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Happy Thanksvegging

A guide to getting through the holiday without eating meat or losing your mind.

Illustration by Dylan.

Illustration by Dylan.

I stopped eating meat when I was 13. I’d been boycotting animal-tested products for about three years, after seeing a Degrassi Junior High episode about animals used in experiments. Then two of my closest friends became vegetarians for ethical reasons, and a few conversations with them about their decision started to make me feel like a hypocrite for eating chickens, cows, and pigs while I was boycotting cosmetic companies for conducting tests on monkeys, mice, and rabbits. I decided to try going veg, and I haven’t looked back for two decades.

My parents took my new diet in stride. My mother made most of our meals, and she made sure to have a bean dish or macaroni and cheese for me when they were having oven-roasted chicken or steak. Then, at the beginning of my senior year, I read The Sexual Politics of Meat by Carol Adams and Animal Liberation by Peter Singer, both of which connected the way people treat and oppress other humans to the way we treat animals. I didn’t want to be a part of any animal’s suffering for any reason, even if that meant giving up eggs and cheese. I went vegan, and that wasn’t as easy for my family to grasp. For months all I ate at home was pasta and salad, because my mother didn’t know what else to make for me. “I don’t know what you’re going to do about Thanksgiving,” she said. “You’ll have to figure that out.”

As of this year, I will have spent half of my Thanksgivings as a vegan, and I’ve learned a lot about making it and other holiday dinners more comfortable, and even enjoyable. If you’re vegan, vegetarian, or transitioning into vegetarianism, there are some things that have helped me that I think could also help you get through the holiday season without sacrificing delicious food or your sanity.

1. Defend yourself without getting defensive.

During my first few months of veganism, I had numerous late-night debates in diners with my meat-eating friends about the merits of not eating animal products. These usually started when I asked the server a question about whether the pie contained dairy products, or when the immature dudes I hung out with at the time made oinking or clucking sounds as they ate their bacon and eggs. Mostly it was light-hearted teasing, but sometimes I got self-righteous and they got antagonistic, which was not fun. I basically avoided talking to anyone that first Thanksgiving because I didn’t want to get into any arguments.

Since then I’ve mellowed out. I still feel as compassionate toward animals and as strongly about not contributing to their pain or suffering, but I know now that this is my own personal choice. I can’t make everyone be like me, especially because I hate it when anyone tries to make me be like them. Riding into Thanksgiving dinner on a high horse (for whatever reason) isn’t a great idea. Instead, be prepared to answer the inevitable questions about what you will or won’t eat in a way you can feel proud of.

2. Be ready to answer, or deflect, annoying questions.

I know all too well how annoying it is to be constantly asked things like “How can you possibly get enough protein/calcium/nutrient-everyone-assumes-only-comes-from-animals?” When I first went vegan, I got these questions a lot. Sometimes I still do. I try to take a deep breath and remind myself that most of the time people, especially relatives, are approaching me out of genuine concern or curiosity.

When someone asks, “But…what do you eat?” I usually rattle off a list of my favorite foods: bean burritos, veggie curry, veggie chili, mac and “cheese” made with tofu and nutritional yeast, and jambalaya. I want people to know that my life is filled with food that, despite what they may have assumed, really does taste good. Last year, after we’d talked about my veg preferences, my sister-in-law made a mashed potato recipe that substituted cauliflower for milk.

If I’m not in the mood to go that deep into what I consume (or I can tell the person is trying to be a dick because they’re hounding me with increasingly judgmental statements like, “Oh, no wonder you have a cold”), I’ll say something like, “It would be easier to tell you what I don’t eat,” and will run through the basic no meat, no eggs, no dairy. These are the same kinds of people who tend to verbally poke vegetarians with rude observations like, “But you’re wearing leather shoes! That’s so hypocritical,” or “Oh, this is just a phase you’re going through,” or, a classic, “Do you think you’re better than us because we’re eating turkey?”

Generally, I try to respond to all of these arguments with something like, “This is my personal choice. I’m not trying to force it on you, and I’d appreciate it if you’d have the same respect for me.” But again, if you’re feeing patient, you can break down your beliefs for them in a calm manner. If someone tries to guilt you with, “Come on, it’s the holidays. Enjoy a meal with your family,” for example, tell them that you are there to enjoy a meal—yours is just slightly different than theirs and would be more enjoyable if they could just let that go.

3. Do your research.

For questions about nutrition, it helps to come prepared. A book called The China Study goes through a lot of research (conducted through Cornell University) connecting plant-based diets to lowered risks for heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. I’ve also learned a lot from Joanne Stepaniak’s Vegan Sourcebook, which has helpful vegan nutrition charts listing specific nutrients and the plant-based food sources that provide them.

