How to Navigate the Move to a Vegetarian Thanksgiving

Friday Mail DayIt’s time for another Friday Mail Day.  Today’s letter comes from a friend of mine, who is experiencing trepidation at the thought of hosting her first vegetarian Thanksgiving after many years of hosting a non-vegetarian one.


Feel free to publically publish this message, cause I am sure there are other people out there with a similar problem who would love to hear your answer.

I have always been the hub of my family – the house that everyone visits on the holidays – especially on Thanksgiving. I can cook a turkey that is tender, moist, and perfectly seasoned. I actually have family members that start talking about it in July. Problem is, I don’t want to make it this year.

My youngest daughter has become a vegetarian, and I have supported this decision and joined her in it. We don’t eat turkey in our house anymore, but that is what is definitely expected of us by upwards of twenty family members this coming November. Instead of looking forward to the holiday, I am dreading it.

I have toyed with the idea of leaving town, but don’t know how well that is going to go over. Do you have any suggestions? When you first became vegan, did you have a similar challenge? Any advice is helpful.


Navigating your first vegetarian ThanksgivingHi J,

Thank you for the thoughtful question!  I have to tell you, when I first went vegetarian, one of the big plusses was that I no longer felt obligated to cook a turkey on Thanksgiving.  Even when I ate animals, the process made me very uncomfortable.  I didn’t like the feeling of holding up a heavy, headless bird.  I didn’t like reaching into that bird’s body cavity to grab a plastic bag with the bird’s neck and gizzard inside.  Then once I learned about how turkeys are treated in the animal industry (horrible), I was relieved to no longer align myself with that suffering.

One difference, though, in our situations is that I didn’t have 20 people who were expecting me to cook a turkey for them.  So let’s turn this around.  Let’s imagine you had someone in your life whose house you went to every year for Thanksgiving.  Then let’s pretend that person came to the realization that she could no longer support the killing of 46 million turkeys every year for the winter holidays, which are supposedly about kindness and commonality.  In that situation, how would you have felt as a guest?  What would you have wanted your friend to do?

If your friend decided to go ahead and cook a turkey, despite how uncomfortable she was with it, how much she dreaded it, and how unhappy it made her, would you have enjoyed the meal?  Would you have felt that your own desire to eat the well-prepared turkey trumped your friend’s desire to not cook one?  Personally, I would feel far more uncomfortable putting someone else in a position to go against her own values than I would gain in any enjoyment from a meal that my friend had to ignore her feelings to make.

I know that making changes, especially changes that affect other people, can feel awkward.  Some people will react well and others won’t, but all you can do is live your truth honestly.  How they will react is theirs.  How you react is yours. But if we never reveal who we are to those we care most about, we’re not giving them the opportunity to really know us or to surprise us with the way that they can rise up to the occasion and expand their love for us by meeting our needs in new ways.

No matter what – traditions change.  Whether it’s because people move out of state, start celebrations with their own smaller nuclear families, celebrate with their in-laws, or whatever, things will change.  Because of that, we don’t have to hold on rigidly to tradition.  We can pick what works for us, what we want to keep, and then discover new traditions as well.  I know some people who make East Indian food for Thanksgiving.  I know some people who always go out to restaurants, and some people who just make a veganized version of the iconic Thanksgiving favorites.  You can keep toying with things to see what works for you.

Navigating your first vegetarian ThanksgivingI’m not saying that your guests have to choose to come to your vegetarian Thanksgiving if that’s what you make it.  And I think it’s absolutely essential that if you go that route you let your guests know ahead of time, so that they can be prepared, adjust their expectations, and choose whether or not they want to attend or if they’d prefer to attend later on in the evening for drinks and socializing.  But I do think that your feelings matter.  You not only do get a choice in the way that you celebrate your holiday, but you should get a choice.  Plus, you’ll know that anyone who is there really wanted to be there.

