5 Tips for Vegetarian Foster Parents (with Liz from I Heart Vegetables)

Recently, I had the joy of welcoming vegetarian blogger and foster mama Liz, creator of I Heart Vegetables, to be my guest for a Flourishing Foster Parent Coaching Call. I had asked the community (as I often do) what they wanted to talk about in our Coaching Calls, and two people asked us to address the unique challenges of being a vegan or vegetarian household and complying with the expectations and challenges of foster parenting.

While I love vegetarian food, and could happily live on a plant-based diet, I am not a vegetarian, so I needed to call in an expert. It took me nearly six months to find just the right person to speak to this, so I was delighted to stumble across Liz in a foster parent Facebook group. I became a fan of her blog, stalked her on Instagram, and finally reached out to invite her to join our call. And she said yes!

You can hear the whole call by joining The Flourishing Foster Parent (there are two tiers of membership, neither of which require any kind of long term commitment, and both of which include full access to all thirty-five-plus Coaching Call recordings). But I thought I’d share a few of my takeaways from Liz’s excellent insights—and introduce you to her resources if you’re looking for ways to introduce more veggies to your kids’ lives or just find inspiration for pursuing a healthy lifestyle!

7 Tips for Vegetarian Foster Parents

  1. Give Them What’s Familiar to Start With. The first week or two of a new placement is not the time to introduce an entirely new way of eating to a child who is already in crisis. Instead, help ease their transition by giving them what is familiar. For a vegetarian (or just very health-conscious) foster parent , it might be very difficult, but a trip to McDonald’s or some frozen chicken fingers is a small price to pay to help a child feel more comfortable in what is a terribly uncomfortable season of their lives. Being a foster parent requires a fair amount of flexibility and compromise, and this might be one example of when compromise is required for the sake of a child’s mental health.
  2. Introduce Healthy Options Slowly. Several foster parents I’ve spoken with have found that hummus is a great way to introduce kids to raw veggies. Try making carrot sticks, celery sticks, bell peppers, sugar snap peas, and cucumber slices available with a bowl of hummus. Liz also recommends keeping bananas, apples, and oranges on hand as “anytime snacks.”
  3. Batch Meal Prep & Double the Recipe. To avoid relying on prepared meals or processed foods (which are quick, easy, and oh-so-tempting when things are hectic in the home), batch meal prep and double the recipe to make cooking once, eating twice (or even three times) more feasible. If you have to chop onions for a recipe, chop three and freeze two for quick use later. Same with other veggies (zucchini, bell peppers, carrots, etc.)
  4. Come Up With “Winners” & Make Them Often. Liz admitted that, in the past, she would meal plan with the goal of making something different every day of the month. Now, she recognizes healthy options the kids love and comes back to it frequently. Tacos, Breakfast for Dinner (high-protein waffles and fruit? Yes, please!), and Stir Fry meals are some options that generally go over will with children.
  5. Offer Vegan Alternatives to Popular Snacks. I mentioned on our call that for children on the autism spectrum or with other neurological differences (ADHD, executive function delays, etc.), there is evidence to show that high-protein snacks can be helpful. Liz recommended replacing my go-to cheese sticks and pepperoni sticks with nut butter on crackers, fresh fruit, a handful of nuts, and even cereal as a snack.
  6. Offer Meatless Versions of Familiar Foods. Chickpea pasta (which is higher in protein than regular pasta), meatless burgers (Liz and I both love Beyond Burgers as a satisfying replacement for hamburgers), vegan “chicken” nuggets, and vegan “meatballs” are often as tasty as the real thing and kid-approved. Liz also recommended Right Foods Vegan Ramen and That’s It fruit snacks.
  7. Sneak Veggies Into Other Foods. One member of the Flourishing Foster Parent is not looking to become vegetarian, but is very interested in how to get her kids to eat more veggies. This tried-and-true strategy has been around for a while, and it’s still a great idea. Add riced cauliflower, spinach, or shredded zucchini to fruit smoothies (Liz mentioned that blueberries can often disguise the green color that turns some kids off). Make Liz’s chocolate zucchini muffins for breakfast (“Kids will eat anything with even a tiny bit of chocolate in it!”). Puree mushrooms and zucchini and add them to marinara sauce. I’ve tried that, and my kids love it (and were none the wiser)!

These are just a few of the wonderful insights Liz gave us in our call. We also discussed some of the stigmas around being vegetarian, how to handle it when a child’s parents are not comfortable with her having a plant-based diet (hint: compromise!), and a lot more.

Vegetarian Foster Parents is available in the Flourishing Foster Parent Resource Library. To gain access, select either the Full ($20/month, which includes participation in the live calls) or Library ($10/month) tier on my Patreon page!

