Today’s post is for people who will be celebrating their first vegan Thanksgiving while visiting the home of a non-vegan.
Ah, Thanksgiving. 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, and so by bringing one of your own (suggestions here), you’ll have that six o’clock position on your plate covered.
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. If you don’t care about a focal point dish, there’s no reason why you can’t make a meal of vegan green bean casserole, sweet potatoes topped with cranberry sauce, a seasonal salad, and roasted Brussels sprouts. 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. When planning what you’re going to bring, avoid going 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 announced as being vegan and the other is not, you might as well decorate your serving bowl with caution tape, because 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 from Vegan Diner. (That year I left mushrooms out of the mix since some people get squeamish about them.) Both of the gravies in that book are terrific, and 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.
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.
Another reason people might skip the vegan option is that they don’t want to literally eat up the only thing the vegans have there to eat. Which brings us to…
4. Be positive and eager to share what you’re bringing.
If it’s 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.
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. If the host or any of the other potluck attendees are open to making some of the sides they are bringing easily vegan, that is a wonderful gesture.
When I go to Thanksgiving at my parents’ house, my mom replaces the animal-based butter and milk in her dishes, like mashed potatoes, with vegan butter & plain soy milk. No one else at the event knows the difference, but it means that’s one fewer dish that I have to make.
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 and 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 cranberry sauce or roasted broccoli), there’s no reason to double up.
7. If that’s not possible and you alone will be handling all of the dishes you’re eating at the potluck, consider paring down the amount of dishes you need to be satisfied with the meal.
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 seitan dish, and roasted Brussels sprouts or broccoli. Pick out what will make a satisfying plate for you, and go with it.
8. Don’t put a lot of pressure on yourself that you have to be the world’s best cook and advocate for vegan dining.
It can feel like we have it on our shoulders to show people 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, and 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.
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, and 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.
12. Make new traditions.
Our traditions are constantly evolving, and it can bring added meaning to a holiday to make new traditions that are filled with your current values. 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. If there aren’t any sanctuaries near you, adopt a turkey from Farm Sanctuary.
Seek out vegan restaurants or Meet-ups in your town that have Thanksgiving celebrations in the days leading up the holiday. (One of my all-time favorites is at Follow Your Heart in Canoga Park. When we lived in Los Angeles, I never missed it. The Thanksgiving meal at Real Food Daily is also out of this world.)
*Okay, you got me. Our forefathers weren’t eating cranberry sauce or mashed potatoes at the first Thanksgiving. I guess traditions really do change.
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