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The Nobo Vegan Guide

Your Vegan Eating Cheat Sheet

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I think the biggest misconception that people have about being vegetarian is that it’s all just lettuce and tofu (at least, that’s what I hear from friends and family).

Being vegan is easier now than ever and is great for the planet. With all of the meat and dairy substitutes available, which ones are good? Do I need to go to Whole Foods every day and spend hundreds of dollars?

I’m happy to report, that after living this lifestyle for over a decade, it can be as inexpensive or expensive as you make it.

Do you need to go all-vegan all the time? No, you don’t. It can be hard to go cold-Tofurkey. I recommend a measured approach. Take it a meal and a day at a time. You don’t have to commit entirely, but you may notice that you want to. Everyone is different, and diets affect people differently.

Yes, technically this is a vegan plate.

In reality, it’s impossible to be entirely vegan in the world. I do the best that I can, but I try not to beat myself up about it if I slip up, or use a product that isn’t entirely plant-based.

The first challenge is figuring out what kind of foods you already like and then looking at the vegetarian options for those foods. For example, I am a voracious consumer of Mexican, Italian, and Thai/Indian food. These are especially easy to eat vegetarian without sacrificing flavor or nutrition.

What happens pretty quickly is that you check the labels on things before you buy them. It becomes second nature. If one is being strict, gelatin and casein are made out of animals.


Shopping

All foods have protein. People will ask you, A LOT, about how you are getting protein. Just shrug or whatever. Beans, rice, tofu, tempeh, seitan, vegetables, potatoes, etc.: you’ll get plenty of protein. If you are still worried, add some beans or one of the million fake “meats”.

  • Aldi is the best place for produce and canned foods
  • Asian grocery stores: great for foods not found elsewhere, such as dried mushrooms (which are perfect in pasta), bok choy (for ramen); bamboo shoots (curries); fresh tofu, etc.
  • Whole Foods / Trader Joe’s / Co-Ops: Useful for hard-to-find stuff and luxury foods. Nutritional yeast, veggie hot dogs, Gardein and Beyond Meat frozen stuff (fake fish/ribs/ground beef/chicken). Morningstar Farms usually has egg and milk in their products, but in minuscule amounts. Q’Orn makes fantastic fake chicken breasts and nuggets, but also has a little egg

Supplies On Hand

Going vegan has some direct health benefits beyond getting more fruits/veggies: none of the foods you eat have cholesterol. It is also good for blood pressure, generally, as there will be more fiber, less sodium, and no red meats.

I didn’t include soups in this guide, but always check labels. When eating out, you would be surprised how many soups use beef broth that aren’t clearly labeled. Always, always ask. Your tummy will thank you.

Soy Milk
Could it be soy?
  • Unsweetened Plain Soy milk or Almond milk: Make sure that it is unsweetened and plain, because there’s nothing worse than cooking gravy for 30 minutes and then realizing that your savory, sage gravy tastes like vanilla. I prefer soy or coconut milk but some like almond. Almond milk alone can be too watery, but mixing it with coconut milk can help with that. I’m personally not a fan of rice milk and hemp milk, and cashew milk has too strong a flavor. Don’t ask me about oak milk, I have no idea.
  • Nutritional yeast: you can literally add this to any savory dish. Has a nutty, Parmesan taste. High in vitamins and useful as a thickener.
  • Beans: all kinds
  • Bocas (chicken patties, garden burger, etc.) for a quick meal
  • Taco shells / flour tortillas / corn tortillas
  • Green olives
  • Dried peas / lentils
  • Tomatoes
  • Onions
  • Vegetable Oil (for anything you are frying or cooking at high heat)
  • Olive Oil (for salads, pasta sauces, or cooking at low heat)
  • Garlic: don’t buy the little boxed two packs or the jarred stuff in oil. Two bulbs of (bulk) garlic will last you a month and cost about $0.50
  • Lettuce, cabbage, or other greens
  • Frozen spinach
  • Pasta: Penne/Rigatoni/Ziti for baking, Spaghetti/Linguine/Fettucine/Vermicelli for most dishes
  • Jarred pasta sauce (Steer away from the ones that are super high in sugar. Newman’s is good, Classico’s Riserva line is a little more $ but worth it)
  • Ro-tel
  • Ramen noodles (Nissin, Soy or Chilil flavors) or check Asian markets)
  • Rice
  • Potatoes
  • Red wine vinegar
  • Various dried herbs and spices
  • Soy sauce or tamari
  • Vegetarian bouillon / stock (for soups and gravy)
  • Celery
  • Carrots
  • Flour (I prefer King Arthur unbleached)
  • Apples, bananas
  • Peanut butter
  • Butter substitute – Miyoko’s is amazing
  • Veggies for tacos, salads, and pasta dishes. Whatever you like.
  • Bread for bread crumbs (anything bread is fine). You can keep it in the freezer and just microwave a slice for a few seconds when it is time to make bread crumbs.
  • Lemon / lime (the little plastic bulbs are ok)