Veggie Photo by Nadine Primeau on Unsplash

Fruit Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

5 of My Favorite Easy Vegetarian Dinners

I’m a big believer in meal planning. It saves time, money, and—above all—my sanity when I’m trying to feed my family well in the midst of parenting four children in three different schools, running my own business, and being in grad school!

Having a few go-to meals that I can either prep ahead of time or whip up in a heartbeat are life savers during our family’s busiest seasons. Here are five of my favorite vegetarian options:

TACO BOWLS (VEGAN).

When I tell my kids we’re having taco bowls for dinner, they all erupt into a cheer. My family loooooooves taco bowls, and I love serving them! Here’s what’s involved:

  • Cooked rice (white or brown). I cook large batches of rice in my Instant Pot and freeze it in family sized portions—usually 6-8 cups cooked. It microwaves well and is ready in about ten minutes or so.
  • Tomatoes, chopped.
  • Lettuce, chopped.
  • Cilantro, chopped.
  • Avocado, cut into bite-sized pieces.
  • Black beans or pinto beans. I cook large batches of beans in my Instant Pot and freeze them in family sized portions—usually 4-6 cups. I follow this recipe, which is delicious.
  • Shredded cheese (if you are vegan, Daiya makes a great cheddar flavored vegan “cheese.” I buy a lot of this when it’s on sale and keep it in the freezer.)
  • Taco sauce.
  • Meatless crumbles cooked with taco seasoning (optional).

Everyone gets a bowl with a scoop of rice. The rest of the ingredients are in bowls on the table. The kids love assembling their own taco bowls!

CHICKPEA STEW (VEGAN)

I can whip up this simple stew from the blog “Healthier Steps” in about ten or fifteen minutes. (I usually double the recipe for our family of six.) I also make large batches and freeze it, pull it out in the morning and it’s ready to heat up for dinner.

I serve it with quinoa, rice, or another grain (like farrow or barley), which I can cook pretty quickly in my Instant Pot or cook and freeze to thaw out in the morning with the stew.

My five-year-old daughter calls this her “Favorite Stew.”

VEGAN BURGERS WITH CORN ON THE COB

My favorite summer fare! We have some variation of this at least once a week when it’s corn season. I can make this meal in around thirty-five minutes or so. It’s a family favorite as well.

  • Meatless patties. We love these options from Simple Truth. I buy them on sale and keep them in the freezer. For a soy-free option, we sometimes use Carla Lee’s Nut Burgers. (Honestly, my kids are not as crazy about those, but if you need a soy-free option, that’s one to try. I’m sure there are others!)
  • Hamburger buns.
  • Corn on the cob with the husks on (one per person, or more if y’all love corn as much as we do!)
  • Watermelon, whole. You can save yourself even more time and effort by buying watermelon already sliced, but a) I’m too cheap for that, and b) it never tastes as fresh/good if it’s been pre-cut, IMO.

Turn oven to 350. Trim ends of corn husks and place them all directly on an oven rack. Set timer for 13 minutes.

Place meatless patties on baking sheet. When timer goes off, set it again for twenty minutes and place the patties in the oven with the corn.

Meanwhile, put the buns and condiments (ketchup, butter*, etc.) on the table. Slice your watermelon and put it on a platter or in a bowl on the table as well.

When the timer goes off, turn off the oven. Remove the corn and, wearing oven gloves to keep your hands from burning, remove the husks. Pull out the patties and place them either on a plate on the table, or you can plate the buns and patties individually.

BAKED PASTA (CAN BE VEGAN OR VEGETARIAN)

This is a great alternative to lasagne. It’s the same basic premise, but with a lot less work!

  • Cooked pasta (rigatoni works well, but any cooked pasta will do.)
  • Two regular jars or one large jar of marinara sauce of your choice.
  • Vegan meatballs. (I always have at least two bags of Gardein Classic Meatless Meatballs in my freezer.)
  • Ricotta cheese (if you’re not vegan)
  • Shredded cheese (asiago, parmesan, or mozzarella work best. If you are vegan, Daiya makes a decent mozzarella substitute.)
  • Optional veggies: mushrooms, peppers, zucchini, etc.

Turn oven on to 350. Place cooked pasta across bottom of a baking dish. Place vegan meatballs and any veggies you’re using across on top of the pasta. Place dollops of ricotta over the veggies/meatballs. Pour sauce over the whole dish, making sure to cover meatballs and veggies. Sprinkle shredded cheese over that and bake for about twenty minutes.

