If you want to learn about vegan foods, the best place to start is not with cooking, but with eating. Most food-related publishing and television is devoted to cooking. And while cooking is important, the foods you can prepare yourself are only a subset of everything you can potentially eat. In this guide we’ll look beyond cooking to explore every possible category of vegan food. If you feel a vegan diet might be restrictive and limiting, I promise you’ll no longer feel that way by the time you finish reading this. We’re about to discover an endless variety of sensational vegan foods!
Eating Vegan is Easy
When somebody finds out I’m vegan, their first question is often, “What on earth do you eat?” The implication here is that vegan diets contain only a narrow and monotonous assortment of foods. Fortunately, nothing could be further from the truth.
If you want to incorporate more vegan foods into your life, you are in for a pleasant surprise. In this guide, I’m going to introduce you to every sort of vegan food in existence. You’re about to discover a staggering variety of delicious possibilities.
Let’s start by looking at every category of food produced by plants. After that, we’ll explore the wide assortment of vegan-friendly cuisines. Then I’ll introduce you to vegan meals you can cook at home, including seven key dishes that require almost no prep time. In case you want to dive deeper into vegan cooking, I’ll toss out a few solid cookbook recommendations. Then I’ll offer advice for vegan grocery shopping, eating out, and travel. Along the way I’ll provide links for more detailed coverage of every topic this article covers.
An Introduction to the Best Vegan Foods
Once upon a time I was as apprehensive about going vegan as anyone, but it turned out to be ten times easier than I imagined. My diet today is far more diverse and delicious than it ever was when I ate meat. If you are considering a vegan or mostly plant-based diet, prepare to be overwhelmed by how many delicious offerings are available.
Vegan diets need never be expensive. Even the simplest meals can bring sensational flavors. I don’t think I’ve ever had an expensive gourmet meal that beats the flavors of a perfectly ripe avocado on an excellent sourdough baguette. If you have an eye for quality, you can eat exceptionally well on a budget. After all, freshness and perfect ripeness never cost extra money—they merely require that you pay more attention when food shopping.
The diversity of vegan foods is practically limitless—you could try something new every day for the rest of your life. What’s more, new foods are coming to market all the time. As long as it’s from a plant, it’s fair game. That means a vegan diet lets you eat every sort of food made from vegetables, fruits, grains, beans, nuts, and seeds. Let’s quickly explore each of these possibilities:
Vegetables are best when purchased in season. A handful come into season in the spring, most are in season during the summer, and then a few more important varieties are harvested just before winter sets in.
Since pea plants thrive in cool weather, peas are among the first crop harvested. They come into season by mid spring. Spring is also when cabbage, broccoli, spinach, and most lettuces come to market.
In early summer, kale and chard become available, along with cucumbers and summer squash. They say you shouldn’t pick corn until the water’s boiling, and it’s during the hottest days of summer when corn reaches its peak.
Root vegetables are harvested when the nights turn nippy. These vegetables include carrots, potatoes, parsnips, beets, yams, and sweet potatoes. All of these foods are perfect for hearty winter stews that’ll take you through the coldest weather.
Since they are among the most nutritious foods you can eat, you’ll definitely want to read our guide to vegetables. You’ll also benefit from reading our pages on how to make a killer stir-fry, and how to roast vegetables in the oven.
Mushrooms are neither a fruit nor a vegetable. They’re not fussy about what time of year it is, so good mushrooms are available year round. Asians and especially the Japanese eat an incredible assortment of mushrooms.
For my money, the tastiest mushroom of all is a Japanese mushroom called shiitake that grows only on wood. It’s got a subtle flavor and a meaty texture that—once sauteed with garlic—makes it the ideal filling for spring rolls and dumplings. Just be sure to discard the stems of shiitakes since they’re woody and inedible.
Asian groceries offer a wider selection of mushrooms than anyplace else, so check if there’s one near you.