Breakfast / Lunch

They say breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but I don’t eat a heavy breakfast on weekdays. Coffee or tea are never optional.

Don’t talk to me before my coffee.
  • Coffee and tea are vegan, but white sugar may not be. I’ve tried many creamer alternatives, and my favorite is Silk Vanilla Soy Creamer.
  • Oatmeal, grits, toast, fruit, or cereal (with alternative milks) are lighter options
  • Un-frosted Pop Tarts are vegetarian (frosted have gelatin)
  • Biscuits and gravy are super easy to make.
    • Pancakes and waffles (use a ripe banana or the aquafaba from chickpeas to replace the egg)
    • Fried potatoes and onions
    • Fried tofu egg: cut extra-firm tofu into slices and fry them in a hot pan with salt and pepper, and they are passable impression of a fried egg, especially in a sandwich.
  • Ramen noodles are super cheap and filling. Great for lunch if you have access to a kettle for boiling water. Adding fresh veggies and tofu can make your ramen gourmet. If you love hot food, add chili sauce.
  • Leftovers.
  • Peanut (or other nut or seed butter for allergies) butter and jelly.

Mexican

Ah Mexican food, my favorite type of cuisine. If you have been a vegan or vegetarian for long, you may have noticed we love our hot sauces. I buy hot sauce in bulk, don’t judge me! I would eat Mexican food every day if I could. It’s vegan-friendly and usually quick to prepare.