GRAIN BOWLS (VEGAN)

  • Cooked grain (rice, quinoa, farrow, barley)
  • Avocado
  • Sweet potato, baked in oven or microwave and then cut into bite-sized pieces
  • Black beans (canned or made in Instant Pot)
  • Chopped tomatoes
  • Other optional veggies: shredded cabbage (purple is my favorite), sprouts, steamed broccoli, spinach, sliced or shredded carrots, chopped bell peppers, black olives, artichoke hearts—the sky’s the limit!
  • Vegan Ranch Salad Dressing

This is such an easy and beautiful meal to throw together. It’s the same concept as Taco Bowls, but with different ingredients. Place 1/2 cup to 1 cup of a cooked grain into bowls. Place 1-2 T of avocado, 2-4 T of sweet potato, 1/2 cup of black beans, 1/2 cup of tomatoes, and any other veggies over the grain. Drizzle 1-2 T of ranch dressing over the whole thing. So simple, so nutritious, and so delicious!

These are simple, fast meals that I go to frequently during busy seasons of life. What are some of yours?

Baked Potato Bar!

Last Monday, our family was in Virginia Beach with my parents and my oldest brother’s family of five. We each had a cabin on a little dead-end street in a beautiful state park, and we all took turns making dinner for one another.

Of course I volunteered for Monday 🙂 #MondayNightDinnerParty

I wanted to do something that would be relatively simple and healthy that could be tailored by each person according to their dietary preferences (one does not eat meat, one does not eat dairy, etc.) I went to the grocery store in hopes that something there would inspire my menu, and discovered that baking potatoes were on sale. Score! I decided to do a Baked Potato Bar, and it was a huge hit!

Here’s how I did it, from start to finish:

Grocery List:

12 baking potatoes

1 package of fresh chives

1 yellow onion, sliced

1-2 c sliced mushrooms

1 can of chili (I used Amy’s Organic Chili with Vegetables—not spicy!)

1 package frozen or fresh broccoli crowns

1 package of shredded cheddar cheese

1 container sour cream

1 container of spreadable butter

coconut oil

salt & pepper

Preparation:

Preheat oven to 400.

Scrub each of the potatoes clean and pat dry.

Scoop out a teaspoon or so of coconut oil, rub it all over your hands, then rub each potato all over with the coconut oil. Get more oil on your hands as needed. Place potatoes in a baking dish or cookie sheet, leaving room between each potato. Poke each potato with a fork two or three times if you want to (I do because my mom always did, but I’m not sure what purpose it serves!) Liberally salt and pepper the potatoes in the pan.

Bake for 60-90 minutes. (Note: there might be some smoke at first as some of the oil burns off the potatoes. That’s normal and will stop unless they’re actually on fire!)

Meanwhile, heat a skillet to medium and add about a teaspoon of coconut oil. Sautée your onions until clear, then add the mushrooms and continue to stir/sautée them until they’re cooked. Remove from heat.

Steam your broccoli (stovetop or microwave, your choice).

Warm the chili just before serving (again, stovetop or microwave).

Chop your chives.

Presentation:

Set out the toppings, buffet style. I left the sour cream and butter in their store-bought containers, but if you wanted to get a bit fancier, you could, of course, put them in nice bowls. I did set out the cheese, chives, chili, and onion-mushroom sautée, but left the broccoli on the stove so it would keep warm.

Set out the potatoes.

Set out a stack of plates and a jar of utensils.

Call everyone to dinner.

This menu is especially appealing to kids, because they love to fix their own food! It was so fun to watch each of them get creative with what they put on their potatoes.

This menu is especially appealing to adults, because there was zero whining or negotiating about who would eat what or how much. Oh, and also it turns out adults like to have the freedom to fix their potatoes the way they like them too 🙂

NOTE about using coconut oil:

I am pretty much obsessed with coconut oil these days. I use it on my body, on my kids’ bodies, to brush my teeth, and for cooking. I love how it smells and how it tastes, but note that it does add a definite flavor to your food when you cook with it (at least, the kind I buy does). So if folks in your midst don’t like coconut, or have coconut allergies, substitute olive oil, which is what I used for baking potatoes for years.

NOTE about baking potatoes:

I like the skins crispy. Some people like them softer. If you prefer softer potato skins, wrap them in foil before baking. Otherwise, leave them just oiled, not foiled, and they’ll be deliciously crispy. 

ANOTHER NOTE about baking potatoes:

This would also work well with sweet potatoes! Perhaps you’d choose different toppings, but sweet potatoes or yams make great baked potatoes as well, and add a bunch of good nutrients to boot!

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Y’all, this is one of the simplest, crowd-pleasingest menus you could do. There is almost no actual “cooking” involved! It’s mostly prep! And you could easily involve your kids in the prep if you wanted to (mine were too busy running around with their cousins this time, but other times, they’d be right there with me, chairs pushed to counters).

What would you add to the menu? Do you have favorite baked potato toppings I didn’t include?

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