How to Cook for Friends with Alternative Diets

Paleo, vegetarian, vegan – you got this.

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When I was in college, I lived in a women’s co-op for two years. Along with weekly meetings and chores, the by-laws of the house required its members to cook dinner for the entire house about twice a month. 

A lot of girls chose to live in the house because it was off the college’s meal plan and they could cook their own food, so many of my housemates had limited diets or food allergies. While I lived there, I cooked meals for vegetarians, vegans, girls on paleo diets, and ladies with all sorts of food allergies and intolerances

There was a pretty steep learning curve at first (There’s gluten in soy sauce? Honey isn’t vegan?) but cooking for my housemates and learning about alternative diets has helped me in my adult years. Now I can cook for nearly anyone who walks through my door, and I now make smarter choices about the food I eat myself. 

Whether you’re inviting your vegan co-worker to a spring BBQ, cooking a romantic dinner for your date who’s on a paleo diet, or planning a girl’s night in with your gluten-free roommate, having some basic knowledge (and a couple of recipes) in your back pocket can help you accommodate your loved one’s dietary needs. Here are some tips:

Cooking for Vegetarians

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Before the husdude and I started our Whole30, we ate mostly vegetarian (we considered ourselves flexitarian, but that’s neither here nor there). Vegetarianism comes in many forms, but it mostly means that a person doesn’t eat any meat products. If you may be cooking for a vegetarian, ask them what they will and won’t eat – some vegetarians eat dairy and eggs, others may be okay with eating fish. 

When looking for vegetarian recipes, seek out sources of protein other than meat, like soy products (tofu, tempeh, and edamame), beans, nuts, and cheeses (if your veggie friend eats cheese – and watch out for cheeses made with rennet, an animal by-product). If you’re uncertain if a product like a cheese or condiment is vegetarian, be sure to read your labels! Some products will marked as vegetarian, but skimming the ingredients list just to be sure won’t hurt.  

Vegetarian Recipe Ideas:

Cooking for Vegans

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Veganism is a branch of vegetarianism, and vegans do not eat any animal products at all, including dairy products, eggs, and honey. Some vegans are flexible with products like honey, so again, it’s always good to ask your friend what they will and will not eat. 

When looking for vegan recipes, it’s easiest to look for recipes that are specifically labeled vegan. That said, most vegetarian recipes can be made vegan by omitting or swapping out ingredients, like honey for agave, or omitting cheese. Be wary of sauces and condiments: some, like fish sauce, are clearly not vegan, but others, like Worchestershire (which contains anchovies) and barbecue sauce (which may contain honey) are less obvious. When in doubt, again, check your labels!

Vegan Recipe Ideas:

Cooking for Friends Who Are Gluten-Free

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Your friends with Celiac disease, gluten-intolerances, or who are just on gluten-free diets, cannot eat anything with gluten, which is the elastic protein that holds baked goods made from wheat, barley, or rye together. This means that most traditional forms of bread, pasta, and most baked goods are out. 

The good news is, your friends can still eat other grains, like rice and quinoa, and other types of noodles, like all-buckwheat soba noodles and rice noodles. (Again – read your labels! Seeing a trend here?) You can make creative substitutions for your favorite pasta dishes with gluten-free pasta, too, if you’re willing to spend a little more. And, again, be careful with condiments – traditional soy sauce, for one, often has gluten, so opt for gluten-free tamari.

Gluten-Free Recipe Ideas:

Cooking for Friends on Paleo Diets

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Folks on paleo diets (or similar clean-eating diets like the Whole30) only eat meat, veggies, fruits, nuts, seeds, and certain kinds of oils. That means that they can’t eat most grains, like bread, pasta, and rice, they can’t eat dairy, and they can’t have any added sugar. 

While this diet is preeeetttyy restrictive, there are tons of recipes out there that are paleo or can be made paleo-compliant with a few substitutions or omissions. Salads with a simple protein are always a safe bet. If you’re uncertain, ask your paleo friends what they generally eat and can’t eat and run the recipes by them beforehand, if possible. 

Paleo Recipe Ideas:

What do you think? 

Do you have any friends on an alternative diet? Are you on an alternative diet? What are your go-to recipes when you’re cooking for anyone with a restrictive diet? Let me know in the comments below!

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