Easy Vegetarian & Vegan Substitutions for Caterers

Caterers are faced with a variety of demands when preparing for an event. Creating a delectable menu, judging appropriate quantities, and ensuring every dish is ready at just the right time—it’s a carefully choreographed dance. But caterers have an often unpredictable factor to consider that has the potential to trip up their steps: accommodating dietary restrictions, including vegetarian and vegan diets.

Vegetarian and vegan diets date back to ancient civilizations, and in a 2012 Gallup poll, 5% of Americans identified themselves as vegetarian and 2% identified themselves as vegan. Despite the prevalence of these diets, many caterers, hotels and restaurants still don’t have processes in place to sufficiently accommodate vegetarian and vegan guests. Chefs may not have the budget to create a separate vegetarian or vegan menu option, and at events that don’t require pre-registration, it can be difficult to estimate how many vegetarian or vegan meals will be needed.

One way to tackle the challenge of vegetarian- and vegan-friendly meals is to create dishes in which animal-based ingredients can easily be switched out with veggie alternatives. Remember, creating a vegetarian or vegan dish is an exercise in substitution, not elimination. People who adhere to a vegetarian or vegan diet still need calories and protein so they can be re-energized by their meals. Simply removing any “offending” ingredients from these guests’ plates will not create a satisfying meal and may lead to guests leaving the meal hungry and unable to fully focus on their next activities.

I recently attended a luncheon where the entree was a lovely spinach and tomato salad topped with strips of beef and shreds of Parmesan cheese. I had requested a vegetarian meal on my RSVP, so my salad came out exactly as the others but without the beef. The guest next to me had requested a vegan meal, and her salad came without both the beef and the cheese. Neither of our plates had any substitutes for the ingredients that had been removed, dramatically reducing the amount of calories available to us and ultimately leaving us with attractive but unsatisfying plates of spinach and tomatoes.

In cases like this, caterers should plan to have a vegan protein substitute on hand to replace ingredients that are removed from vegetarian and vegan plates. There are a variety of plant-based proteins that are simple to prepare and will give vegetarian and vegan guests the same satisfying experience enjoyed by omnivorous guests.

Below I’ve created a Caterer’s Guide to Vegan Protein, based on data compiled by the Vegetarian Resource Group. Consider these substitutions when planning menus for events that may have vegetarian or vegan guests. You may even discover a new favorite ingredient to incorporate into “conventional” menu items as well!

Caterer's Guide to Vegan Protein

Beans and legumes are fantastic vegan protein sources that can easily replace meat in salads, wraps, tacos and more. Veggie burgers are an obvious substitute for hamburgers and other sandwiches, but they can also be crumbled to add texture to a salad or wrap. Processed vegan proteins like tempeh, seitan and tofu may seem like intimidating ingredients at first, but with practice they can be a delicious source of texture and protein, and they can also be prepared in larger chunks, strips or even steaks, making them an easy substitute for meat.

Here are some other recipe ideas for easy vegan protein substitutions:

  • Prepare a vegan base for chili, then mix in either beans or meat based on each guest’s dietary preference.
  • Start with a vegan blend of fajita-style vegetables, then mix with tempeh, black beans or meat to create taco filling.
  • For breakfast, offer a tofu scramble alongside scrambled eggs, with a variety of vegan and non-vegan toppings.
  • Ensure peanut butter is offered as a vegan bagel spread, alongside traditional cream cheese or butter.
  • Toss a vegan salad base, then top with meat, cheese, or a mix of beans, peas and nuts.

Remember that all of your guests are counting on their meals to satisfy and re-engergize them for the next phase of their day, and vegetarian and vegan guests won’t be fulfilled by half-empty plates. Don’t rely on simply removing non-vegan ingredients from their plates. Show your vegetarian and vegan guests the same hospitality offered to guests who follow conventional diets by including appropriate substitute ingredients in their meals.

Easy Vegetarian & Vegan Substitutions for Caterers

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