Simple vegetarian fare

Healthy food that teenagers can learn to prepare for themselves

June 15, 2007

Editor’s note: What do the words “health food” conjure up? Wood floors, bulk bins, tofu, and a bearded man drinking from a pottery mug? Over the past 30 years, health food has undergone a major image shift, from anti-establishment co-ops stocking “natural” products to big-box groceries sporting national brands of products labeled “healthy.”

It’s important to stock the fridge with lots of fruits and vegetables — not just for your teen vegetarian, but for your whole family.

Health food, it seems, is everywhere. But so are studies documenting the diet-related causes of obesity and other diseases. And while that guy with the mug might’ve put up with tasteless food because it was “healthy,” we won’t. We demand good taste and good information, couched in terms we can all understand, such as Michael Pollan’s advice to “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.”

It’s time we modernize the way we think about health food, to marry all the groundbreaking ideas of the past with the incredible variety of food that’s available today.

The Health+Food column is about both nutrition and taste. Our new columnist, Catherine Bennett Dunster, is a registered dietitian, an excellent home cook, a parent who prepares much of the food in her own family, and an all-around healthy eater. We’ve enlisted her help to answer your questions about food that’s good for you — and that tastes good, too.

If you have questions for future Health+Food columns, please send them to us at

“My teenage daughter recently stopped eating meat. While I do most of the cooking in our family, I’m trying to get her to take the responsibility for preparing some of her own food. Can you suggest easy, nutritious, vegetarian fare that both she and I can make?”

Going vegetarian seems to be a rite of passage for today’s teens. Unlike many other practices adopted in adolescence, this one can be very healthful for your daughter and the rest of your family. A plant-rich diet is widely regarded as protective against heart disease, high blood pressure, adult-onset diabetes, obesity, and some cancers. You can bet that future studies will only continue to show the importance of a diet lush with plant foods.

Your daughter is avoiding meat, but I’ll assume she eats other animal products, such as eggs and dairy foods, making her a lacto-ovo vegetarian. If this is the case, there’s a bevy of foods to choose from. Since good eating habits and the teenage years rarely go hand-in-hand, it’s key to encourage your daughter to consume an abundant variety of plant foods daily, as even a plant-based diet will be very poorly balanced and bereft of nutrients if variety is lacking or highly processed foods are the mainstay.

Eating produce with an array of colors provides a range of valuable nutrients.

Think of it this way: If your teen ate only Big Macs and fries, you’d be concerned. Leaving the meat behind, if she only eats grilled cheese sandwiches and orange slices, you should be equally concerned. Well, almost.

Hormonal changes are the hallmark of the tween and teen years, as are intense periods of skeletal growth. Your daughter should eat an adequate amount of total calories, protein, and calcium to support her continued growth and development.

Aiming for three good daily sources of calcium is beneficial in establishing healthy bone density. Dairy products provide an easy calcium fix, but don’t overlook other naturally calcium-rich foods. Almonds, broccoli, leafy greens (spinach, kale, collard, and mustard greens), and foods fortified with calcium (fruit juices, soy milk, and calcium-set tofu) are good sources of calcium, too.

To avoid iron-deficiency anemia (of which fatigue and lethargy are symptoms), encourage your daughter to eat hearty iron sources: prunes, whole grains, legumes, beet greens, and fortified cereals. Have her combine them with a vitamin C-rich source to help the non-meat iron sources absorb more readily; she might eat freshly picked strawberries, for example, with iron-fortified granola.

(Even with enough iron, your teenage daughter may still beg to sleep until noon; chances are she’s just acting her age instead of suffering from iron deficiency.)

Protein shouldn’t be a concern as long as eggs and dairy are included in your daughter’s diet, but do encourage her to keep her diet interesting and nutrient-rich by sampling different nuts and nut butters, soy foods like tofu, tempeh, and soy nuts, and legumes like beans, lentils, and peas.

Eating produce with an array of colors will provide your daughter with a range of valuable nutrients. Typically, the more intense the color of the fruit or vegetable, the more nutrients it contains; ruby grapefruit and red cabbage, for example, have loads more vitamin A than their white-colored versions.

