How to Come Out to Your Family—as a Vegetarian

Admitting to family that you don’t eat meat is hard. Sometimes comically so.

vegetarian holiday recipes

(Photo: Joshua Hodge/Getty Images)

Steve Holt writes about food for 'Edible Boston,' 'Boston Magazine,' 'The Boston Globe,' and other publications.

Your bag is packed. Your flight is confirmed. You’ve got a list of old friends to see. You’re heading home for the holidays.

But you’re worried.

So much has changed. How will you tell the family? What will they think? You’re not the same person who left home all those years ago. You don’t eat meat anymore.

In many American families, food-related “oddities” can be some of the hardest for “kids” to admit. These admissions can be most difficult to make during the holiday season, when families gather around tables full of traditional foods.

A letter sent to Slate advice columnist Miss Prudence last month showed just how hairy these situations can get. A mother expressed concern about her two 40-something daughters coming home for Thanksgiving, one of whom had announced she was now vegan and would not tolerate meat being served. When the mother offered to do a meatless Thanksgiving, the meat-eating daughter and her husband threatened to boycott the holiday altogether.

Though the Miss Prudence example is more extreme, Cheryl Sullivan knows what it’s like to go home and have her vegetarianism misunderstood by family.

“Every year on Thanksgiving, my father would offer me the platter of turkey,” she recalls. “Every year I would say, ‘Dad, I don't eat meat.’ Every year he would say, 'You don't eat meat? Since when? Not even turkey?’ Every year.”

After her meat-free “conversion” on a cross-country van trip with girlfriends, the Wakefield, Mass., native would show up at family holiday events with a bean-based dish in one hand and a copy of the Moosewood Cookbook in the other. Despite her efforts, she never felt her food principles were embraced.

“My dad just didn't really get why anyone would think that food meant anything,” she said. “He enjoyed Fiddle Faddle and Doritos and soda and gross lunch meat like pimento loaf and liverwurst. Having a moral objection to a food item was just not a concept he could wrap his mind around, and thus, when I spoke of my moral objection, it just didn't register with him at all.”

Other vegans and vegetarians say similar things about their families’ reactions to their food beliefs. Many parents seem to view it as a phase that their children will one day outgrow. The mom who wrote in to Slate, however, may have erred on the other side of the spectrum.

“I think your original mistake was in completely accommodating Molly,” the vegan daughter, Miss Prudence replied. “It’s admirable that she is taking an ethical stance on her own consumption; however, part of growing up is understanding that not everyone shares your views and that you are not entitled to cram them down others’ throats. Especially on Thanksgiving.”

Sullivan brings along veggie-friendly dishes to her family’s omnivorous holiday celebrations. But she regrets the early years, when she also brought along helpings of sanctimonious rhetoric about her revulsion to meat. She said that strategy did little more than set her apart from her family.

“My advice to a young vegan or vegetarian would be to consider their desired outcome,” she said. “Does New Vegan want to enjoy the company of family and friends while eating foods consistent with his or her values? Then I'd say New Vegan should inform family, ahead of time, that he or she has cut out meat and won't be enjoying the prime rib or turkey that Grandma so lovingly prepared, but no big deal!”

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