Vegetarian Boot Camp

Over pork shoulder tacos one night, we told our daughters that we had an announcement to make.

“Jeez, that sounds scary,” said Phoebe, as she held a massively overstuffed tortilla in front of her face. Little did she know.

“Next week, we are going vegetarian,” we informed them. “Now: you guys are either with us or against us, and since you aren’t old enough to get a vote in this, it looks like you’re going to be with us.”

Oh my god, the whining. It began immediately: But I’ll be starving. But tofu is disgusting. But this isn’t fair. But we eat a lot of vegetables.

This last point was true. The girls have been trained to think of a meal as incomplete without a vegetable on their plates. They ask for seconds of kale salad and, to their grandfather’s eternal bewilderment, will go off on a bowl of Brussels sprouts. Our issue is different. Other than the occasional black bean burrito, they flatly refuse meals that feature the mainstay proteins of a vegetarian’s diet: tofu, eggs, lentils, beans. Which feels like a fairly epic parental fail on our parts given that every week, it seem like an inspiring new cookbook is published imploring us to live healthier, go plant-based, and experiment with Einkorn berries. We sit there, thumbing through recipes from Yotam Ottolenghi, April Bloomfield, and Steven Satterfield, saying to each other, If only we could eat likes this every night. So we decided to try – for a week, at least – and we dragged the girls along with us. Here’s what we learned along the way.

1. Never Reveal the Meal Plan Ahead of Time.
The less time the kids have to organize their resistance, the better. We learned this hard way on the morning of Day 1, when we let them know that dinner was going to be Ottolenghi’s Thai lentil soup. What ensued was a full day of complaining that followed them right to the dinner table. No matter how good the soup was – and it was good – the response could only be lukewarm. Abby: “I miss chicken.” Phoebe: “It wasn’t terrible, but I’m really hungry.”

2. Kids Are Really Hungry.
Tuesdays in the spring were soccer nights, which meant the kids came home late, ready to chow. On Boot Camp Night 2, we served vegetable fritters on rolls with tamarind sauce, and Phoebe, who was starving, inhaled one. And then another. We declared victory. Then she asked for a chicken sandwich. (Note: Here’s a good recipe for summer fritters.)

3. Don’t Be Too Ambitious.
On Day 3, we made April Bloomfield-inspired salad sandwiches. This one seemed about as unthreatening as it gets – crunchy lettuce, cucumber, tomato, avocado, red onion, some ranch dressing. Oh, and hard-boiled eggs. Which our kids despise. Just having them on the table touched off an epic meltdown. At one point, Abby went to the coat closet and came back wearing a fleece balaclava, which she claimed “protected her from the egg smell.” Dinner derailed.

4. Misdirection is your friend.
We could tell the girls were dreading tofu night, so we rolled out the sides first: Avocado salad, roasted carrots, and sushi rice, which Abby eats by the pound. By the time we presented the tofu – glazed with miso-butter and the best thing we ate all week – their heads were in a much better place. “They look like French fries,” said Phoebe. “I’ll eat that.” And she did. Both of them did. Two bites each. #SmallVictories.

So after a week, were they full-on dal and tempeh converts? Not exactly. But we cracked the door open, and it was good to be reminded of the Big Bang Theory as it relates to feeding kids: If we want to expand our daughters’ worlds, it’s up to us to explode the routine every once in a while.

This post (except the tofu recipe below) is our “Providers” column for the July 2015 issue of Bon AppetitHead over to BA for the Salad Sandwich recipeFor tons of awesome summer cooking ideas, pick up a copy on the newsstand, or, better yet, subscribe.  Salad Sandwich photo credit: Alex Lau for Bon Appetit.

Miso-Butter Tofu
Recipe courtesy of the gifted and talented Catherine Newman.

1 block extra firm tofu, cut crosswise into 12 slices
2 tablespoons white miso paste (available at Japanese markets or better supermarkets)
1/2 cup chicken or vegetable broth
2 tablespoons seasoned rice vinegar
2 teaspoons soy sauce
2 minced scallions (white and green parts only)
1 tablespoon butter, cut into small pieces

Press your tofu: Place it on a plate, cover with a few paper towels, then place a heavy pan on top for at least 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 400°F. In a small bowl, combine white miso paste (available at Japanese markets and Amazon.com) and 2 Tbsp. warm water until miso dissolves. Stir in chicken or vegetable broth, rice vinegar, soy sauce, and scallions. Arrange tofu in a single layer in a 13″ x 9″ glass baking dish. Pour miso mixture over tofu, tilting dish so all of tofu is coated. Dot the top with butter and bake 50 minutes until golden and bubbly. Serve with any or all of the following: sushi rice, broiled broccoli or asparagus, avocado slices that have been drizzled with ginger-miso dressing and sprinkled with chives.

