So you've decided you'd like to become a vegetarian, or maybe you already are. Welcome to the club. I've been a vegetarian for over a decade. While it wasn't always easy, I've learnt to incorporate my food choices into my family and social life with the minimal amount of friction and hassle on both sides. Here are some tips for co-existing with our omnivore brothers and sisters at meal time.
Explain Your Choice Without Insulting Others
If you decide to eat vegetarian, great! But not everyone will be so accepting. You might be doing it reasons that are environmental, financial, medical or religious. Some omnivores might not think twice about it, while others may get a little judgmental or defensive. Unless you're looking for an argument, it's a good idea to try and stave off the debate early on.
If you tell others you are a vegetarian because you are a guest in their home or business (see below), don't feel the need to elaborate on the reasons. The reasons are irrelevant in the context of accommodating your request. State your dietary preference like you would a gluten or lactose intolerance. If someone asks, you are welcome to volunteer a reason. Your answer should focus on your opinion and outlook, however. Avoid making statements that attack the other person's eating habits. Instead of "I'm a vegetarian because killing animals for food is wrong," try "I'm a vegetarian because I personally couldn't kill an animal, even to eat." Ultimately, these philosophical arguments happen, but avoid attacking the other person's choice and they are less likely to attack yours.
Assure Your Family That It Won't Be Complicated
Again, being a vegetarian is a personal decision. If other members of the household don't buy in, that's their right, same as yours. When I first told my family I was a vegetarian, everyone felt attacked. What about Thanksgiving? How could we ever celebrate it again? Calm them down. Assure them that this is your personal decision that you won't impose on others. Most likely meals will have a bit more variety as you try more vegetarian dishes along with the family favourites.
If you feel uncomfortable around meat, things become a bit more complex. Up until this point, you've already been eating meat so you may have to adjust just like they will. Avoid eating meals at a separate time, though — having meals together is important to healthy families.
Allow the rest of the family to eat meat around you, and make tasty vegetarian side dishes that you can use as a primary meal. If you aren't the primary cook in the household, offer to cook that vegetarian alternative. You'll get a meal you like without giving them extra work — plus you get to spend some quality time with them in the kitchen.
My husband and I made the vegetarian experience a partnership by going to some local cooking classes. Cooking classes as a couple can be fun, and once he tried a few recipes with tofu, he actually started liking it and requesting it for dinner. The kids can join in as well (if you have them).
Learn the Easy Vegetarian Substitutes
One of the best ways to integrate your vegetarianism is to have a vegetarian "version" of what everyone else is having, at least from time to time . (They can even try it if they want). There are a few ingredients that are staples in "vegetarian conversions:"
Seitan for beef or chicken strips or cubes: Seitan is wheat gluten mixed with some minor flavorings. It's thick and "meaty." The best use case is stir fry and fajita, but feel free to drop it into chilli and stew. Setian is already cooked, so it needs a short bit of time in a recipe. For example, when I'm making a stew in the crock pot, I'll drop the seitan in at the last hour. Seitan is easy to make at home, or you can buy it prepackaged.
Tofu crumbles for ground meat: When you freeze tofu and then defrost it, the structure changes. Instead of being a thick block of gelatin-like substance, it becomes crumbly. Defrost the block and squeeze out the liquid and you've tofu crumbles. You can replace ground meat with crumbles in most recipes. Tacos, lasagnas and casseroles work great with tofu crumbles. In most recipes you'll need to reduce the cooking time (the tofu is already cooked) and increase some of the spices. Tofu absorbs the flavour of most recipes, so you'll want to up the spice a bit so the tofu doesn't absorb too much.
Portabella Mushrooms for burgers: A portabella mushroom has the same shape of a burger: round and thick. They go great on a bun with toppings. Be warned there are mushroom haters out there. I'm married to one. Try veggie burgers instead.
Be a Respectful Patron When Eating Out
Since we vegetarians are a minority, you may find your options limited at many restaurants. We've shared some of the common options you'll find, so definitely be on the lookout for those veggie options when they're available. You'll also want to watch out for hidden meat in recipes. Soups in particular are often made with chicken stock and beef stock for enhanced flavour. This doesn't include just main courses, but drinks as well. Check out a bottle of bloody mary mix — it often has beef juice in it for that umami effect. Even a seemingly vegetarian dish such as sauteed vegetables might use bacon grease as a flavour enhancer.
Unless a restaurant specifically says the item is vegetarian, you'll need to ask the server. Be polite (see the first section) and request the server to check on the ingredients. Some restaurants simply will not reveal ingredients. It is their right to keep this proprietary information confidential, and as much as it sucks, you aren't going to change their policies. Other times, recipes can't be changed even if it sounds easy to leave something out. Restaurants sometimes make ingredients in advance and these can't be changed on a diner by diner basis. Move on.
If you are a vegan (no egg, no dairy and sometimes no honey), eating out is a greater challenge. Vegan substitutes cost more and many places can't easily accommodate those needs.
You'll also have to expect that while you may make a vegetarian or vegan request, ultimately you are dealing with human beings working in a mixed kitchen. Cross-contamination will occur. If the restaurant serves meat, your food will probably be cooked with utensils that have touched meat. Eventually, someone will accidentally put bacon bits on your salad even though you requested them not to. Be polite, be respectful, don't take it as a personal affront and for heaven's sake, don't stiff them on the tip because of it. However, feel free to give an extra tip if they went out of their way to accommodate you.
Ideally, you'll have the least amount of trouble going to a vegetarian restaurant, or a vegetarian-friendly omnivore restaurant (yes, they do exist!). Yelp specifically marks vegetarian friendly restaurants and most major cities have at least a few, if not many. If it's your choice to pick the restaurant, do some research in advance. Don't go to vegetarian only restaurant unless everyone else is on board. That's an easy way to tick people off.
Be a Gracious Guest When Going to Someone's Home
When invited for dinner, unless asked about your dietary preferences, you'll need to accept that the food you will be served is not in your control. As a guest, you are there for the company probably not the food. Personally, when hosting guests, I always proactively ask "Are there any dietary needs I should accommodate?" But unfortunately, not every host will remember to do this.
Instead of asking a host to accommodate your needs, be polite and offer to bring something as a side dish or a main course. Make sure that's something you'll eat as a primary meal so bring enough for all the guests and then some. If they decline your offer, accept it and move on. If you think you'll be hungry, have something to eat beforehand.
Unlike when you are in a restaurant, don't ask how food is cooked and if there is any hidden animal products. This can make the host uncomfortable and they may feel bad that they didn't ask about your dietary needs. If avoiding meat is important to you, then you have to balance your social and dietary needs.
Social events such as weddings or birthday parties should follow the same rules. If given a choice, choose the vegetarian option. Don't call the host and ask them to accommodate your needs. You aren't there for the food, you are there to enjoy in the festivities. The last thing newlyweds want to worry about is that "one cousin" that will say no to both chicken or fish.
When I'm unclear, I eat something beforehand. If I'm in doubt about anything being served, I simply say I'm not hungry because I ate earlier. That's true because I did! People will understand, and if not, it's really their problem. You didn't push your vegetarianism on them so they shouldn't push that bacon on you.
Other social events use food, and meat in particular, as a focus. For Thanksgiving, I always bring quinoa as a side dish and few people think anything of it. Believe it or not, few will notice there isn't turkey on your plate. The focus is on conversation and community, not the individual dish on the plate.
At the end of the day, your vegetarianism is your choice and you have your reasons. With these tips you can be a vegetarian while living and socialising with others that aren't.