A Vegan Guide to Surviving a Carnivorous Thanksgiving

At the age of 15, I decided to go vegetarian after a Civics class screening of Robert Kenner's gut-wrenching 2008 documentary Food Inc. I quit a few weeks later when my mom waved a quarter-chicken dinner from Swiss Chalet (a famous Canadian “delicacy”), still in its plastic takeout container, in front of me. I folded like a house of cards.

At that age I didn't buy my own groceries, I didn’t cook, and I knew next to nothing about nutrition. Now that I’m older and wiser, I realize that if your loved ones don't understand or support your dietary restrictions, family meals and get-togethers can be disastrous.

In the two years that I've been vegan, my immediate family has become a lot more accepting – not to mention accommodating – of my lifestyle. That doesn't mean there haven't been hiccups along the way. For example, there was a memorable Christmas dinner at my grandparents’ retirement home, which for me consisted of a small plate of fresh fruit and a lot of red wine (bless the open bar). Or the holiday buffet where my cousin (bless her heart) prepared roasted vegetables specifically for me -- but then drenched them with butter. I had to skip the veggies and drank red wine instead.

So it shouldn't be a surprise that my first piece of advice on flying solo as the only vegan at your Thanksgiving dinner is this: When in doubt, replace food with wine. It gives you something to do with your hands; it gives anti-vegans less to comment on passive-aggressively; and it makes the whole watching-others-eat-while-listening-to-mundane-conversation a lot more bearable.

What to do when you're the guest...

Talk to your host. Whether it’s a relative, friend or co-worker – in advance to let them know you are vegan. Confirm whether you should eat before coming; bring some vegan-friendly food from home with you; or if they'll throw you a bone (no pun intended) and make a few plant-based dishes for everybody to enjoy. As long as you talk to your host and give them fair warning, a compromise should be possible. Communication is crucial at this point, because their idea of “vegan” might be different than yours. For example, I have no idea why but a lot of people assume I eat eggs. Let your host know that you can’t eat stuffing if it contains chicken broth, or gravy if it contains milk powder, etc.

Be respectful. Remember that you've been invited into someone’s home. As strongly as you feel about being vegan -- and I'm right there with you -- the pro/con debates can wait until after the meal or, even better, another day. There's a time and place for everything. Don't target someone who’s eating meat and say something that will insult them. Not everyone shares your beliefs – especially the older generation. No matter how right you are about all things vegan, you don't want to end up guilt-tripping a loved one and ruining their holiday.

When your host is carving the turkey, take a few deep breaths. Try your best to temporarily desensitize yourself: Look away and make small talk with a fellow guest. If seeing the carcass is a trigger, you can always leave the room until your host has finished carving and food has been served. Or you can socialize with everybody before dinner and then eat your meal in another room – but check with your host beforehand or you may be throwing a monkey wrench into her seating plan. Or you can stay at the table, relax and focus on the conversation. Remember: You don’t have to do or sit through anything if you're truly uncomfortable.

If someone asks you why you aren’t eating what everybody else is, calmly explain that you aren’t trying to be rude – it’s just because of your dietary restrictions.

What to do when you're the chef...

“Veganize” traditional favorites to soften the blow for your carnivorous guests and help them realize that vegans don't miss out on anything! Luckily some of the most common Thanksgiving side dishes, such as mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce, are vegan by default. Throw in a tofurkey and they’ll never know the difference.

Let guests know in advance that, as a vegan, you won’t be serving any animal-derived dishes. Remind them that they can survive one meal without meat!

What to do at a potluck...

First, find out if any other vegans are attending and co-ordinate your meals accordingly! If you’re the only vegan invited, make sure the dish you prepare is one that you love and will fill you up, and think about making more than one dish. Don’t bring a vegan pumpkin pie, for example, unless you want to eat nothing but dessert all night.

Make something that everybody can enjoy. Potlucks are a great way to expose your carnivorous friends to something new – and show them how amazing vegan food can be. Need some ideas? Try butternut squash risotto, sweet potato mash, mushroom gravy or kale Caesar salad, which are – hey, would you look at that? – conveniently located on my Thanksgiving recipe post over at Vegan Girlfriend

So, this Thanksgiving holiday, remember to keep calm and don’t stress! As long as you plan your options in advance and wear elastic-waist pants the day of, it’s all gravy (pun intended this time).

Cover image illustrated by Megan Stulberg for Selva Beat.

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