/ Food & Drink

Vegetarian options – don’t just remove the meat

Sad face made out of vegetables on plate

Q: When is a burger not a burger? A: When it’s a mushroom. Any veggie will know I’m referring to that classic, and all too ubiquitous, example of a poor veggie restaurant offering. So why can’t our options be better?

Yes, calling a portobello mushroom head in a bun a ‘burger’ and charging the same for it as an iron-rich, protein-packed beef burger is something I’ve come across a lot as a vegetarian.

Today is World Vegetarian Day and October is World Vegetarian Month. There are over three million veggies in the UK alone and, especially in these health and budget-conscious times, many non-veggies want to up their weekly number of meat-free meals. So why are vegetarian options still so poor in many eateries and supermarkets?

Shoddy supermarket options

It’s really easy to make tasty, super-nutritious, cheap veggie meals when cooking at home -so there’s no excuse for public places not to offer better choices. But it’s not just shoddy restaurant options that are a problem – supermarket veggie ready meals too often fall into two dismal camps:

1. Side dishes. For example, recently I’ve seen ‘potato wedges with mushrooms’ and ‘mash on veg’ marketed as ‘meals for vegetarians’ – yet they’re nowhere near nutritionally complete meals.

Imagine if all your meals consisted of just vegetables and carbs. Occasionally it’s ok but you’d look at your plate and feel something was missing. It’s no different for vegetarians.

2. Refined carb and saturated fat-fests. If you do find a meal with protein to keep you going, you’re likely to have to throw the recommended daily allowance of fat out of the window. Typical offerings include: macaroni and cheese, four cheese ravioli, or quattro formaggi pizza.

Even pre-packed veggie sushi usually forgets the obvious Japanese-inspired options of tofu, natto (fermented soy bean) and tamago-yaki (a type of omelette). Instead it resorts to – you guessed it – cream cheese. Why?

Chefs and shops should be inspiring us

It’s true; vegetarian food does take a bit of imagination and a touch of nutritional know-how. You can’t base it on a hunk of animal and build a meal up around that. So I appreciate that it’s hard for non-veggie people to cater for the vegetarians in their lives.

My friends tell me they draw a blank when trying to think of meals without meat. This is hardly their fault when the professionals aren’t even up to the job… there’s little out there to inspire and educate.

Come on professional chefs of the land: rise to the challenge. Put your skills to a true test and create nutritionally-complete, satisfying veggie meals of note. If you’re stuck, may I suggest looking to the cuisine of most Asian countries as your food muse?

Over on our review site, Which? Local, the highest praise you could give a veggie restaurant goes something like this: ‘Even meat-eaters don’t miss meat in the meals at this place’. It’s true: there’s a world of veggie delight out there to discover that would satisfy most people.

I’m by no means on a crusade to turn everyone veggie. I respect others’ choices to eat meat as I’d hope they respect mine not to. But in these tight-budget times, even non-veggies might be tempted to save some cash by upping their weekly number of meat-free meals. So a greater awareness of decent veggie meal ideas would be health, and wallet, friendly for us all.


India, now that’s a country that knows how to make vegetarian food. So much so that a meat eater like me didn’t miss meat at all.


Agreed, Patrick! And what I love about India is they refer to meat as “non-veg” – really shows a reverse of priorities in how they cater to customers compared to the west!

Emma says:
6 October 2011

Amusing veggie food buying encounters have included a cheese and ham sandwich that “is vegetarian because it contains cheese”, food covered in cheese that must be vegan because “you only said no eggs or milk” and attempting to buy tofu in Marks & Spencers – “ooohh noo we don’t sell anything LIKE THAT dear”.

The ubiquitous Parmesan is annoying – celebrity chefs and their TV programs / books / websites should encourage people to cook vegetarian food for guests that is actually vegetarian … and why not promote some of the excellent British hard cheeses that are vegetarian, e.g. Bookhams?

Restaurants should know about food – they are losing customers who don’t even walk through the door when they see that the one (often boring) vegetarian “option” on the menu is not actually vegetarian. Try selling a product that people want to buy! I have managed to arrange wonderful vegan food in restaurants by telephoning in advance but it would be great to see more vegetarian and vegan food on menus. We are not all skint hippies – many of us have money to spend on eating out!

According to Article 35 of the European Food Information Act, “The term ‘vegetarian’ should not be applied to foods that are, or are made from or with the aid of products derived from animals that have died, have been slaughtered, or animals that die as a result of being eaten.”

Hopefully when this legislation comes into force in the UK (around 2014?) it will encourage shops, restaurants and celebrity chefs to think about what they sell.


Ooh, I think this is a great point Emma: “We are not all skint hippies – many of us have money to spend on eating out!” – perhaps if someone did a breakdown of the disposable income that vegetarians have to spend on eating out then more restaurants would sit up and pay attention =)

Emma says:
6 October 2011

A study published in the British Medical Journal (Gale et al, 2006) linked higher IQ in childhood with an increased likelihood of being a vegetarian as an adult. Ignoring erroneous reports in the media that being vegetarian makes you more intelligent, it makes sense that people with a higher IQ are more likely to think about ethical issues in a way that may lead to becoming vegetarian or vegan. The study found that vegetarians are more likely to have attained higher academic or vocational qualifications and be of higher occupational social class, although these differences were not reflected in their annual income, which was similar to that of non-vegetarians. However, even with the same disposable income as carnivores, with 4.5% of respondents in this study stating that they were vegetarian, restaurants serving pasta n’ Parmesan instead of a Sunday roast are deterring 1 in 20 potential customers.


Why should there be legislation?

It just means less choice for the moral majority, ie the meat eaters. Considering the ratio of meat eaters to vegetarians, any further pandering to their wishes would be disproportionate and unfair on the rest of the population. There are already plenty of options in every restaurant I go to, pick one, eat it, go home and stop the endless “woe is me” campaigns, 🙂

It probably wouldn’t surprise you to know that none of my friends are vegetarians 🙂


Hi dean – the legislation Emma refers to isn’t about forcing restaurants to offer vegetarian options – it’s about making sure that when they offer vegetarian options, the options are *genuinely* vegetarian – i.e. it’s about making sure you’re clear what you’re eating. I think this is a great idea. It certainly doesn’t limit your choice – it makes you more able to make informed choices about the food that you buy.

Regarding having ‘plenty of options’ – having one more vegetarian option on the menu won’t limit the amount of meat you can eat. It actually gives *you* one more option as well, given that people who eat meat can eat the vegetarian options too!

It might surprise you to learn that I’m not a vegetarian, but I feel very strongly that those who have made that choice are given sensible, healthy options. It doesn’t stop me tucking into a cheeseburger but might mean my veggie friends get to have a nicer time when we go out for dinner together.


Visit Taipei, Taiwan and enjoy dining out again. 🙂 Gourmet Vegetarian restaurants are always a favorite of the locals. I am always amazed at what creations they can come up with. I have been to one Taiwanese Vegetarian restaurant in Los Angeles. I have noticed they are more difficult to locate in the U.S. and countries outside of Taiwan.