Since there is such an overwhelming abundance of fruits, it’s sensible to divide them into temperate and tropical varieties. Whenever possible, buy local and in season. The peaches at your local orchard will be tree-ripened and far more delicious than their counterparts grown hundreds of kilometers away. A farmer’s market, or the farm itself, is invariably the best place for buying fruits and vegetables.
Frozen fruit plus vegan milk makes wonderful, nutritious, and easy-to-make smoothies. And since frozen fruit is available year round, you can enjoy smoothies any time of year. Check out our tips for making a fantastic smoothie.
Dried fruit offers a sensational way to enjoy the flavors of summer during the middle of winter.
For more ideas on how to incorporate delicious fruits into your diet, see our guide to fruits.
Whole grains are filling and remarkably nutritious. They’re also among the cheapest available sources of calories. Whenever possible, purchase only whole grains and unrefined flours, since these choices are far more nutritious than processed grains.
The best way to purchase grains is either online or at your natural food store’s bulk department. There you can find rice, wheat, oats, corn, rye, and millet. You can also buy buckwheat and quinoa, which are classified as pseudo cereals, since they are botanically seeds rather than grains.
Rice is the most popular grain for billions of people. Be sure to buy multiple varieties, including red and purple. Also keep in mind that quinoa (pronounced: keen-wah) has far more protein and nutrients than rice, and requires much less water to grow.
Any sort of bread or breakfast cereal is grain-based. Granola is super easy to make, and straight out of the oven is far fresher and tastier than any commercial brand. If you don’t have a good natural foods store nearby, you can buy packaged Bob’s Red Mill grains from Amazon.com. Their product line is extensive, reasonably priced, and mostly organic.
Beans are by far the cheapest and most nutritious food on the planet, especially when purchased in dried form. Like grains, you can find an impressive assortment of dried beans in your natural foods store’s bulk department, and also online. If you’re pressed for time, you can use canned beans, which are still affordable but not quite as tasty. You can improve their flavor by sauteing chopped onions in a little oil before heating up your canned beans.
Anyone who cooks beans regularly will appreciate an Instant Pot or pressure cooker, since otherwise your beans can take upwards of two hours to properly cook. If you’re new to cooking beans, the best entry point is an Indian-style dal made with lentils or mung beans. This is a quick and easy dish to make, and is wonderful either as a soup or served over rice.
There are dozens of varieties of beans. Trying as many kinds as possible is one of the easiest ways to diversify your diet. Consult our bean guide for comprehensive information on purchasing, cooking, and enjoying beans.
Nuts and Seeds
Like beans, nuts and seeds contain loads of protein and minerals. Any sort of pre-shelled nut is ready-to-eat and therefore incredibly convenient. There’s decent evidence that eating a small handful of nuts every day is associated with better health. Unfortunately, nuts tend to be expensive, perhaps because they grow on trees and must be laboriously picked and shelled.
Though very nut-like, peanuts aren’t actually a nut, but a legume. Don’t avoid peanuts just because they’re not a real nut. They cost less than half the price of even the cheapest nut, and offer comparable flavor and nutrition.
Like peanuts, seeds are also much cheaper than nuts, and absolutely delicious—your choices include pumpkin, sunflower, and sesame. Spicy roasted pumpkin seeds are one of the world’s most delicious snacks. Shelled roasted hemp seeds are an exquisite salad topping.
Most varieties of nuts are available as nut butters. Every sort of nut butter is a terrific sandwich spread. You can also use peanut butter or cashew butter to make a delicious sauce to serve over rice.
While many of the foods we just reviewed are delicious raw, they’re also commonly processed into a dozens of popular cooking ingredients. Let’s now go through the most important of these staples.
Oils are an essential ingredient for many sorts of cooking, especially frying and sauteing. They’re also the primary component of most salad dressings.
Commercially bottled oils come from every fat-rich vegan food you can think of: seeds, olives, coconuts, and even avocados. Unrefined oils have more flavor, but tend to scorch at lower cooking temperatures. Three oils in particular deserve permanent spots in your pantry:
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Perfect for any sort of low-temperature cooking, and an excellent base for salad dressings. An unrefined premium olive oil mixed with a little balsamic vinegar is a sensational dip for sourdough french bread.