If it would make you more comfortable, you might want to consider only hosting the dessert and drinks portion of the evening, or you may want to go out of town like you said and do something totally different this first year.  Then your guests can get used to the idea that you will be changing things up.  You can give them a year to get comfortable with the knowledge that things are different for you.  This year David and I are going to a restaurant for Thanksgiving, and I’m really excited about it.  Making all of the side dishes, entrée, and then for many years hefting it to someone else’s house to reheat it is a lot of work!  I’m really excited to have someone else do it for me.  Plus, no clean-up!

But other years, I’ve been eager to go to the large family Thanksgiving at my parents’ house, just like when I was growing up.  Not all of the dishes are vegan at that Thanksgiving, but my mom makes all of her dishes vegan, which I so appreciate, and obviously everything I bring is vegan too.  (With sides like mashed potatoes, stuffing, biscuits, green bean casserole, and sweet potato casserole, it’s really easy with just a few adjustments to make them vegan.  With some things like cranberry sauce or roasted vegetables, no adjustments need to be made at all.)

People get so caught up in food around the holidays, but the specifics of one particular meal really have very little do with it.  When you think back on Thanksgiving throughout your life, is it the specific food that comes to mind or the people?  When I think of Thanksgiving as a child, what stands out for me is making origami boxes with my aunt, playing football with my cousins and uncles, and playing board games late into the wee hours of morning.  While I also remember my aunt’s dessert of Pink Fluff made with Jell-o, whipped cream, and cottage cheese, what I remember more is my aunt and her sweet spirit.   It wasn’t the fluff that was such a big deal.  She has passed now, and it’s the memory of having her there that I hold onto this time of year.

And maybe that’s what a turkey is for your family, J.  Maybe it’s not the particulars of that bird on the table.  Maybe it’s that you make your home so warm and full of love and your charm, that it’s a place they want to be.  And whether that centerpiece on your table is a chickpea pie or a stuffed squash, maybe your family and friends will want to be there to hear your laugh, to share a cocktail with you, and to just sit on your sofa and hear your stories.  I know that’s what I would want – to just bask in you.

Making the choice to live a life in line with one’s own values doesn’t come without costs.  But I would argue that the costs are much higher in living a life of ignoring one’s own feelings…  After all, if we have beliefs and values, but they don’t manifest themselves in our actions, what’s the point in having them?



P.S.  But back to this idea of you going out of town for Thanksgiving…  Have you considered the Midwest?

What are your thoughts?  What advice would you give to my friend?  If you’re vegan or vegetarian, how have you navigated changing traditions at the holidays?


  1. says

    Oooh, this is a tricky one.

    What we’ve done in years past is have someone else bring the turkey & we’ve provided all vegan sides. Since my husband is not vegetarian (though, he doesn’t like or care for turkey, & doesn’t place any sentimental value on meat dishes), I’m used to the idea that everyone doesn’t eat the way I do. If it were me, I’d let every one know I was making a bunch of delicious vegan dishes & they’re free to bring whatever they want to add to the dinner.

    I also HATED the whole process of cooking a turkey. It makes eating animals that much more real, & as a result totally grossed me out.

    I really would love to take my family to a buffet style Thanksgiving dinner hosted by the only vegan (it’s also 100% gluten-free) restaurant in S.A. They’re offering a ton of dishes for a very reasonable price. It sounds so fun not to have to cook (much as love cooking, it might be nice for a change). But…my husband’s not really on board. We’ll see.

    Lot’s of great thoughts Cadry–your response is thorough & helpful.


    • says

      Thanks for your perspective, Janae! It really is a tricky question. The holidays are already known as being a time when families work at coming together, not always successfully. Balancing old traditions with new ones can be tough to manage.

      You wrote that you’re used to the idea that everyone doesn’t eat the way you do. Of course, I know that not everyone eats like me too. However, part of our boundaries for our home is that it’s a vegan household. In addition to having the same kinds of boundaries lots of other people do, like asking people to take their shoes off at the door or not smoking in our home, we also ask that people not bring meat/dairy/eggs into our home. (I say “ask,” but we’ve never had a discussion with anyone. People know both David and I are vegan and that we would find it to be insensitive for them to bring those things into our home.)

