Vegan at Thanksgiving? You’ve got nothing to fear. Here are 12 tips for staying happy, harmonious, and well fed this holiday season – even if it’s your first plant-based Thanksgiving and you’re the only vegan there.
When you travel to Grandma’s house and watch as all of your cousins, aunts and uncles, siblings, nephews, and nieces file inside carrying crock pots, casserole dishes, and covered bowls.
They carefully unwrap each plate of cookies and tin of pies… And then you realize there’s nothing there that’s vegan.
But wait! This isn’t the year that you’ll have to start your yearly Thanksgiving Fast.
With just a bit of planning, you too can have a plate piled high with mashed potatoes & cranberry sauce, just like our forefathers.*
How to survive your first vegan Thanksgiving
1. Bring a main dish.
Most likely the Thanksgiving you’re attending won’t have a vegan entrée. So by bringing one of your own (vegan pot pie, perhaps?), you’ll have that six o’clock position on your plate covered.
(Want more ideas? Get 30 vegan Thanksgiving recipes <— here!)
2. Or don’t bring a main dish!
For many people, Thanksgiving is all about the sides. Thanksgiving plates are a hodgepodge of flavors anyway.
Remember, it’s just one meal. You don’t need to have every Thanksgiving dish that has ever been written about in Thanksgiving Monthly.
3. Don’t go head-to-head with a non-vegan version of your exact same dish.
Talk to the other people attending the potluck and find out what they are bringing.
In my experience, if there are two dishes that are the same, but one is vegan and the other is not, you might as well decorate your serving bowl with caution tape. A lot of people won’t be going past it.
For example, one year, I made mushroom gravy and brought it to a non-vegan Thanksgiving potluck. When people walked up to the table, they had the option of a meat-filled gravy or mushroom gravy.
Let’s just say that it’s disheartening to make gravy for 20, only to drive back home with gravy for 19.
The next year I talked to the host. And we decided I’d make all of the gravy for the day. I made two kinds – both vegan.
(That year I left mushrooms out of the mix since some people get squeamish about them.)
By the end of the night, every drop of gravy was gone. No one even seemed to notice or care that there wasn’t any meat involved.
(Looking for a good gravy? Try this cashew gravy with chestnuts.)
I’ve heard that children have to be introduced to a food 13 times before they try it. Sometimes I don’t think adults are that far off. People tend to gravitate towards what is familiar.
If you give them the option of what they have always had or something new, most people will pick the former.
If you just say, hey, it’s gravy, and there aren’t classifications, people are more likely to just try it and like it.
Dishes that are especially easy to fly under the radar of “what’s this weird new thing?” are mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce, a simple salad, or roasted vegetables. Make one of those things, and most people won’t even question what it contains (or doesn’t).
Also, in my experience people seem less hesitant about trying store-bought items. Maybe they already trust Trader Joe’s? Or the local take-out place is already seen as legitimate? For whatever reason, I’ve found that if I bring a prepared item still in its container or takeout packaging, people are more willing to try it.
Bringing something store-bought has the added bonus that it didn’t take me any time at all to prepare. And I feel zero attachment to them liking it. So if it’s not a hit, I don’t feel disappointed that I spent a lot of time and effort on it.
And on the positive side, if they like that store-bought vegan dish, they now know where they can get it again at a grocery store or restaurant in town.
4. Be positive and eager to share what you’re bringing.
If you decide to break out of the ordinary and bring something that may be new to people, tell them about it. Describe why you like it or what makes it unique.
People are more apt to try something new if someone seems excited to share it, and if you can break down any preconceptions or confusion for them about the item.
I would say for Thanksgiving, I’d stay away from anything tofu, because a lot of people (especially in my neck of the woods) have strong negative preconceptions about it. But you know your crowd! Think about what kinds of things they are open to trying, and lean into that.
5. Don’t cook more than you need.
At the holidays, people tend to cook as if they’re solely cooking for the entire group. Instead of packing enough food for yourself and everyone else there, know there are going to be lots of options.
It feels much better to go home with an empty bowl than it does to spend a lot of time and money cooking, only to find yourself eating your dishes again and again and again in the days following Thanksgiving.
(Unless you really love leftovers, in which case, cook away!)
6. Ask if others are willing to tweak their recipes
With some dishes, it can be surprisingly easy to turn a non-vegan dish into a vegan one. Often it’s just a matter of swapping out dairy butter for vegan butter or cow’s milk for cashew milk.
If you attend Thanksgiving with the same people every year, it doesn’t hurt to put out your feelers and see if they’d be willing to make some simple swaps to veganize their dishes.
