5 Joyful Ways To Celebrate A Compassionate Thanksgiving (Beyond A Vegan Menu)

November 21, 2017

Turn your attention away from the table and veganize the holidays with compassionate actions

This year will be my fifth Thanksgiving as a vegan, a milestone I’m particularly proud of for a number of reasons. The first year I literally kept it a secret: I filled up my plate with the most benign dishes I knew to be “safe” and a few scoops of the ones that weren’t, just to keep up appearances. For once I was actually glad that I had been relegated to the kids’ table because fewer people would notice and feel compelled to comment on my choices. But I felt guilty and ashamed that I couldn’t comfortably express the decision I was so proud of, as well as that I couldn’t fully participate in the holiday I knew my family treasured so much.

Much progress has been made since then, and this year I was thrilled nearly to tears that I’m successfully introducing more vegan dishes than I can count on one hand—and even better, I’m confident they’ll even appeal to others. The mini plant-revolution I’m staging is just one thing I’m grateful for in a year of big change, regardless of whether the guests at my table will be cognizant of how they’re fueling my mission to cultivate greater mindfulness and compassion in the work I do and my overall presence in the world.

During all those earlier years, though, and for many vegans around the country, menu changes like mine may not be so easy to implement, or may even be impossible. Food is a major part of our cultural and personal identities, and threats to that can cause very strong reactions: just think of when your veganism is criticized or insulted and the feelings of hurt and frustration it may conjure. If this is the case for you, it doesn’t mean that your Thanksgiving can’t be vegan in other, non-food ways.

Identifying as a vegan means much more than what we eat or even what we wear and consume. It’s a lifestyle and mindset of compassion and sustainability, of respecting our collective worth and individual value. Finding off-menu ways to enact these values is a great exercise that’s applicable even beyond this holiday pregnant with meaning and expectation, and can even get you thinking about what and whom you’re grateful for in your life. Try these out at your upcoming gathering and you may be surprised by how well this vegan mentality is received—and may even lead to someone new trying a piece of hearty lentil loaf or vegan pie.

Serve sustainably: When entertaining many people at once and over several courses of food, it’s tempting to opt for the convenience of disposable dishware. (After our Thanksgiving meal, when all the guests have gone home, my mom and I are usually left with a literal war zone of leftovers and dirty dishes to sort, wash, and load into the dishwasher—the last thing either of us wants to do after preparing for days.) If you have the resources, serve your meal on washable dishes and make sure to pack up leftovers to avoid excess waste. Even if you don’t have a dozen-plus place settings in your home, there are plenty of reusable plastic brands that offer a great alternative to buying more real dishes; plus, you can pull them out again next year or at your next party.

Bring in nature: Remind people of the beautiful resources the Earth provides with natural decorations and accents. Dry leaves, acorns, pinecones, fresh flowers, and other foraged items can make for a festive tablescape. Encourage people to head outdoors as weather permits to soak in the change of seasons, which in a way reminds us of the constant turning over of nature and our own innate ability to grow and evolve (including perhaps toward plant-based eating ;)).


Educate, don’t indoctrinate: Many families have Thanksgiving traditions like watching movies or going on group walks to supplement (or offset!) the big feast. These are opportunities to have healthy, open conversations about things that you value, as long as you find the right way to deliver it. You may not want to pull up a PowerPoint of why veganism is the way to go, or stage a screening of a documentary like Food, Inc. or What the Health before others dig into a turkey, but holiday classics like It’s a Wonderful Life and How the Grinch Stole Christmas can provide similar, fun reminders of what we all need to value more—each other, and precious gift of life we’ve been given. If you have little kids in your cohort, you can also tell them the story of the first Thanksgiving—a story that highlights the coming together of two different cultures in a celebratory harvest, and one that was by today’s standards incredibly modest. Their joy at being able to cultivate the land is a reminder of how much sustenance—physical and emotional—we can derive from the soil and plants.

Be an example: This tip goes for most every situation in life, but being a walking billboard for veganism—i.e., radiating the peace and healthfulness that comes from the diet and mindset—will undoubtedly impact the tone of any scenario. When the inevitable row arises, instead of participating offer a more sympathetic, unbiased perspective on the situation; offer to lend a hand in the serving or, better yet, dish-washing process, and feel how that display of gratitude toward the meal you enjoyed is reciprocated.

Participate in Buy Nothing Day: Hand-in-hand with the post-Thanksgiving food hangover is the Black Friday shopping craze. DEALS DEALS DEALS you can’t afford to miss beckon from every screen and speaker. Recently, though, a counter-tradition supporting a move away from materialism is growing. Just as many stores are choosing to close their doors on Thanksgiving, and not force employees (and customers!) to stand like soldiers at the register at the expense of family time, you can choose to not participate in the sales at all. Instead of shopping, take time for self-care and genuine bonding—not to mention those better-the-next-day leftovers—after the pressure of the holiday is over. If you really can’t resist, consider shopping at local stores on Small Business Saturday, which supports your community as well as likely some artisanal and sustainable brands even as your purchases have virtually no carbon footprint (a big problem with online shopping). Invest your emotional capital in the marketplace of health and humanity, rather than your monetary capital in that of empty consumerism.

The key thing to remember as we enter the holiday season is how much impact small gestures can have on ourselves, on others, and on the world. Whether it’s the cornucopia of foliage that calls to mind the imminent danger of climate change, the alternative to a traditional dish that introduces new flavors and nourishment to your table, or the gesture of thanks in the form of a hug or hand-made gift, there are countless ways to emit a comforting, non-threatening, and bright vegan light among your friends and family.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Also by Jen: Ugh about Thanksgiving? How to Avoid a Political War with Family

Related: How To Plan an Awesome Meatless Thanksgiving Menu

5 Ways to Practice Gratitude and Thanksgiving

Get more like thisSubscribe to our daily inspirational newsletter for exclusive content!


Photos: Adobe Stock, Joanna Nix via Unsplash

More Stories

Features Editor Jennifer Kurdyla is a New York City girl with Jersey roots and a propensity for getting lost in the urban jungle. An experienced publishing professional, yoga instructor, home chef, sometimes-runner, and writer, she adopted a vegetarian lifestyle in 2008 and became vegan in 2013. She has written for The Harvard Review Online, The Rumpus, and Music & Literature and maintains a wellness-based website, Be Nourished, which features original writing and recipes. Follow her on Facebook, Instagram @jenniferkurdyla, Twitter @jenniferkurdyla, and Pinterest.


always stay inspired!