It’s been three years since the last time I knowingly shoveled a piece of animal flesh into my mouth (though there have been a few accidents since then).
I wish I was one of those people who could say that they always felt a little disgusted eating meat. That the texture or the taste have always been gross.
But I was exactly the opposite.
Sometimes, I existed solely on meat for days. I grew up in a small town in the Midwest. Most of the meat in our freezer came from local farms or from hunts my dad or his friends had gone on. Eating meat was more than a diet choice, it was a way to participate in a lifestyle. We snacked on beef jerky, celebrated big bucks, and high-fived over barbecued weenies.
So when I came back from a trip to Peru with a seemingly miraculous change of heart, my family doubted the longevity of my new choice. But the truth was the less meat I ate, the less I wanted it.
By Thanksgiving, I was still meatless.
I tried my best to let my family know that I’d be avoiding certain foods this year; I wanted to give them a heads up but without making it a big deal. While my mom planned to prepare a few vegetarian options, my dad still couldn’t quite grasp what exactly it was that I was trying to say.
Basically, here’s what happened.
Since my parents are divorced, their Thanksgivings were separate. My mom put ton of effort into providing me with some other options. Unfortunately, most of them still contained a beef broth, bacon bits, or gelatin. Faced with a plate lovingly served, I opened my mouth not to take a bite but instead to let her down gently. But alas, I was unprepared for how difficult it is to tell your mother that you’re unable to eat her love-infused Thanksgiving dinner.
Half way into my first sentence I filled my fork, and I ate it anyway.
Afterwards, I felt like crap. My stomach was upset, and even worse I knew I’d either have to eat the same thing at Christmas or break the news to her that beef broth contains beef.
My dad’s Thanksgiving turned out even stranger. It’s my step-mom who does most of the cooking, and unfortunately, dad hadn’t passed her the message. He was still in some sort of denial, which became increasingly apparent as he repeatedly offered me turkey. But this time, instead of eating the turkey, I piled my plate high with mashed potatoes and assured everyone that mashed potatoes really are my favorite food. But again, it still felt crappy and I even felt a little like a…burden.
Food is this glorious universal tool of human connection. But when you’re unable to share it, it can be an instant mood-killer—if you let it. If I could do it all again, there are a few things I would have done differently (and definitely do now). Here are my tips for surviving your first Thanksgiving as a vegetarian.
1) If you’re able to, bring your own dish.
Be sure to offer it as something for everyone to share, so that it doesn’t look like you’re opting out of the family meal altogether or worse, like you’re trying to provide a “better” option. Opt for something very different from anything else being served, so that no one feels compelled to choose one over the other. Bring a dish that’s just a tiny bit outside of your family’s comfort zone so your contribution simply seems like a fun new experience, a perfect chance to make some memories.
2) If you’re asked about your lifestyle change, refrain from ranting. (Sorry if that seemed harsh, I’m trying to help, really.)
Most people who choose a vegetarian diet do so for a multitude of reasons, many of which they hold quite closely to their hearts. Being a vegetarian myself, I know how tempting it is to take even a sliver of an opportunity to educate friends and family on the benefits of foregoing meat.
It’s really hard to keep quiet about how vegetarianism affects the environment, the lives of thousands of animals, and your own health. But a lot of times, people are asking about your new decision as an attempt to make conversation (i.e. cultivate connection), not because they are invested in learning more about vegetarianism.
This is especially true if the gathering includes extended family that you’re not exactly close to. Be discerning when deciding how much to share (maybe it’s not the best idea to talk about animal cruelty when half of your family has a mouth full of turkey that your mom spent the entire day preparing). Keep your outlook bright and the tone of the conversation optimistic. If the questions keep coming, take it further. If not, find satisfaction with whatever you did manage to say.
3) You will likely bump up against a bit of negativity in the face of your new decision.
Some people may even seem offended by your choice, or somehow threatened. If I have a zit, or I’ve lost a bit of weight, there are certain people that find satisfaction in telling me that all of my troubles would be solved if I just ate some steak. Outside of family functions I have my own way of dealing with these kinds of comments. But surrounded by family, I usually just take a deep breath and smile.
I do it to preserve the mood of the entire room. If what was said was really hurtful, I wait until a moment alone with the person to let them know that what they said wasn’t okay. If you pick up on a negative vibe, take a deep breath and try to understand that we’re all the sum of our unique life experiences. Compassion can really help you get through this one.
4) More than ever, this Thanksgiving, try not to take things too personally.
It’s likely that you’ll be thinking a lot more about your choice to convert to vegetarianism than the rest of your family will be. So what seems like a judgmental snicker or a side glance that felt a bit malicious, could just be your own insecurities coming out to play. You’ve likely exercised a lot of will power in the face of your new change, call on that again when you begin to feel insecure. Will your mind to let it go, and allow yourself to sink into a deeper space. Notice your breath, the temperature of the air, and the smiles on the faces of your siblings. Let those things carry you out of any funk you’re tempted to flop into.
And this one isn’t part of the list because it’s just too obvious. Be Thankful. That’s it. Cultivate gratitude at every opportunity. Say thanks, and feel thanks like the day depends on it. Because no matter how the day unfolds, at the end of it all there’s always something to be grateful for. Let this “something” be more memorable than whatever adversity or discomfort you may have faced.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Author: Lucy Animus
Editor: Renée Picard
Photo: elephant archives