      When I ate meat, I wouldn’t have gone into the home of someone who kept kosher with a ham sandwich, and I wouldn’t bring a bottle of wine to the home of someone who didn’t drink alcohol for religious reasons (or obviously into the home of someone with addiction issues). I try to be especially aware of their feelings, because they are inviting me into their home.

      Most of our friends and family aren’t vegan. (David and I are the only vegans we spend time with in the entire state.) We go to restaurants where meat is served and visit the homes of non-vegans where meat is served. However, meat makes me at best uncomfortable and at worst sad. So for me, my home is my sanctuary. That I can be in my own space, knowing that there’s never been meat in my refrigerator there, or meat cooked on my stove there, it makes my home a peaceful retreat from a non-vegan world.

      Thank you for the interesting dialogue, Janae!

  2. says

    Our extended family gets together every other year for Thanksgiving. We choose a destination, rent a huge house (anywhere from 25-40 people come…I have a big family), and Thanksgiving is one big buffet. I am lucky to have a family that doesn’t care that we are vegetarian. Usually there is more than one turkey, but as with most Thanksgiving dinners across the country, the meal is all about the sides and the dessert. We contribute to the side dishes and then I usually buy something like a Celebration Roast (more for my husband than anything else; I could do without), and nobody bats an eye. A couple of my family members took a slice of Celebration Roast along with all the other food. But that’s because, as you mentioned in your response, Thanksgiving for OUR family is about FAMILY, not about the food.

    Our Thanksgiving on “off” years is at home, just us, and it’s all sides. If someone wanted to bring a turkey with them, they’d be more than welcome to; I just will not purchase and cook one. Any Thanksgiving dinner with extended family should be about teamwork, no one person should be doing all the cooking, in my opinion, so to answer the original question, I would just tell my family that I would not be cooking a turkey, but someone else is welcome to do so, or pick up a pre-roasted turkey if they don’t want to cook, or whatever. I’d be gracious about having someone else bring in a turkey, the same way I’d expect any other host would be gracious about having a vegetarian at the table.

    Holidays for us are about family, making each other laugh, and generally having a good time. My favorite memories from Thanksgiving growing up were from my mom’s side of the family, and we’d pass a tape recorder around the table at Grandma’s house and each sing a line from the 12 Days of Christmas. Every single tape has us erupting into giggles long before the end of the song. I couldn’t tell you which year had the best food, or exactly what we ate every year, but the fun and family is what I remember the most.

    • says

      That’s a nice idea that everyone rents a house for Thanksgiving in your family. With 25-40 people, that could be a big burden to put on one family, as they feverishly clean before and after the big day. By renting, no one has to feel too overwhelmed with the preparations and food.

      We bought a Celebration Roast from Field Roast one year as well. Of all of the frozen, packaged vegan Thanksgiving entree options, I think it’s the best. Plus, it’s very easy to throw it in the oven and not worry about it. All of the non-vegans who tried it seemed to like it as well.

      Thanks for sharing your perspective on your family’s Thanksgiving. Like I mentioned in the post, when I go to someone else’s home, I don’t expect their Thanksgiving (or any meal) to be entirely vegan. However, when it comes to our home, part of our boundaries is that we keep a vegan home. Similarly, when I go into the home of a smoker, I don’t expect them NOT to smoke. It is their home. However, when that smoker comes into my home, I expect them to be cognizant of my boundaries and not smoke while they are there. Another example is that in my meat eating days, I wouldn’t have expected someone who kept a kosher household to be okay with me eating a BLT at their table. Since my husband and I are ethical vegans, I would find it insensitive for someone else to bring meat/dairy/eggs into our home. Luckily, that hasn’t been an issue at all.

