When you first go vegan or experiment with eating a plant-based diet, it can be confusing. What are the essentials to buy? What particular brands are trusted? And what foods are needed to keep your family healthy and strong? While switching to a whole foods, local and organic diet immediately would be lovely, it’s much more realistic (and equally admirable) to make baby steps while your family adjusts to a healthier veggie diet. Gradually adding new vegan ingredients then removing the non-vegan ones is an easy, painless way to transition your family into a vegan lifestyle. Soon you will be able to easily substitute plant-based ingredients and continue culinary family traditions from gingerbread cookies to Philly cheesesteaks, but without using animal products!
I compiled a list that mirrors our own family's grocery list. In the warmer months, we rely on the actual grocery store much less and seek out all the produce we can through our CSA and farmer's market. Regardless of the season, by filling our fridge and pantry with these goodies, we know we will all be eating well, eating healthy, and eating better for the planet. Every family has different likes, dislikes, and cultural influences and there has never been a better time to try out vegan versions of your family's favorite meals. So peruse our vegan recipe archives, pick up some kid-friendly cookbooks, and get started! We're guessing you already have certain basics like flour and spices in your kitchen already, but if not, add them to the list. Ask around for recommendations (or leave comments and questions below): most vegans are super-excited to share their favorite foods, brands, and recipes with you! Read on for 16 vegan grocery list essentials.
1. Noodles, rice, and or quinoa
Noodles are a kid-friendly food no-brainer. Many noodles are vegan (although check for eggs), and there are so many varieties you can buy: gluten-free, whole-wheat, tomato or spinach flavored, buckwheat, rice-based. I buy my family whole-wheat noodles for lasagnes or spaghetti dinners, but if your kids balk at the taste, you could start by using a mix of whole wheat and regular. We keep a variety of rice and rice noodles around our house as well — sushi rice for making veggie sushi or veggie sushi bowls to jasmine rice for serving with curries to brown basmati for Indian dishes. There are some really beautiful, exotic rice versions as well. Finally, my kids aren’t super keen on quinoa, but I love it. It’s a complete protein and one of my favorite bases for a hearty salad. I add cucumbers and tomatoes and basil in the summer or pumpkin seeds, vinaigrette, and roasted veggies like beets or carrots in the winter.
2. Tofu and tempeh
Back in the day of prehistoric veganism (like 10-15 years ago), becoming vegan usually meant consuming ridiculous amounts of tofu. We still use tofu, but nowhere near as much as we used to. Our favorite uses: tofu scramble, BBQ tofu, and grilled tofu (for all of those we use extra-firm). Soft or silken tofu is often used in desserts or smoothies. It has a texture similar to eggs in many dishes like pudding, mousse, or cream pies. Tempeh is made from fermented soybeans and is shaped into a cake or patty. In our house, it’s the final vegan frontier. My kids are simply NOT into it, but we keep trying! My husband and I still make sweet and sour tempeh or reubens-tempeh which has tons of fiber and protein so even having small amounts of it is beneficial.
As for other “fake meats” we try not to rely heavily on them, since they are generally highly processed and less nutritious than other veggie eats, but we occasionally buy seitan, Field Roast sausages, Tofurkey “meats” for sandwiches, and Beyond Meat, Gardein, or Amy’s products for quick meals.
Beans are probably my favorite protein source. There are about a million different kinds. You can find them in virtually every type of cuisine, making them an easy protein-packed meal addition. I like to buy beans in bulk (they are ridiculously cheap), but I also keep some canned ones on hand for making a quick black bean dip, refried bean filling, or a cannellini bean salad.
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Lentils are also a good source of protein and fiber, and they are an easy thing to add to soups (they are smaller than beans and so are less in-your-face). I have been making a red lentil paté for years that we use as a dip, I love the smell of a simmering pot of yellow lentil daal on a chilly evening when I am craving Indian food, and even the occasional lentil sloppy Joe hits the spot when we want comfort food.
5. Nuts and nut butters
We make a yummy vegan cheese from cashew nuts, and I often whizz almonds in my Vitamix to make almond flour for baking. Almonds are also great for eating out of hand (if kids are 3 or older to prevent choking), and I love to make an almond or walnut topping for making a fruit crumble. You can make homemade nut butters if you have a strong food processor, but we often purchase organic peanut, almond, and sunflower seed butter in the store for making easy pb and j sandwiches for lunch.
6. Cooking Greens
Spinach, kale, collards, swiss chard: these leafy greens do not often top the list of favorite kid foods, but it doesn’t have to be that way. In my house, they each have a different purpose and place: I use spinach in smoothies and blended in with tomato sauce or as a lasagna filling, swiss chard is cooked with other veggies as a filling for a tofu-based quiche, collards and kale gets steamed, sautéed, or chopped and cooked with tofu scramble. On their own or just put on the side of the plate, many kids will avoid these greens (although my son is currently having a major kale moment), but often they can be added into existing favorite foods without kids objecting.
