Negotiating Veganism

Negotiating a plant-based diet with friends and family can be one of the biggest challenges of becoming vegan (even more than that initial difficulty of figuring out what to eat!). I imagine this will be a recurring theme on this site because there are surprising ways this issue comes up when it’s least expected. Luckily, Eric was very supportive initially when I first started thinking about vegetarianism/veganism. In the beginning, we spent a lot of time negotiating our boundaries: What kind of food would we cook for dinners together? What kinds of food would we keep in the house for him to eat on his own (e.g., cheese for snacking, milk for tea)? What would we order when we went out to eat? How did we feel about people bringing meat into our home? How did we negotiate going over to the homes of friends and family for dinner?

For us, it was important to talk candidly about what we were both comfortable with, what causes discomfort in the kitchen/home, and what compromises we were both willing to make. Without these conversations happening out in the open, I think there would have been great potential for feelings of resentment on both sides, or some other negative emotional reaction. Food, in particular, is such an emotional topic and eating, an emotional activity. When a drastic change, like going vegan, occurs there will inevitably be some wild emotions flying around.

I’ve encountered quite a few people (interestingly, mostly women, and mostly in the blogsphere) who have gone vegan for whatever reason and have families or partners who are still avid meat eaters. This can be a real challenge, particularly in the practical meal-planning sense, if the family or partner wants to continue eating meat-based meals at home. While I have not had this trouble in my own house (Eric’s been willing to eat vegan meals at home from the start and now he’s fully committed to eating vegan even outside the home), I have definitely encountered this in dinners with extended family and friends and talked to people who struggle with this in their own homes. The way I see it there are a few ways to handle it:

1. Cook two different meals-one with meat, one without. This can be a real pain in the neck, particularly for those of who have enough trouble getting motivated to cook one meal. Not the most advisable option in my (somewhat lazy) opinion.

2. Cook a meal that is flexible. One of the best meals for this scenario is burritos, fajitas or tacos. It’s easy to cook up a pan of meat, a pan of beans, and then have lots of different toppings. Each person can make exactly the kind of plate they want, and this is a perfectly balanced meal for a vegan (plenty of protein, veggies, fiber, etc). My MIL frequently goes this route when we come to dinner.

3. Try out some of the fake-meat options. My mom has used this tactic a number of times and it seems to help, especially with newly vegan/vegetarians who are missing meat. Adding Field Roast sausages to spaghetti sauce, for instance.

4. My favorite option- make meals that are naturally vegan or easily veganized and do not pretend to be meat. These are meals which don’t require any weird or processed ingredients and are just good hearty whole foods. A nice hearty stew, some vegan cornbread, and a salad would satisfy just about anyone!

5. Experiment with new recipes, veganize old favorites and play around in the kitchen to establish some really satisfying and comforting vegan meals that the whole family will like. Try to shoot for having 5-7 go-to meals that are easy to make, healthy, comfort food. Jot down these meal ideas on a scrap of paper and put it on the fridge. When you’re hungry, panicked about what to make for dinner, need some comfort food, and have no ideas, make one of these ‘save the day’ meal options!

6. Find some restaurants where everyone in the family can find something to eat that they’ll enjoy. Find some everyday, quick places to eat and also make sure to find one or two places where everyone can eat for a special occasion. Look at menus online and/make some phone calls first to make sure they’ll meet your needs when trying a new place. Plus, many nice restaurants will make a vegan meal for you if you let them know ahead of time (even if there’s not a vegan meal on the menu).

7. Other ideas?

The most important thing I think is to talk about your transition to veganism with your loved ones (not over a meal!) and be firm but gentle about what you’re comfortable with, and what makes you uncomfortable. Explain your reasons for making the change (e.g., ethics, health, environments, etc) and make sure they understand that your choice is coming from a place of love and compassion (for animals, for your body, for the planet) and listen to their concerns. Everyone comes to veganism on their own terms and at their own pace. Be patient!

Carol J. Adams has a whole book dedicated to these sticky situations and negotiating the choice to abstain from meat consumption: Living Among Meat Eaters: The Vegetarian’s Survival Handbook . If you’re struggling with any difficulties relating to negotiating veganism with family, friends, or co-workers, I’d recommend this book for you. [If you’re in Seattle and would like to borrow my copy, just email me!]