When pressed on the protein question, I like to inform people that a cup of lentils has 18 grams of protein and a half-cup of tofu can have as much as 20. Also, we don’t need even close to as much protein as most people think we do! The CDC recommends 46 grams a day for teen girls and adult women. Using lentils and tofu as examples again, you’re almost there with one serving of each.

4. Bring your own food.

Even though no one in my family was truly awful to me about my vegetarian lifestyle, I still dreaded my first few Thanksgivings as a vegan. I had a chip on my shoulder because, back then, no one other than my grandpa—a former baker who seemed genuinely interested in learning about vegan substitutes so he could try to make me some desserts—ever offered to cook for me or expressed much interest in what I liked, food-wise. (I hadn’t yet followed my own advice and told them what I like to eat. That probably would have helped!)

On Thanksgiving Day, while everyone else was feasting on an amazing buffet, I was choking down faux-turkey sandwiches and instant mashed potatoes made with water and vegan margarine, both of which I had to bring myself. This was especially hurtful because when I went to my friends’ houses, their families went out of their way for me and made some sort of vegan dish like a stir-fry.

I realize two things now: One, families are generally more accommodating to guests than they are with one of their own. Two, I was being a huge baby. There were usually 15 to 20 people at our family’s Thanksgiving meal, and I wasn’t special—why did I expect people to bend over backwards to accommodate me? I was not bringing much to the table. Literally. My food totally sucked compared to everyone else’s, but I had made and served that food to myself. I needed to learn to cook.

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32 Comments

  • TinyWarrior November 15th, 2013 3:20 PM

    I’ve been a strict vegetarian since I was 12, and and on-again-off-again vegan since I was 14 (I’m 15 now). This article is so helpful, and I’m looking forward to jumping back onto the vegan bandwagon again this Thanksgiving!

  • soviet_kitsch November 15th, 2013 3:37 PM

    i love this article. i went vegan a few months ago and my family is nothing but supportive, but i still loved reading your tofuttibeast recipe. om nom nom.

  • emseely November 15th, 2013 5:00 PM

    Yayyy! I’m a lifetime vegetarian, I’ve never eaten meat or fish before in my life, so I was super excited to see this article. I’m lucky enough to have a vegetarian family, and now I realize how blessed I’ve been to have a grandma who roasts a tofurkey every year for us. Thanks rookie, I’d love to see more articles/recipe ideas for us veggies!

    • vvk97 November 15th, 2013 7:43 PM

      My sentiments exactly. I’m Hindu and though religion was only part of the reason my family is vegetarian, I’ve grown up never eating meat.

    • eyelet November 16th, 2013 8:18 AM

      I’ve never had meat or fish either– most people can’t believe it, but it really isn’t a big deal when you grow up without it.

      While my family obviously already has meatless Thanksgivings, this was a cool article to see.

  • kelsey November 15th, 2013 5:53 PM

    AHHH! THANK YOU! This is my first holiday season as a hard core vegan and I’m still figuring out how to refuse things (like cake) without making people feel bad. Most of my friends are totally chill about it, for which I’m lucky, but this is still SO SO SO helpful.

  • navyblueguava November 15th, 2013 5:56 PM

    Love this article- perfect to the last touch! I’m actually glad to eat meat, much to the horror of all my vegetarian friends. However, this article was a cool way to see that Thanksgiving can be complete without turkey, if you know what I mean. Also, I would like to recommend stuffing, even though I’m not sure about wether or not its an animal product. Stuffing is probably my favorite part of Thanksgiving!

    http://theneonguava.wordpress.com

    • lipsticklullabies November 15th, 2013 8:19 PM

      Most brands of stuffing do contain meat, but Stove Top Pork Stuffing Mix is actually vegetarian (and I’m pretty sure it’s vegan as well), even though it has pork in the name. :) Happy early Thanksgiving!

    • Emma November 15th, 2013 9:12 PM

      you can make vegan stuffing by cooking breadcrumbs, onions, celery, cranberries, and whatever else you normally put in stuffing with vegetable broth. that’s what I did last year and it was really yummy!

    • AngstyTheBrave November 15th, 2013 9:40 PM

      I’m pretty sure that stuffing is usually vegan, or at least vegetarian, but it’s sometimes cooked inside the turkey, so any vegans/vegetarians should probably ask. But it is good!

