory; When Half the Table Goes Meatless

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You described my 4-year-old exactly! She dislikes all meat except the highly processed stuff like sausage and hot dogs. She does love seafood (especially shrimp, crab, and salmon). I can easily see her going vegetarian someday. But my family also includes husband who is a devout meatatarian. Definitely going to try some of these recipes. Thanks!


I’m not usually a commenter, but OMG this is my life! I have a 12 year old daughter, my oldest child, who has been eating vegetarian since she was tiny (early on it was simply because we couldn’t get her to eat it). She’s been fully vegetarian for 4 years, at this point. And now, our family eats almost completely vegetarian. We haven’t missed meat as much as I thought we would! We eat a lot of beans and roasted veggies, and like meat substitutes by Gardein. The weirdest thing for me is: I am a skilled cook. But my daughter has become the locus of the food energy in our house, and when she’s home, she is the one who sways the rest of the family. Before this, I thought the my abilities and culinary creativity moved us forward towards good food, but it doesn’t feel that way anymore. And it’s good! But a reckoning, nonetheless.


Ha, I have the opposite problem! We eat mostly vegetarian but my 4 year old is basically only happy eating meat and bread! I’ve been able to fool him with veggie meatballs but that’s about it…


Every few months I resolve that we will eat less meat as a family, and it’s a goal my kids are interested in, too. But then I fall back into my old chili mac, turkey sloppy joe ways. Your cauliflower parm is just the jumpstart we needed! Making it ASAP! xoxo


It would be helpful to specify to use green or brown lentils for this recipe (since red or yellow will fall apart and black lentils take a lot longer to cook)
I’ve been vegetarian for decades now, since i was about ten years old- back when soy milk tasted like beans and you had to go to the hippie health food store to buy tofu!
I often cook for omnis and tacos are definitely a go-to meal, crumbled tempeh or mushroom walnut fillings are favorites and work great for any number of recipes from meatless balls to enchiladas or asian lettuce wraps


I am a vegetarian and my husband loves meat. Each of us is on their own for breakfast and lunch but we usually eat dinner together and I try to make two versions of the same dish, one with meat and one without. Occasionally I will make two completely separate meals so each person can eat what they love best: for my husband, meat and potatoes, and for me, grains and veggies. This works pretty well for us currently but I’m not sure what to do if we have kids. Should I just cook several servings of each type of dinner (meat-free and with meat) and let the kid decide if they want one or the other or some of both? Then there is the dilemma of giving a child meat before they are old enough to understand the ethical and environmental implications of eating meat and make a conscious choice… Any advice?


I am a vegetarian, my husband and son are omnivores and I have a daughter who only eats plain things. The way we have solved this is…no one pot meals. Everything is a combination of piece parts. We may have a meat, a vegetable dish or two, a salad, a fruit, a grain/starch/pasta, a sauce…but they are all separate (not something nicely mixed together)…so everyone can take the parts that work for them.