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30 Comments

The Prestigious School

You are so right. Teenagers get hungry! One time my guys came home from football practice, and I told them it was bean burritos for dinner. They looked like I slapped them. Then my oldest son said, ” Mom, that sounds like something you could eat for lunch when we aren’t home. Can we please have some meat!?!?!?”

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Meghan Adair

I seriously can’t stop laughing over the balaclava egg protection. That is so great!!

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Diana

Your recipe sounds delicious but I have one question- what kind of tofu did you use? did you use firm tofu or soft (sometimes called silk) tofu?

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Jenny

Thanks for pointing that out — use extra firm tofu. It’s fixed in the recipe too. Enjoy!

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Awads

Thanks for the admission that even professionals have kids who will balk at their lovingly prepared meals. My almost-8 year old totally disrespected the pork shoulder i served on potato rolls last night, practically crying all through supper. how do you not love pork shoulder (it’s the pork ragu!!)?? How do you not take it personally? I was kind of pissed off all night!

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Jenny

are you kidding — that happens to us ALL THE TIME. I’ll try to be better about pointing that out more often. Thanks for writing Awads!

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Kristin

Ha! This made me laugh so hard because we feed our children a mostly vegetarian menu at home so the torture never ends! They handle it pretty well most nights, especially the younger kid that will eat most anything, even while pronouncing it as something she would NEVER eat. But when we go to restaurants you better believe they order meat.

They do love tofu though, which is nice. I wish I could get them to love grains and beans as much – it’s a work in progress.

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Shara Alpern

this is perfect! I had a block of tofu and no plan for tonight (usually I just do your Mongolian tofu)

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Lea

If you are wanting other tempting preparations:
We have had great success serving slices of extra firm tofu prepared using your chicken cutlet recipe. Our son obviously knows it isn’t chicken cutlet, but the fact that it looks the same on the outside and has that familiar breading went a long way toward getting him to try it (and like it).
Also, he is pretty into the black bean burgers from Veganomicon. The vital wheat gluten helps give them real “meaty” body and it is very easy to switch up the flavor profile by altering the spices, so you can go more in the direction of a curry flavor if that’s a comfortable taste for your girls.

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Catherine Beaudet

I have repeatedly warned my Niece that if she doesn’t eat what’s in her plate for dinner, then that will be her snack later in the night, or breakfast the next day, or lunch, or whenever until it is eaten. Her Grandparents cave to her requests for snacks of the junk food kind, but if its just her and I, I hold my ground firmly. There are only so many canned pasta, hot dogs, or macaroni meals one can stomach before the palate gets bored.

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noreen

Ugh. The egg smell. I remember being absolutely revolted by the smell of eggs as a kid. My grandfather used to make me eat hard-boiled eggs, even though the mere thought of it made me want to hurl. I couldn’t/wouldn’t eat scrambled eggs until I was 35 and pregnant for the 2nd time. Now, eggs are up at the top of my favorite food list. I make a fantastic quiche!

Looking back, having had 3 of my 4 boys (so far) test positive for various levels of egg allergy, I’m pretty sure I was also allergic to eggs as a child. To this day, you couldn’t pay me to eat a hard-boiled egg… *gag*

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LizK

Thanks for all the great veggie dinner inspiration! I’ve been vegetarian for over 20 years, and while I don’t have kids, I have lots of experience cooking for adults who swear they will never get full without eating meat. My top tips are make it feel festive/special and avoid using meat substitutes – they are only a disappointment to people who actually enjoy meat. Besides hearty, satisfying dishes like veggie lasagne, bean/cheese enchiladas and Moroccan tagine with couscous, I’ve had the most luck with something I call “snack dinners”. Pick a country or region and then offer a selection of warm & cold treats. Often people make it halfway through dinner before realizing that I “forgot the meat”. Here are a few examples:
Spain: Grilled veggies, nice bread, sauteed garlic mushrooms, tortilla de patata, aioli
Middle East: Falafel, labneh, tabbouleh, pita bread, olives, hummus
Japan: miso soup, Asian pickles, DIY sushi hand rolls
Greece: chopped Greek Salad, phyllo/spinach triangles, manestra (a very simple pasta dish made with orzo & tomato sauce)
As an added plus, lots of these things can be made in advance and just reheated or put in a nice bowl when it’s time for dinner.