  • Kacey Campbell November 15th, 2013 6:54 PM

    Last year was my first Thanksgiving as a vegetarian, and I must say, it was way less scary than I thought it would be. What really helped was the Vegetarian Times Thanksgiving issue, which had some kick ass recipes my mom made for me and just heated up at my aunt’s house. To any new veggies and vegans (there are some vegan recipes too sometimes!), I highly recommend checking it out.

  • Chloe22 November 15th, 2013 7:04 PM

    I have been vegetarian since 6th grade (in tenth now) and luckily I haven’t had too much trouble, aside from people at a church i used to go to that only saw me as a vegetarian (and the only conversation we ever had was why i shouldn’t be). Since 6th grade I also found out that I am allergic to gluten and lactose! But my dad is the best cook ever, so all is well!
    http://rhinestonemoon.blogspot.com/

  • Tyknos93 November 15th, 2013 8:14 PM

    This article could not have come sooner! As a struggling college student it’s always nice to be able to have a nice hot homemade meal with your family, but being from the South where seemingly EVERYTHING is made with meat is difficult. I normally spend Thanksgiving in a corner with a bag of no heat bread rolls, staring longingly at everyone’s full plates. This year I’ll make a more conscious effort to stick to my diet and fill my belly.

    http://blazoningpens.blogspot.com/

  • Melissa @ WildFlowerChild November 15th, 2013 8:20 PM

    This is great. I’ve been a vegan for a couple of years now. I definitely get some fight back from family, but this year my great-aunt has even offered to make a vegan dish for me! Baby steps.

    Melissa
    http://wildflwrchild.blogspot.com

  • Emma November 15th, 2013 9:13 PM

    Ahhhh I love any/all vegan or vegetarian Rookie articles. These are awesome ideas, thank you! Are there any Rookies out there who have heard of farm Sanctuary? I am gonna intern there next year as part of my gap year!

    • Stephanie November 16th, 2013 6:02 PM

      My friend who introduced me to veganism interned there! She had an amazing experience. I hope you do as well!

  • flingsgotoofast November 15th, 2013 10:25 PM

    I love this article so much because I have been a vegetarian for about 8 months now and this coming Thanksgiving will be my first as a vegetarian! I have to admit I am very nervous about what it is going to be like. Thank you so so much !!!

  • julalondon November 15th, 2013 10:40 PM

    I have been vegetarian for about 4 and a half years now and i still get the stupid questions…HATE THAT!!! Thank you for this post!!!=)

  • irismonster November 15th, 2013 11:44 PM

    i love this so much! I’m vegetarian but not vegan, and my biggest pet peeve is that people have it so wrong about hypocrisy and food. I have never in my life initiated a condescending discussion of eating meat, and I can’t tell you how many times someone who does eat it has done that to me. Yet people still think that vegetarians and vegans are condescending. Jeez.

    I actually recently suffered an in-class practice debate about whether or not vegetarians are better people than meat eaters. I took no part in it, for obvious reasons, but there were actually a bunch of people who argued that people who ate meat were genuinely better people because they had more vitamins in their diet (??). Even if that was the case, there are these things called vitamin pills, and for the record, I do not have to take them in order to be perfectly healthy. And all of that aside, I just fail to see the logic. Honestly.

  • clarekawaii November 16th, 2013 12:25 AM

    Ahhhh I wish this article was around when I had to battle my first ever Thanksgiving last month in Canada! Not only did I not know the family (I was staying with a host), I’m also a vegan sigh. I got through it though, they were actually really obliging, by the end of the night they were all checking labels and offering me things, it was really lovely!

    I’ll remember to keep this article in mind if I ever find myself in Canada or the USA at Thanksgiving time again~

  • Cait @teaandfire November 16th, 2013 1:04 AM

    Was so excited to see this! I know I’m not the only vegan out there, because sometimes it feels like I am! I try to be as cruelty free as I can (concerning makeup, clothes, etc., but money dictates that). I am on a full vegan diet though (I have what is possibly an undiagnosed chronic disease and found that eating veg really helped eliminate my issues! I had also been vegetarian for two years before I went vegan.

    OK to the thing I really wanted to get to:

    ~*~Mashed Cauliflower Casserole~*~ :

    Steam cook cauliflower, and then mash it (of course!). My favorite thing to mix in is classic hummus and Lawry’s salt, but you can put whatever you want in: black pepper, veggie/vegan friendly butter, sea salt, turmeric, etc. I then top it with broiled panko bread crumbs (I’m sure there are gf alternatives to this, too!)- it is SO good, easy to make, and an enjoyable dish to bring for not only yourself but also your family/friends/guests! Happy Thanksgiving! (oh, and gardein has new stuffed turky: at least, new to me, as my Target now carries this- that is so good and perfect to bring with you if you’re not sure what else you’ll be able to have!(http://gardein.com/products/savory-stuffed-turky/)

    Happy Thanksgiving!