- High Oleic Safflower Oil. A refined oil without any noticeable flavor that’s ideal for sautéing or frying. The inclusion of “high oleic” on the label indicates the oil won’t scorch at normal cooking temperatures.
- Unrefined Roasted Sesame Oil. Surprisingly inexpensive considering its rich and appealing flavors. Dash a little on your next stir-fry just before serving, or squirt some into your next batch of salad dressing.
Tofu and Tempeh
Both these products were invented centuries ago in Asia. Tofu is made from soy milk that’s treated with a coagulant that solidifies it into a wiggly block. Don’t let appearances fool you, since tofu is the primary ingredient in a vast assortment of delicious dishes.
Tempeh is a simpler and less-processed food, made from cooked split soybeans that have been cultivated with a fungus. You can make a delicious nature burger just by frying tempeh on each side until golden brown, and then adding ketchup or barbecue sauce.
Since tofu and tempeh are made mainly from soy, both of these foods are loaded in protein. Compared to any sort of dried beans, which require soaking and lengthy boiling, tofu and tempeh require only minimal cooking. What’s more, both of these foods are much easier to digest than whole cooked beans. On top of all these advantages, tofu made with calcium sulfate contains more than twice the calcium per calorie as whole cows’ milk.
All these qualities make tofu and tempeh fantastic protein choices for anyone who wants a quick meal. There are tens of thousands of recipes that call for tofu and tempeh, so please see our tofu and tempeh guides for all sorts of ideas.
Peanut butter is a wonderful sandwich spread, but don’t stop there! Branch out and explore other nut butters too. Try spreading cashew butter on a toasted sourdough baguette and topping it with thinly-sliced sauteed leeks. I doubt I’ve ever eaten a more delicious simple meal.
Any nut butter can become a magnificent sauce. Just blend and gently heat with a little coconut milk, soy sauce, and minced sautéed garlic and ginger. Then squirt in a little lemon or lime juice before serving.
If you like flavorful or spicy foods, a vegan diet won’t hold you back in the least. Herbs and spices are invariably vegan since they are all taken from plants.
Additionally, the overwhelming majority of sauces and condiments are also vegan. These include all or most:
- Soy sauce, including tamari
- Hot sauce, both gourmet and dirt-cheap
- Vinegar (including apple cider, red wine, balsamic, and rice)
- Sriracha “rooster” sauce
- Indian-style pickle pastes
- Wasabi paste
- Barbecue sauce (great on grilled tofu or tempeh)
- Mexican fresh or jarred salsas
There are some non-vegan brands of the sauces above, so always read the ingredients. But most of the brands you’ll encounter are vegan.
The one big no-no for vegans is Worcestershire sauce, which usually contains anchovies—but there are a couple vegan brands and you can also make your own from scratch. Also, some soy sauces, particularly those from Japan, contain fish extract.
The most popular seasoning combination throughout Asia is minced garlic and ginger. It’s an especially wonderful addition to stir-fries, and will take many of your favorite dishes to the next level.
Shopping at Supermarkets and Natural Foods Stores
A good natural food store always beats a supermarket in its sheer variety of vegan foods. But even a mediocre supermarket will offer a large selection of fresh fruits and vegetables, plus all the staples listed in the next section.
When you’re shopping at a natural food store, be sure to explore the offerings at their deli counter. Unlike a supermarket deli counter, you will find plenty of vegan offerings. This is an excellent way to quickly expose yourself to a number of new vegan foods without having to spend any time cooking.
If you don’t have a good natural foods store nearby, the vegan grocery selection at Amazon can close the gap. We publish a helpful page listing all the best deals on vegan groceries from Amazon.com.
Vegan Supermarket Staples
Supermarkets and natural food stores carry all sorts of ready-to-eat and heat-and-eat items, often at excellent prices. Many of these items are probably already in your pantry or freezer. They include:
- Crackers and Flatbreads—Triscuits and Finn Crisp crackers are wholegrain, vegan, and sold everywhere.
