Family can be difficult to deal with at all times of the year, but it always seems to get particularly stressful around the holidays. It seems this is even more true when you are the only vegan in your carnivorous family, and food is suddenly the center of attention. I’m not sure why eating is such an important part of the holidays, but it just is.
When I was a kid, my favorite part of Thanksgiving was putting on a mini play for my family. I would force my younger brother into whatever low budget costumes I’d created and have him read lines from my latest holiday script. I often wonder if these classic gems are still filed away in a box somewhere in storage.
However, for everyone else in my family, the favorite part was eating the turkey that my father had spent half the day preparing. Of course, the further into my vegetarian (and now vegan) lifestyle I got, the less excited I was to celebrate in the festivities. And as my brother got older and more reluctant to perform my holiday plays, the holidays had lost most of the magic for me.
Holiday time went from being a time of celebration, to becoming a time for survival. I’ve learned a few tips along the way that I’m eager to share with you to help keep the peace with your non-vegan family.
1. Understand that Food is Comfort. Thanksgiving or Christmas day is not the time to try to convince your family that they should go vegan; they are not interested. This is the time they find customary for indulging and for many people, food is a source of comfort. If you try to take away that comfort on one of the days they most look forward to it, they are in the least likely place to be receptive. However, you could try a little gentle education leading up to Thanksgiving. Let them know that there are lots of yummy alternatives to turkey, like Field Roast, Tofurkey, and Gardein. Maybe even propose the idea of adopting a turkey from Farm Sanctuary instead of eating one this year.
2. Be Polite, Not Argumentative. If your efforts from tip number one have failed, be prepared for the carcass on the table, but don’t make a big deal about it. They will try to coax you into admitting that the turkey looks and smells good, and probably even offer you a piece. Just smile, and politely decline “no thanks.” I went vegetarian nearly two decades ago and I swear my family still thinks it’s a “phase” I’ll grow out of when a turkey breast is shoved tauntingly in my face. It’s not a phase, it’s my life, and I am not interested in your poor deceased dinner. Now pass me those creamy, garlicky, dairy free mashed potatoes I whipped up along with the mouth watering vegan gravy that seems to be going much quicker than the one with giblets in it.
3. Always Plan Ahead. If you’re traveling to be with your family for the holidays, be sure to plan ahead. I’ll usually have my dad drive me straight from the airport to the nearest supermarket, or natural foods store. If you won’t be able to stock the fridge as soon you arrive, be sure to send a shopping list in advance of some of your favorite staples – nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, fruits and veggies. Unless your family has some idea of what it means for something to be a “superfood,” keep the list simple and stick to what they know. Don’t overwhelm them with your need for less common items like goji berries, acai, chlorophyll, spirulina and camu camu and they are more likely to be willing to pick up anything you ask of them – even flax seeds and nutritional yeast!
4. Offer to Cook. How could your family and friends turn down the opportunity to take a break from the kitchen? Sure, there are some folks who will not relinquish culinary control, but even offering to make a few healthier, plant-based dishes will contribute greatly. For Christmas last year, I volunteered to make the entire meal and my family was more than happy to oblige. I prepared some of my favorite dishes, including pilaf stuffed squash, butternut squash soup, and sweet potato pie, and was sure to make plenty so that there were leftovers for days!
5. Familiarize Yourself with Vegan Friendly Restaurants. If your family is coming to you, this one is easy because you are in the driver’s seat (perhaps, literally) and can choose where to eat when you’re not cooking. If you’re going to them, it’s a bit more of a challenge because they often have their favorites and will want to stick with what they know. These restaurants may not work for you and lead to contention and conviction that your lifestyle is too difficult to accommodate. Instead, use it as a perfect opportunity to convince them to try something new. Ethnic restaurants, like Thai, Middle Eastern and Indian, are usually great options because they naturally have a lot of items that are or can easily be made vegan. Chain restaurants like Panera Bread, Chipotle and P.F. Chang’s are familiar and popping up everywhere. Vegan Eating Out and Happy Cow are great resources for discovering veg friendly restaurants by location.