How to Cook a Plant-Based Meal (Without using a recipe)

A stir-fry made with tofu and greens, seasoned with peanut sauce and sesame seeds.

For me, one of the greatest challenges in transitioning to a whole foods, plant-based diet was an over-reliance on recipes.  When I ate dairy and eggs, I had an arsenal of meals for busy days (quesadillas, pastas with cheese, and scrambled eggs are just a few examples).  I didn’t follow recipes for these – they were just foods I’d known the procedure for.

However, when I become vegan, I found that a good amount of my time was spent thumbing through cookbooks and formulating shopping lists.  I couldn’t just go to the store anymore, grab a few ingredients, and throw together a meal.  I just didn’t know how to.

I love cookbooks, but this soon become tiring, especially when working full-time.  Luckily, I started to notice a pattern in recipes I read, which I’d like to share with you.  I use this formula when I need to make something quickly, and don’t want to look up a recipe.

A Mexican-themed saute. I don’t even add flavorings until I bring this to the table. Then, people can top at will with salsa and guacamole.

Your basic vegan stove-top meal:

1.  Choose a grain to cook.  This may be brown rice, quinoa, couscous, pasta, polenta, and you may wish to use a bread product, such as naan or tortillas.  Potatoes can also fulfill this role.  If you are choosing a slow-cooking item, such as brown rice, you will want to start that first.  If your item is quick cooking, such as quinoa, you may want to chop the vegetables first.

2.  Choose some flavorings from the onion family.  This may be one medium onion or a few leeks or a shallot.  If you like garlic, you also may want to add 1 – 4 cloves of this (depending on how much you like it).

3.  Choose a few vegetables.  Go with what is in season, and in the winter, you can use frozen vegetables.  Really anything goes here.  You should use 5 – 6 cups of vegetables (or more if you’re feeling ambitious!).

4.  Choose a protein.  Use one can of your favorite kind of beans, or 1/2 to 1 pound of tofu, tempeh or a meat substitute.

5.  Choose a seasoning.  This could be fresh (about 1/2 cup) or dried herbs/spices (2 – 4 teaspoons worth), salsa, or a homemade or storebought sauce (start with one cup, and then taste to see if you should add more).

6.  Here is the cooking order; this should be done while the grains are cooking separately.  It is best to invest in a wok for cooking the vegetables, but a very large frying pan will work too.  Cook your vegetables in a tablespoon of vegetable oil or 1/4 cup of vegetable stock.  Add extra vegetable stock if your mixture gets dry.  Use medium heat.

– Begin by cooking the onion ingredients, for about five minutes, until softened.  If you are cooking tofu for your protein, you’ll also want to add this towards the beginning.

– Add any longer-cooking vegetables, such as bell peppers, zucchini, green onions, sweet potatoes etc.  Cook for about five minutes, or until slightly softened.  If you are using dried herbs and spices, add these at the same time.

– If you are using softer vegetables, such as tomatoes, green onions, corn or peas, add these next.  Also add short-cooking proteins, like canned beans.  Cook for a few minutes longer.

– Finally, if you are using fresh herbs or a sauce, add at the very end, and just cook for a minute or two.

7.  Taste and adjust the seasonings – you may need to add more sauce or spices at this point.  You may also add salt and black pepper.

8.  Serve your vegetable mixture on top of or beside your grains.  These proportions will generally feed 3 – 4 people.  I like serving a salad along side of this for a complete meal.

Here’s a “recipe” to get you started and show you how this looks in practice. 

Italian Summer Saute:

Cooking vegetables for the Italian saute. This is what I mean by “half moons” for the squash.

1/4 cup vegetable stock

1 ½ cup onion, diced

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 cup green beans, chopped into 1 –  1 ½ inch pieces

1 medium yellow squash, cut into half moons

1 (15 ounce) can cannellini beans, rinsed and drained

2 cups chopped tomatoes

½ cup fresh basil, chopped

2 Tbsp balsamic vinegar

Salt and Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

The completed meal!

1.  In a non-stick wok over medium heat, sauté the onion in the vegetable stock for about 5 minutes, or until soft.  Add the garlic and sauté a minute longer.

2.  Add the green beans and yellow squash.  Cover the wok, and let the vegetables cook for 5 minutes, or until tender.

3.  Uncover, and add the cannellini beans, tomatoes, and fresh basil.  Cook until just heated through (you don’t want to overcook the beans).  Season with the balsamic vinegar, salt, and pepper.

4.  Serve over a grain, such as cooked brown rice.

It is my hope that this post has given you some ideas on how to invent your own vegan meal.  I will continue to post more inspiration and greater detail.


  1. I’m trying this tonight!

  2. Thank you for this formula- it is just what I needed!!! I am not into looking up a recipe and going out an getting all the ingredients…this formula makes it so much easier for me to make a healthy dinner I love it!

  3. Your recipe’s look amazing, love the photos and all the ideas for cooking wonderful vegetable meals. Thanks Erin!

  4. […] you are planning a plant-based meal, feel free to use your creativity.  You want to have a mix of grains, vegetables, and protein, but […]

  5. […] look up a recipe every single evening for dinner.  Towards my blog’s beginnings, I posted a basic formula for cooking without a recipe.  However, this formula doesn’t cover special cooking techniques.  I teach myself how to […]

  6. […] not quite a recipe, it’s actually more recipe-ish.  One of my early posts was some basic guidelines for vegan cooking, that people could follow so they weren’t constantly looking up new recipes.  This […]

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