/ 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.


Frankly I tried to be a veggie for the sake of my girlfriend – We parted after two months and I’ve never looked at a veggie meal since.

It is bad enough for vegetarians – usually the idea of a veggie meal consists of carbs and cheese. But even worse to be a vegan! There is never anything, except for some asian cuisine like thai which traditionally is healthy and has vegan options…

We also once phoned ahead and told a restaurant we were vegan. They specially made us amazing, inspired vegan food, three courses of deliciousness, at quite a price but it was worth it to have a genuinely good meal in a special restaurant!

Jacqueline Pye says:
2 October 2011

So many – excuse the pun – beefs about veg food in restaurants. First, they are not aware that real Parmesan is never vegetarian; there are some good substitutes, e.g. Sainsbury’s Italian Hard Cheese which looks, grates, cooks and tastes like Parmesan but is suitable. Next, you often see a menu that says ‘vegetarian option available’. So you don’t know what it is, and the ‘option’ word grates anyway. Also, very few restaurants assure us that vegetarian dishes are cooked separately, though some chains are good and don’t mark things V if they haven’t been cooked separately. La Tasca is good about this – patatas bravas aren’t suitable and the waiting staff know why. I’d never order a vegburger in a chain because I’m convinced they’re cooked with all the other burgers. And so on!

Surely this comes down to the definition of “Vegetarian”.
Everyone will have their own ideas of what food stuffs they wish to exclude and what level of care is taken to prevent cross-contamination during storage, preparation and serving.

It’s not only restaurants that get the Parmesan thing wrong – I’ve seen it mentioned as an ingredient in lots of so-called veggie recipes. Vegetarians themselves might know to make the distinction, but meat eaters cooking for them wouldn’t be likely to.

Another thing that drives me crazy is that restaurants go all out on one ‘fashionable’ ingredient in the mistaken assumption that if you’re a vegetarian, you ‘must’ like it. A few months ago, it was goat’s cheese. It was everywhere, served up in any number of concoctions, regardless of whether said vegetarian liked or could eat it. THAT was the option, take it or leave it. (I left it. I’d rather eat soap.)

Jacqueline Pye says:
2 October 2011

Oh, I’ve taken magazines to task many times about Parmesan in ‘V’ recipes! In the early days they would say yes, sorry, will sort it. Nowadays they refer you to the tiny print at the front of the mag that says ‘make sure the cheese is vegetarian if you’re catering for vegetarians’ – but who reads that? Reliable, though, is Cook Vegetarian magazine – I love it. http://cookveg.co.uk for info and a wealth of recipes, or on Twitter @cookveg

The worst veggie meal we ever had in a pub was a “Veg Roast” consisted of all the veg and potatoes and no meat. They didn’t even try to substitute the meat bit with something else! and you guessed it charged the same price.

Marea says:
2 October 2011

I agree with the sentiments in this piece.

I am amazed at how long it’s taking shops and restaurants to keep pace with vegetarianism which has been mainstream for a very long time now.

One of the worst veggie meals I’ve had was in Normandy a few months ago, at a rather pricey French restaurant. My meal consisted of chips and beans. GREEN beans! And it cost me 15 euros. The French are getting better, but the assumption seems to be that people can’t possibly not want to eat meat.

It’s funny to be reading about this Czech dish, cocka na kyselo, since one of my most disappointing experiences of a “vegetarian option” was in a Czech restaurant in London – two choices: either a slab of cheese the size of a hardback book deep fried in breadcrumbs, or the same quantity of cheese just arranged in large slices!

Really unimpressive at the time, not least because it was one of those oddly-common situations where the vegetarian options were even unhealthier than the meat ones!

Jessica says:
4 October 2011

Indeed, being a VEGAN is quite the undertaking when dining out (even in other people’s homes). A lot could be improved if only the humble beans/pulses/legumes of this world got more recognition. (Soy, anyone??) It’s amazing how easy good vegan eating is in your own kitchen, but how mind-boggling difficult it is for many everyday restaurants/cafes out there. It never ceases to amaze me how many people think that vegans (and vegetarians!) eat ONLY vegetables! On too many occasions I have been presented with simply a plate of raw salad ingredients — lettuce, cucumbers, and tomatoes, for example. Needless to say, I was starving 8 minutes later. Sigh.

It’s genuinely not that hard to cook delicious veggie food that is actually nutritious, and I’m not surprised that so many vegetarians get frustrated with restaurants that don’t bother.

I think people are getting better at recognising veggie needs on a personal level (i.e. I rarely go for dinner at anyone’s house without them asking me if I’m veggie, and most parties people know to separate the veggie snacks from other ones), so I’m always surprised at restaurants that don’t do it. Do they not have any vegetarian customers? Or are vegetarians always too polite to complain?

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.

Ask the taxi-driver to take you to such eatery when in Hong Kong or Singapore…
from the humble soya bean is derived so many delectable food products and in
various flavours too that the Chinese are so good at making, and it’s of course
good protein stuff.

For vegetarians, deep-fried tofu is a good substitute for animal protein.

Need not be bland, can be flavoured with meat-free mushroom sauce
for example or Marmite if you insist.

To the commenter who keeps making irrelevant and often rude comments on this Conversation. We have deleted your comments and will be forced to ban your IP address from commenting on Which? Conversation if you continue to make such inane statements. We’re all for humour, but only if they add to the debate – please read our Commenting Guidelines. Thanks, Patrick.

Jacqueline Pye says:
14 March 2012

Relieved you have dealt with the coarse comments – I was just about to tweet you to ask you to deal with it.

S.stone says:
11 June 2014

I have been vegetarian for 30years and quite frankly feel the choice is getting worse not better. Supermarkets only seem to offer carb loaded unbalanced meals because I suppose it’s cheaper. Less face it, including tofu, egg etc. means the shelf life is shorter and the bottom line,the ingredients is more expensive.
If the supermarkets had their way, we’d all been eating chicken and nothing else. I am always amazed ( and saddened) at the endless rows of freezer and chiller cabinets offering nothing but..you guessed it- chicken based ready meals and products.
I tend to cook mostly from scratch with fresh ingredients. Although this can be tiring ( after a long day at work) but it beats salt & fat laden cheese based ready meals.
If the supermarkets want to make more money(!), try catering for alternative diets in a less robotic fashion.Just a thought.