  • Taco shells/corn tortillas/ flour tortillas/ tortilla chips are vegetarian, and almost always vegan. Hard taco shells and corn tortillas are super efficient because they are low in calories and gluten-free (a taco shell or corn tortilla is about 50 calories, compared to 180 for a medium-sized flour tortilla)
  • Rice: Get a rice cooker (or Instapot) at some point if you don’t have one. You just pop the rice and water in and go do some stuff, then in 30 minutes it is cooked and ready to eat. I prefer Jasmine rice for what it’s worth. 
  • Beans. Good for  fiber/fat/iron, and super budget-friendly. 
    • Refried beans: If buying pre-made, look for vegetarian. Any labeled Classic / Traditional have lard in them.
    • Black beans / pinto / chickpeas: I generally heat them up in a pan and then mash them once they are hot. Their natural starch thickens them up. If you are planning on doing any baking, Save the juice! It is an insanely useful egg replacement (aquafaba) in baking, soups, cookies, and pies.
    • TIP: If you drain the beans, you lose most of the nutrition and starch. Sodium isn’t an issue at all if you are eating generally healthy foods.
  • Filling “proteins” for Tacos / Burritos
    • Amy’s organic chili: this stuff is fantastic. Most Giant Eagle and fancier grocers carry it. It’s pricey though: about $3.50 per can.
    • Sweet potatoes (all year) or butternut squash (in fall): dice them small (like single-Lego-block size), salt them lightly, cook in a pan on medium heat with a little vegetable oil (olive oil smokes too much). Cover them, add a splash of water periodically to steam them. Add cinnamon, black pepper, garlic, cumin, paprika… it’s a really durable food so whatever tastes good  will work great. You can also go for taco seasoning packets (use sparingly, though). I’d advise against any herbs. Potatoes are done when they start to caramelize. Be sure to taste them, as they aren’t great when they are under cooked. Serve with black beans as the others clash.
    • Regular potatoes: Mashed, baked, or cooked like the sweet potatoes. Spice however you feel.
    • Tofu: Firm or extra firm. Put a colander in your sink, and squeeze the tofu in your hands to get the moisture out. Then crumble it up so it looks like scrambled eggs. Cook in a pan with salt and vegetable oil, medium heat. Whatever spices you prefer. Can be eaten at any temp/texture, but waiting until they start to crisp up is the best.
    • Mushrooms: Bulk mushrooms at the grocery store are the most cost effective, and you can tell if they are still fresh, too. Don’t be fooled by the $8/pound price tag you see: mushrooms (other than portabella) weigh basically nothing. The prepackaged are ok if you have no other option but they charge a lot more for them and spoil faster. Oyster mushrooms are awesome. 
      • Dice half an onion and some garlic and saute in pan. Chop mushrooms coarsely, cook with salt and pepper and onions. They will crisp up in a few minutes. Any mushroom works great, although shiitake clashes a little.
    • Frozen Spinach: Peel off paper, put cardboard container in a bowl in microwave. Microwave for about 3 minutes, then dump in a colander to drain. After about 5 minutes, you can squeeze it out a little. Use as a filling in enchiladas.
    • Tempeh: I love tempeh. Cut into small cubes and cook with oil on medium-high heat. They will start to sear when they are done. You don’t really need to add any seasoning to them. (Make sure it isn’t moldy: they will have black mold if it is bad; a white coating is normal)
    • Fajitas: Use medium-high heat. Coat pan in vegetable oil (a teaspoon will be fine; just spread it around with a spatula). Julienne whatever you feel: mushrooms, peppers, onions, broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, etc. If cooking broccoli or cauliflower, cook them for about five minutes before you add the other items, as they take longer. Seasoning packets are fine, but we usually just use salt, pepper, and a splash of lemon or lime juice in the last minute.
    • Ground “beef”: Beyond Meat, Boca, and Gardein all have fake ground beef in the frozen aisle.
      • For a bag, use 1/3 cup of vegetable oil on medium-high heat. That sounds like a lot (and is!), but this stuff doesn’t have the fat that beef has, so you need the oil to get the texture perfect.
      • Sauté onions and garlic. 
      • Add the beef, a taco seasoning packet, and half of the water listed on the packet. Cover and cook 5+ minutes, stirring.
      • When it is almost done, add a can of Ro-Tel, stir, increase the heat a little and cook covered for another few minutes.
    • Toppings
      • Salsa
      • Lettuce / Cabbage
      • Lime slices
      • Guacamole (I just use 1/2 tomato, 1 lime’s juice, 1/2 onion, 1 jalapeño, 2 avocados, salt. Some people add cilantro. Mash with a fork.)
      • Hot Sauce (my favorite is El Yucateco Habenero X-tra Hot)
  • Nachos / dip
    • Fresh or pickled jalapeños, lettuce, salsa, raw onion, chili, ground beef, guacamole, fake cheese, nutritional yeast, green olives, refried beans, Tofutti sour cream. They’re nachos. Go crazy.
  • Enchiladas
    • Preheat oven to 375.
    • Pour a little of the enchilada sauce in bottom of dish. grease sides of pan with vegetable oil.
    • Four at a time (at most): place corn tortillas in microwave for 10-15 seconds. They should be very pliable and shouldn’t’ break when being rolled.
    • Lay a tortilla flat and spoon a small amount of filling down the middle.
    • Roll tortilla and place in pan.
    • Repeat until pan is filled
    • Cover top of tortillas with rest of the enchilada sauce and Daiya (fake) cheese if desired.
    • Bake for 30ish minutes.
    • Filling ideas: mashed potatoes, spinach, mushrooms, ground beef, mashed sweet potatoes, fake ricotta (see Italian section below).

Italian

Another go-to is Italian food. Western Pennsylvania has a rich history of home-cooked Italian food. Luckily, most pasta dishes require little to no modification to make them vegan friendly.

