You Eat What?

Etiquette for Vegetarians

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Millions of people have chosen a vegetarian diet, and that means eating with friends and colleagues has the potential to be a less-than-palatable experience. Add food worries to the usual pressures of a social function—whether it’s a grand-scale wedding, corporate party or even an informal get-together—and stress levels escalate. In more than 30 years’ experience as a vegetarian, I’ve often been asked how to handle some of these delicate social situations. If you find yourself in a social setting that calls for tact, here are some tactics you can use to make both you and your host feel appreciated.

When I’m invited to someone’s home for dinner, do I tell them I’m a vegetarian?

“It’s presumptuous to expect someone to make two menus,” says etiquette expert Letitia Baldridge, former chief of staff for former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy. So explain to your host that you are a vegetarian as soon as you receive the invitation, and then offer to bring a dish or two to share with guests. You’ll not only be certain to enjoy a meal you can eat, but you’ll give guests a chance to see how wonderful vegetarian fare can be.

What if my host doesn’t realize I’m a vegetarian and serves a dish that contains meat or meat-based stock in it?

Although it isn’t always possible to explain to your host beforehand what dishes or ingredients you choose not to eat, it’s important to not place your host in an awkward situation. If your host serves a dish that’s verboten, either politely say, “No, thank you,” when the dish is offered, or simply say nothing and eat those dishes you can. You can always fill up when you get home. Or you could do what etiquette expert Judith “Miss Manners” Martin suggests: the artful technique of cover-up. “Mess up your plate. Cut the contraband into small pieces, then camouflage them with a slice of bread, a lettuce leaf or even mashed potatoes.” It may not be good manners to play with your food, but it would be a more serious breach of etiquette to offend your host.

What if my host didn’t know I’m a vegetarian and insists on making me something else at the last minute?

The most important thing is to put your host at ease by either suggesting an easy alternative—such as a salad or a piece of cheese to go with your roll—or insisting that you’re more interested in his or her delightful company than any dish served.

What do you tell people who don’t know what to cook for a vegetarian?

Many people worry needlessly about cooking vegetarian fare, yet they’re comfortable cooking something familiar that contains no meat. You might suggest such favorite Italian foods as pasta and pizza. Other good choices are Chinese stir-fry with rice or Mexican beans, rice, tortillas and cheese—all popular with the meat-eating crowd and vegetarians alike. And salads and vegetables are always a hit.

What if I’ve explained what I can eat and still am served only a baked potato and salad?

In my 30 years as a vegetarian, some members of my family still think of meat as the center of the meal and serve vegetable side dishes, which is what they offer me. Expecting this, I usually offer to bring a vegetarian main dish—I feel satisfied, and everyone is happy. No matter how paltry the offerings, focus on the positives, Baldridge urges: “You may tell them you’re having such a great time with the rice and peas, or you’re going to eat half the salad bowl or even that the rolls are so delicious, you’re going to eat three of them.”

What if I’m asked to a barbecue or pig roast where meat is the main event?

If the idea of attending is not appealing, simply decline the offer by saying you have other plans. If you want to attend for social reasons, be prepared to eat the slaw and potato salad. Or provide for yourself by taking along marinated vegetables and tofu, veggie burgers or veggie hotdogs—simply wrap them in foil and cook them along with the host’s main dish. This way you can participate in the fun, yet your food is not exposed to the grilled meat.

What should I do if I’m hosting an event?

You can serve up a meal that will satisfy the taste buds of your guests as well as your own sensibilities. Start by finding out what your guests want to eat. Do they have dietary restrictions? Or create a buffet, which gives guests a variety of dishes to choose from. Serve meat only if you’re comfortable doing so. If you’re not comfortable serving meat, tell your guests ahead of time that they’ll be getting the best vegetarian meal they’ve ever had. The idea will be irresistible.

How do I explain why I choose to be a vegetarian?

Discussing diet is always in bad taste, says Baldridge, but it’s often an unavoidable topic. If people are truly curious, try to intuit the level of interest before going into details that might make some people uneasy. You might also recommend books on the subject.

What if people tease me or are rude or persistent with questions about my diet?

I’ve never had a truly rude confrontation over being a vegetarian, but I have endured some teasing. If changing the subject doesn’t work, I look the person in the eye and tell them that it is my choice to be a vegetarian, to lead the kind of lifestyle that I am leading, and that I am happy and healthy doing so. This usually satisfies even the most persistent of folk.

My children are vegetarian. What do I do when they’re invited to a party?

When my children were younger and were invited to a friend’s house to play, for a birthday party or a sleepover, I always explained to the host parents our family’s eating habits and asked them if they’d like me to pack meals for my children or send along a dish all the children could enjoy such as pasta or salad. If the host kindly declined my offer, I might have suggested they serve easy, convenient foods that most kids like such as pizza and PB&J or cheese sandwiches.

What if people question my decision to raise my children vegetarian?

Strangers think I’m depriving my two now-teenage daughters because they’ve never tasted meat, fish or fowl, but I explain that I’m adding to, rather than subtracting from, their lives by making them healthier. I also add that once the girls are old enough to make the choice themselves, they may decide to eat meat or fish.

As the lone vegetarian in my office, how do I handle office parties or business meals where meat is served?

If it is a prearranged party, offer to help with the planning. If dining at a restaurant, call ahead to find out what vegetarian dishes the restaurant offers or tell the maître d’ in advance that you’re a vegetarian and ask for advice. When dining with clients or your boss, recommend restaurants whose menus will appeal to everyone. Even today’s steakhouses offer a number of salads and meatless side selections.

Can you recommend a book on etiquette for vegetarians?
Vegan and Vegetarian FAQ: Answers to Frequently Asked Questions by the Vegetarian Resource Group offers interesting facts and information. OK, So Now You’re a Vegetarian: Advice and 100 Recipes from One Vegetarian to Another, written by teenager Lauren Butts, provides advice to other kids who have chosen to become vegetarians.

I’m just beginning to follow a vegetarian diet. Can you recommend cookbooks with good meatless recipes and information?
Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison is like The Joy of Cooking for vegetarians. Another book I use often is Rebecca Wood’s The New Whole Foods Encyclopedia, in which she gives the lowdown on every type of plant food and why we should or shouldn’t eat it. The Clueless Vegetarian: A Cookbook for Aspiring Vegetarians by Evelyn Raab offers easy-to-follow recipes. Vegetarian Times’ Vegetarian Beginner’s Guide: Everything You Need to Know to Be a Healthy Vegetarian is a terrific resource for recipes, nutrition advice and etiquette tips. And, of course, each month VT provides many recipes for great meatless meals.

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