Simple-to-Make Vegan Spinach Pesto

A schmear of pesto on a plate

While I was cooking up a storm at the daycare center this summer, I was also learning some fun lessons.  One of the tastiest was how quick and simple it is to make pesto from scratch.

When I first saw Pesto Pasta on the menu I will admit I was a bit nervous.  It didn’t seem to mater how they were packaged, “healthy” foods, especially the green ones, were a tough sell. I crossed my fingers and hoped the appeal of noodles would trump the distain of green food.

It was decided that the pesto would be 2 parts spinach and 1 part basil. Using spinach lowered the cost and upped the nutrient content – a double win for school foods. In addition to the spinach, this version uses a few other non-traditional twists.

First, serving pesto in a nut-free facility means skipping the traditional pine nuts but toasted sunflower seeds work surprisingly well as a substitute.

Second, it needed to be it vegan. Due to a combination of allergy and dietary preferences the more vegan foods served the better. A vegan pesto can feed the entire center thus requiring less cooking steps, dishes to wash, and plates to segregate (to prevent cross-contamination of allergens).  It always makes my heart happy to serve foods everyone can eat together. Nutritional yeast replaced shredded parmesan as the salty tangy element.

Finally, I cut the fat. It’s just what I do. I started the pesto with some recommended ingredient proportions but I just couldn’t bring myself to add the oil as written. I really don’t like pesto that is runny and greasy.  It totally grosses me out to get to the bottom of my pasta dish and have a puddle left behind.  Less fat made for a thicker, more velvety pesto that clung to the noodles rather than sliding off them.

Springing into action, I was delighted at how much fun I had. Seconds after I hit the power button on the triple-bladed Ninja blender there was bright fragrant pesto in the jar.  It turned out to be as forgiving as it was quick. The entire process required 2 pounds of spinach and 1 pound of basil to be ground with all the other ingredients.  I had to run it though in batches and none of them had the same ingredient ratios. Fortunately all the small batches were mixed together and it seemed to work.

Step by step images for making pesto

Actually it better than worked. It totally and completely ROCKED! The finished pesto sent an electric current up and down my spine. Vivid green, head swimmingly fragrant, spiked with garlic, brightened by flakes of salt, mellowed by the toasted seeds, and velvety smooth from the flakes of nutritional yeast. I had to sit down after I tasted it. After marveling for a moment I grabbed a handful of spoons and thrust tastes into the mouths of anyone within 50 feet.  I had little butterflies of joy dancing around in my stomach. A co-worker declared it the best pesto she had ever tasted, and assured me that she had tasted many others.

The silver lining on my cloud was not knowing how it would be received by the critics children. My solution was to send up bowls of plain pasta and a side of pesto.  This allowed for everyone to choose their own ratio of pesto to noodles.  It worked really well.  I actually think it reduced the fear factor of trying a new food.  Kids who wouldn’t have eaten a bowl of noodles with green sauce put a small dab on their plates and actually tasted the pesto.  Some chose to leave their pasta plain while others plopped a scoop of the pesto on top.  Many were excited to tell me later that they tried and liked the pesto.

The best part about keeping the pesto separated was the leftovers. I totally snagged a container of leftover pesto to bring home.  It made a great condiment for chicken salad sandwiches.

Grab some greens this weekend and whip up a batch of non-traditional pesto. It is a bit heavy on the calories so be mindful of the serving sizes. Keep some of your pesto handy, and next week I will share a couple of ways to use it that don’t include pasta.

Beyond Basil and Pine Nuts – What other non-traditional ingredients have you turned into pesto? Have a link to a recipe? Share it below!

Vegan Spinach Pesto

This recipe makes a rich velvety pesto vastly superior to what you might find in the supermarket. The amounts can be multiplied to make a larger batch but this volume is a good place to start if you haven’t tried making pesto before.  Keep it refrigerated in a jar to be used within a week, or freeze it in an ice cube tray.  Store the frozen cubes in a zip top bag to be used as needed for several months.  Makes approximately 2 cups of pesto.


  • 1/2 pound of baby spinach
  • 1/4 pound of basil
  • 3/4 c. olive oil (or a bit more for a thinner pesto)
  • a scant 1/2 cup of peeled whole garlic cloves
  • 2/3 cup nutritional yeast flakes (often found in the bulk section of a natural foods store)
  • 3/4 cup of unsalted sunflower seeds, toasted and cooled
  • 1/2 teaspoon coarse Kosher salt
  • 1/2 Tablespoon cracked black pepper (add more if desired)
  • *optional – a squirt of lemon juice will help the pesto keep its bright green color but may alter the flavor a bit.


  1. Assemble all the ingredients before beginning to blend them into pesto
  2. Comfortably fill the bowl of a food processor or blender with some of the spinach, basil, garlic, sunflower seeds, and nutritional yeast.
  3. Begin blending, adding the remaining ingredients and drizzling in the olive oil as the pesto reduces. The entire process should take a minute or two.
  4. It is finished with all the ingredients have become a uniform color and have a smooth texture.

Use immediately or refrigerate or freeze for later use.

Approximate Nutritional Information per 1 tablespoon: 85 calories, 8 g fat, 2 g carbs, 1 g fiber, 2 g protein, PP = 2

A schmear of pesto on a plate

A note about the images.  I made my own batch of this pesto at home using lemon basil and a bit of parsley from my garden.  The greens from my garden are featured in these photos. Good as this batch was, I prefer this recipe with traditional sweet basil.


  1. Love the idea of using spinich! Also, sunflower seeds since I assume they’re cheaper than pine nuts? I’ve seen a recipe using peas that I’d like to try sometime too.

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