      What a great story about the 12 Days of Christmas! I can imagine my family doing that as well. I hope that you still have those tapes and listen to them on occasion! I’m sure they’d bring back terrific memories.

  3. Alanna says

    Thank you Cadry. I love your answer.
    This is my first vegan Thanksgiving. We’re going to a relative’s house and I plan on bringing enough sides and desserts that my family (and others) can enjoy. I already had a snide comment from a sister-in-law lamenting that “half the people won’t eat what I cook anyway,” but I recognize it’s just her way of dealing with the uncomfortable reality of our dietary evolution.
    I plan on killing everyone with kindness…and vegan treats. :)

    • says

      Congratulations on your first vegan Thanksgiving, Alanna! I hope you have a terrific day! I’m sorry that your sister-in-law was pessimistic about the dishes that you’ll be making. I know how deflating it can be on the receiving end of that kind of negativity. However, I think you’re right to enter the holiday with enthusiasm and kindness. Please let me know how the day goes! I’ll be curious to hear!

  4. says

    I don’t think I have anything to add that you haven’t already articulated so well already Cadry! I especially am in love with the last statement of your letter. Truly, what is the point of having a belief system if our actions aren’t in accordance with it.

    I’ve actually never cooked a turkey even pre-vegan. I think because I became vegan at a time when doing “grown up” things like that wasn’t relevant to my life. I’m really lucky because my family is really understanding and accommodating to Neal and I. Plus, no one would ever expect me to be the “hub” of anything…the idea of that ever happening is so laughable because I think you have to be more adult for that kind of role. And I’m like 5 inside. :-)

    • says

      That’s wonderful that your family is so supportive of you and Neal! I’m sure that makes the holidays that much more enjoyable. Your last line cracked me up. Are you the youngest in your family?

      • says

        I’m technically not the youngest, but it feels like it. I have a younger half-sister and step brother but they are a loooot younger than me and I didn’t grow up with them in the same house.

        • says

          That’s what I would have guessed! I am the youngest in my family too, and it definitely plays into the family dynamics, despite the fact that we’re all adults.

  5. Mae says

    I agree, that the best thing to do is just make sure everyone knows so that they can make their decisions accordingly. I guess you have to decide if you want to allow them to bring a turkey or any other non-vegetarian food. While I have never hosted any holiday, this Thanksgiving will be my first vegan one, and the first year that we are not in New England, so it will just be my boyfriend and I. He is not vegan, and VERY picky, but supportive of my choice. I recently have gotten very into making my own ravioli….we (myself, Shane, and my rat, Lobster) are going to have a Thanksgiving picnic on our living room floor (we don’t have a table), and I’m making stuffing and mashed potato raviolis! Along with some other sides and deserts of course. I’ll miss my huge family (50+ people!) but this will be one to remember for sure.

    • says

      Ravioli is such a fun alternative idea for Thanksgiving, especially with stuffing and mashed potatoes. They sound almost like pierogis. What are you planning for the sauce? A typical marinara, olive oil & garlic, or something else?

      That’s terrific that your boyfriend is so supportive! You are always going to remember your Thanksgiving picnic! I remember my first Thanksgiving away from home. Dinner was served on a fold-up card table covered in a plastic disposable tablecloth, like people buy for children’s birthday parties. We had several friends over, and afterwards we made ornaments for my first (on my own) Christmas tree using construction paper. I still have some of those ornaments, and I feel a lot of fond memories of that simple Thanksgiving. I hope you take lots of pictures of you, Shane, and Lobster with your ravioli!

  6. says

    I have never cooked a turkey either, and two years ago (before I was vegan) the thought of having to cook one for a family Thanksgiving basically gave me a panic attack. There is so much pressure associated with cooking a perfect turkey, not to mention how gross it is to stick your hands all over that slimy cold bird and pull a bag of guts from inside it. I always liked eating the turkey, but I never wanted to see or participate in how it was made.

