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8 easy vegan substitutions to veganize your family recipes

father and two children at the breakfast table pouring milk into bowls

Veganism has seen a popularity boost in North America in the last decade-plus. Oprah Winfrey launched her vegan challenge in 2011, documentaries on animal welfare and climate change have asked people to consider their diets and social platforms have enabled vegan food creators to share their recipes and techniques making a plant-based diet widely more accessible and front-of-mind. And in turn, many Canadians are seeking vegan substitutions and alternatives to meat, cheese and dairy products be it to improve their health, help the grocery budget or the environment. But in many parts of the world, vegan dishes have existed for centuries. Preparing balanced meals in general can be a challenge. But adding vegan options, whether it’s for one plant-based kid or the undertaking of Meatless Monday, can be even tougher. Which is why we’ve detailed some easy swaps and ways to adapt your favourite recipes and tips on ingredient substitutions and plant-based pantry staples. 

Cheese: Vegan cheese ain’t what she used to be. The evolution and variety of dairy-free cheese are now robust and available at more grocery stores. Some are soy-based, others are nut-based. Some cooks use nutritional yeast flakes (found in the health food aisle, usually), which have a cheesy flavour, to top pasta, tofu marinades and on top of popcorn. 

Butter: The demand for non-dairy has allowed consumers to experience serious advancements in the “margarine” department. While most vegan “butters” are oil-based, you can now find them in stick-form, which are great for baking. Canola and mild olive oils are great in cakes, muffins and quickbreads, as well as in everyday cooking.

Milk: Soy, almond and oat milk make delicious substitutions to anything you’re having from a bowl of cereal to a frothy latte to a box of mac-and-cheese (just make sure you have unsweetened and not vanilla!). Coconut milk is thicker and perfect for adding a creaminess to soups. Rice milk tends to be watery and is not the best option for many applications. Soaked cashews or sunflower seeds can be blended to form a rich cream that’s great for Alfredo sauces, creamy dips and dressings. Plant milks are totally adaptable, too. To make buttermilk, stir 1 tbsp lemon juice or vinegar into a cup of oat, almond or soy milk and let sit for five minutes, until it thickens slightly. Alternatively, whisk 3 tbsp vegan yogurt into a cup of any of the above.

Ground Beef: It’s exciting how much vegan meats can taste like the real deal. There’s a misconception that people who observe a vegan diet shouldn’t want to eat things that taste like meat. However, for many, it’s about animal welfare, sustainability and environmental considerations, not flavour or texture. To segue your family into some ground beef substitutes, try grabbing Beyond or Impossible ground “beef” and vegan crumbles such as Yves Ground Round to use in pasta sauces, tacos, chili and sloppy Joes. Yves is typically found in the produce section of the grocery store with tofu and Beyond and Impossible has a space in the meat section. Speaking of tofu, dried, crumbled and marinated tofu can have a chewy meaty texture. Check out this Vegan Bolognese recipe for the steps. 

Eggs: Eggs can be a bit tricky. Depending on the recipe some have success with mashed banana (1 banana per 2 eggs) or make an egg substitute for baked goods out of flax meal: Mix 1 part ground flaxseed to 2 parts water and let sit until thickened. Use 3 tbsp for every egg called for in a recipe, but avoid recipes that are particularly egg-heavy. For example, maybe no lemon curd. Egg replacers like Bob’s Red Mill are also available. And if you’re wanting eggs for a sandwich, Just Egg can fill the void. If you do some Googling, you can also learn more about making your own version of Just Egg via soaked split mung beans, black salt (kala namak, which has a sulphuric scent like eggs) and a couple other easy ingredients. For French toast, try blending ripe bananas with coconut milk, cinnamon and vanilla as the dredge then proceeding as usual. 

Beef or Chicken Stock: Onion, mushroom or vegetable stock are the easy swaps for any recipe that calls for chicken or beer stock. You can even make your own hearty broth by saving vegetable scraps in your freezer and boiling down. Delicious. 

Mayonnaise: There are several varieties of vegan mayonnaise on the market or go ahead and substitute soy yogurt.

Don’t sleep on tofu 
A lot of people are intimidated by tofu or have tried it once and didn’t enjoy it. To that we say, how was it prepared? Tofu is a sponge and how you marinade and cook it matters a lot. Basically the king of versatility, press tofu and marinade (tamari, apple cider vinegar and nutritional yeast is a simple and flavourful option) for stir-fry or bake marinated slices and have in sandwiches or wraps. Crumble it, like we mentioned above, blend it and make a tofu ricotta or grate it and make “tuna”. Instagram is ripe with very talented vegan food bloggers who know their way around the spongey block and can impart valuable tips. 

A version of this article was originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, April 2013. Updated in April 2024. 

a man carrying two children

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