11/27/2015 04:46 EST | Updated 11/27/2016 05:12 EST

A Holiday Survival Guide For Vegans (And Their Hosts)

Don't feel badly. Especially if you're a new vegan, you may feel terrible for "imposing" on your host, or intimidated by the looks you're being given by others. Stay firm with your beliefs and don't let anyone make you question the legitimacy of your position.

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Christmas buffet

I've moderated an active vegan/vegetarian Facebook group for about eight years, and every year leading up to Thanksgiving and Christmas there is an onslaught of posts on the topic of not just how to prepare veg-friendly foods for the holidays, but also how to socially navigate the experience with curious -- and occasionally hostile -- dinner companions. Fortunately the internet helps immensely with the former, but the latter can be a bit trickier.

Those with allergies often encounter some similar difficulties, although people often perceive allergies as more legitimate than ethical reasons not to consume something. Regardless, there can still be the anxiety of "imposing," not being sure if accommodation will be available requiring you to spend the night hungry, and then of course concern over whether or not the food provided will be free of the ingredients in question (and the potential gastrointestinal ramifications if it is not!)

On the other hand, hosts are already anxious about pleasing their guests and over-run with a list of to-dos, and may be intimidated by the prospect of preparing food to which they're not accustomed. But it's a growing need to fulfill. Chances are, almost everyone has at least one friend or family member who -- for either ethical or health reasons -- is avoiding meat, dairy, or eggs, or allergens such as gluten, soy, or nuts.

First, some tips for guests.

  • Don't assume that your host knows how to accommodate you. While we are used to our own dietary restrictions, most people are not and could use some help. Provide some concrete examples of the kind of food that you can/will eat, and link to recipes. Provide suggestions for easy ways to veganize or replace allergens in dishes that are already being made. Try not to get hung up on ancillary and self-imposed restrictions like low oil, gluten-free (unless you're genuinely allergic or have celiac), or only organic.
  • Care bear share! Offer to your host that you can bring something to share, particularly if you're invited to a gathering with limited food choices for you. It takes some of the burden off of your host, it ensures you will have something to eat, and it gives you an opportunity to show off vegan food. Win-win-win!
  • Don't feel badly. Especially if you're a new vegan, you may feel terrible for "imposing" on your host, or intimidated by the looks you're being given by others. Stay firm with your beliefs and don't let anyone make you question the legitimacy of your position. Before long, nobody will even give it a second thought, and you may even change some people's perceptions.
  • Pre-eat or have purse snacks. Sometimes it's simply not possible to find vegan eats in an omnivorous setting. In those cases, it's best to just eat before you go, and/or carry a snack with you such as some nuts, a Vega bar, or a granola bar.
  • Show appreciation. Show thanks and appreciation no matter what, and unless the food is absolutely horrifically awful, rave about it. Make your host feel good for having made your life easier. Positive reinforcement is the best way to ensure that it won't be the last time your host goes the extra mile.
  • Now, for some host tips!

  • Firstly, relax. Your guest is probably even more uncomfortable and anxious than you are about expressing and having their needs accommodated. They're not expecting you to produce a huge vegan/allergen-free feast.
  • Put people above traditions. That said, any efforts you DO make will be gratefully received, and likely not forgotten for a long time. Isn't it more important to be good to our loved ones, than to follow a recipe to a "T"?
  • Keep it simple. Make small changes to old favourites. It doesn't have to be terribly difficult to accommodate, and some things can be very easily amended by replacing cow's milk with unsweetened soy or almond milk, butter with vegetable oil, vegan margarine, or keeping the parmesan on the side. It's equally easy to make a vegan mushroom or miso gravy, and to use a vegan pie crust. Some minor tweaks could make all the difference for your vegan/allergic guest, and nobody will even know the difference.
  • Don't be afraid to ask. If you have questions or require clarification, by all means ask your guest for information. They are used to answering these questions, and would rather answer them in advance than discover that the mashed potatoes contain cow's milk after swallowing several mouthfuls. Also, encourage your guest to bring something -- they may want to, but are afraid of overstepping.
  • Avoid calling unnecessary attention to your guest publicly. They likely don't want the attention directed on them any more than you want to discuss factory farming over your ham or turkey. Respect is a two-way street.
  • Relax, and enjoy your time with friends and family!

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