In the grain department, your daughter should focus on whole grains whenever possible. Remind her that the further away her grain products get from the form they’re harvested in, the less stellar their nutrient profiles will be. For example, 100 grams each of whole-grain wheat flour and white enriched flour contain 14 grams and 10 grams of protein, respectively, and the whole-grain wheat flour has 12 grams of fiber compared with just 3 grams in the white flour. Whole-grain flour, then, is the better choice.

Help your daughter be successful by having a variety of foods available in the fridge and pantry that will meet her needs. Luckily, these foods belong in any well-balanced diet — carnivorous or not — and are likely part of your grocery list already.

Your family can easily — and harmoniously — co-exist at the table. Teens generally prefer meals that take little time and not much effort. Have your daughter try the following ideas, noting that almost all the examples include an ample source of protein:


  1. Spread toast with peanut or almond butter and top with sliced bananas.
  2. Toss fresh or frozen fruit, yogurt, and fruit juice into the blender for smoothies.
  3. Add fresh or dried fruit to hot or cold cereal, preferably made from whole grains.
  4. On mornings that allow for more preparation time, scramble eggs with fresh chopped vegetables and sprinkle with grated cheese.
  5. Or add fruit (frozen berries are a breeze) and a couple of tablespoons of flaxseed meal to waffle or pancake batter; flaxseed meal has a nutty flavor and a nutrient-rich profile.


  1. Spread whole-grain bagels with cream cheese, nut butter, or hummus, and top with grated carrots or raisins.
  2. Fill pita bread with slices of marinated tempeh, a handful of shredded red and green cabbage, and a splash of vinaigrette.
  3. Choose pizza with marinara sauce, mozzarella, and sliced veggies.
  4. Add chopped, hard-cooked eggs and garbanzo beans to fresh greens for a protein-packed salad.


  1. Roast a mixture of root vegetables, winter squashes, and garlic drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with salt (425 degrees until fork-tender and golden brown, turning every 10 or 15 minutes for even browning).
  2. Try bean-only chilis or pasta tossed with Italian Parsley Pesto.
  3. Many regions and cultures have some variation on rice and beans — Cuban black beans, Indian dal, Louisianan red beans and rice — so check out cookbooks from the library and experiment.


  1. Trail-type mixes made with dried fruits, nuts, and seeds
  2. Frozen grapes or blueberries
  3. Air-popped popcorn
  4. Whole-grain cereals
  5. Yogurt (with or without granola)
  6. Apple slices with peanut butter
  7. Fresh fruit or cut-up veggies (dipped into hummus or tzatziki)

Catherine Bennett Dunster is a registered dietitian and a former instructor at Oregon Health and Science University. She lives with her husband and two children in Portland, Oregon.

Please send your nutrition questions to

There are 5 comments on this item
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1. by susan on Jun 16, 2007 at 1:30 PM PDT

Our son is eleven and has been a lacto-ovo vegetarian all his life. This article came at the perfect time, right when he’s beginning to eat like a growing pre-teen. I’ve printed it out and tacked it on the refrigerator for his reference and mine. Thank you!

2. by anonymous on Jun 18, 2007 at 2:19 PM PDT

Thanks for the great ideas--I’ll definitely try other nut butters and remember to keep frozen berries at hand to add to yogurt, cereal, on a bagel with cream cheese, etc.

One way we add protein to the roasted vegis you described is to add some chopped up extra firm tofu. It picks up some good flavor and my kids like the firmer texture it aquires when it is mixed in with the roasting vegetables.

3. by anonymous on Jun 18, 2007 at 2:26 PM PDT

Great article, I especially love the meal ideas at the bottom. Doubt I could get my teen to eat prunes, though--are there any other dried fruits that are good sources of iron?

4. by anonymous on Jun 19, 2007 at 5:52 AM PDT

This is a great idea! Thanks for all the healthy recipe and food tips on the bottom. Although I’m not a vegetarian, I do believe in eating a majority of food throughout the day that is not from an animal. I think that it makes you feel less sluggish and overall more uplifted!

5. by Catherine on Jun 19, 2007 at 10:39 AM PDT

Thanks for the clever tip to add tofu to roasted veggies - I look forward to tasting the results soon!

Apricots, figs and raisins also offer plenty of iron and may be more acceptable to your teen!


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