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Christina @ but i'm hungry

Kids are so funny. My son is 3 and a great eater. He loves broccoli, spinach, brussells sprouts… but try to get him to take a bite of lettuce (LETTUCE!) and he flat out refused. Sigh.

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Sally

“they flatly refuse meals that feature the mainstay proteins of a vegetarian’s diet: tofu, eggs, lentils, beans. Which feels like a fairly epic parental fail on our parts…” I don’t think that would ever have occurred to me.

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Linda S

Hah! Love the balaclava! It sounds as though Abby shares my son’s sense of drama. It’s always nice to hear about the things that happen at other people’s houses.

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Ellen W

I’m with your daughters on thinking hard boiled eggs have an offensive odor. Aside from quiche or omelet, I don’t eat eggs although I wished I liked them.

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Melissa

I’m glad you’re doing this. I really like your books, but as I read them the one thing that jumps out at me most is the shocking amount of meat your family consumes.

As for your tofu recipe, why would you even list chicken stock as an option – then it’s not vegetarian anymore! And I would leave out the butter; might as well make it vegan.

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Kristine Tye

I love your point about leading the way if you want your kids to expand their horizons! It will be a little but uncomfortable to try something new, and if you can handle that healthy level of “stress,” it’s good for the kids, too. The other thing I love about this is that it was an experiment (not intended as “we are going to change everything and change it forever!”)… which leaves it open for everyone to provide feedback afterward and supports collaboration in the family! Thanks for sharing.

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Mona

Any advice on putting this together a few hours in advance and sticking it in the fridge until I’m ready to bake it?

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Elizabeth

Loved this post! We’ve been trying to go more plant-based, especially in the hot summer months, but I have a hard time knowing where to start and still keep it familiar enough to tempt my little family into trying all the new dishes and flavors. Would you be willing to share your full week’s menu? I love the idea of a boot camp! Thank you for your wonderful blog and books! Always always a comfort and inspiration! Love, Elizabeth

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Cardinal

is this seriously meant to bake for 50 minutes at 400? I just took mine out after 30 minutes at 390 and it is burnt to a crisp and the pan is destroyed.

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Jenny

@cardinal – Oh no! So sorry about the pan. I double checked instructions and yes, it’s correct as written. Was the liquid covering the tofu completely? I’m trying to think of what else might have gone wrong, but can’t really think. I’ve made this twice since first discovering it and have not had the same experience. Anyone else out there have a problem with cooking/burning too quickly?

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Cardinal

Thanks for responding! It’s not as bad as I originally thought — the outside was black but it turned out to be edible and the kids actually ate it without complaint! It sure wouldn’t have been good after 20 more minutes, though. I’ll have to follow up with my husband (who’s the one who put it in the oven) to try to figure out how closely he followed the recipe.

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Kris

I was surprised at the high temp & cooking time as well for delicate miso & so little liquid. I’m glad I saw @Cardinal’s comment first. After 20 minutes the liquid was evaporated and burning at the edges of the pan. I flipped the tofu & kept a close eye on it but only cooked it another 12 minutes. Should there be more broth? A lower temp?

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Elizabeth

I had similar results, followed the directions exactly and after 25 minutes it was burnt and dried up. Sad day.

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Mary

I LOVE this! I try to limit our meat consumption, and we typically only have seafood and poultry once each per week. We try to go meatless the rest of the time, at least at home. It’s a challenge for sure. I also love your blog and your cookbooks, but I do wish you had more meat-free recipes and meal plans included. I haven’t had much luck with tofu to date, but I think it’s time we give it another try.

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Alison

I also had a problem with burning. I think it should be done in a smaller dish so the sauce is deeper.

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Ttrockwood

Haha! Your kids sound like my parents! I’ve been vegetarian since i was about ten years old and what is almost funny is how my parents rarely have a vegetarian meal- unless I’m
visiting because i cook dinner then 😉
Tempeh was a huge hit- i crumbled it and sauteed with taco seasonings, we had tacos with (vegan) refried beans and various other toppings. African sweet potato peanut stew is another sure hit- i add in kale and white beans with the sweet potatoes and peanut butter in the stew and it becomes a
really hearty filling crowd pleaser

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