Recently I wrote about keeping a vegan home, and I loved hearing all of your insightful responses. Today I’m putting the focus on what to do when you’re invited into someone else’s home for birthday parties, graduation parties, and similar celebrations. Of course, when friends invite me over for an intimate dinner, I can be assured that they will be making a vegan option. But when I’m invited to an event in someone else’s honor, it’s a bit different.
Navigating the proper etiquette can be tricky, and when you’re living in a non-vegan world, these scenarios pop up regularly. Remember, a prepared vegan is a happy vegan. Here are some things I’ve tried over the years when I’ve been invited to someone else’s event.
Eat ahead of time.
If it’s an informal gathering like someone’s retirement party or toddler’s birthday party, unless the person who is being honored is vegan too, there’s a good chance that the vegan offerings will be slim. So I tend to go with the assumption that nothing there will be vegan and never arrive famished. Then if there are some accidentally vegan things like a fruit tray, carrot sticks and hummus, potato chips, or tortilla chips and salsa, it’s a nice surprise. Sometimes people will go out of their way to include something vegan on my account, and that’s lovely, but that’s not my expectation.
If it’s a larger event, like a wedding, there’s often a box on the invitation for selecting a vegetarian option or listing any dietary requirements. However, sometimes it’s a buffet, and then you can’t be sure what will be offered.
Last year David and I attended an out-of-town wedding for one of his co-workers. It was going to be a buffet situation. In a casual moment in the weeks before the wedding, David asked the co-worker about what they would be serving. The co-worker had a moment of revelation that we would be driving 4 hours to attend the wedding, but there wouldn’t be anything vegan on the buffet line.
“Oh, I’m sorry!” he told David.
David assured him that there were lots of vegan-friendly restaurants in the area that we were looking forward to trying. Between the wedding and the reception when there was a break for pictures, we went to one of them for a quick bite. Since the reception was a buffet, people were eating at random times anyway. So it didn’t seem strange when we were just having drinks while other people ate.
Ask the host about the planned menu. Offer to bring something.
If it’s a larger party with some kind of food theme like a taco bar, breakfast bar, chili, sandwiches, etcetera, I’ll talk to the host ahead of time. I’ll ask questions about what they’re planning, and that’s when a host will tell me if anything will be vegan. Sometimes they’ll ask for suggestions, and I’ll suggest things that fit with what they are already making. If it’s a sandwich bar, hummus is an easy choice since they can just pick up a container if they don’t want to make their own. If it’s a taco bar, black beans are a simple option. If it’s a pizza party, lots of vegetables and no cheese, please.
Plus, I always offer to bring something to help ease the load. It’s best to ask first, so that the host doesn’t go to a lot of work and then feel like a dish is “competing” with what they’ve made. They may have a set menu in mind. If the host takes me up on it, then I try to choose something that would be substantive enough for my main course but would also be a complimentary side dish for others. A hearty salad, pasta salad, soup, chili, or rice dish are all good options.
Replicate the food being served but in vegan form.
This is a trick that I sometimes hear parents suggest for vegan children. For example, if the child’s peers are eating sandwiches with deli slices and bags of potato chips, the other 7-year-olds won’t know the difference if the vegan child is eating turkey or Tofurky. It’s important to some kids that they “fit in” and not to feel like they stand out for eating differently.
Even though kids are the ones who often have that reputation, I don’t think adults are so far off sometimes. Despite what they sang on Sesame Street, it can feel uncomfortable to be the one doing your own thing. And when you’re having dinner, you don’t always want the conversation to turn to you and what you’re eating.
So although I would typically think of this as an option for kids, I tried this a few months ago and kind of loved it. My niece was celebrating her birthday, and David and I were invited to her party for dinner and cake. Every year on her birthday, my niece requests her favorite lasagna. A different year, my sister-in-law threw some noodles in for us along with jarred pasta sauce. It totally worked, but this year I decided to do something different, especially since I knew my brother and sister-in-law had their hands full getting the house ready for guests and preparing for the party. I assured them that we could handle our dinner for the evening.
The night before the party, I made a small tray of lasagna, and David and I had it for dinner. Then I cut out two large pieces and put it in Pyrex for us the next day. Before the party, we stopped at Whole Foods, where they sell cake by the slice. They have slices from Chicago Diner, and we each got one.
When the time came for dinner, I heated our lasagna. Since we were eating lasagna like everyone else, it negated the sometimes awkward discussions that start with, “Now, what are YOU having?Then when everyone was cutting into cake, there wasn’t a weird vibe of pity around, “Oh, you can’t have any of this…” I am not a big dessert person, and it doesn’t bother me to not eat cake. (I’m a savory person through and through.) However, it can feel like you’re a stick in the mud, or rigid, or like there’s too much attention focused on what you’re NOT eating if you’re not having a slice of cake like everyone else. So it was really nice to pull out our slices of cake and dig in at the same time as everyone else. Plus, the cake from Chicago Diner is crazy good. Yes, it took more planning on my part to make lasagna ahead of time and pick up dessert; however, in the right circumstances I would totally do it again.
Remember what’s important.
I’m always thankful when people invite me into their homes, often going out of their way to make me feel included and considered. But at the end of the day, what we remember about celebrations has very little to do with the food. It’s about celebrating the birthday boy or girl, spending time with family and friends, and just enjoying being together. Although many celebrations seem to revolve around food, the ultimate goal is connecting.