Ah, the holidays. Season of lights. Season of cheer. Season of joy.
Season of panic-inducing family gatherings.
It’s safe to say that most people have a love hate relationship with the holiday season. Along with its many joys (catching up with family and friends, jolly music, festive decorations, gift sharing, and fine food) come a slew of challenges (an endless stream of holiday parties, sweaty hours spent toiling in crowded kitchens, and the left over dent in one’s budget). For many of us, no challenge is more daunting than the prospect of family gatherings. Warm and merry though these may be, they present even harmonious families with tests of patience: differences of opinion made more vocal by mulled wine; intergenerational tensions on display around the dinner table; and, oftentimes, squabbles about food.
When I was growing up, these squabbles took the form of my Aunt and my Grandmother vying for space and dominance in my Grandmother’s narrow New York City kitchen. Later, it took the form of my Grandmother’s efforts to understand how I could possibly resist—nay, avoid—the meat stuffing she’d loving prepared for our turkey, and, later, the turkey itself. These tensions were not always trifling; at times, they became downright bitter. In my family, as in many families, food was the main currency of expression. It could be a show of affection and love; it could also be a demonstration of power or control. In most cases, it was my Greek Yaya was expressing the love, or, alternately, marking her territory as matriarch. When I began to eat differently from the rest of my family, then, it was a signal to her that I’d begun to shape my own identity, both at the dinner table and out in the world.
This wasn’t really my intention. Truth be told, I didn’t mean to reject my Yaya’s affection, or to trample on time honored Greek traditions, or to undermine her cherished role as emcee of our gatherings. I just didn’t want to eat animal proteins. But as clearly as I could separate the food I ate from the things it signified, she could not. In my Yaya’s mind, not eating the food she’d raised me on was an act of revolt, plain and simple.
And she wasn’t the only one who was taken aback by my eating habits. The frequent refrain from cousins and Aunts was why I wasn’t eating more, or eating like everyone else? I sympathized to a point; my family members remembered a time in my early teens when I’d suffered from restrictive tendencies and body dysmorphia, and they were no doubt expressing honest concern that I might not be the best judge of my own dietary choices. I, on the other hand, wanted nothing more than to convince them that, in fact, discovering plant based nutrition had downright saved me from my struggles, and was the key to my increasingly vibrant health.
Over time, I stopped trying to make this case. In the years that followed, my family began to trust and even admire my eating habits because they saw how healthy I had become; I, on the other hand, gave up on trying to prove my way of eating to the world, or draw attention to myself in the hopes of making converts.
Whenever clients or readers ask me about family gatherings, I begin with a few practical pieces of advice:
1) For the main meal (aka Turkey Day), bring a dish that suits your habits, be they vegetarian, vegan, generally health conscious, or raw. Make sure it’s a dish that’s palatable and appealing, and make enough for the table. Never assume that people won’t want to try it; if it’s good, they will! Share the dish with enthusiasm, and cross your fingers that your folks like it. If they do, you may just find them clamoring for more healthy options next year.
2) Plan ahead. Thanksgiving isn’t just about Turkey time; oftentimes, it means a weekend of travel and staying with relatives, or simply hours spent away from home. Make sure to bring snacks that suit you in addition to your contribution to the main meal. I never make day trips or overnights without Larabars or Pure bars, apples or bananas, a bag of baby carrots, an avocado or two, bottled juices and coconut water, and some homemade raw trail mix.
3) If you’ll be staying with relatives who don’t eat the way you do for the weekend, never ever hesitate to call ahead and make grocery requests. This may sound pushy, but it’s not; most of the time, non-vegans (or non-healthy eaters) are nervous about having a vegan or vegetarian in the house, and they’re actually hoping that someone will tell them what to have on hand and what to make. You’ll save your host dollars of wasted grocery money and needless stress if you very politely say, “Hey, by the way, I’m not sure if you know/remember, but I’m a vegan. I don’t want you to stress about feeding me! If you don’t mind factoring me into the grocery shopping, I’d be really happy to split the cost. And I could give you just a few things to have around that I love eating.”
Or, simply make a grocery trip on your way to the destination in question, and show up with tons of food that you can enjoy and share with the fam.
