If you’re confused by the plant-based eating craze, you’re not alone. While most people realize it’s better for both our bodies and the environment, many are still unsure of exactly what it means. Is plant-based eating synonymous with vegetarian, vegan, and herbivore, or is it something else entirely? The truth is, it’s whatever you want it to be.
While it does place an emphasis on consuming more or mostly plant-derived foods and limits animal items like meat or dairy, how restrictive you want to be is all up to you—at least according to the experts at Harvard. Looking for some ideas to ease your way in? These tips for creating plant-forward variations of classic comfort dishes (that are still deliciously satisfying!) can help.
Hop on the zoodle wagon
If you haven’t joined the zoodle party (spiralizing zucchini or other vegetables to mimic noodles), the time is now. “Zucchini noodles are nutritious, low-calorie, low-carb, and definitely plant-based,” says Nick Graff, executive chef at Noodles & Company. Using zucchini, yellow squash, butternut squash, or beets in place of regular wheat pasta is an easy way to instantly make a dish more plant-based, he says, and they pair nicely with your favorite sauce and mix-ins. His unique pro-tip: Use a potato peeler to cut sheets of squash, then lay them on a cookie sheet and roast in the oven until they’re slightly dehydrated. “They make an amazing, plant-based lasagna,” he says.
Swap your butter for oil
Yes, butter is sourced from animals, so switching it out for plant-derived options like coconut oil, avocado oil, or olive oil, is an easy first step. “Coconut oil can be used in a 1:1 ratio when cooking or baking, making it an easy non-dairy recipe adaptation that adds a hint of flavor,” says Manuel Trevino, corporate executive chef of by CHLOE, a vegan restaurant in New York City.
Mimic your meat
Not all meat substitutes are created equal—many contain superfluous ingredients you don’t need or want to ingest, so choose wisely. One of the best natural options is jackfruit, which is high in fiber, protein, and vitamins, maintains a texture similar to meat, and is particularly good for turning your favorite barbecue items plant-based. “Use it as an alternative to a classic pulled pork sandwich,” says Thomas Boemer, chef and owner of Corner Table in Minneapolis.
As far as packaged substitutes go (because let’s face it, we don’t always have time to whip up veggie burgers from scratch), look for brands like Field Roast (which makes plant-based sausages, patties, and more) with a minimal ingredient list that includes whole foods like nuts, seeds, or grains. They cook up just like regular meat and are perfect for making plant-based comfort items like “pigs” in a blanket, “brats” and sauerkraut, or “sausage” and peppers.
Upgrade your rice
Rice is already a plant-based option, but swapping in cauliflower rice gets you even closer to the plant source. “Grated cauliflower is the perfect substitution in dishes like fried rice,” says Graff. You can also try grating broccoli for a similar effect (though cauliflower is a more neutral flavor base).
Mushrooms are your friend
Believe it or not, mushrooms can provide the deep, earthy flavor that some ground meats provide. “Make a traditional Bolognese sauce with roasted mushrooms instead of ground beef or pork for a rich, meat-like flavor,” suggests Graff.
Cut back on cheese
If you’re not ready to give up dairy cheese all together, start out slow. “Add fresh corn and jalapeño to a grilled cheese sandwich,” says Helene Henderson, owner and executive chef of Malibu Farm Miami Beach. The extra boost of flavor and texture allows you to cut back on the amount of cheese you’d normally pile on.
Opt for non-dairy milks
This might seem like an obvious swap—cashew, almond, coconut, oat, or soy milks in place of cow milk—but knowing how to use them is key. For the consistency you need for a creamy, comforting mac ‘n’ cheese, alfredo, or even a dip, try cashew milk. “When blended with soaked cashews, it becomes a great replacement for creamy sauces,” say the experts at Silk. If a bowl of decadent, cream-based soup screams comfort food to you, try coconut milk instead.
Fry your veggies
“Fried food is comfort food, especially in the South. Battered veggies like cauliflower or broccoli is a great way to get that fried desire,” says Katie Borger, senior director of marketing for Boston’s Pizza Restaurant and Sport Bar.
Kick up your breakfast
Load up your pancake and waffle batter so you’re not hungry enough to miss the bacon and eggs. “Mix butternut squash puree into pancake or waffle batter for vitamins, fiber, and sweetness,” says Graff.
Embrace your beans
Beans are a magical ingredient when it comes to plant-based eating. Not only do they add the necessary dose of fiber and protein you need to stay full, they’re also super versatile. Use a variety of beans and veggies to make a hearty meat-free chili, or choose bean-based pastas (you can find them from mainstream brands like Barilla and Explore Cuisine) for your favorite pasta dish.
Applesauce instead of eggs
Here’s one baking substitute that might surprise you. “Unsweetened applesauce acts as a binder to keep your baked goods just as moist as eggs,” says Trevino.
This staple of Asian cuisine can be used in much more than a stir-fry. The firm type fries up well, so use it for faux chicken nuggets or popcorn shrimp. Its bland taste also means it holds up nicely in dishes with plenty of other flavors and spices, such as a pot pie.
Related Video: How to Make Vegan Lox
Header image by Chowhound.