Spaghetti, better be al dente
  • Everything but freshly made pasta and egg noodles are vegan. Pretty much only squid ink pasta is not vegetarian.
    • TIPS: Salt your pasta water. Make sure the pot is big enough to hold all of the pasta you are cooking. When the pasta is cooked, For anything but baked pasta and lasagna: DO NOT DRAIN IT. Use a pasta ladle and scoop it all into the pan with the sauce and toss it. That way, if you did not have enough sauce to cover the pasta, you just add some of the pasta water, which doesn’t dilute the flavor or lower the temperature of the meal.
  • Primavera
    • sauté whatever vegetables you feel like, then add your pasta sauce to that pan. Toss in your noodles. Add pasta water if needed.
  • Cauliflower and olive: The simplicity of this dish is awesome.
    • Finely chop your cauliflower. Dice onion and garlic. Coarsely chop 1/3 cup green olives. Coarsely chop mushrooms if using.
    • Sauté your onion and garlic in olive oil, medium heat. Add dried mushrooms here if using. When they are finished, scoop them out of the pan into a bowl. 
    • Add your cauliflower, salt it, add a little more oil. After five minutes, add your green olives. Cook covered until to preferred texture, adding a little water occasionally if it starts to stick.
    • Add your onion and garlic back into the pan. Cook another minute or two.
    • Scoop pasta into this pan (spaghetti or other long pasta. I really prefer al dente for this dish). Toss with olive oil, black pepper, bread crumbs, nutritional yeast. Add pasta water if necessary.
  • Baked penne / ziti / rigatoni
    • Cook your noodles and then drain.
    • Cook any toppings you want. If cooking vegetables, make them a little undercooked. For fake meats, cook fully.
    • Preheat oven to 375.
    • Coat your baking pan with a little vegetable oil.
    • In a large mixing bowl (or in the baking pan), toss your pasta with your red sauce, toppings, and/or fake ricotta.
    • Spread evenly in baking dish.
    • Cover top of pasta with a layer of bread crumbs. Splash a little olive oil on top.
    • Bake for 20 minutes covered and 15 minutes uncovered. Check occasionally in the last 15 minutes, as sometimes bread crumbs can blacken/burn.
  • Gnocchi with red sauce
    • Salt a pot of water and bring to a boil. Carefully ladle your gnocchi into the pot (they are heavy and splash otherwise). They float to the surface of the water when they are done. 
    • Make your red sauce or whatever sauce you want to use. Ladle the gnocchi into the pan with the sauce, adding some of the pasta water if needed.
    • This is a perfect red sauce recipe if you have time or want to show off. 
  • Vegan ricotta
    • In a food processor, place one block of soft or medium tofu, 1/3 cup of olive oil, 1/2 a lemon’s juice, 1/2 cup of a green herb of choice or spinach, and 1/3 cup nutritional yeast. Pulse until smooth. Great for use in lasagna or tossed in baked pasta.
  • Bread crumbs
    • Crumble up two slices of bread with your hands. If using old, hard bread, chop up with a knife.
    • In a food processor, combine the bread with a splash of olive oil and any spices you like.
    • Pulse until the correct crumb texture.
  • Meatballs
    • I’ve tried various recipes for vegetarian meatballs and they are never quite right. There are a lot of vegetarian meatball options in the frozen section of a grocery store: every one I have tried has been excellent, for pasta or for hoagies. Gardein’s are the best in my opinion.

Sandwiches

If you’ve met me in person, I will make a sandwich out of almost anything I’m eating. If you’re in a hurry, a sandwich will hit the spot without too much prep time. Also, don’t hate on avocado toast. I might not be a millennial, but I am one in my own mind.

Millennials, am I right?
  • Most savory breads are vegan but watch out for honey (croissants and heavier breads like brioche have butter and eggs)
  • Tofurkey deli slices are great. 
  • In the fancier stores, you can buy fake bacon, which, obviously, a BLT or club sandwich is the best thing ever. 
  • Egg salad by substituting extra-firm tofu (drained and crumbled) for the eggs and following the rest of the recipe as-is. The best vegan mayo I’ve found is Follow Your Heart’s Original Veganaise. Even Hellmann’s has a vegan version now.
  • Meatball sub / burger / etc.: mostly in frozen food aisle.
  • Fake hot dogs (avoid the frozen, but any of the “fresh” are great – we use Lightlife Smart Dogs) and Tofurkey Italian Sausage / Kielbasa. Check the labels, some have egg.
  • Boca burger / chicken patty / falafel wrap / portobello mushroom burger.

Salads

All vegans eat are salads, right? NOPE. I probably eat less salads than most people. Is it to nullify a stereotype? Possibly, but it’s more to do with the weather in Pittsburgh. That’s not to say I don’t like salads, but they aren’t my first choice in cold weather.

Salad!
  • Bitter greens are a nice replacement for iceberg (collard greens, kale) and are as cheap.
  • Lots of vegetarian dressings, but I steer toward olive oil and red wine vinegar
  • Throw in pretty much whatever you have on hand. It’s a salad, LOL.

