Tips for Adding Plant-based Foods into Your Meal Rotation

Chef Pharoah Davis, owner of 1837Vegan, serves a Jackfruit Birria Taco Plate. Photo by Rachel Valley

Sowing the Seeds of Change

It’s summer 1996, and I’m standing in front of the bulk grains bins at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, wondering how to pronounce “quinoa” and, better yet, how to cook it. Just a few months into switching to a vegetarian diet, I’m still learning how to feed myself something other than a steady diet of pasta, grilled cheese sandwiches, and boring salads. I’ve read somewhere that quinoa (pronounced “keen-wa”) is an ancient grain that packs eight grams of protein per cooked cup. If I toss it with black beans, which also boast eight grams of protein per half cup, I realize I can cook up a quick and nutritious meal that won’t leave me hungry an hour later.

Back in the mid-90s, plant-based eating still was considered fairly niche. Fast forward more than a quarter century, and I’m still a vegetarian who loves quinoa and black beans, but I’ve also learned to cook with tofu and tempeh, two protein-packed soy options that can turn a boring salad into a delicious and filling meal. Lentils, eggs, and cheese also can be found in my family’s plant-based diet. We feel satisfied without craving missed protein or delicious dishes, and now it feels like the rest of the world has caught on.

Plant-based diets have been growing in popularity over the last several years. In 2021, NielsenIQ, a global measurement and data analytics company, reported that 52 percent of U.S. consumers are eating more plant-based foods. 

Greater Sacramento, with its abundance of regional farms, is a natural epicenter for veggie-forward dishes. Whether it’s shopping at weekly farmers’ markets or picking options from a plant-friendly menu, there’s a wealth of choices.


Some people may hesitate to explore more plant-based options, worried they’ll face nutritional deficiencies or unappetizingly bland dishes.

Erin Alderson, a self-described “off and on” vegetarian, is the founder of the zine and Instagram site Cook Casual, based in Fair Oaks. She says that in her experience, the key is to approach plant-based eating with an open mind, creative spirit, and stocked pantry.

For starters, plant-based meals can be nutritious and filling: Beans, lentils, tofu, and tempeh all are high in protein and versatile. Cheese and eggs are also filling and flavorful choices.

“One of [our family’s] favorite meals is bean tacos,” she says. “Beans are a great way to get that protein you’d get from meat.”

Beans are an easy starter protein for the uninitiated. A can of cooked beans sautéed with onions, mushrooms, and chili powder makes for an easy taco night. Likewise, tofu, which is protein-rich and absorbs the flavors of whatever it’s cooked with, is another alternative. The trick is to buy an extra-firm brick and drain out the excess liquid. My preferred method is to place the tofu in a big bowl and place another dish on top. Let it sit, draining frequently, for at least 30 minutes. For an even better texture, freeze the tofu after draining, then thaw before use.

Protein Options
Worry about not eating enough protein? Don’t. Vegetables such as spinach and broccoli pack as much as five grams of protein per cup. Paired with the five meat alternatives below, they can make for a richly satisfying meal.*
Black beans: 8 grams per ounces
Egg: 6 grams per egg
Tofu: 20 grams per cup
Tempeh: 31 grams per cup
Lentils: 18 grams per cup
*Information comes from

Tofu and other protein alternatives might seem intimidating at first. That’s OK.

When I first went vegetarian, I nearly quit after just a few months. My experiences with meat-free dishes until then had been largely tasteless — my grandmother feeding me a bowl of bland silken tofu with fruit, and my mother’s attempts at a making a healthy spinach lasagna with tough buckwheat noodles that reminded me of cardboard. Yuck.

I didn’t quit, however. Instead, thanks to advice from a few friends, helpful store clerks, and some well-worn cookbooks, including Mollie Katzen’s ever-popular 1974 tome The Moosewood Kitchen, I eventually became more confident preparing plant-based foods in the kitchen.

Pharoah Davis also wanted to explore tastier options. The Sacramento-based chef grew interested in plant-based foods several years ago. A firefighter at the time, he began trying new recipes at the station, which turned out to be a friendly test kitchen of sorts, with other firefighters eager to try his vegan take on burgers and tacos.

After Davis retired in 2021, he launched 1837Vegan, an organic, GMO-free, vegan pop-up and weekly delivery service. Its most popular offerings include barbecued jackfruit, the chef’s plate with mac ’n’ cheese, and various jarred sauces that Davis calls the “core” of his flavor.

Davis, who also teaches a monthly vegan cooking class at Mexican restaurant El Papagayo in Carmichael, says his students and clients often are surprised by how inventive and tasty vegan cooking can be. 

Davis acknowledges that many still believe going meatless means giving up good food. That’s a good conversational starting point, he says.

“It creates an opportunity for people to [talk about] the essence of being creative,” he says. “I think that’s enlightenment in itself.”


Sacramento’s dining scene is resplendent with vegetarian options, be it the newer Burger Patch chain; longtime mainstays such as Andy Nguyen’s Vegetarian, which specializes in Vietnamese food; or trendy plant-based cuisine at such upscale eateries as Magpie and Canon. But what to do in your own kitchen?

Alex Sherry, who co-owns Sacramento’s Majka Pizzeria + Bakery with his wife, Chutharat Sae Tong, advises cooks to lean in to Sacramento’s ample array of fresh fruits and vegetables. That’s what he and his wife do when conceiving their daily pizza offerings, which include one vegetarian and one vegan pie, the latter of which uses their own house-made, plant-based cheese. 

Sae Tong slices up a mushroom and brown butter pizza. Photo by Rachel Valley
Sae Tong slices up a mushroom and brown butter pizza. Photo by Rachel Valley

The couple and their daughter aren’t vegetarian, but, Sherry says, it made sense to go that direction for their pizzeria, which opened in 2020. Plant-based pizza spots have been popular in the Bay Area for some time, he says, and Sacramento diners have been receptive to seasonal combinations such as fig and blue cheese or creamed corn, cherry tomatoes, and mozzarella.

Pizza, he says, is a crowd-friendly option that’s easy to make at home.

“Go to the farmers’ market or your local grocery store and see what produce looks good,” Sherry says. “When I’m thinking about what new ingredients to put on pizza, I think about what other kind of dishes I like to eat that aren’t pizza and how I could apply that on a pizza to see if it works out.”

Alderson says the weekly Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) produce box she gets is essential. At home, she likes to pair whatever’s in season with Northern California-grown grains. Spices are key, too, she says, especially with proteins such as tofu and tempeh.

“Think about the flavors you really like in meat dishes that can [be used] in meat-free dishes,” she says. 

Going plant-based also doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing approach. Even adding just a few new plant-based meals into your rotation could help lower your blood pressure; reduce your risk for heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers; and lower your body weight, according to Stanford University.

In our house, pizza is a Friday night favorite — it’s a great option for when we have guests over. There are few who’ll turn away a slice of margherita pizza made with fresh mozzarella cheese and locally grown tomatoes and basil.

Whatever you do, Alderson says, don’t go into cooking plant-based foods expecting to make an exact replica of a meat dish.

“A lot of people get frustrated when they make something vegetarian, like a bean burger, and it tastes nothing like a ‘real’ burger,” Alderson says. “It’s not supposed to because it’s delicious in its own right.”