The Veg Holiday Survival Guide

Once I hit my teens, I spent most holiday dinners in my room, giving my turkey to the cat. I hated the relatives who came over, hated the joviality, and wasn’t going to be pleasant or social if it killed me. (Oh, teenagers.) But I have to say, the loneliest and hardest Christmas dinner I’ve ever experienced was the one I spent with only my immediate family plus my sister’s boyfriend the year I stopped eating meat. My dad hated my boyfriend, so he wasn’t invited.  That left me the only vegetarian at a table full of meat enthusiasts. My mother didn’t bother to prepare a vegetarian main dish, so I picked at green beans on the far end of the table while everyone else dug into the ham. I never felt so rejected in my life. 

My parents were, shall we say, unenthused about my decision to go vegetarian. I can’t blame them; both grew up in poverty where an egg was a special occasion and meat happened a few times a year, on very special occasions. My dad, in particular, still associates meat with having made it in this country; being able to provide meat to his family was a mark of his success and hard work. To have his daughter voluntarily reject that ideology and the culture it came from must have been rough.

Anyway. That was the main underlying experience behind my sentiment that one of the prices of vegetarianism (even more so veganism) is social and cultural. I’ve come to recognize that my parents won’t accommodate my vegetarianism, so it’s my responsibility to do what I can to make the whole holiday socializing thing bearable (when I absolutely can’t get out of it). Assuming you like people, you may be more willing to put effort into the following suggestions. And please, by all means, add to the list!

The Vegetarian/Vegan Holiday Survival Guide

  • Make sure your hosts know your dietary restrictions well in advance. Especially if they’re having a lot of people over, it’s possible they will forget. Don’t be obnoxious about it, but do mention it.
  • Decide how strict you’re going to be. There are three types of vegetarian dinner guest: 1) the type who tells the host beforehand that marshmallows, wine, and many brands of cane sugar are not vegan; 2) the type who asks about everything at the table; or 3) the type who compromises out of politeness and avoids what she can and doesn’t attempt an emetic after finding out there were marshmallows in the sweet potatoes.
  • Have a list of tasty possible recipes to suggest if your hosts ask what they can make you instead.
  • Express gratitude for any effort to accommodate you. Realize that you are, in fact, requiring them to put in more effort and time.
  • Offer to bring a dish. Make it a really good one so you can make a point that meatless food is, in fact, tasty and satisfying.
  • Host the meal yourself and treat your guests to an awesome meat-free meal filled with the vegetable bounty of the season.
  • Bring a fellow vegetarian for company. If all else fails and there’s nothing you can eat, at least you won’t be alone.

And just a handful of don’ts to keep in mind:

  • Don’t attempt to educate your fellow diners at the table on the cruelty implicit in their Thanksgiving turkey. It’s not gracious, it’s not good form, and it’s not likely to do you or your cause any good. Besides, they’re the ones with the carving knives.
  • Don’t think that it’s up to other people how well the evening goes. The work you put into it (or not) makes a huge amount of difference.
  • Don’t take this opportunity to remark on how surprising it is to you that all meat now smells like cat food to you. Even if it does.
  • Don’t give up on dining with omnivores. Although vegetarianism/veganism can be the basis of friendships, I’d like to think that the people I love and respect are more than their dietary choices.

Well, any horrific holiday experiences with omnivores to share? More tips? Bring it on!


5 responses to this post.

  1. Hey Jennifer, sorry to hear about the unwelcome conditions. I couldn’t put up the fight you did (I definitely admire your efforts), though at the same time my vegetarianism didn’t receive quite as much animosity. It’s true, the price of vegetarianism is social and cultural. Sometimes I bend my rules for the sake of culture + society. I justify it as paying my dues to the culture that brought me to life and health.

    For economic reasons, if I eat the occasional piece of turkey on Thanksgiving, that won’t kill the vegetarian agenda, and I can seem somewhat diplomatic about my efforts. I’m fortunate that my parents don’t reject my choice outright, though they don’t support it. After some time of arguing about it, they finally are okay with accomodating my diet, to a certain extent. I told them it was out of respect for me.

    I’m glad you wrote about this, as many vegetarians try to not talk about the emotional upsets with family and friends.

    Hopefully your family will come to understand that it’s simply a personal choice for you. Explaining your position might help a little bit, so they understand you’re not rejecting their hard work for your personal ideals. I tell people I don’t support factory farms, and that generally makes sense to a lot of people.


    • I think it’s great you’ve worked out compromises that work for you and your family. After a couple years, my parents realized that this wasn’t a phase I was going through, and my more open-minded mother even had Tofurkey with Kevin and me one Thanksgiving, since she was outnumbered 2 to 1. 🙂 (We all thought it was kinda gross, though.) Since Kevin and I got married, I’m at least not the only vegetarian at the table anymore.

      I also compromise on some things. Once or twice a year, I’ll go down to Monterey with my friend and partake of our tradition of getting awesome clam chowder in a bread bowl on the wharf. It was one of the few things I didn’t think I could give up, and I’ve realized that I don’t need to just to live up to a label 100% of the time.


  2. Posted by karen on 10/18/2010 at 11:47

    OMG! I am in the middle of writing a post on this. How timely.

    I recently became a vegetarian – still learning about what’s in what in foods. I had no idea that marshmallows and jello are NOT vegetarian! Horror!!

    But I do feel the ‘stares’ and hear ‘whispers’ in the room when I visit relatives now. And I totally agree that you still have to keep omnivores as friends. Otherwise, I’d be left with no one to share my meals with.

    Thanks for the post.


    • Hi Karen, good to see you here! My relatives think I’m a freak, too. (I have to confess that they have always thought I was a freak, pre-vegetarian days.) Must be an Asian thing. I’m so glad to hear you’re sticking with vegetarianism. Let me know how your holidays go, and maybe we can update this post on surviving them!


  3. Hi Jennifer – I’m really fortunate … my family has totally supported our decision to adopt a vegetarian diet. In the beginning, they were curious … skeptical but curious. Now they pride themselves in coming up with wonderful vegetarian meals to surprise us with … they even incorporate meatless meals into their diet when we’re not around. yay!

    I was once invited to a friend’s house for dinner. They tried to accommodate me but, since they really knew nothing about a vegetarian diet and truly didn’t care about it, my only option at their table was a very plain lettuce salad. I appreciated that they made any effort at all but I also learned a new strategy that day … if it’s “ify” that there will be enough vegetarian options at the table … eat before going to the event. Then your stomach won’t be growling as you enjoy the social aspect of dining together.

    Oh … btw … if you want to buy a really great holiday “turkey” … try the Celebration Roast from Field Roast. It is beyond good!!


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