Thanksgiving is a time where families gather together to catch up, show gratitude and, more often than not, gorge themselves on a giant, roasted hunk of bird.
For vegetarians and vegans, Thanksgiving can be a time of stress. Since so many holiday celebrations are food-centric, the day can seem like an endless loop of the phrase “does this have animal ingredients in it?”
Even the most supportive families might not have a clue how to cater to their veggie family members on turkey day, so while tempting, it’s not the time to educate them on the intricacies of maintaining a veggie diet. Instead, it’s up to us to make the day survivable without taking part in the gobbling of meat-based dishes.
Here are seven tips for making it through Thanksgiving in one piece without compromising your lifestyle or upsetting your family members.
Mention Dietary Needs Ahead of Time
Your family is not made up of mind readers, so don’t expect them to know your exact needs unless you communicate them. The best time to communicate that you need some vegetarian or vegan options is well in advance of Thanksgiving.
You might have to explain your needs and be specific. For example, many people don’t know that gelatin and marshmallows aren’t vegan-friendly, so requesting that they leave these ingredients out of the sweet potatoes so you can eat them isn’t that out of line.
Approach your host in private before they do their food shopping and give suggestions if asked. Some people are more open to suggestion than others. Don’t expect them to cater a five-course vegan meal for you, but asking that they omit adding certain non-veggie-friendly ingredients to the occasional side dish is a great compromise for everyone.
Help with Food Prep
Thanksgiving is a busy time, especially for the hosts. If you’re requesting special accommodations in order to eat with your family, offer to help with food prep. Not only does this lighten the load for your host, but it also helps you see what ingredients are going into which dishes. By helping with food prep, you might even have a little say in whether items are veggie-friendly or not. For example, if you’re preparing beans as a side, you can leave out the pork trimmings in a portion or two in order to make it veggie friendly.
If your host doesn’t want anyone under foot in the kitchen, offer to help with clean up later in exchange for their offering some veggie-safe options. Doing dishes, taking out the trash or clearing the table all help the host and are tasks you can complete to show your willingness to pitch in.
Bring a Dish (or Two)
Take some of the pressure off of your host by offering to bring one or two of your specialties. Oven space is cramped during Thanksgiving preparations, so make your dish ahead and bring it with you. At most, it might just need to be warmed up.
Make enough to share. Many vegan one-dish main courses make excellent side dishes for non-vegans. People are always curious about new foods and will probably want to sample your dish. For example, you could bring a hearty cranberry and quinoa casserole to use as your main dish with enough left over to give everyone else a taste of some delicious veggie cooking.
Load Up On Side Dishes
Some of the best Thanksgiving side dishes are naturally vegetarian. Butternut squash and pumpkins are in season, providing some delicious options. Sweet potatoes, roasted garlic, flaky pastries and baguettes, corn, mashed potatoes and green beans are all great options for vegetarians.
Since many Thanksgiving foods are homemade, it’s easier to determine if there are any hidden animal-derived ingredients. It never hurts to ask your host what’s in a dish if you’re unsure and if you really like it, you might go home with a new recipe or two.
Bring Your Own Alternatives
If you really want the full experience, consider bringing some veggie turkey deli meat and slather it in mushroom gravy for a vegetarian Thanksgiving treat. When bringing veggie alternatives to Thanksgiving dinner, try to bring items that don’t need a lot of prep work. Remember: the oven and kitchen resources are at their limit as the host works on the bulk of the meal. If you can, cook or warm up your food beforehand and bring it to your host’s home in a thermal bag or sleeve to keep it warm.
If your items need to be warmed up and there’s no way around it, crock pots and slow cookers are your friend, as they only require an outlet to use. You may even be able to get away with using the microwave for a few minutes.
Leave the Discussions at the Door
Thanksgiving is not the time to proselytize. If you’re eating dinner with meat-eaters, don’t preach about the virtues, dietary benefits or ethical reasons for vegetarianism or veganism. Don’t go into a diatribe on factory farming or how the turkey was raised or slaughtered. It’s not just bad form: it’s downright rude.
Think about how upset you’d be if someone came to your house and started nay-saying the food you’d spent hours preparing; the same goes for meat-eaters. Save the philosophical discussions and explanations for another time.
If someone genuinely asks about vegetarianism or veganism, keep the discussion short, polite and to the point. You can always give a more in-depth answer or details later, in private.
Remember that Food Isn’t the Point
Look, it sucks to feel left out on a holiday when everyone around you is enjoying food and the company of others. But the food isn’t the actual point of Thanksgiving — being with those you care about and sharing thanks for the good things in life is. If you can, focus on the real meaning of Thanksgiving and let the food be an afterthought. Eat what you can, enjoy the time you spend with your family and then treat yourself to your favorite veggie dish when you return home. You might not leave with a full belly, but you’ll leave with a full heart.
Navigating a Thanksgiving feast with meat-eaters is often no easy feat for vegetarians and vegans, but it can be done. If all else fails, offer to host. Most people would jump at the chance to relax and spend the day away from the oven, even if it means eating a meat-free feast.