Etiquette for the Vegetarian at a Traditional Thanksgiving Dinner

 Etiquette for the Vegetarian at a Traditional Thanksgiving Dinner

I think we all know people who are vegetarians.   Today, many of our friends and family members have chosen various degrees of a non-animal diet for health reasons or because of a lifestyle perspective.  The benefit of more people changing to a predominantly plant-based diet is that it has heightened society’s awareness of the need for nutritional variety.  I am not a vegetarian, but I eat a lot of vegetables and I appreciate how easy it is to get brilliant vegetable dishes at restaurants everywhere.   Additionally, this increase has also forced the packaged food industry to create more vegetarian products for purchase off the shelves.

The Thanksgiving holiday always provokes interesting conversation with my clients that are either vegetarians themselves or nervously hosting Thanksgiving with a vegetarian at their dinner table.  The week after this feast, I get to hear all sorts of stories about bad guests and crazy hosts. So, this got me thinking about the need for a discussion on this topic.  So whether you are a vegetarian at someone’s traditional Thanksgiving table or the host to a vegetarian this Thursday, here is some etiquette to review.

There are so many articles online about being considerate of vegetarians and their choices.  But nothing really addresses the reverse.  The first thing everyone should remember is: Hosting any big family meal is an enormous amount of work!  Even if you have cooked the same recipes for years, the time, preparation and money to make the evening happen according to your vision is more than a day or two effort.  The two most important things every guest should remember before arriving at someone’s home is:

  1. Do Not Come Empty Handed!  I think bringing a trifecta it the best etiquette when going to someone’s home for Thanksgiving: food, flowers and drinks.  Bring something for yourself (a dish or drink you enjoy), bring something to be shared by all the guests (which once again can be food or drink), and bring flowers for the host.
  2. If you can, call in the morning and ask if the host needs anything from the store.  Although I have hosted Thanksgiving for 15 years, I always forget one little thing, the tonic that Uncle Steve enjoys with Vodka, a small portion of sweet potatoes without nuts for little Diego, or that I do not have enough tin foil.  It happens to the best of us.  Even if you are the guest of a family member or a stray invited over, it is a lovely gesture.

Vegetarians, keep in mind that you are coming to a meal that is centered on the turkey.   I guarantee the host has thought about your feelings and worried if you are going to be offended by the turkey on the table.  This thought is of course, the nature of a true host, but the enjoyment of the turkey should not be effected by anyone at the table.

  • Although someone may ask you why you are a vegetarian (which I agree is not an appropriate question for this meal), it is better to either divert the question or downplay your most honest answer.  Keep it simple.  Do not go on a PETA rant.  Keep the details of your choices out of the conversation.  A great diversion is to simple say, ‘you really love vegetables,’ and tell a positive and relatable story how your family celebrated Thanksgiving when you were a child.
  • You do not need to bring a meat-based dish, but you should bring something. I think bringing a simple, yet ‘middle of the road,’ vegetarian dish is a delightful way to make a contribution to the table.  Or show up with a desert that can be kept by the family for the long weekend ahead.  If you do not bake, cookies from an ethnic bakery are always a great choice.
  • As the platter of carved turkey is being passed around, it is polite to ask to serve the people next to you without a grimace.
  • If the thought of scrapping meat and bones off plates does not sit well with your conscious, offer to do something else.  For example, ask to help with putting the potatoes, green beans and bread rolls in Tupperware containers.  Or simply step up when it is time to dry the dishes.
  • Be prepared for dishes on the table that utilize every part of the turkey.  Not to gross you out, but some people make a vegetable soup using the feet for the stock.  Others cook up and fry the innards and giblets.  Try not to watch others eat them.
  • If you are a strict vegan and gluten-free, I suggest coming with 2 dishes that fit into your diet.  It is very uncomfortable to have people at your dinner table with an empty plate (unlike an already consumed plate).  Bring a salad, a seasonal squash, a rice medley or a vegetable stew.  Fill your plate and eat at the pace of the hosts.  This is not to suggest you should stuff yourself, if that is not the way you eat; but you want to be able sit during this meal and have food on your plate while the majority of the guests are eating.  This should apply to everyone.

Tips for the host:

  • First of all, if you are cooking a dinner full of your family’s traditional recipes (I assume a turkey is one), you are not expected to change from turkey to Tofu Turkey.
  • You are not expected to change any of your recipes that are animal based.  For example, do not make your stuffing without the turkey juice or chicken stock if that is how you have made it for years.
  • You are expected to inform a vegetarian/vegan of the dishes on the table that are made from animal stock or dairy.
  • You should not ask them to help carve the turkey or assist with dishes that involve handling meat.  However, if they offer to be involved and you welcome the help, allow them to assist.
  • You should make one dish completely meat/dairy-free dish.  As a host of any dinner you should always be willing to make one dish that appeals to each guest.  This only applies if you are aware of their dietary restrictions (whether they are medically based or chosen).
  • If your culture includes various types of prayers or sayings that are combined with taking bites of the meat, do not expect the vegetarian to partake in eating the meat.  If you want them to participate, have something else available for them during your family rituals.
  • Do not expect that your cooking is going to convert them back to a meat-based diet.  Be happy with whatever it is they choose to put on their plate.  Gracious vegetarians will enjoy the company and happily feed themselves from the dishes available on the table.
  • Do not ask your guest why they do not eat meat.  They do not need to explain their choices, just as you do not have to justify why you eat meat.
  • Do not ask them to break the wishbone, even if your traditional always gives the opportunity to the newest guest at the table.


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    I love your advice in this post - so practical! I wanted to also see if you'd be interested in a guest post for your blog. I am a Certified Health Education Specialist and freelance health and wellness writer. I would love to write about building a healthy diet and exercise plan if you have Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or IBS (which disproportionately affects women). Some of my current writing can be viewed at If you are interested, please let me know and I'd be happy to get writing!

    Thanks and take care - best of luck with your blog in 2013!
    Katie Brind'Amour

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