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December 14, 2008

Celebrating With Vegetarians

Filed under: Uncategorized — Twistie @ 2:11 pm

As an enthusiastic food fan, I’m also a bit of a fan of the Bravo series Top Chef. It’s always interesting to see what the cheftestants come up with to meet each challenge and how the judges react to the food.

A couple weeks ago, a Thanksgiving episode was run. The cheftestants had to break into two equal teams and make Thanksgiving dinner for the Foo Fighters and their crew. They were required to use the band’s rider to help them figure out what would be best to make (For those unconnected to the business, the rider is a list of personal requirements the band has such as those infamous ‘no brown M&Ms’ demands). One of the notes in that rider? There were eighteen vegetarians in the crew.

Among the dishes served by the winning team were a green salad, a vegan dressing, green beans, and a hearty potato dish. The losing team? Had a choice of turkey, roast pork loin, or mac and cheese with bacon(!) for main dishes. They didn’t show a single green vegetable. Basically, all the vegetarians could eat was roast potatoes or yams. Oh, and dessert. And those potatoes? According to the judges, they came out a bit al dente. Not something you want in a roast potato.

But that got me thinking. During this season, there are a lot of celebretory meals, and all too many meat eaters panic at the thought of feeding someone who chooses a vegetarian – let alone vegan – route. If you’re a meat eater nervous about feeding a vegetarian for the holidays (or, indeed, any day) here are a few good tips.

Make sure there’s something meatless on the table. This should be a no-brainer, but it’s amazing how many people don’t stop to think that using beef broth as a base for the soup or sprinkling a bit of bacon over the geen beans means that your vegetarian friends and family members can’t eat them. That doesn’t mean you can’t have your roast, but remember to keep the sides mostly meatless.

Vegetarians do not live by salad alone. Really. Vegetarians and vegans can eat hearty dishes, hot dishes, and desserts. They can nibble on snacks. Make sure there’s something they can eat other than a green salad.

If there’s hidden meat or animal products in a dish, quietly let your vegetarian or vegan guest know before they bite into it. A lot of dishes include stock or broth, milk, cheese, and other ingrediants that may not be immediately obvious. Don’t assume it will be okay if they don’t know it’s there. And really, really don’t try to trick them into eating something they find offensive. That’s not okay.

Remember that there are sources of protein other than meat. Think about providing a dish that includes beans, lentils, tofu, or soy beans. Most people will do just fine if they miss protein for a meal or two, but it’s just good manners to consider and do your best to meet the dietary needs of your guests as completely as possible.

Don’t make a huge deal out of the whole thing. It’s never polite to put the different guest on public display as different. Quietly take your vegetarian or vegan friend/family member aside and let them know about any potential landmines on the table. Don’t sit everybody down to the table and then go down the list of what (s)he can and cannot eat.

If you aren’t sure what they can eat, ask before planning your menu. Some vegetarians eat some seafood, others don’t. Vegans have more restrictions than vegetarians. Trust me, they won’t get offended if you ask what is and is not okay. You’re showing a willingness to understand their needs, and that’s always a good thing.

Whether your big celebration is for Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Year’s, someone’s birthday or anniversary, or just the hell of it, a little thought and a touch of sensitivity will allow everyone to enjoy the meal.

And isn’t that what a good celebration is all about?


  1. Great post, Twistie! I am usually the only vegetarian at the holiday gatherings I attend, and I don’t mind at all having to stick to the side dishes and desserts. If there’s not enough there that I can eat, I’ll just eat again when I get home — but I do appreciate it when there are plenty of meat-free dishes from which I can choose. And I definitely don’t like it when the host makes a big deal out of my dietary choices.

    Last year at a holiday gathering, the host served lasagna (with meat in it) and little else, and then acted astonished when I wouldn’t eat it. I didn’t make a big deal out of it — I didn’t even say anything; I just didn’t grab a plate. She’s known for years that I don’t eat meat, yet she asked why I wasn’t eating and then said, “Well, I thought you’d make an exception for lasagna!” Oy.

