3 Tips For Your First Vegan Thanksgiving

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Maybe you’ve spent a couple of years as a vegetarian, and most of your family has finally gotten the memo that no, vegetarians don’t eat turkey, although the dairy-free mashed potatoes are still an appealing option. But maybe this year, there's something different: perhaps you've hopped on the full vegan train, for a little while or for good. If this is your first vegan Thanksgiving, it might be a wild ride, but if there's anything I've learned in my five years of vegan Thanksgivings, it's that you can definitely enjoy yourself despite other people's food assumptions.

If this is your first time going home as someone who doesn’t eat animal products (“Yes, Uncle Jack, that includes eggs and dairy, and nope, I still don’t eat fish or chicken”), you may well encounter more than a few mystified questions. Some of my favorites include, “But it’s traditional, you really don’t want a little bit?” and “What if I just scrape the marshmallows off the top or pick the turkey away from the stuffing?” And especially as a certified personal trainer and a powerlifter for whom protein is of the utmost muscle-building importance, the question that really gets me (and maybe the one that comes up most often) is, “So where do you get all your protein from?”

If you're looking for anything from rebuttals to the incessant questions or practical "what will I eat when someone else is hosting?" concerns, these three tips — for both the physical and emotional prep — have got you covered, including two separate prongs of preparation.

1. Keep Context In Mind

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I have a lot of high-horse answers (pun intended) about the health and ethical implications of getting protein from animals — not to mention the fact that a whole variety of veggies and other plants offer massive amounts of vegan protein. I tend to keep those thoughts to myself and the occasional venting session to my wife. Especially during Thanksgiving, this restraint is important to me. The reason for this is that just because your animal ethics feel on point, that doesn't mean you're exempting yourself from reconciling with the overall history of the holiday.

Most Thanksgiving celebrations willfully erase the genocide of indigenous peoples that followed the pilgrims' "first harvest dinner" (which probably didn't happen at all), and this erasure perpetuates the marginalization of indigenous people in this country today. Even making plant-based food choices don’t erase the reality of labor exploitation of migrant farmworkers that puts the veggies on your plate.

Given all this history, Thanksgiving is often a time where families gather and political tempers flare. Being mindful of the context of this meal — and its ethical implications — is important for vegans because ethics are not just about what you eat.

2. Take Care Of Your Own Food Needs

As you well know, traditional Thanksgiving food is not traditionally vegan-friendly. Bring a vegan main dish to your host’s Thanksgiving so you know you'll have something to eat. You don’t necessarily have to specify that it’s vegan — since, allergies aside, everyone will be able to eat it. That main dish can be anything from a vegan loaf to a fabulous vegan mac and cheese. This will not only ensure that you’re physically fed and satisfied, but it will also have the added emotional benefit of avoiding your parents’ inevitable implication that you’re being “difficult” or “picky.” By bringing your own dish, you can simply say, “No [insert parental unit here], don’t worry about where I'll get my protein: I’m cooking this awesome dish that I think everyone will love.”

It’s also more than possible to eat just a bit beforehand (just don’t tell that to your grandmother). It’ll be much easier to get through all the unnecessary vegan jokes and conversations about how “juicy” the turkey is if you’re not also super hungry.

3. Take Care Of Your Emotional Health

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As for navigating difficult conversations themselves, remember that you are allowed to disengage. Have quick, easy responses practiced beforehand to questions or comments that are bound to come up. “Vegans actually get their protein just as easily as meat-eaters from a wide variety of sources,” “No, thank you,” and “I’m very happy with my meal” all work well to diffuse an annoying conversation. Your answers can be short and simple, or you can always engage in the art of not responding or changing the subject.

You might want to enlist an ally — perhaps a sympathetic vegetarian, or at least someone whose best friend is vegan — to help you poke around to find what dishes are vegan (and make faces at each other when people are making off-color remarks). In the Friendsgivings that I host, we always gather everyone around to go through everything that’s in each dish (all from scratch, because that’s how I roll) so people can be comfortable with their food choices. But since your family may not do that, perfecting the art of snooping around to find who made what — and sticking solely to the dish or dishes you brought might be an option, too.

Whatever your strategies, you deserve to have a Thanksgiving free from an interrogation of your eating practices. And practice really can make things easier. Your first vegan Thanksgiving can be the hardest, but you’ll get more used to it — and more able to let irritating comments roll off your back — as Thanksgivings go on and your family will find that yes, you are still vegan and loving it.