- Cereal—Many brands are vegan, whole grain, and organic. Lightly-sweetened puffed rice is especially underrated.
- Oatmeal & Porridge Mixes—Nothing’s more satisfying on a cold morning, and this breakfast is filling, nutritious, and absurdly cheap.
- Cookies—Few cookies sold at supermarkets are vegan, but you’ll find many vegan varieties at natural foods stores.
- Breads and English Muffins—Oddly, whole grain is more likely to contain dairy products or honey.
- Energy Bars—Clif Bar, Probar, Larabar, and NuGo are all vegan.
- Wheat Tortillas—Delicious spread with hummus, used for vegan quesadillas, or for any sort of wrap.
- Pasta—Dried spaghetti is always vegan. Other pasta varieties may contain egg products.
- Asian Noodles—Asian “rice stick” noodles are cheap and always vegan, and make a superb vegan Pad Thai.
- Frozen Dinners—There are too many varieties to mention, including pizza and vegan mac & cheese.
- Tomato Sauce—Newman’s marinara sauce is widely available and vegan.
- Canned Beans—Baked beans are cheap and delicious.
- Pickles and Olives—Better groceries have an olive bar, and all supermarkets sell jarred pickles and olives.
- Hummus—You can find tubs of hummus in the dairy case of any supermarket.
- Frozen Vegetables—Let you cook with high-quality vegetables year-round.
- Chips—Many potato chips and corn chips are vegan.
- Tater Tots—Junky but delicious.
- Dark Chocolate—Lindt dark chocolate is vegan and available everywhere, but you may have a tough time finding fair-trade vegan chocolate at supermarkets.
- Coffee and Tea
- Frozen Fruit—Inexpensive and ideal for making smoothies in your blender with your favorite vegan milk.
- Salad Dressings—Vegan brands are widely available, but you’re better off making your own.
When it comes to the above products, you’ll find more vegan brands in a natural foods store than at a supermarket. For instance, every decent natural food store sells a great many varieties of vegan cookies, whereas a supermarket may only stock a couple brands.
Avoiding Animal-Based Ingredients
While all of the above grocery items are commonly vegan, you still must read labels to be sure.
Some animal ingredients are obvious, like milk and egg whites. But there are also a bunch of widely-used ingredients you’d never guess come from animals. To familiarize yourself with the more obscure non-vegan ingredients, check out our animal ingredients page.
Meat, Dairy, Egg Alternatives
If you love dairy products, every sort of vegan alternative is widely available, including cheese, yogurt, butter, and even sour cream. One reason milk is so easy to quit is that most people don’t particularly enjoy its flavor. Many vegan milk brands deliver more calcium and protein than cows’ milk, and taste better too.
Vegan egg alternatives are likewise easy to find. If you’re merely looking to replace eggs in baking (say, for pancakes or banana bread), all you need is a cheap box of egg replacer. This product provides the similar binding properties to egg whites. If you’re actually seeking the texture and flavor of real eggs to make scrambled eggs or an omelet, go with a product like Just Egg or The Vegg. Whatever you are baking or cooking, there’s a vegan egg alternative that’s perfect for the job. For complete coverage, see our guide to vegan egg replacers.
Vegan cooking is one of the easiest and most useful skills you could ever learn. Our comprehensive guide to vegan cooking is perfect for novice cooks.
You only need the most basic equipment to get started cooking. If your kitchen isn’t well-equipped, we offer helpful recommendations covering the most valuable kitchen items for vegans.
Considering there are hundreds of vegan cookbooks available, where on earth should you start? Surprisingly, the best way to begin exploring vegan cooking is not by following recipes. Instead, just learn how to prepare these seven easy meals:
Of the above dishes, only stir-fried vegetables takes any significant practice to cook well. But stir-fries are so delicious, and take so many variations, that they’re well worth taking time to master.
