Let Compassion Rule at Your Holiday Table

VT's guide to good veg etiquette throughout the holiday season
Compassion Matters

Amber Scott and her husband, Mack Thomas, of Lexington, Ky., are both vegetarians, but when it comes to holiday gatherings, they're in the minority. "In the South, being a vegetarian is a little like being an alien," says Scott. "One Thanksgiving early on in our vegetarianism, we didn't take a piece of turkey when my mother-in-law offered it to us. When we responded with, 'No, thanks. We don't eat meat,' she said, 'This is turkey. It isn't meat!'"

The holiday season is prime time for enjoying traditional recipes —often tied to sentimental family customs—that may or may not be easy to vegify. For vegetarians, the season is often ornamented with awkward conversations; the diet preferences of vegetarians and omnivores are as different as oil and vinegar.

But even more precious than communing over food, the holidays are a time for friends and family to convene in good spirits, which means treating our dearests with love and respect despite our differences, including our diet choices.

Read on for VT's tried-and-true advice on good veg etiquette. With the tips on these pages, keeping the peace between omnies and veggies during the holiday season is as easy as mixing oil and vinegar into a delicious vinaigrette.

Rethinking "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" Should veggies always disclose their diet ahead of time? While you might fear that the host may perceive the divulgence as a request to go out of his or her way to prepare additional, plant-based dishes, vocalizing your vegetarianism well in advance is, hands down, the polite thing to do: "The host is creating a meal that he or she wants you to enjoy—so the respectful thing for you to do is help make that happen," says Barbara Unell of Leawood, Kan., a vegetarian for 26 years whose family includes both veggies and omnies. What's the most mindful way to break the news? If you'll be eating at someone's home, Scott says, "Explain that you're a vegetarian and that you'd be more than happy to bring a dish if they'd like you to. This will let them know your dietary preferences without being demanding or high maintenance."

Vegetarians beware: some people's understanding of the term "vegetarian" may not match yours—so, be sure to mention the specifics of what you do and do not eat. Will you be dining out? If so, Rory Freedman, author of Skinny Bitch, suggests calling the restaurant in advance so they'll be ready for you. Special menu alert: many restaurants have limited menus for the holidays.

Happy Herbivore blogger Lindsay Nixon (happyherbivore.com) found herself faced with this dilemma one Thanksgiving while on vacation with her husband and in-laws. None of the special menus offered by restaurants catered to her vegan diet: "I ended up asking the waiter to bring me a plain baked potato and steamed green beans without butter. It may not have been the most elaborate meal, but it was something." Luckily, on the way back to the hotel, she found mango sorbet and "all was well with the world."

"Meat"ing in the Middle Should a vegetarian host serve meat or allow meat to be brought into his or her home? Many veggies have mixed opinions on this very personal choice. "I have a no animal products policy in my home. If allowing animal products into your home is something that you're not comfortable with, you should absolutely express that to your guests and explain why," Freedman says.

Nixon echoes those same sentiments: "My guests are free to eat how they choose in their own homes, but my home is vegetarian." Other vegetarians are open to the idea. When it comes to traditional holiday feasts such as Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, or Christmas, Scott thinks traditional foods should be served: "Part of what makes these holidays so precious for some people is Auntie's sausage balls or Grandma's chicken casserole. If you take those away abruptly, the sentiment may be lost. That said, there's always room for a vegetarian dish to become a holiday staple as well, or to even take the place of a meaty holiday staple. It's all about the quiet revolution." Scott's mother, Debra Hensley, agrees that veggies shouldn't prepare or serve meat if it violates their personal beliefs. Yet, she does think vegetarians "serve themselves and their friends well to be open-minded about the diversity of humanity," she says. "Meat brought into your home by friends or family should be served as the gift that it is to those who enjoy eating it." If the discussion on whether or not meat will be served heats up, vegetarian Kathryn Pope of Los Angeles suggests "meating" in the middle by going to a restaurant, where veggies and omnies can eat as they wish.

Table Talk As plates are passed and vegetarians pass on meat dishes, the subject of vegetarianism is bound to come up, especially if there are any veg-curious newcomers at the party—be it a neighbor, a cousin's girlfriend, or even an elderly relative whose memory isn't so sharp. So, is a holiday get-together a good time to talk about vegetarianism? The answer depends on who's talking. "If someone asked me about it during a holiday party I'd talk about it, but I wouldn't bring it up," says Nixon. "I'm of the mind that the holidays are for fun and rejoicing, and vegetarianism can be a hot-and-heavy topic, not far from religion or politics.

Feel out the crowd before opening the floor to debate," suggests Healthy Voyager blogger Carolyn Scott (healthyvoyager.com). On the other hand, Freedman views table talk as an opportunity, "It's always a good time to talk about vegetarianism as long as the conversation is handled in a diplomatic and conscientious way. You can get your point across without being a bully." Amber Scott agrees: "Don't preach the vegetarian gospel. As much as you don't want to be converted into a meat eater during dinner, meat eaters don't want to be lectured either."

Keeping the Peace Here are some last words of wisdom on savoring the joy of the holiday season despite dietary differences. Remember: keeping the peace between omnies and veggies is as easy as 1-2-3!

1. Compromise If your dearests are truly divided on issues of diet, Freedman suggests, "Make a deal: for Thanksgiving go to the meat-eaters' house, and for Christmas, they can come to your house. And agree not to discuss it."

2. Judge not "Keeping things lighthearted really does make a difference. It's often when people feel judged that things get uncomfortable," says Pope.

3. Let go "Keeping the peace is really about letting things go," Amber Scott says. "Let it go if your uncle makes a comment about your 'picky' eating habits. Let it go if your vegetarian niece makes a gagging sound as she walks past the carved-up turkey. Love the ones you're with, and respect their lifestyles regardless of their dietary choices." Now that you're well versed in veg etiquette, pass these pages around to your friends and family. To share your own advice and see what others have to say, become a fan of Vegetarian Times on Facebook and join the "Veg Etiquette Tips" discussion.

Omnivore dos and don'ts "DO clearly identify meat dishes, especially if the meat is hidden. A little place card with an ingredient list will go a long way. Vegetarians are used to reading ingredients lists," says Amber Scott. DO try simple vegetarian substitutions when preparing favorite holiday recipes. For example, stuffing made with vegetable broth instead of chicken broth will delight the entire crowd. DO pay as much attention to preparing veggie dishes as you do meat dishes.

"DON'T say something cavalier like, 'I could never be vegetarian,' or 'Oh, I love meat,' " says Rory Freedman.

"DON'T carve the bird or the ham in the center of the table. Instead, set up a carving table off to the side of the dining room or in the kitchen. Keep it accessible but also avoidable to make everyone happy," says Scott.

"DON'T express worry or apologize that the veggie will not be able to eat everything at the meal," says Barbara Unell.

Vegetarian dos and don'ts

"DO give a brief, honest answer when asked why you stopped eating animals," says Rory Freedman.

DO offer to bring a vegetarian dish that's ample enough to share.

DO plan a pre- or postholiday vegetarian potluck with other veggies in addition to your traditional holiday plans.

DON'T get preachy about vegetarianism.

DON'T be surprised if omnivores are hesitant to dig in to dishes with unfamiliar ingredients, such as tofu, tempeh, or mock meats.

"DON'T make comments about your nausea at seeing a bird corpse being hacked away at. It may make you squeamish, but it's something that some people drool over. Respect the tastes of others and you'll be more likely to receive their respect for yours," says Amber Scott.