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Vegaptation for Meat Eaters: Accommodating Vegetarian Guests on Thanksgiving

Ah, Thanksgiving. That special holiday where stuff our faces silly and get drunk with our families before arguing about politics and falling asleep on the couch.

If you’re hosting, it can be a lot of fun, but it can also be a special kind of hell. You’ve got prep work, cleaning your place so your mom doesn’t make comments about dust bunnies, the actual cooking and serving, then after-the-meal clean-up. Plus, you have to plan a menu that will make all of your guests happy.

Mmmm...carbs.

And when you’ve got guests coming over with special needs – allergies, celiac disease, vegetarianism, religious considerations, etc. – it can add an extra layer of stress. I’m not an expert in religious diets, allergies or gluten-free cooking, but I can take you by the hand and guide you through vegetarianism, so that the day can go as smoothly as possible. I promise, it’s not hard. Many of these tips probably apply across the board, however.

Don’t make assumptions. Everyone has different parameters, even if they all use the label “vegetarian.” We can get into the politics of using that word if you eat seafood or gelatin or whatever else at another time, but the fact is that it gets tossed around and you can’t always be sure what it means.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Don’t treat vegetarianism as something that’s optional just because it was a conscious choice. There are lots of reasons people cut out meat, plus many of us have been doing this so long that eating it will make us feel sick. Make an effort not to tease your guest for his or her food choices, and try to put a stop to it if other diners start making fun of them. It’s rude, it’s immature, and we’ve heard it all before.

Ask questions. The easiest way to get it right – not just with vegetarians but anyone who has a restriction – is to ask what they can and cannot eat. If you know someone well enough to invite them over for Thanksgiving, you know them well enough to have an honest and open conversation about what changes are feasible. Trust me on this one – we’ve probably experienced some of the worst hosts and whiniest friends who don’t want to make any adaptations, so the fact that you’re asking at all will be appreciated.

Be flexible. They might offer to bring something. I’ve shown up at parties with a box of veggie burgers in my purse because I just wasn’t sure what they’d have for me. Last year I took a squash casserole from my personal food bible, The Grit cookbook, even though my brother and his girlfriend are pretty accommodating. But don’t count on that. You probably won’t have to make a Tofurkey for one person – to be honest, I tried it one year and wasn’t a big fan – but you might need to make an extra vegetable-based dish or change up some ingredients. Mostly it will be things no one will notice. We don’t want to be a burden, but it’s also incredibly frustrating to be invited to dinner and have to eat rolls and salad all night. And you don’t have to make every single dish vegetarian – though lots of Thanksgiving dishes already are – just be extremely clear about which ones are and which ones are not if it isn’t glaringly obvious.

To each her own, but I'm not a fan of this stuff.

Pay attention to details. If you’re not used to cooking for a vegetarian, you might not think twice about using ingredients that many of us prefer not to eat. Your grandmother’s sweet potato recipe might call for marshmallows, but your friend might not eat gelatin, for example. I’d like to think it’s obvious that most vegetarians prefer not to eat stuffing that’s been extracted from the interior of a turkey, but there are other ingredients to consider. Namely broth. Consider switching out chicken broth (or beef, or whatever) for vegetable. In most dishes the taste isn’t vastly different, and that one little change can mean a whole lot more food your guest can eat.

Vegetarian does not mean gross. Think about some of the traditional Thanksgiving foods. Cranberry sauce. Pumpkin pie. Green bean casserole. Mashed potatoes. None of those things have meat in them, and they’re all delicious.

Here’s a little list of traditional Thanksgiving foods and how they might work for vegetarians*:

Turkey: obviously not at all

Stuffing/dressing: I have no desire to touch it if it’s pulled from inside a bird, though others might not care. If you normally do cook it inside the turkey, consider making a small serving separately for vegetarian guests. Many recipes call for chicken broth; it would be preferable if you substitute vegetable stock, and chances are no one will notice.

It's better this way, trust me.

Mashed potatoes: As long as the gravy is separate, this should be A-OK.

Sweet potatoes/yams: If you use marshmallows, ask your guest if they eat them. Otherwise, these should be fine.

Cranberry sauce: Bring it on. In fact, don’t serve it, send it all to me instead.

Rolls: Unless you’re making biscuits with lard, bread products are generally fine.

Salad: I don’t care what the Simpsons say, you can win friends with salad. Just as long as it’s not the only thing we can eat. Oh, and some Caesar dressings have anchovies in them, but other than that we’re good.

Lentils: A magical substance that will cure all of society’s problems. I kid. They’re vegetarian, but not usually Thanksgiving food.

Vegetable side dishes: Usually fine, as long as you don’t use some kind of meat stock or add pieces of bacon. Which is fine if you want to, just warn us which ones have that.

It doesn't need meat to be awesome.

Pie: Generally dessert will be completely fine. If something calls for gelatin, ask your vegetarian guest or have an alternative handy. Apple pie should be fine, as should pumpkin.

Alright, Persephoneers, do you have any tips or favorite meatless Thanksgiving favorites to share? Ruby Bruiseday (and some commenters) supplied us with a few yummy recipes already, but you can never have too many.

*For this purpose I’m using the most common definition of a lacto-ovo vegetarian, that is, someone who eats no meat (beef, pork, poultry, seafood, etc) but does eat dairy and eggs.

By [E] Liza

PhD student. Knitter. Brooklynite. Long-distance dog mom. Reluctant cat lady. Majestic unicorn whose hair changes color with the wind.

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