How to Survive Thanksgiving If You're Vegan but Your Family Eats Meat

Thanksgiving is a tricky time to be a vegan. It’s easy to avoid the big roasted bird, sure, but side dishes can be problematic; even veggie options are often made with dairy or eggs. Plus, you risk someone at the table hitting you up with annoying questions about veganism or getting miffed when you turn down the sausage stuffing they painstakingly prepared.

But while the holiday has its eating and etiquette challenges, “a vegan Thanksgiving is doable and delicious,” says Toronto-based nutritionist Pamela Fergusson, PhD, RD. These five tips from vegan-friendly nutritionists will help you survive the day.

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Tell your host ahead of time

Make sure they know you’re vegan—don’t assume they’ll remember from last year (or even know what veganism is). “What I usually do is reach out to the host and let them know about my dietary preferences in a thoughtful, kind way, and then say that I do not want to inconvenience them and that I’d love to bring a couple of items to share with everyone,” says Los Angeles–based nutritionist Sharon Palmer, RD.

Considering how many people these days have food restrictions, your host might be relieved if you come armed with a few options everyone can enjoy. “In my Friendsgiving each year, we have a couple of vegans, a couple of vegetarians, an allergy to dairy, and an allergy to gluten. So the vegan menu items can help meet many of those dietary preferences.”

Take the focus off food

The traditional Thanksgiving table has a headless bird in the center of it, and the majority of dinner guests will probably carve away with gusto. If this makes you feel out of place or excluded, have some ideas on hand for how you can make the holiday less about food and more about friends or family, suggests Fergusson. A few to try: get everyone up to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on TV, go for a group run to burn off extra calories, or volunteer together at a soup kitchen.

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Get creative with side dishes

“While I think the best part of Thanksgiving is all about the sides, these can often contain non-vegan ingredients, even though they are mostly plant-based,” says Palmer. The stuffing might contain poultry broth, casseroles and mashed potatoes may have butter and cream, and brussels sprouts may be cooked with bacon. All of these are easy to make vegan with vegetable broth, unsweetened and unflavored nut milks, and olive oil.

If you have any say in the menu, the easiest way to navigate this is to have one version of mashed potatoes and sautéed vegetables that just happens to be vegan so that everyone can enjoy it, she says. If you don’t, it’s another reason to bring a few vegan sides to dinner with you. Besides being a help to your host, you just might demonstrate how delicious vegan dishes can be.

“One year, I made a raw spiralized beet salad with lemon and cinnamon and fresh mint, and it was the biggest hit at our Thanksgiving; my family still talks about it,” recalls Rebecca Arnold, a vegan chef and co-owner of Whole Heart Provisions in Boston. She suggests making a vegan pumpkin or squash-based soup with toasted pumpkin seed crumble on top for crunch. And rather than traditional turkey gravy, mushroom gravy is a yummy substitute, adds Fergusson. 

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BYO wine

If you’re drinking and want to have a glass of wine, remember that vino isn’t always vegan, says Fergusson. (Animal products may be used as part of the processing.) It’s a great opportunity to bring your favorite bottle—and insist that the host open it. Prefer beer? That’s usually vegan, she says, so you don’t have to worry.

Steer clear of vegan talk

The day of giving thanks can be fraught with family dynamics, and emotions tend to run high. If you recently started eating vegan, you may be surprised at the pushback from some family and friends. “Many families communicate love by preparing favorite foods,” says Fergusson. “They go through a lot of work to prep food as a way to share love and carry on family traditions.”

If you choose to skip out on the creamy broccoli casserole, certain people might be hurt. Tell them how much you appreciate their efforts, how amazing the house looks, and how good everything smells, she says. At the same time, don’t use Thanksgiving as an opportunity to preach the health or ethical virtues of veganism to a captive audience. If they want to discuss, talk after dinner in a low-key, relaxed setting. 

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