When I go to Thanksgiving at my parents’ house, my mom replaces the animal-based butter and milk in her mashed potatoes with vegan butter & plain cashew milk.
My sister-in-law often makes a fall salad with apples & candied pecans. She leaves the dairy-based cheese off or serves it separately.
No one else at the event knows the difference. But it means fewer dishes that I have to make.
And it’s really nice to feel welcomed and considered at Thanksgiving. When people go out of their way to include me, it makes me feel valued and wanted.
Obviously if the host or guests are people you don’t know well, you may not feel comfortable broaching this with them. However, if it’s family or a close friend, they may not mind at all.
They simply may not realize how easy it is to veganize a dish. If you live close by, you could even drop off those ingredients for them.
Either way, it’s good to know ahead of time what other people are bringing. If someone else is bringing something that is accidentally vegan (like orange cranberry sauce or sautéed broccolini), there’s no reason to double up.
7. Consider paring down the amount of dishes you need to be satisfied.
If for whatever reason you alone will be the only one cooking vegan dishes, consider paring down your menu.
While over the years we may have become accustomed to having 15 different dishes on a plate, there’s no reason that there has to be that much variety.
Adjust your expectations and save yourself some headaches. It’s okay to just have three different things on a plate.
Think about what dishes just feel like Thanksgiving to you and make those.
If I were to pare it down to only three things, I’d like:
- Mashed potatoes and gravy
- Some kind of pot pie, seitan dish, or turkeyless roast (like the Trader Joe’s holiday roast above or Herbivorous Butcher vegan turkey)
- Easy roasted cauliflower or vegan green bean casserole
Pick out what will make a satisfying plate for you, and go with it.
8. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself.
When you’re the token vegan at Thanksgiving, it can feel like you have it on your shoulders to show others that eating a vegan meal is far from deprivation but actually a celebration in color and flavor.
Set yourself free from raising the bar too high. Just make and bring things you like. They don’t have to be fancy, tasking affairs.
9. Bring a dessert.
I don’t even care about dessert. But it can be awkward without one when everyone else is dishing up something sweet.
One year we skipped bringing a pie. And I felt like all eyes were on us, as if we were sticking to a rigid diet on a day of gluttony.
My husband is the pie-maker in our family. So he’ll either make a fruit pie (lately he’s been enjoying Vegan Pie in the Sky for inspiration).
Or we’ll pick up a pie from our local Co-op. Luckily, they sell several vegan pies.
Don’t want to commit to a full pie? Some Whole Foods locations (like the one in Des Moines) and other natural grocery stores sell vegan cakes and pies by the slice.
10. Know that the first year is the hardest, but it gets easier!
Remember when you were going through puberty, and it felt like the most embarrassing thing in the world when an aunt pointed out that you were wearing a bra or that your voice was cracking?
Then time goes on, people adjust, and it’s no longer a big deal that you’re not a kid anymore.
Well, your first vegan Thanksgiving can feel a bit like puberty. It feels like people are paying attention to the fact that you’ve changed.
There may be some jokes at your expense. And because it feels new to you too, it may make you feel self-conscious.
Know that people run out of jokes as the years go on.
(There will always be that one guy. But he’s the same one who insists on saying “see you next year” on December 31st. He can’t help himself.)
Someday “vegan” will just be one of the many ways people describe you. It will just be a part of you. So it won’t feel like there’s a microscope on you.
11. Avoid when necessary.
There’s a reason why so many movies have been made about the holidays. They can be fodder for drama.
So if someone takes the joking too far, or if Ron Swanson is attending your Thanksgiving, and he starts bragging at you about his hunting escapades, take that as your cue to extricate yourself from the situation.
Go do the dishes. Go play a game with the kids. See if anyone would like another glass of water.
The holidays are a time to find commonalities, not a time to focus on things that divide us.
Plus, sometimes the best reaction to people taking things too far is to leave. Or as the internet says, “Don’t feed the trolls.”
12. Make new traditions.
Our traditions are constantly evolving. It can bring added meaning to a holiday to make new traditions that are filled with your current values.
In the days before the actual holiday, host a Friendsgiving. Having a vegan Thanksgiving dinner with other like-minded friends adds extra meaning to the holiday.
If you have an animal sanctuary near you, it is good for the soul to go and visit turkeys and spend time with birds who were saved from the inherent cruelty of the animal industry.
Tibbott the turkey at Iowa Farm Sanctuary
Seek out vegan restaurants or Meet-ups in your town that have Thanksgiving celebrations in the days leading up the holiday.
*Okay, you got me. Our forefathers weren’t eating cranberry sauce or mashed potatoes at the first Thanksgiving. I guess traditions really do change.
Originally posted November 2013. Content and photos updated November 2019.