7 Vegan Thanksgiving Mains That’ll Make You Go, 'Turkey Who?'

The best turkey alternatives for vegans, vegetarians, and omnivores alike.

September 18, 2019
Photo by Rocky Luten

Every year, as Thanksgiving looms, the texts from increasingly panicked hosts begin to roll in:

  • How do I make a pumpkin pie without dairy?
  • My sister-in-law isn’t eating gluten this year, but demands stuffing.
  • What do I make instead of turkey for a table of vegans?!

First of all, take a deep breath—it’s just one meal. There will be three more tomorrow! As you take another big inhale, know that I’m here to help. Right now, I’ll assist with the vegans. Or vegetarians. Or the ones that you ate burgers with last month but now are strictly pescatarian thank-you-very-much. Basically, if you’re feeding Thanksgiving dinner to people who don’t eat turkey, and want to prepare them something besides the salad and dessert that are already on the table, we’ve got you covered. From whole-roasted cauliflower and lentil shepherd's pie to vegan lasagna and zucchini enchiladas, no one will leave your Thanksgiving table hungry.

And before you start on me about how some of these dishes aren’t rooted in traditional Thanksgiving flavors (my Aunt Deb certainly wouldn’t make mapo tofu on Turkey Day), I urge you to rethink what “traditional” even means. Thanksgiving is an American holiday (actually, there’s one in Canada too), but does every American family sit down to attack a 20-pound bird with a side of marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes on the big day? Nope.

For many, the day is actually quite a painful one, steeped in remembrance of colonialism and fear. As a cook, I tend to think of Thanksgiving as a day I can spend preparing a meal, a thing I love, for people I love. Nothing more. And guess what? I don’t have to make a turkey—and neither do you.

Relatives may cluck disapprovingly behind their water glasses, but once you set the table with any number of these vegan main dishes, no one will miss the tryptophan.

Vegan Turkey Substitutes

1. Burmese Tofu (aka Chickpea Flour Tofu)

For an alternative to turkey that’s mild in flavor and can be treated like any other protein, turn to Burmese tofu, which transforms chickpea flour, oil, and water into a sturdy tofu-like dish. You can dress it however you’d like, or serve it with vegan gravy, dairy-free mashed potatoes, and meatless stuffing if you’d like to stick with those “classic” Thanksgiving flavors.

2. Whole Roasted Cauliflower With Turmeric-Tahini Sauce & Pistachios

A vegetable instead of turkey? You bet. “Whole roasted cauliflower” may sound simple on paper (or on your family’s Thanksgiving planning spreadsheet), but just wait until you set it down on the table. Of course, it’s not just a cauliflower—the brassica is adorned with an herb mixture, nuts, sliced chiles, and dried Kalamata olives. Sound complex? I guarantee you it’s less work than wet-brining a turkey.

3. Vegan Lentil Shepherd’s Pie With Parsnip & Potato Mash

This cozy lentil shepherd's pie is basically a complete vegan Thanksgiving dinner in one neat package. The rosemary and thyme-scented mushroom and lentil mixture satisfies the desire for gravy and protein, and it’s topped with mashed potatoes (and parsnips! don’t knock ‘em ‘til you try ‘em!). For stuffing vibes, serve the dish with a big loaf of sourdough bread.

4. Vegetarian Mapo Tofu

You’ve probably ordered or made mapo tofu before, and are no stranger to the delightfully lip-numbing quality of the dish’s signature Sichuan peppercorn-based sauce. For this recipe, you won’t need to use the peppercorns—though you could certainly add one coarsely ground tablespoon of them to the oil just before the mushrooms. The spicy bean paste doubanjiang, however, is nonnegotiable. Find it in your local Asian market or buy some online.

5. Sweet Potato & Chickpea Cakes

Instead of making these sweet potato-chickpea cakes the day after Thanksgiving, make them for the main event. Start with this recipe for coconut mashed sweet potatoes, then add chickpeas, panko, scallions, and spices. These guys are perfect with a glob of vegan gravy and a smear of cranberry sauce.

6. Vegan Lasagna With Roasted Vegetables

As I always say, when in doubt, make lasagna. The cozy casserole is always, always a crowd-pleaser. This recipe swaps out ricotta, mozzarella, and Parm for tofu and nutritional yeast, but I promise even the non-vegans at the table will be reaching for a wedge. Seriously, who can turn down a hearty slice of lasagna?

7. Zucchini Verde Enchiladas

There’s no rule that says "you can’t make enchiladas tonight” (and if anyone’s ever said that, vote them off the island immediately). These zucchini, black bean, and tofu enchiladas are draped with a garlicky lime cashew cream. And hey, if everyone else at the table is going to be jealous of the vegans because they get to have enchiladas for Thanksgiving, then why not make another tray or two? For a couple non-vegan versions, use turkey meat in these enchiladas Suizas to keep with the tone of the holiday, or go with this yam and collards version.

Are you cooking vegan this Thanksgiving? What will you be serving for your non-turkey-eating guests? Let us know in the comments below.
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Rebecca Firkser is a freelance food writer and recipe developer. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, among them Food52, TASTE, Edible Manhattan, Extra Crispy, The Strategist, and Bon Appetit's Healthyish. She contributed recipes and words to the book "Breakfast: The Most Important Book About the Best Meal of the Day." Once upon a time, she studied theatre design and art history at Smith College, so if you need a last-minute avocado costume or want to talk about Wayne Thiebaud's cakes, she's your girl.