Are there specific difficulties any of you are struggling with/ have struggled with related to this topic?

Off to pick blackberries and make blackberry jam today with my dad! Stay tuned for a blackberry jam recipe!

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  1. My daughter asked me yesterday if I was going to cook a turkey this year for Thanksgiving and when I replied “no” she gave me a hard time. I’ve been vegan for only 5 months, so it’s still taking some time for the rest of the family to adjust. My daughter asks me at least once a week to stop being vegan, it’s ruining her life because I don’t make family dinners anymore. I make my own dinner and the meat eaters have to fend for themselves. They are welcome to eat whatever I make but they rarely do, unless it’s spaghetti.

    1. That sounds tough.

      In my experience so far, Thanksgiving is always hard when you’re negotiating between the interests of vegans and meat eaters. Two years ago, we had a vegan Thanksgiving for 20+ people at our house (only 4 of whom were actually vegan), which was a lot of negotiation with extended family and friends ahead of time. It ended up going quite well on the day of Thanksgiving, but the months(!) of negotiation preceding that day were exhausting. It was worth it, though, to have a huge table full of people, eating great vegan food and enjoying it. No one left hungry or unsatisfied–that’s for sure! Thanksgiving is difficult (even more so than Christmas or Chanukah) because of how deeply the tradition is associated with that dead turkey in the middle of the table. The set menu of turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, pumpkin pie… it can be hard to let go of. All of the non-turkey items at the Thanksgiving table can be easily veganized and are just as good vegan (if not better!). I like the idea of, instead of the turkey, finding a really cool special recipe that you would not normally make that will complement the other traditional Thanksgiving foods (hearty stew served in a big roasted pumpkin as the centerpiece or individual stuffed acorn squashes). In other words, something that celebrates autumn and the season of harvest and all of those familiar flavors. If the turkey symbolism itself is important, Farm Sanctuary has a great “Adopt-a-Turkey” program where you can sponsor one or a whole flock of turkeys. They’ll send you a photo, which you can put on your vegan Thanksgiving table. This puts a face to the reasoning behind the dead bird’s absence from the middle of the table. I plan to do at least one or two posts on dealing with Thanksgiving in the next month, so stay tuned… I think about it A LOT.

      Addressing the more day-to-day issue…

      Does your daughter understand your reasons for being vegan? For instance, if your reasoning is health-based, Forks Over Knives is a great film resource to show to people. If your reasoning is ethics-based, the movie Earthlings (it’s harsh, so you may want to view it first, but it will make an impact and is available to watch for free on their website) or Peaceable Kingdom (coming out on DVD soon) or the book Eating Animals, which is great for understanding the myriad reasons for vegetarianism (not so much on the veganism, but still a good book)–so accessible for teenagers and older (I’m going to use it in the class I’m teaching on Animals, Ethics, and Food this winter).

      Sometimes, giving the people you love something to read or watch can be more effective than trying to explain it yourself (at least it has been for me). In my experience, it’s sometimes really hard for people to hear about animal suffering or the negative environmental health impacts of eating meat from me directly. With some people in my life, it has generated some really negative associations for them and I can tell that their resentment or anger or confusion or…is directed at me. I’m viewed as the problem, and I am not the issue. Right? You’re not the problem! Conversely, when people engage directly with the material (films, books, articles, or see the reasoning in person) they don’t necessarily have an intermediary (me or you!) with which to associate their negative feelings about it and they can start doing the work of processing what they’ve seen or read on their own terms. And even if it has no effect on their own food/lifestyle choices, hopefully it will give them some tools to understand you a little better.

      I’m not sure in your situation how involved your family is in cooking or meal planning, but it might help, if you haven’t already, to say “Hey, I’d really like for us to eat family dinners together again; it’s important to me. I’ve got a couple of great new vegan cookbooks [preferably with good pictures]. Why don’t you guys look through them and pick out a new recipe that you think looks good for us to try.” And vegan baked goods always helps, too…since they’re SOOO good.

      Oops, didn’t mean to write a novel here… you can tell I have a lot of thoughts on the subject. I hope the transition gets easier. 🙂

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