    I suppose that’s the disconnect that most meat-eaters feel, but ignore. This Thanksgiving we are going to a family gathering where there will likely be no vegan options. I’m bringing spaghetti squash and a hearty bean mixture to put inside it so that I get the warm fall flavors too. My husband has been super supportive, although up until this week has still be eating meat whenever we go out. This week he said he was going to give vegetarianism a try (I’m so excited I could just die, but I’m trying not to overwhelm him)!

    Thank you for this blog. It makes this journey so much easier.

    • says

      I think you’re right about that disconnect being common amongst people. Now when I think back on the many aspects of cooking meat that made me feel uncomfortable, I have to wonder why I didn’t listen to that discomfort sooner. Clearly my inner voice was trying to tell me something!

      Thank you for your kind words about my blog! It makes me feel so good that it is a help to you. I hope that you and your husband have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

  7. says

    Great advice! I hope that J does what she is comfortable with and her family reacts as best as we can hope. Personally, I’m of the “If you have a problem with it, then don’t come” variety…it helps separate the jerks from the people who love you more than a few bites of food.

  8. says

    These situations can get complicated in no time. that is definitely a great advice to let everyone know in advance.
    I have never cooked any whole bird ever. luckily my family is very understanding. no one made any fuss about eating and drinking all vegan through their visit in august. i was surprised that my brother who loves to generally argue for the sake of arguing, didnt say a single word.
    We had a situation that would have caused a problem recently. The big Diwali party at a friends place was in jeopardy of getting cancelled because their power went out(thunderstorm). Since we live near downtown, we were the only home that had power. The party menu was non-vegan. As hubbs offered up the home without much though, I pointed out to him later that there would be too much non-vegan food and sweets around in our house, which I was not comfortable with. Luckily, the power came back and we did not have to have a serious heated discussion on the topic. But this is probably another one of those situations, where I wouldnt know where to draw the line.

    • says

      What a relief that people were so understanding throughout their visit in August! Although, looking at all of the delicious and mouthwatering stuff that came out of your kitchen, I can’t imagine complaining! It all looked amazing.

      Maybe the power outage will be a blessing in disguise, as it gave you and your husband an opportunity to talk about where your comfort lies in terms of others bringing non-vegan items into your home. Part of our boundaries for our home is that non-vegan items aren’t welcome, and we really haven’t had anyone take issue with it.

      • says

        We already had the talk before and had decided non vegan items are not welcome in the house, but this was a tricky situation, with a last minute venue switch. The food was already ordered via a restaurant, the plan already set and such. I might not be able to say no to family. I might offer more vegan choices and change some dishes if possible with the restaurant, though a similar situation with family would mean that the event would anyway be more vegan friendly(like 6 vegan out of 7 total dishes) versus only 2 out of 7 at the friend event.

  9. says

    I am so grateful to never have cooked a turkey either. I have watched my mom do it for years and it always grossed me out. Because my husband and I are the only vegans in the family, there is still ham and turkey at our Thanksgiving celebrations, but all the sides are vegan. That works for us.

    I think your advice it beautiful, give your family the choice of coming to your vegetarian celebration. You maybe surprised at how accepting they are!

  10. says

    I so wish I could’ve read this before my first vegan Thanksgiving. I’d already done several vegetarian Thanksgivings, but when I became vegan, I was so stressed out. Luckily, Chris’s family is very supportive so the meal at his house was super easy and people really liked all the vegan options I had brought. Now it’s even easier because his sister is also mostly vegan and there are a few vegetarians in the family so now Chris’s mom makes sure that there are always several vegan options. I only have to bring two dishes this year, as opposed to 6-7! Also, my very anti-vegan father-in-law wants to come over to our house now so I can cook him one of my “fancy dinners.”