    Comment by Cat — December 14, 2008 @ 3:14 pm

  2. Very necessary information during all this holiday cooking!

    I was assigned to make dressing for Thanksgiving this year. I made one pan of regular sausage dressing with turkey broth. For the 4 vegetarians in the group, I made a smaller pan of cornbread dressing using mushrooms and onions sauteed in garlic, white wine and sage. I used veggie broth and olive oil to eliminate the meat and dairy. Both were a big hit, and the vegetarians appreciated having a choice.

    It’s really not hard to adapt most recipes to make them veggie or vegan friendly. In fact, I find it an enjoyable challenge!

    Comment by Kim — December 14, 2008 @ 9:14 pm

  3. Heidi Swanson’s
    has so many good vegan and vegetarian recipes! Creative, glamourous, hearty…one could lose interest in meat altogether.

    Comment by betsy — December 15, 2008 @ 1:06 am

  4. Good advice!

    It’s sometimes furstrating to go somewhere where the only vegetarian things have very little protein. It’s not always satisfying to fill up on, say, rice or potato.

    It’s really easy to make a “roast” out of lentils/beans/nuts/tofu. Look for nut roast or lentil roast recipes. You can even get vegetarian “ground meat”. It works pretty much like making a regular meatloaf. We go now and then to pubs that do a British Sunday roast meal, and nearly all of them now have something like this. Yum!

    Comment by La di Da — December 15, 2008 @ 3:34 am

  5. Thank you Twistie!

    I’m often the only vegetarian at gatherings as well, and you wouldn’t believe the number of people who say things like

    “Oh I thought you could eat chicken.”/”But turkey doesn’t count!”
    “Well I don’t see why you can’t eat some meat just for today, its a holiday.”
    “Well maybe you could bring your own food, just to be sure.”

    (That last one is the most insulting – that I’m invited to a dinner just like everyone else but I should provide my own food, since the host can’t/won’t be bothered.)

    Not as annoying but tiresome is explaining to the same people every holiday that I cannot just ‘turn off’ my diet. I’ve been a vegetarian for nearly 6 years now and if I ate their roast, I would be incredibly sick later – my body just isn’t used to breaking down those enzymes anymore. And I hate having to explain, every single holiday, that its a choice I made *with my doctor*, and then have to defend it again, every year.

    Please, for the love of shoes, if someone says they cannot eat X, just ACCEPT IT. And if you invite them to dinner, make sure there is some non-X food, and don’t force them to bring their own.

    Comment by De — December 15, 2008 @ 9:24 am

  6. It’s not just vegetarians/vegans who can get left out during holiday meals. People with various food allergies can be at a loss for what to eat as well. One of my friends is allergic to dairy, nuts, poultry, and wheat. Another friend is deathly allergic to shellfish.

    Everyone should try to be considerate of all their guests when planning food and drink for an event.

    Comment by JR — December 15, 2008 @ 9:49 am

  7. On the flipside, if you (or someone you’re bringing with you) have some sort of unexpected food restriction, it’s important to let the host know ahead of time. A few years back, a friend brought one of her friends to my Christmas Eve party. Unbeknownst to me, that friend was an observant Muslim, and I had cooked many of the dishes with lard. I’d never met this girl before, and my friend never mentioned to me that she had any sort of special needs, and it had frankly never occurred to me that I needed to make Christmas Eve dinner halal. And then I felt bad because there was little she could eat. The moral of this story is, don’t assume the hostess knows what your special dietary issues are. Overcommunicate.

