Vegan at Thanksgiving: How Not to Lose Your Sh*t

Yep, the holidays revolve around food. And if you don’t eat animals or their secretions, that’s gonna set you apart from most everyone else. And sometimes that sucks.

I mean, just when you want to connect with loved ones, you’ve got this thing that’s keeping you apart, and it’s sitting right there in the center of the table. On a platter.

And “it” is actually not an “it.” You know, “it” is actually a “she” or a “he.” (Or maybe a “they” if you want to be all gender neutral about it.)

And so do you talk about her? Or do you ignore her body there and try to have a nice time?

Or somewhere in between?

A little of both?

Even those of us “level-seven” vegans who are immersed in a metropolitan veg paradise, flitting from The Herbivorous Butcher to J. Selby’s on the daily, even we occasionally have to go home for the holidays.

Granted, I’ve been vegan fifteen years, so at this point, my family gets it. They know this isn’t a phase. And they know what I can eat and are willing to accommodate. (Mom’s last text message to me was asking about my favorite brand of nondairy ice cream.)

Still, it wasn’t always like that. Even now, I know there will be a turkey on the table. Not one of them has gone veg. And so, even though there’s this general comfort-level with my veganism, there’s also the possibility that icky questions might come up.

Will my brother-in-law ask me why I don’t eat the turkey? Or where I get my protein? Or what I would eat if I were stranded on a desert island and my only choice would be to kill an animal or die?

Though maybe I’ve heard it all before, I know some of you haven’t. (Just wait till you hear about the circle of life. Oh, goody!)

These questions can make us feel anxious, throwing a wrench into an otherwise pleasant family affair. (Wait—is there is such a thing as a pleasant family affair?)

I could share a list of savvy responses to those annoying questions, but other people have done that and probably better than I could.

And memorizing the answers to those FAQs may or may not be what’s gonna actually get you through the holidays. I actually think not.

I’m thinking about what’s gonna get me through, and I’ve come up with a little list of very general approaches that have me feeling empowered. Here they are.

1. Choose your own adventure.

You could use this schmoozefest as an opportunity to speak out for animals, or you could put that intention aside, especially if you think it could keep you from connecting with your loved ones and nurturing your relationships.

And if you are making those personal connections and the subject of what you eat (or don’t eat) comes up, then you’re arriving at the conversation from a more openhearted place. And that’s going to improve the chances for mutual understanding.

But even if the subject of your veganism doesn’t come up in conversation, rest assured that just by being you, eating your vegan food, you are going to have an impact. They are going to notice. You are making them think about their food choices.

Ultimately, you don’t have to feel compelled by anything but your own intention. How do you want to spend your time?

2. Engage in openhearted conversation.

If something on the subject of farmed animals or veganism does come up, practice effective communication. Let go of any agenda and think of it as an openhearted conversation. Here are a few ways to do that:

  • Listen at least as much as you are speaking.
  • Ask questions. Be genuinely curious about who they are and what they think.
  • Respect the person in front of you, even if you don’t agree with them. You have some core values in common. Bring the conversation back to that common ground to keep the connection.
  • Let go of expectations. Rather than having an agenda for the conversation, just think of it as an opportunity for sharing and learning about one another.

And remember that you don’t have to know it all. (And by the way, you don’t know it all. None of us do.) But you also don’t have to know it all. It’s okay to say “I don’t know.” Just say what’s true for you.

Also, you can always choose to bow out of the conversation or to postpone it for a later date. And remember that the dinner table is not always the best place to talk about what’s happening on factory farms, as people will likely be more defensive when they are eating animals. Suggest that you talk about it more later.

And if they show genuine interest in why you’re vegan, that’s surely a conversation worth having. But if they show no interest or worse yet just want to push your buttons, then you’re probably better off saving your activist energy for someone else, which brings me to the last point.

3. Use your energy strategically.

There’s probably a reason that I’ve been vegan fifteen years and none my family has yet gone vegan. And it’s not that I’m a bad animal advocate. I certainly have influenced at least a few friends and some strangers, but not family. (And it’s not that I didn’t try.)

I’m no psychologist, but I’m guessing this has something to do with the complicated relationships within families. At this point, I’m aware of this dynamic, and so I put my energy where I think it will most likely yield results.

If you find yourself upset by the turkey on the table, consider logging onto and signing up for a volunteer shift at an upcoming outreach event. Channel the energy there and just use your time with your family to talk about fun stuff, like politics.

CAA and many organizations like it offer numerous opportunities to take action for animals. What’s more, the audiences they reach tend to be genuinely interested, and they’re not your family. To them, you’re just a friendly and passionate advocate for the animals. And they get to leave the conversation feeling informed, inspired, and empowered.

If it feels helpful to you to memorize some responses to the frequently asked questions, then go for it. Ultimately however, effective communication requires more nuance than that. It means being present, listening, being unconditionally compassionate. There’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all response for every situation.

In my experience, I find a slightly laid-back attitude with loved ones to be most effective. It’s the lead-by-example approach. (I also call it the sneaky vegan approach.)

Activism is work, and sometimes we do need to refresh ourselves so that we can return to that work with renewed energy. You get to put your passion for helping animals to use in whatever way you think will be most effective, and you can even choose to take a break from speaking out if you feel like you need one.

I look for ways that my activism can be sustainable and effective, and for me these approaches help me to feel that’s possible. I hope they feel helpful to you too.

Have a happy Thanksgiving!



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