Vegan-Friendly Cuisines and Cookbooks
Some of the most popular foods from a variety of the world’s favorite cuisines just happen to be vegan. If you’re looking to experiment with new styles of cooking, I’ve written a number of guides to the most vegan-friendly cuisines, featuring advice for eating out and for cooking at home.
No matter what types of foods you most enjoy, you will have no problem finding vegan recipes. Our vegan cookbooks guide features more than a dozen regional titles that each specialize in a different cuisine.
The easier your meals are to make, the more cooking you’ll do. So when you are ready to get your first vegan cookbook, choose a title that focuses on simple, nutritious, quickly-prepared recipes. JL Fields’ Fast & Easy Vegan Cookbook is the perfect first title for aspiring vegan cooks. You can make many of its recipes in no more time than it takes to heat up a frozen dinner.
Finally, if you have a sweet tooth, you’ll find no scarcity of vegan dessert possibilities. There are numerous vegan dessert cookbooks in print, including titles that specialize exclusively in vegan ice cream, cupcakes, cookies, and pie.
You’ll have no problem finding restaurants with terrific vegan offerings. Just use your phone to query Google using the phrase, “vegan food near me.” You’ll discover all sorts of excellent vegan offerings at both vegan and non-vegetarian restaurants.
If you don’t happen to have a good vegan restaurant nearby, your most reliable bets are a Lebanese or Israeli-style restaurant—falafel, hummus, pita, and tabbouleh are delicious, healthy, and reliably vegan. Ethiopian restaurants are also remarkably vegan-friendly if you stick to injera bread and vegetarian stews. Most pizzerias are likewise vegan-friendly if you stick to veggie toppings and leave off the cheese. Oddly, though, many large pizza franchises put dairy in their dough—but this flies in the face of traditional pizza-making. Very few independently-owned pizzerias adulterate their dough with milk products.
Until recently, few fast places were accommodating to vegans, but lately the top chains have been racing each other to add vegan offerings. Most notably, in 2019 Burger King launched its “Impossible Whopper” to great success, although you’ll need to request that they leave off the mayonnaise. Most of the big Mexican chains, including Chipotle, Qdoba, Taco Del Mar, and Taco Bell offer solid vegan options.
Lastly, although Chinese food tends not to be vegan-friendly, the PF Chang’s chain offers a vegetarian menu that’s entirely vegan, although a small amount sugar processed with bone char appears in many dishes.
For more extensive coverage of this topic, see our vegan dining guide.
Traveling as a vegan admittedly poses some inconvenience, since you usually need to explore your destination’s dining and grocery options. But as a consequence you’ll inevitably discover new foods that will likely take a place among your favorites.
In Japan I discovered umeboshi plums and a popular dessert called mochi. Mexico got me to branch out past burritos to discover enfrijoladas and tortilla soup. In India I fell in love with idlis served on banana leaves and dipped into a spicy dal. And in Vietnam, I discovered a vast assortment of meaty vegan dishes developed for Ho Chi Minh’s Buddhist monks. In nearly all cases, the bigger the city you visit, the more impressive its vegan options.
For more advice on the topic, see our vegan travel guide. If you use Happy Cow to research your destination beforehand, you’re certain to discover some restaurants that will rank among the highlights of your trip.
Keep Trying New Foods!
No single piece of writing could begin to adequately explore the multitude of vegan foods dishes you’re destined to experience. To continue your journey, check out our vegan foods page. There you’ll find links to a staggering assortment of detailed coverage covering every imaginable variety of vegan food.
If you want to further increase your exposure to vegan foods, please also see our cooking guide. There’s no quicker way to get comfortable in the kitchen. And if you need a cookbook to help you on your way, look no further than our recommended vegan cookbooks page. Also be sure to read our vegan nutrition guide, to make sure that nothing’s falling through the cracks when it comes to eating properly.
By finishing this essay you’ve only taken the first step to exploring the wealth of vegan foods, but you can no doubt see that you’ll never face any shortage of fantastic food options. Putting a small and steady effort into seeking out new vegan foods will yield extraordinary results. Each passing month on a vegan diet becomes easier and more fulfilling.