    Comment by Mango — December 15, 2008 @ 12:27 pm

  8. JR you’re absolutely right. Hosts should always be thoughtful of dietary restrictions, whatever they may be. When I’m getting ready to plan a menu for friends, there are always recipes that look good to me that I skip ruthlessly because they include ingredients my guest(s) cannot or will not eat, whether it’s due to allergies, religious or moral objections, or simple preference. I adore shellfish, but I’ve got a good friend who is deathly allergic, so I’d never dream of whipping up a platter of scallops for her. And I really appreciate it when people remember that I loathe mushrooms beyond expression or that very hot peppers tend to have unfortunate arguments with my digestive system.

    Mango, you bring up an important point. Some friends of ours wound up at the last minute with an extra Thanksgiving guest who was terribly allergic to onions. All she could have were green salad and mashed potatoes, because everything else had onions in it…oh, except the pumpkin pie. If they’d known about her allergy before she walked in the door, they could have made arrangements. But in general, this article was meant for when you have prior information. There’s not much you can do if someone hasn’t mentioned dietary restrictions beforehand.

    Comment by Twistie — December 15, 2008 @ 12:45 pm

  9. As a cook who has worked with dietary restrictions let me throw out some ideas.

    A fruit pie or tart in a shortening crust (forget the egg or milk wash) is vegan. So often, my vegan friends don’t get dessert either because pumpkin, pecan, and custard pies all have eggs and/or milk. A simple apple pie or tart, or even just a fresh fruit bowl can help make people feel included. Poached pears in wine and spices are simple, festive, wintery, and vegan

    Make the appetizer, if you’re having one, vegan. (I often do wild mushrooms with shallots and white wine. It’s easy and quick and vegan.)

    Succotash is a traditional Thanksgiving/Christmas dish in my part of the world and thanks to the lima beans, it’s a protein for vegans.

    Roasted root vegetables look beautiful (I usually do a mix of carrots, beets, and parsnips — shake together a half cup of olive oil and a quarter cup of orange juice with a teaspoon of salt to dress it).

    Comment by Fabrisse — December 15, 2008 @ 12:57 pm

  10. this is great! i’m a vego and so often i feel i am a nuisance. i’m a bit tired of being made a spectacle of, just because i don’t eat meat. these are great tips and i hope lots of hostesses and hosts read it and take it on board!
    happy christmas :)

    Comment by kathi — December 16, 2008 @ 3:39 am

  11. Poor De! I’ve experienced something similar, albeit on a much smaller level. About three or four years ago I noticed that I could no longer eat ultra-sugary treats without suffering horrible stomach cramps and other unpleasant side effects. I still do OK with most desserts, but anything glazed or covered in powdered sugar is a big no-no for me. So now every time I turn down a glazed donut, people hassle me for being on a “diet” and try to convince me I “deserve” this or that it’s a “special occasion.” I don’t understand why people can’t accept that some people don’t eat sweets, or don’t eat meat, or don’t drink alcohol, without commenting on it and trying to pressure other people into being “normal!” Bah.

    Fabrisse: poached pears in wine and spices are not only wintery and vegan, but one of the most delicious things in the world!

    Comment by Melissa B. — December 16, 2008 @ 4:59 pm

  12. I’m not vegetarian, but I do have food allergies and intolerances myself, so I always try to accommodate my guests, and will usually ask if there are any issues.

    That said, when I go out to eat with someone who doesn’t know me well, I always plan ahead – either I have a snack first, or secrete a granola bar in my purse and try not to make an issue of it.

    I do kind of find christmas dinner amusing though. I really dislike turkey. However, I love dressing/stuffing, brussels sprouts, cranberry sauce and all the other yummy things that go with the traditional turkey dinner…so I’m always QUITE happy to skip the bird and just eat the other good things…much to the consternation of the host or hostess who are just surprised that someone could dislike turkey…*lol*

    (because its just a dislike, I don’t mention it ahead of time – I don’t feel like the host/hostess should have to prepare something special for me, when I’m more than content with all the side dishes!)

    Comment by CanadianChick — December 16, 2008 @ 10:29 pm

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