    (teaandfire is both my twitter and tumblr username: come say hello! :D )

    • Stephanie November 16th, 2013 6:04 PM

      Oooh, thanks for this recipe! I will try it!

  • Torrie November 16th, 2013 2:49 AM

    Thank you, Rookie. I’ve been vegan now for a little over a year and I’m just as passionate now, if not more, than when I first began. My family has warmed up hugely. There is usually only meat in the house when my mom and dad bring in take out. My dad loves to try stuff from Gardein, Tofurkey, and Daiya. He loves Vegenaise more than regular mayo. My mom now enjoys cooking vegan meals with me for the family. A year ago they were rolling their eyes, and a year before that when I was vegetarian my mom ordered a “special farm raised turkey” to try to make me eat meat and served me vegetables cooked in turkey stock without my knowledge. People change a lot.

    If I’m invited to a guest’s dinner this year I will definitely make multiple vegan dishes for other people to try — and then tell them it’s vegan after they say how delicious it is!

    It was the best decision of my life so far and I’m thankful every single day :)

  • Esmee November 16th, 2013 7:11 AM

    I can’t believe it’s such a hassle to eat vegetarian/vegan on thanksgiving.
    The internet is swamped with recipes!
    I recommend checking out the Minimalist Baker, who tries to make a vegetarian or vegan recipe with as little ingredients as possible.

    I’m not vegetarian nor vegan, but I do like to try substitutes for dairy and the like wherever possible. Also it’s quite cost effective.
    In my opinion meat is also a luxury product. It really is exceptional we can eat meat everyday!

  • elliecp November 16th, 2013 7:22 AM

    this is really cool. I’m an animal rights activist but due to various health and ease reasons have to keep meat in my diet at the moment. Ive always wanted to be vegetarian though, and hope that maybe I can go fully vegan or something when I’m older.
    I forget sometimes how difficult the holiday seasons must be if you don’t eat meat!

    http://roseandvintage.blogspot.com/

  • Mira November 17th, 2013 1:04 PM

    i’ve been a vegetarian since last year and i really love it but i’ve gotten most of those dumb comments. why are people so rude? i just don’t like eating cute lil animals :(

  • AnimalDecay November 17th, 2013 5:32 PM

    Omg thank you SO MUCH this is so fantastic <3

  • Savidi November 18th, 2013 6:47 PM

    this is so great! i’m 13 and i stopped eating meat this year too. I haven’t looked back, meat isn’t even appealing to me anymore. I’m Canadian so we already had Thanksgiving. My parents are supportive of it so i did a lot of research and helped my mom cook a really great vegetarian dinner. I’m also constantly doing the things you mentioned in the article. People are always asking me annoying questions, “oh my god! You’re only 13, how can you possibly survive without eating meat??” Actually, just fine. But yeah, this article is really awesome. I can really relate.

  • sternenfall November 18th, 2013 7:22 PM

    Have you heard of Isa Chandra Moskowitz and the post punk kitchen? She’s my hero

    • eikcaj November 19th, 2013 10:26 PM

      Isa is the BOMB! Anyone who’s interested in yummy dishes — period — ought to look her up! Luckily I was given the Veganomicon when I became a vegetarian almost 6 years ago, and although I’ve bought other cookbooks since then, that one is still my favorite.

      Regardless I must say, Stephanie, THANK YOU for this article!!! Winter time is always a bit stressful due to the amount of holidays. I love my family, just not the drama, y’know?? That said, my family always does a big feast for Thanksgiving, so my vegan dishes go unnoticed. They always like my vegan desserts though. ;)

    • thebrownette November 20th, 2013 12:06 AM

      ISA IS A GODDESS. and responds when you tweet her!

  • anna eve November 27th, 2013 6:41 PM

    This is an awesome article! I’ve had various experiences with vegetarianism over the years, I’m not currently a vegetarian, but I try not to eat much meat because of ethical/health reasons. Incidentally, I brought my own vegan meal to Thanksgiving last year because I was having a lot of stomach problems and meat/dairy only made them worse. I would highly recommend Maple Glazed Tempeh, it’s super easy and delicious, and there are a lot of recipes on the internet. My mom was so supportive, we even made a pumpkin pie using cashews instead of dairy. I hope to go vegetarian/vegan at some point again, so it’s great to know there’s such a strong veggie community!

    http://lilliputianlilac.blogspot.com