Other Cuisines

The typical American diet isn’t the most vegan-friendly. As such, I’ve learned to cook at home. I do still eat out, and get delivery on-occasion.

Mujadara – oh you fancy
  • Lebanese. Good to show off with.
    • Lubia: sautéed green beans with tomatoes, garlic, and olive oil. Serve warm.
    • Falafel: Most grocery stores have falafel mix in the ethnic foods section. Just follow the recipe on the box, but make sure you are making the falafel about 1.5″ tall if cooking in a pan instead of deep-frying. Serve with some combination of lettuce, pickles, beets, tabbouleh, tomato, onion, lemon juice, hot sauce, flour tortilla/pita, hummus.
    • Mujadara: lentils with caramelized onions and olive oil. High calorie! Gets better after a day or two in the fridge. Serve warm or cold.
    • Tabbouleh: Bulgur wheat, lemon juice, parsley, olive oil, onion, tomato. Gets better after a day or two in fridge so that flavors meld.
  • Indian / Thai
    • The recipes can take a long time to prep, have diverse ingredients, and can be expensive. But in truth, I really don’t know how to make these dishes as well as I could.
    • We usually eat this just as take-out or dine-in, as we have a place about two blocks from my house, Thai Tamarind in Bellevue.
    • Grocery stores have pretty good Indian meals that are heat and serve, but if you’re adventurous, check out Taj Mahal on McKnight Road. Their buffets are clearly labeled and allow you to try multiple dishes.

Restaurants

Eating out as a vegan can be anxiety-inducing. But never fear, the North Boros and Pittsburgh have options. Just be sure to plan ahead. If you tell a restaurant of your dietary restrictions, most can come up with an option for you.

Café Phipps has vegan options!
  • Vegan Pittsburgh is THE resource for vegan-friendly restaurants in Pittsburgh. You can filter restaurants by neighborhood and other filters. Even better, restaurants that have their stamp of approval will usually have a Vegan Pittsburgh sticker on their window.
  • Zomato Urbanspoon can be sorted based on vegetarian/vegan options. Any time you are heading to a new restaurant, check the menu online first.
  • Mexican always has at least one vegetarian option (fajitas, tacos, burritos, enchiladas, etc.). Mad Mex, Chipotle, and Qdoba are calorie bombs but are vegan.
  • Italian. I love eggplant (breaded usually has egg though) and pasta is always an option.
  • Delis will have various salads.
  • Subway has veggie sub and some locations have a veggie patty (which is filling, but not vegan). 
  • Taco Bell is a vegetarian heaven. Almost any item on the menu can have the meat replaced with beans. Asking for an item to be Fresco Style have them replace the cheese with pico de gallo.
  • Burger King has a veggie burger and the Impossible Whopper (must try). It’s dangerous with one so close to my house.
  • Pizza & Hoagies: Mandy’s Pizza in West View has vegan and gluten-free options galore, check them out. Their Vegan Buffalo Chicken pizza with vegan ranch is where it’s at.
  • GetGo / Sheetz / WaWa all have tons of vegetarian options and some vegan options. 

Snacks N’at

Many potato chip flavors (but not all, dairy sneaks in more often than you would think, but meat will too) are vegan, as are a lot of crackers. And french fries (watch out for shared frying oil). So is most beer (watch out for milk stouts). Just because it’s vegan, doesn’t mean it’s healthy.

Can’t talk…eating

In Closing

Raspberries
The raspberries taste like raspberries

You may notice that desserts haven’t been mentioned in our guide, so stay tuned as we will explore them in a future guide. I will leave you with one of the easiest and best dessert options of all, fresh fruit and happy eating!

Do you have a Nobo spot that isn’t on our list? Please let us know!

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Natalie @thelotuspeople

Natalie Roberson has been living in Bellevue, PA for over a decade and has seen the neighborhood evolve in the best ways. She is a Yoga Alliance registered instructor and credits her yoga practice with adding balance to her life in the tech industry. When not teaching or practicing yoga, you can find her working with data, knitting, reading, gaming, writing for the NoBo Neighbor or just hanging out her family which includes three small dogs. Natalie Roberson, E-RYT 200, RPYT, YACEP - https://thelotuspeople.com

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