For many Americans, Thanksgiving is a time to kick back, watch football, and eat heaping plates of turkey, mashed potatoes, and other hearty holiday staples. But if you don’t eat meat or animal products, a holiday centered around a big turkey can be a strange and stressful time. Navigating thanksgiving as a vegan may leave you feeling hungry or alienated.
A recent Gallup poll found that 3 percent of Americans self-identify as vegans. That may sound small, but extrapolate a bit, and that gives us nearly 10,000,000 vegans living stateside. Throw in another 5 percent who identify as vegetarians, and this country is sporting plenty of people who abstain from meat. So, if this describes you, you’re part of a sizable club. If it doesn’t, it might describe the friend or family member sitting across from you at the Thanksgiving table.
Considering the high probability that your celebration will include vegans, carnivores, and others falling somewhere in the middle, we have some pro tips for making this year’s feast a delicious, respectful occasion for all involved. First up, some ground rules.
Cram a bunch of family into one house, add wine, and there are bound to be a few heated exchanges over the course of the day. But your food choices don’t have to foster a contentious debate. That’s what uncles and in-laws are for. Instead, a little understanding can go a long way.
“I don’t exist in a very vegan world,” says Alicia Kennedy, food writer and host of the podcast Meatless. “So I am always looking at a turkey even while eating cashew mac and cheese.” If that sounds familiar, you’ll know what often comes next. Some prodding to swallow your beliefs and wash them down with a turkey leg. “My family loves to suggest I just eat meat on the special day or taunt me with crispy turkey skin,” Kennedy says. “But, following the trends of society at large, they’ve stopped seeing my choice as such a weird one.”
Whichever side of the meat divide you fall on, the Thanksgiving table isn’t the best place to proselytize. If a healthy exchange of ideas is possible, go for it. But know that you’re unlikely to change anyone’s opinion at the moment.
“Keep to yourself and your sweet potatoes,” Kennedy advises. “Enjoy what you can to the fullest, and roll with any hate. It’s really boiling down to their anxiety that there might be something wrong with eating animals. And no one wants to question their ethics on a rare day of rest. But, in all likelihood, even if your family doesn’t go vegan along with you at some point, they’ll slowly but surely start to understand why you did and respect that.”
Beware These Thanksgiving Dishes
If you’re vegan and attending a non-vegan Thanksgiving, pay close attention to what you’re eating. Turkey, gravy, and stuffing are obvious foods to avoid, but animal products could be hiding in plain sight.
Jennifer Rodriguez, a vegan registered dietitian at Food Is Vida, says to be careful with desserts, as most are made with milk or eggs. “Some other foods to keep an eye on are anything that might have been made with butter, such as rolls or mashed potatoes, as well as sneaky meats like bacon in green bean casseroles.”
Kennedy notes that for a few years, she ordered a vegan spread for herself. If you’re worried about available options, it’s not a bad way to go. “It’s pretty popular for vegan restaurants to try to make it easy for vegans by offering things like this,” she says. “Luckily though, my family has gotten on board with replacing a lot of butter and cream with olive oil and nut milks. So I get to enjoy everything but the turkey.”
Vegan-Friendly Thanksgiving Dishes
If you’re in charge of cooking—or just responsible for bringing a side—you can make a few simple swaps to turn Thanksgiving staples into vegan-friendly fare. For example, create a rich mushroom gravy instead of a meat-based gravy. Or, reach for vegan butter when whipping up potatoes.
“For hearty meals, try vegan buttery spreads like Earth Balance,” Rodriguez suggests. “Use it in your green beans, casseroles, or mashed potatoes.” If you want to add some nonmeat meatiness to your side dishes, such as those aforementioned green beans, she’s got that covered, too. “Lightlife Smart Bacon [a soy-based bacon substitute] is amazing and would help cut back on total fat intake while leaving the flavor and tradition alive.”
If you need a tasty vegetable, the humble cauliflower is here to help. “A popular, eye-catching, and easy dish one can bring is a cauliflower roast,” Rodriguez says. “Marinate a whole cauliflower head with your favorite spices, herbs, and olive oil, and bake. It is a simple and nutritious non-starchy vegan side dish everyone can enjoy.”
It’s technically not Thanksgiving without pie, so someone will need to either procure or produce one. If you’re baking a pie or cake, applesauce is a surprisingly good substitute for eggs. According to Rodriguez, flaxseed is a great alternative when baking muffins or cookies. In that case, she says that you can swap one egg for three tablespoons of water and one tablespoon of ground flaxseed. This combo creates an emulsifier that mimics the effects eggs have on a baked good’s structure and consistency. As an added bonus, flaxseed is a healthy choice on an otherwise indulgent holiday.
Thanksgiving might not be every vegan’s favorite holiday, but it also only comes once a year. Stick to your guns and your delicious vegan treats and enjoy the day with your family and friends.