eating · training

Vegans and Protein: Yes, We Like It, Too

Photo of a vegan chickpea burger from Jamie Oliver, with lettuce, an artisan bun, and tomato.
Jamie Oliver’s best vegan burger.

Last night I went out to one of the best restaurants in London (Ontario). It’s the only place in town that makes it onto lists that get national recognition. Even on a Wednesday night, there was a group at every table in the compact, dimly lit space. My two friends were already sitting at the table in the warm and bustling room when I arrived for our late dinner.  The restaurant offers a delicious winter vegetable salad, a heaping portion of beets and carrots, turnips and leeks, peas and even corn, all roasted or grilled, served in a dressing with fines herbes and excellent olive oil.

That was a definite for my starter. But I’d been at a lunch event earlier in the day where the lack of vegan options meant I’d had only a dinner roll and two kinds of salad, and I’d been rushing around ever since.  So by 7:30 last night I had in mind a more substantial meal. I scoured the menu for something else I could make vegan and came up short.

After ordering a bowl of olives for the table, I mentioned to the waiter that I was vegan, that I wanted the vegetable salad, and then asked what else they could do for me.

He started talking about a mixed veggie plate and demoted my starter to the house greens if I wanted two courses. I actually did want two courses, but I wanted one of them to be the salad I’d been thinking of for the past few hours.  Following that with grilled veggies didn’t seem like it would do it for me. So I opted for the good salad (not that the greens wouldn’t have been tasty) and left it at that. My companions ordered it too, as a starter.

So when the starters came — those salads I’d been dreaming of all afternoon — they each got their winter vegetable salad and the waiter plunked a bowl of warm and plump green olives in front of me. I promptly moved it to its intended spot at the centre of the table. I guess my salad was coming with the mains. Which it did. Almost one hour, twelve fat olives, and at least three slices of high-end white bread later.

The most common question vegans are asked (other than “how could you give up cheese?”) is “where do you get your protein?”  Well I can tell you this: not at the majority of the fancy restaurants “foodies” like to frequent. It astonishes me every single time I go to one of these places with a supposedly talented and award-winning chef and they can’t come up with something even a little bit creative that includes vegan protein.

We live in a world where protein is synonymous with animal protein. We picture a plate divided into sections with the starch, the veggies, and the meat. But that view of it all demonstrates a lack of imagination. It’s not even the way the plate looks in most national cuisines. And yet our best chefs can’t manage to break from that pattern.

Last night’s restaurant is just one example. Every single “main” had some sort of animal protein taking centre stage. Then you could order some sides to go with it — olives, potatoes roasted in beef fat (that’s one way to ruin a vegan option!), roasted vegetables topped with a dollop of goat cheese (that’s another, but granted they can leave that off), polenta “fries” (sadly, and I know this because I asked, they’re made with milk).

Now I know most places won’t happen to have a tub of tofu or a block of tempeh or some freshly made seitan just sitting around. But what? You don’t have a single legume in the back? No lentils or chickpeas? No black beans or, come on, edamame? Work with me, people!

I know I’m in the minority.  Heck, I chose the restaurant because we wanted to go somewhere special and the places I normally frequent, nice though they may be, aren’t in that high-end bracket. You know the places. The ones with the good wine lists.

But it frustrates me to no end.  I know too that most people don’t think of it. And I can forgive them for that. But most people aren’t chefs! I can’t imagine that most of the people who call themselves chefs would construct a regular main with no protein. But somehow, when a vegan walks into the room, they don’t need protein to have a satisfying meal.  No, no. They can be happy with a plate of vegetables.

Well you know what? I’m training. I had a tough bike class the night before and didn’t eat in time or enough after it. And that always makes me hungry. Famished. For at least a day. That’s why when I went out with a friend for breakfast yesterday, I had a bowl of oatmeal AND toast.

A lot of vegan primers tell us not to be too preoccupied with protein. They say we’re likely to get it along the way. Well, yes, if you add legumes to your salads and take a handful of nuts with your afternoon snack or eat soy products fairly regularly (I have no gripe with soy). But if you’re eating green salad and grilled veggies all day, then you will have a problem with protein. You at the very least need to eat a varied diet. See this article about vegan protein.

So here’s a quick list of vegan protein sources:

  • legumes like lentils, chickpeas, kidney beans, pinto beans, black beans, lima beans — all manner of beans qualify and are chock full of protein
  • nuts and nut butters
  • soy products like tofu and tempeh and plain boiled or steamed edamame
  • TVP (textured vegetable protein)
  • seitan (otherwise known as “wheat meat,” made from vital wheat gluten). Read about it here.

I’ve blogged about vegan protein before.  See “How to Get Lots of Vegan Protein.” But I still haven’t really figured out how to get the amount recommended for someone in training (1 gram per pound of body weight, which would be over 125 pounds of protein per day for me. If I reach 100g that’s a probably good day, though I’m not counting right now).