4) Know your limits. All of us have dietary preferences that are non-negotiable, and ones that aren’t. Holidays are a good time to familiarize yourself with the difference. I know some people who eat mostly vegan, but are willing to make concessions if a side dish has a touch of butter or cream; I know vegetarians who eat a tiny slice of turkey on turkey day. I have mixed feelings about these concessions, but I’ll admit that I have a few of my own. I always bring an all raw dish to parties and holiday meals, but if there’s a cooked vegan dish (especially one that a family or friend made with me in mind), I’ll certainly give it a try. Best case scenario? It’s tasty and healthy. Worst? I give the person who made it some joy by tasting. As long as it’s vegan, I can live with the fact that it’s not raw. I’m also happy to throw food combining to the wind, if necessary, as long as what I eat is vegan and not too difficult to digest.
5) If you’re dining out, plan ahead! Most restaurants will be packed to the gills and not happy about making unforeseen substitutions on turkey day. Make sure to call the restaurant at least a week in advance if you know you’ll want something that’s not on the Thanksgiving pre-fixe menu. Request something simple, like a plate of whichever veggies the chef already plans on serving, along with a small salad and a baked yam. Be firm, but try to work with the restaurant manager to find a hassle free option.
I have one final tip, and it is by far the most crucial:
Bring a good attitude to the table.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about raw and vegan dining at holidays or with family, it’s this: don’t arrive on the defensive. If you come to the dinner table tense, self-protective, and ready for an argument, you can be sure that an argument will find you. It won’t take long for family members—especially those that are wary of veganism in the first place—to sniff out your unease and challenge you. Yes, this is immature, and yes, they should refrain, but mark my words: it will happen. And when it does, you’re likely to become argumentative, self-righteous, or hurt.
The solution? Show up with an open mind. Regardless of whom you’re eating with and what their habits are, try to abandon any pre-conceived certainty that you’ll be called upon to defend your eating habits. Instead, assume that you’re going to enjoy a harmonious meal. Think to yourself: I love my lifestyle. I respect it. And anyone who sees how happy it makes me is going to respect it, too. Instead of preparing all sorts of retorts to snide comments—or worse, arming yourself with health statistics and studies to rattle off to anyone who challenges you—prepare enthusiastic and friendly comments. Some of my favorites:
“Why vegan? Well, compassion plays a big part. But I really love how wonderful and healthy eating vegan and raw makes me feel!”
“Oh, I know it sounds limiting, but it’s not! There are so many great things you can make with vegetables, legumes, grains, and fruits. I love being in my kitchen.”
“Miss things? No, not really! I’m so focused on how much I love plant based foods that I never think about some of the things I used to enjoy.”
“One bite of turkey? Seriously, no thanks. I’m really enjoying my [insert name of vegan main course here]. But thanks–hope it’s good.”
Get the idea here? If you make clear to those around you that your healthy habits are not an imposition, but rather an active choice, and that you live the way you do because you love the way you feel , no one will have cause to question you. If you act self-conscious and stressed, your family will immediately assume that you’re restricting yourself for reasons that aren’t entirely sound, and they’ll question your choices.
Remember this: no one is going to believe that you like being vegan, raw, or just health-savvy if you’re sitting at the table with a glum, defensive, or self-conscious expression. If you show up for the meal glowing, warm, and enthusiastic about the way you live—if you make clear that you choose to eat the way you do because you want to, and not because you think you ought to—you’ll only invite admiration and respect.
And if you do convey such a warm and friendly attitude about your eating habits, and family members still try to attack or tease you? Well, that’s the time to perhaps cite a study or statistic or two, or to say something along the lines of, “You know, I would never choose to eat the food that you’re enjoying right now, but I also don’t feel compelled to comment on it unkindly. So I’d really appreciate it if you didn’t comment on what I do and don’t eat.” Still, don’t get combative, harsh, or petty with your commentary. Take the high road; wouldn’t you rather your judgmental family members emerge as the petty villains in the food debate, and you as the calm, reasonable victor?
Remember: the holidays, in theory at least, are about togetherness. We have enough topics to argue about without adding food to the heap; no matter how symbolic it can be, it’s just food. This Thanksgiving (and into the holidays beyond), try to maintain a sense of confidence and calm. Don’t be ashamed of the way you eat: as I’ve said before and will say again, what you choose to eat is for your own benefit, not the benefit of those around you. Do not eat to please other people.
Do, though, remember that there’s a gentle way to explain even the least conventional of lifestyles to people who don’t necessarily have the benefit of your knowledge. Be kind, and lead by example. You may find that your family responds with curiosity, rather than the criticism you fear.
I’ll be back this weekend with a gaggle of healthy vegan Thanksgiving recipes to share with your loved ones! In the meantime, stock up on whatever travel goodies you might need for un-Turkey week.
Happy Raw Wednesday!