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7. Salad greens
Honestly, until your kids are a certain age (about four in my experience), they will not have an easy time chewing and eating salad. We have found that adding a healthy amount of a yummy vegan dressing (homemade or store-bought like Newman’s Own) entices kids to try salads especially if they can dip the greens into the dressing. And experiment with and mix up what greens you use — some are spicier than others or have different and cool-looking leaves. Kids generally like iceberg or romaine lettuce, which many people feel is a waste since there isn’t as much nutritional value as dark leafy greens. My feeling is, if it gets kids liking salads, I think it’s a worthwhile salad ingredient.
8. Vegan cheese
Most of the kids I know LOVE cheese. Mine definitely do. Our favorite vegan brand is Daiya. It comes shredded or in a sliceable block in flavors like cheddar and mozzarella and is wonderful in grilled cheese sandwiches, pasta bakes, or topping pizzas and veggie burgers. Other brands include Follow Your Heart and Teese. There are gourmet nut cheeses by brands such as Treeline and Dr.Cow that are super-delicious, especially with crackers or crudités. Making cashew cheese at home is easy! Nutritional yeast is also a popular, cheesy substitute-you can make a yummy sauce from it or sprinkle it on pasta dishes.
9. Seasonal fruit
We go through fruit at my house like it’s going out of style: berries of every kind, watermelon, apples, and pears. Fruit is a big part of the vegan diet and a great source of an array of vitamins. Kids often will be more adventurous with fruit than veggies so try mangos, kiwis, lychees, and other fruit to see what tickles their taste buds. Bananas get a bad rap because they have a heavy carbon footprint, but they are among many kids’ (including my daughter’s) favorite foods and they are easily digestible and make great snacks (especially when topped with almond butter and a chocolate chip or two). We don’t eat many bananas by the time berry season comes around, but in the winter, we stock up. We also freeze chopped bananas and other fruit while they are in season for making smoothies year round. My kids love juicing fruits (and veggies) as well.
10. Your go-to family veggies
Almost every family has a short list of veggies that they know will please everyone (or most family members). Stock up on these in frozen and fresh form. In addition to preparing them in favorite ways, try new versions — added to soups, mashed, or grilled. If you are phasing animal products out of your diet, get prepared and excited for lots of veggie adventures. There are so many awesome vegan websites now so find one that seems approachable and has realistic recipes. Of course we have plenty here at Inhabitots!
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11. Veggies you have no idea how to cook
Now is also the time to experiment — this means you too, Mom and Dad. Pick one or two of those weird veggies that rarely make their way into your kitchen and play with recipes online or in cookbooks. The above picture is of daikon radishes, which I never tried until my 20s. I love using them chopped in miso soup, grated raw and tossed with a carrot-ginger dressing, or pickled. My friends and I are constantly trading recipes for things we didn’t grow up eating, like kohlrabi or bitter melon. Go beyond your dinner table basics and try some dishes from other cultures such as a bok choy stir fry or a Mexican nopales (cactus!) salad.
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12. Non-dairy milk
Drinking milk is a comforting and enduring ritual for most kids, so finding a good non-dairy alternative is key. We keep a variety of milks in our house. Almond and soy are the biggest hits as well as rice milk, hemp milk, and occasionally coconut milk. Each brand varies in taste and sweetness so you many need to try out a few versions before you find your family’s fave. Also, try and buy the regular or unsweetened versions. Some of the vanilla flavored kinds are so sweet your teeth with hurt! Most of these non-dairy milks are fairly processed so don’t go crazy drinking them. Getting your daily dose of calcium through foods is definitely preferable.
13. Rolled Oats
Rolled oats have become a magical food in our house lately. We’ve been making oatmeal or overnight oats for breakfast and have been using homemade oat flour in recipes for scones, health bars, and cookies. And don’t forget homemade granola, which is totally addictive and versatile. The fiber keeps us full and the taste is hearty and rich.
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Conventional sugar is often not vegan, due to being processed with bone char. You can find more natural forms of sugar in grocery stores everywhere, such as sucanat or turbinado sugar, but I like coconut sugar. For liquid sweeteners, we love maple syrup and honey. Many vegans choose not to consume honey since it does come from a living creature, but for those who do, it is a great natural source of sweetness. We also often have jars of agave or brown rice syrup on hand.
We almost always have a container of hummus (store-bought or homemade) in the fridge. It’s just the thing for busy days when you still want to have lunches or an afternoon snack with little effort. Hummus is my daughter’s favorite food, and she likes the plain version best, but you can find fun flavors like red pepper, black olive, roasted garlic, or (my fave) edamame. I add a swipe of hummus to vegan quesadillas or grilled cheese to bulk up my kids’ lunches in addition to serving hummus with carrot sticks or crackers.
16. All the extras
Undoubtedly, there are certain foods that your family may love and worry about missing when becoming vegan. Luckily there are vegan versions of almost everything today. From Vegenaise (vegan mayo) to creamy and delicious coconut milk ice cream to Earth Balance (vegan butter/margarine), poke around in your grocery store or co-op. Ask employees for recommendations: they may have the heads-up on a new product. We don’t tend to eat a lot of frozen meals, but having one or two (usually by Amy’s vegan line) is a smart and healthier alternative to many types of take-out. Being vegan doesn’t mean living a life of deprivation, so stock up with these vegan essentials, and there will be some seriously delicious (homemade) eats in your vegan future!