Over the course of the past year, my family has dramatically reduced our meat consumption. My oldest son went away to University and came back committed to a diet that’s eighty percent vegan and twenty percent fried chicken. He’s an environmental sciences student, so naturally, climate change is a hot topic around our table some days, and the things we’ve learned has definitely impacted how we eat.
My husband and I are ageing, as are our parents, and I’ve spent hours deep diving into subjects like The Blue Zones and vegetarianism, and if they are truly connected to longevity (hint: it seems the answer is yes). I also have a preschooler who isn’t crazy about chowing down on chunks of beef, chicken or pork most of the time. All of which is to say, there’s been a steady decrease of animal protein on our plates in the past eight months. And we love it.
I’m not here to convince you that you should change how you eat, but what I do want to share is that I’ve discovered that meatless meals have actually become the gateway to getting to quick and easy dinners on the table during busy weeknights. My go-to dinner dishes these days need to be comforting and crowd-pleasing and absent of a lot of fussing, and it just so happens that vegetarian dinners are hitting the spot for all of us.
Here are eight meal ideas that have a regular place in our weeknight recipe rotation:
Pasta Con Ceci
I’ve been dishing up this humble dish with a hearty salad and fresh bread, although one time I did plop it into the centre of the table with nothing but a huge platter of veggies and dip. It’s a recipe you’re really going to want in your back pocket for the coming months and is perfect for making just before the school Christmas concert, or when you’re rushing out the door to make it to hockey practice on time. We LOVE it! Full recipe here
Sheet Pan Gnocchi
Sheet pan suppers continue to be the staple of many of my weeknight meals, and my latest creation is one I wish I had thought of for my most-recent cookbook, an ode to one-pan and one-pot meals. Many sheet pan meals are meat and veggie-heavy and take up to an hour to cook, but this dinner I’ve created is vegetarian and can be on the table in 20-minutes. Full recipe here
Crispy Black Bean Tacos
A cross between a hard-shell taco and quesadilla, you’ll have a hard time eating tacos any other way once you give this pan-fried crispy version a try. Feel free to get creative with the fillings by changing the type of bean (they’re also great with Pintos), and serve with salsa, guac and sour cream. Full recipe here
Baked Potato Bar
This is my personal favourite weeknight dinner. I make a big batch of baked potatoes in the oven, microwave, slow cooker or Instant Pot, using the method that works best for my day. Then I steam some broccoli, sauté mushrooms, onions, peppers and spinach, shred cheese, and add spoons to containers of sour cream, Greek yogurt and salad dressing. I set up everything on the counter and let the kids and adults make their own dinner by topping their potato with whatever they like. It’s a smashing success for everyone!
Indian Butter Chickpea Curry
This mild-tasting curry is an excellent gateway recipe for introducing bolder spices to your children. The meal is also vegetarian, vegan (use vegan butter) and gluten-free making it a winning option when entertaining a crowd. Full recipe here
I’m a die-hard fan of Instant Pot risotto. Only requiring six minutes of cooking time, this really is a meal designed for busy weeknights. This recipe is my go-to, and I add whatever seasonal vegetables my kids are into at the time to the pot when I’m done cooking. For those who prefer the stove-top method, you can’t go wrong with Ricardo’s recipe. There are plenty of delicious veggie-based stocks available in stores today, so feel free to use those in place of chicken broth whenever it’s called for.
This is also a staple dinner in my house, especially on Thursday nights which have now been officially declared as the “Breakfast for Dinner” night in our house. We use whatever odds and ends we can find to bulk up the dish, but our most favourite combinations usually include some kind of vegetables and cheeses.
Orecchiette with Pesto and Brussels Sprouts
There really are few vegetables as polarizing as Brussels sprouts, but in this recipe, I’ve converted my kids because a) it doesn’t look like I’m serving them Brussels sprouts and b) when combined with pasta and pesto it tastes pretty darn delicious. I really love using orecchiette in this recipe, because each ear-shape piece holds just a little of the sauce and veg mixture, but really any pasta with do.
Orecchiette with Pesto and Brussels Sprouts
1 lb. orecchiette pasta
1 lb. Brussels sprouts, trimmed
2 Tbsp. olive oil
2 large garlic cloves
1 cup pesto
3 Tbsp. heavy or light cream
Bring a large of salted water to a boil, and cook the pasta until al dente, about 1 minute less than the directions on the package. Reserve ¼ cup pasta water and set aside.
While the pasta cooks, fit the food processor with the slicing blade. Use the processor to thinly slice the Brussels sprouts so they are shredded. Alternatively, you can do this with a sharp knife.
In a large non-stick skillet set over medium heat, heat the olive oil. Add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds, stirring frequently so as not to burn the garlic. Add the Brussels sprouts to the pan and season with ½ teaspoon salt. Cook, stirring often, until the veg begins to soften, about 3 minutes. Press the sprouts in the skillet in an even layer and cook undisturbed for 1 to 2 minutes. Stir and repeat, until you see golden and crisp pieces in the pan. Turn off the heat and set aside.
Drain the pasta. Add the cream to the pot and warm for 30 seconds over medium heat. Add the pesto and stir well to combine. Stir in the pasta. Once mixed, add the Brussels sprouts and combine well. Add some of the reserved pasta water until the sauce reaches the desired consistency. Check seasonings and adjust, if needed. Serve at once.
For additional reading on reducing meat consumption or going vegetarian, I really like the following books:
We are the Weather, by Jonathon Safran Foer
Mostly Plants, by Tracy, Dana, Lori and Corky Pollan
How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, by Mark Bittman