    My family is a little different. They’ve gone from being obviously uncomfortable, rude, teasing, and not wanting to have anything to do with trying my food to enjoying my food and just the rare rude/snide/teasing/joke which I’m much better at handling now (though, I have to admit- I did not handle an incident at our last family get-together very well. I won’t go in to too much detail, and trust me, it is MUCH WORSE than I’m about to describe, but it involved my very intoxicated uncle finding a piece of an animal he had hunted and killed, sneaking up behind me, and rubbing it on my face. I was stunned, speechless, and hurt. I was so violated and I had no idea what to say that Chris and I left soon after that.).

    I’m totally rambling now, but what I guess I’m trying to say is that by setting an example of compassionate living can sometimes “rub off” on your family. It maybe awkward at first, but it gets so much easier and your family will be more comfortable in joining you. :-)

    • says

      Oh my GOD, how awful!!! I’ve never had something that horrific happen, but I do have some family members and a few friends that like nothing more than to wave pieces of bacon in my face, describe in detail how good the “dead animal” they’re eating is, and generally be obnoxious and rude.

      I can handle the health comments a lot better than the people that are just out to demean your choices on purpose. One thing that really helped me in the beginning was reading Carol Adams’ “Living Among Meat Eaters: The Vegetarian’s Survival Handbook.”

  11. says

    So true. I think people might also be surprised by the reaction of the 20 people when they find out it’s a vegetarian dinner – most people are far more accepting of doing things differently to accommodate those they love than we expect.

  12. says

    Thanksgiving has never been much of an issue for me, so I guess I’m lucky that way. My family did a big meal at my Nan’s house every year, but once I moved away, we just stopped making a big deal out of it and instead settled for making a slightly fancier meal then normal. Since going vegan, I’ve found a group of friends that we celebrate with every year. Everything’s vegan and everyone brings a dish, it’s really fun and I don’t have to deal with people salivating over a dead animal. I think the advice you gave is perfect, I don’t think that anyone should have to put aside their ethics just to make other people happy, plus even with a vegetarian meal, everyone is still coming together to celebrate and really, shouldn’t it be about family and not just about the bird?

  13. says

    We’ve been pretty much told that we are no longer welcome at my mother’s table for holidays. Clearly there are other issues aside from what is on our plates for my mother, but her issues are not mine. Therefore, this year my struggle is just whether or not to go all out like I usually do (and love doing) and then just store all of the leftovers. I love cooking for my family. My husband and daughter and I will be alone, and I will, of course, prepare a great meal for us – typically I prepare upwards of 20 different dishes inclusive of dessert. should I scale back or just go for it? Ugh.

  14. says

    What a helpful and thorough response! My partner and I are the only vegans and two family members eat gluten-free and they are pretty supportive of our choices (and familiar with vegan dishes). For Thanksgiving dinner – we have some vegan side dishes and a Field Roast for ourselves and they can make whatever they want as long as it’s not on the same plate (which everyone knows that). And of course if I am hosting a Thanksgiving dinner, I will not purchase and cook one, but I am pretty flexible with others who wish to bring their own foods, but I don’t expect them to do the cooking at all either. And I agree with Courtney’s comment – “Holidays for us are about family, making each other laugh, and generally have a good time”, holiday meals are not the time to argue about foods, it’s about having a good time with your families and friends :) I can’t wait for Thanksgiving!

  15. acookinthemaking says

    As always, Cadry, your response is thoughtful and well-expressed. I especially like your point about holiday traditions not being just about the food. It’s so true, and it’s also true that traditions DO change!

    That said, I often struggle with feelings similar to J’s, especially when it comes to gatherings with my husband’s extended family (with whom we now spend Thanksgiving each year). At their house I can’t even eat the vegetables because they’re prepared with butter. I end up having to just bring my own dinner. And of course I also always bring something to share, but oftentimes no one will even try it (even dessert!). Or if they do try it, it’s like they are afraid to admit that they like it so they just kind of say nothing and then turn and dig into their butter and egg-laden pie. It hurts my feelings even though I try not to show it! Sometimes I just kind of want to say the hell with it, but for now I’m going to just keep bringing cruelty-free options along and hope that it eventually becomes part of the tradition :)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>