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Hosting a Vegetarian for Thanksgiving Dinner? No Need to Panic.

[1]As Thanksgiving draws closer and guest lists are being finalized, dinner hosts are faced with thoughts of “Oh, no! What am I going to feed the vegetarians?!?”

First of all, relax. The last thing any vegetarian wants to do on Thanksgiving is to stress out the host of the dinner. However, hosts should understand that it’s best to have a bit more green salad on the table. By having options, everyone will be happier and you end up looking like the perfect host. Trust me, with just a few more seconds of planning and forethought it’s actually quite easy to come up with vegetarian options that will satisfy everyone.

Keep in mind that everyone eats vegetarian food at one time or another – macaroni and cheese, pasta, salads, baked potatoes, corn on the cob, and more. That said, to help settle some of the panic, I’ve put together some tips and ideas for hosts not used to hosting vegetarian guests:

– Don’t be intimidated by the prospect of cooking for a vegetarian. Think of it as another dietary restriction – Uncle Fred can’t have salt, Aunt Louise is a diabetic, and Cousin Larry is allergic to shellfish. Vegetarians simply want to leave meat out of their diet. Ask the vegetarian what they do not eat. Yes, there are definitely different “types” of vegetarians [2] but rather than trying to figure out what “kind” of vegetarian is coming over, just ask. It’s important to find out what these are ahead of time so that you can be prepared. (It’s just like making sure you have sugar free cookies available for Aunt Louise…)

– Ask the vegetarian for some suggestions of what to make.  They may have a secret family recipe for some of your favorites that do not involve meat. Best of all, you’ll learn how to cook something new. (As a guest, I’m always open to offering suggestions, recipes or bringing a dish to the dinner to share.)

– Don’t worry about having what would be considered a vegetarian “entree”. It may be a nice idea to have a Tofurky or other fake meat option, but really, don’t worry about it.  In fact, having a wide assortment of vegetarian side dishes is much more appealing to us than a Tofurky. In many social situations, we’re used to side dishes being our main meal. (Just don’t be surprised if we take a little more of the side dishes so that we are filled up.) In other words, just because they may be “side dishes” to the meat eaters, we consider them “main dishes” and won’t be offended by that. Best of all, you don’t have to make extra items because everyone at the table can enjoy the “side dishes”, too. The meat eaters just happen to have a slice or two of turkey on their plates.

– Some of your recipes may be one step away from being vegetarian. For example,

– Serving potatoes? Offer both a meat gravy and a vegetarian gravy which is available in most grocery stores.

– If you are hosting a pot-luck style dinner, mention to guests that you’ll have vegetarians over and mention other dietary restrictions other folks may have. They might be able to easily modify what they are bringing (see above). For planning purposes, you’ll also know how much people will be bringing that can be eaten by your vegetarian guests.

– Prior to the meal, pull the vegetarian aside and point out what dishes are vegetarian. That way, they know what to head for first and what to avoid. By doing this prior to the meal, the host doesn’t have to announce “hey, this is vegetarian!” I have encountered people that won’t eat something simply because it’s labeled as “vegetarian”.

– Sometimes the “novelty” of having a vegetarian can stimulate some interesting conversation. Some people are accepting of the choice while others may become a bit divisive over it. There is definitely a difference between someone being curious about vegetarianism and someone who has strong opinions against vegetarianism. I’ve also been in situations where someone will say, “I’d love to be a vegetarian. In fact, I mostly eat vegetarian food…but, man, do I love a juicy steak. I need that meat. Am I right? How can you not eat meat? etc. etc.” Then the conversation turned to hunting, preparing and eating all kinds of meat in glorious bloody detail. I’m able to handle that conversation…but others may not be. For everyone’s comfort, it may be wise to help steer conversation away from vegetarianism so all focus isn’t on just the vegetarian and their choices.

– Prevent “contamination” by using separate utensils when preparing meat dishes and vegetarian dishes That is, if basting the turkey with a spoon, don’t use the same spoon to stir the vegetarian gravy heating on the stove. Also ensure that your pots and pans are thoroughly cleaned after cooking meat prior to cooking the vegetarian items. (Some may balk at this, think it’s not a “big deal” or believe that “no one will know” but it an important rule to follow as many of us will suffer from severe stomach problems if we encounter meat proteins. And, well, it’s just the right thing to do when hosting a vegetarian.)

– Preparation does not have to be labor intensive. In fact, it can be as easy as cutting up some yellow squash and zucchini and sauteing in olive oil and seasonings. You also can’t go wrong with having an array of fresh vegetables cut up (cucumbers, carrots, celery, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, etc.) and fresh fruit as a pre-dinner snack. Just make sure you have a variety of options available.

– Most importantly, Thanksgiving is a time for people who care about each other to get together and share a meal. Just the fact that you are taking the time to read more about what vegetarians like to eat (and made it this far through these tips) is a great thing and will be most appreciated. You may discover that some of the new vegetarian dishes you try or the adjustments you make may become part of your everyday living.