A lot of things seem like a big deal before you’re vegetarian or vegan. For me, as a Marylander, it was crab feasts — that was the one thing, I said, I’d never give up, even after I was mostly vegetarian.
But then one day the idea of eating crabs just stopped appealing to me, and after that I found it easy to drink a beer or two and, enjoy the company, and just skip the crabs.
Thanksgiving has been a lot like that for me. My first vegetarian Thanksgiving occurred eight months after I stopped eating meat, so by then the turkey just wasn’t that interesting. Since then, Thanksgiving hasn’t been nearly the big issue it seemed before I was vegetarian.
And yet, “What do you do on Thanksgiving if you don’t eat meat?” is one of the more common questions people ask me. Almost as common is, “Do you have any advice for a first vegetarian/vegan Thanksgiving?”, so I figured I’d write a post about how I handle this holiday that’s based so much on (traditionally not-even-close-to-vegan) food.
Why plant-based Thanksgiving isn’t so hard
The reason Thanksgiving is easier than people expect, I think, is that while turkey is the main course, this is one meal where the focus is generally just as much (or more!) on the side dishes.
Pumpkin soup, casseroles, vegetables, mashed potatoes and gravy, rolls, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, stuffing, and even pumpkin pie all have easy vegan versions; you just need to look for the recipes.
And so what my wife and I have done for the past few years is simple: focus our Thanksgiving dinner on the sides.
We actually hosted Thanksgiving the first year we were vegetarian (not yet vegan). We made a bunch of delicious side dishes from Fine Cooking, substituting where necessary. We did have a turkey at the table, but if I remember correctly, we had a guest bring it for anyone who wanted it, instead of making it ourselves. (I’m the opposite of the type of vegetarian who would expect my non-vegetarian guests to skip turkey just because they’re my guests.)
So hosting Thanksgiving yourself is one way to make it easy. But for the past two years, we’ve gone to my wife’s sister’s house for Thanksgiving dinner, with last year being our first as vegans. Going somewhere else was harder than hosting it, of course, because we weren’t making all the dishes. But we’ve been lucky that our hostess has made us our own gravy, and made sure several other dishes were vegan so we could eat them.
Even with fewer choices than when we made everything ourselves, eating somewhere else hasn’t been hard. I recognize that not everyone has such a nice situation, with accepting relatives that make it easy and pleasant. But even in a tough situation where nobody is going to go out of their way to help you out, I still think you can make the best of it with just a little bit of effort. Here are some simple ways to do it.
A few tips for making your vegan Thanksgiving a delicious one
- If Thanksgiving for your family is an all-day affair, bring a dip that’s filling (like hummus, see recipe below) that you can snack on all day. Unlike everyone else, you’re not so worried about filling up on appetizers and ruining your dinner, especially if you won’t have much of a dinner to ruin!
- Many vegan, one-dish meals also make great sides (like this lentil, mushroom and root vegetable dish). If you’re only making one thing to bring for yourself, make it something hearty like this that can serve as your main course but that others will enjoy as a side.
- Go to a vegan restaurant or a vegan potluck for their Thanksgiving dinner. Often these are held on the night before Thanksgiving, so you can treat that as your big feast day and the next as a day to spend time with family and just fill up on what food you can. (We’re going to this one, at our favorite vegan restaurant in the world that happens to be right up the road. It’ll be our first Thanksgiving thing like this.)
- Field Roast (purveyors of the best fake meats around, in my opinion) makes a Celebration Roast that I’ve eaten and enjoyed with no cause whatsoever for celebration. They even provide some Thanksgiving-style recipes for it! Also check out their Hazelnut Cranberry Roast en Croute — I’ve never had it (nor do I speak French) but it sure looks fancy.
- From Doug: “If going to someone else’s house for dinner (like family), be aggressive in either offering to provide recipes or cooking some of the dishes yourself. I find that most people just don’t know how to handle it, so they are happy to accept some help. “
- From Susan: “As a vegetarian whose in-laws are cattle ranchers, I’ve learned the most important thing during family gatherings is to always keep a sense of humor. Though we have our joking banter about how I ‘need to eat more beef!’ they ultimately respect my way of living because I respect theirs, too. I love my partner’s family – they’re wonderful, funny people, and when we get together, we’ve got ten million things to talk about besides vegetarianism and cattle ranching. I don’t care if we gather around a turkey and I’m “only” eating side dishes – I’m enjoying the company! The holidays are supposed to be a positive, fun time, not a time to try to ‘convert’ anyone or make people feel like a bad person because of what they choose (or not choose) to eat.”
- From my sister, Christine: “Remember all the great stuff that is naturally vegan and doesn’t need replacements — like baguettes and roasted garlic, cranberries, green beans, succotash, sour kraut, mushroom gravy, sweet potato casserole (marshmallows are gross on this anyway), butternut squash soup, apple crumble, and hot apple cider.”
- Don’t make a big deal about your diet differences on Thanksgiving, unless people are genuinely interested. I know some people are more vocal about their veganism than I am, and that’s cool, but I think Thanksgiving is one time when debating about food probably only entrenches both sides. Not to mention ruining the atmosphere and the point of the celebration.
- Finally, remember that the food isn’t the real point. One of the great things about vegan Thanksgiving is that it’s not quite as easy to eat so much that you’re disgustingly, uncomfortably stuffed and needing to immediately unbuckle your jeans and collapse into a food coma the instant the meal is over. Use the energy and attention you would have spent destroying your plate to instead be mindful and grateful that you have food on it, and that you have friends and family to share it with.
Other useful vegan Thanksgiving links:
- VegNews’s Thanksgiving O-Rama
- Mostly-Raw-All-Vegan Thanksgiving Menu from Choosing Raw (see Gena’s Thanksgiving tips too)
- A Proper Plant-Based No-Turkey Day Feast from Yum Universe
Thanksgiving pumpkin hummus recipe (from my sister, Christine)
- 2 cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
- 1 can pumpkin puree (or 2 cups homemade pumpkin puree)
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 4 cloves garlic
- 1 tablespoon cumin
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 3/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- juice of 1 lemon (about 3 tablespoons
Puree all ingredients in a food processor until uniform. Serve with flatbread and fresh veggies.
Have a happy, healthy Thanksgiving
I published this post a few weeks ahead of Thanksgiving so you have time to use it. I’ve heard a lot of stories (like Katie’s!) of people who use an over-indulgence on Thanksgiving as their motivation to start eating better or even go vegetarian or vegan. While that’s great, my hope is that a few people might skip the over indulgence this year, and go right to the healthy part.