Of course, yesterday was a perfect storm of bad dietary moments.  First, it’s a rare day that I will be out for all three meals. I usually prepare at least two and usually three of my meals every day.  Not so yesterday. Second, I hadn’t properly re-fueled myself after that 90 minute class on my bike trainer the night before. Third, my day got away from me, with back to back meetings and errands that meant I had no time to fend for myself. I had to make do with what was available. And finally, I chose a restaurant that I knew wouldn’t be a great vegan destination. But I hadn’t planned the rest of the day well enough to create balance.

I still don’t see why chefs have such a block about this. There are plenty of excellent things you can make with vegan protein sources. And the plant-based diet has certainly gained a healthy following in recent years.  It’s got to be possible to love food and eat this way. I wish our more exciting and inventive chefs would get on board with it.

I mean, even Jamie Oliver has noticed that it’s a thing.  On the Jamie Oliver Blog, there’s a post called, “Our top five vegan recipes.” It says:

For a long time, veganism has had an unfairly bad name in the food industry. If you’ve been keeping an eye on the web and its foodie communities over the last few years, however, you’ll know that followers are growing in numbers quickly, and the creativity and resourcefulness of its chefs, from independent bloggers to specialist restaurants, is blossoming. With recipes like these gorgeous ones from Jamie and his food team, it’s no longer only omnivores who can enjoy a varied and satisfying diet – dig in!

And the shepherd’s pie and the “best vegan burger” both have legumes as a base.  Three cheers for chefs who try!

I’m taking the leftovers from my delicious salad with me to work today. I have another catered lunch meeting and I expect my meal to be inadequate. I’m adding chickpeas to the winter veggies this time, and taking a side of hummus just in case I need more.

If you’ve had a better experience finding satisfying and balanced vegan meals at fancy, omnivore-type restaurants, please share them.

11 thoughts on “Vegans and Protein: Yes, We Like It, Too

  1. The problem really is the lack of sufficient demand. A restaurant can’t survive (literally) with an entree on the menu that is rarely ordered. Also, the kitchens in restaurants that survive are frantically busy and there’s just no time to train everyone involved in preparing a dish, on how to make something completely new that is up to the restaurant’s standards. That;s why they won’t even try. Until the demand is really there, that is unfortunately the way it’s going to be and in all fairness, you can’t really blame the restaurants for that. Restaurants are businesses and it’s not an easy thing for them to survive.

  2. Excellent post! I often experience the same things and have often wondered how people are so dumbfounded about sources of protein in veganism. Chickpeas, lentils, blackbeans, etc are all so amazing!

  3. Hi Tracy!

    I’m not vegan, but a good number of my close friends are. They have had better luck with calling the restaurant in advance if they are going out for a fancy meal at a restaurant that seems more meat-centric. This gives the chefs some time to prepare in advance, and it sounds as though they’re often grateful of that.

    1. Hi Steph. You’re right. I often do that. This time I didn’t have time. But this call rarely yields a meal with protein. I might try requesting that they include protein (when I call ahead) and suggesting what some began protein options are and see where that goes.

  4. Just came across this post. I couldn’t agree more. I turned vegetarian about thirty years ago (lacto) but I ended up eating fish and seafood after living on various continents where vegetarianism was almost impossible if you wanted a balanced diet. Also with type 1 diabetes I found getting enough protein and not a plate full of carbs is essential. I remember trying to eat out as a vegetarian twenty years ago in Australia, where I now live, and the choice was pasta or more pasta or maybe a risotto. Luckily the times have changed and there is now some amazing food choices around.
    There is also a demand now for the vegetarian dishes and the so called ‘super food’ recipes. Maybe as it is seen as healthy or trendy? I know that whenever I take a vegan dish to a party I have to make a large amount, as the non-vegetarians always dive into it – and occasionally I’ve been left with the dregs, unless I make sure I help myself first!

    1. Of course I can relate. And when you go out for communal food you have to order extra because everyone else eats the vegan dish before it makes the full round!

  5. Reblogged this on FIT IS A FEMINIST ISSUE and commented:

    Yesterday a friend posted about how her kid’s lunch got knocked off the table at school and so she had to get a school lunch. The child is vegan. And because of that the school could come up with nothing but a few lettuce leaves for her to eat. That made me (and a bunch of other people ( both sad and furious at the same time. But it also sort of amazed us (not in a good way). I mean, how is it that people who specialize in food preparation can’t come up with something a little more subtantial that has no animal products in it?
    That made me remember one of my favourite blog rants, which was this rant about chefs who can’t figure out a vegan meal with protein. As if a pile of veggies, no matter how wonderfully prepared, stands in as a satisfying meal. That was 2015. Things have actually improved somewhat in 2019, with more vegan restaurants or “plant-based” sections on a menu in omni restaurants. But still!
    Have a good one. TI

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