The Do's and Don't's of Vegetarian Table Etiquette
  1. Set a good example.
  2. Evaluate yourself and your reasons to not eat meat. If you are overly sensitive about meat eating and can't be around others when they are eating meat, then it's time to let your friends and family know how sensitive you are about it. If they are not understanding, then you are under no obligation to entertain them or be entertained by them.
  3. Be flexible. Be kind and compassionate but don't be a pushover. Laugh off light teasing but develop enough of an edge for anything other than light teasing. Correct gently but firmly and then move on to another topic of conversation more appropriate and pleasant.
  1. Don't discuss religion or any controversial topic. Some non-vegetarians who don't know anything about vegetarianism buy into a common myth that vegetarianism is a religion. Vegetarianism is not a religion, it is a dietary choice. Don't allow yourself to be drawn into any arguments about this at the table. If the subject comes up, correct gently that vegetarianism is a dietary choice, nothing more than that, and then change the subject of conversation,.
  2. Don't force your vegetarian choices on others. A dinner is not the place to stage a protest. Save your views for another time and place.
  3. Don't judge others for their choice to eat meat. The Golden Rule says: "Do unto others as you would have done to you." You want to be respected for your choice not to eat, likewise respect others for their choice to eat meat.

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'Go Vegan' turkey cartoon illustration by artist Wayne L. Curtis.
Just because you are a vegetarian does not mean that you have to be uncomfortable, and isolate yourself, on traditional meat-eating holidays like Thanksgiving. Some simple do's and don't's empower you to handle any situation and show you off to others as the kind, considerate person you are!   Illustration source: Wayne L. Curtis.

Vegetarian Etiquette

By Mary Curtis

Having been both a hostess and a guest among those who do not share my views on vegetarian dietary, I can tell you from experience that you will need to apply some "vegetarian etiquette" to get you through without hassel...brace yourself in advance and plan on handling uncomfortable situations and awkward moments among meat-eaters.

Here is a scenario: It's your turn to host the dinner for the annual gathering of your entire family including your parents, aunts, uncles, siblings, and in-laws. The problem is, most of these folks are heavy-duty meat-eaters - and you're a vegetarian. What do you do? Do you serve your guests your meatless favorites and disregard their views that meat should be the main entree?

Another scenario: You're invited to go out to dinner with friends. They eat meat, you don't. They want to go out to a barbecue restaurant. Do you decline the invitation, perhaps offending your friends? Or do you feast on salad and sides while they stuff themselves?

And finally, how about this scenario: What do you do when your boss has obligated you to attend a working dinner at his or her home and the dinner, you are told, will be steaks and burgers? Should you tell him you can't eat steak or burgers because you're a vegetarian? As a guest in someone else's home, should you just pick around the sides, possibly insulting your host or drawing unnecessary attention to yourself at the table?

Even if you are not hosting or attending a dinner event, there are those times when you go out to lunch with others who are not vegetarians. In this article I share with you some tips I have learned through experience that I hope will help smooth the way for you as a vegetarian and also to resolve some issues that might come up in these circumstances.

DO: Set a good example. This is most important. We vegetarians have had a tough time of it with a lot of criticisms from others who misunderstand us. We have been likened to space aliens by some (the old Vegan joke) and called some names by others which I will not repeat here for the sake of common decency. Therefore, set a positive example to show others that vegetarians are great people!

Handle everything with serenity, be flexible, and stay above the fray. Give others who might view vegetarians as "different" a chance to see us as "normal" people just like them.

Turkey cartoon

DON'T: Don't discuss religion or allow anyone to draw you into any such conversation. Too many times, uninformed people view vegetarianism as a religion. It isn't. Gently and politely explain to those who ask questions that you have decided to make a dietary choice that you feel is healthier for you, that's all. But don't volunteer information, only do so if asked or if the conversation turns towards vegetarians being part of a religion.

Having been both a hostess and a guest among those who do not share my views on vegetarian dietary, I can tell you from experience that you will need to apply some "vegetarian etiquette" to get you through without hassle. You will need to brace yourself in advance and plan on handling uncomfortable situations and awkward moments among meat-eaters.

Among all the situations you will encounter socially as a vegetarian, one of the most common is ignorance about who we are as vegetarians. The true answer is that we are individuals, like everyone else, and that we have made a dietary choice not to eat meat. That's it - nothing more. The reasons why any of us choose not to eat meat are varied based on personal and individual preferences - health, weight control, lower cholesterol levels, for instance.

But there are those people, unfamiliar with vegetarians, who buy into a common myth about us: that vegetarianism is a cult or religion which, of course, is not true and stems from ignorance.

Don't allow yourself to be drawn down the road of error, especially don't engage in argument because that will only make you look bad. Handle these misunderstandings politely and maintain calm whether you are hosting or as a guest. You can't control how others behave but you can choose how you will react. Correct gently and move on to another topic of conversation.

DO: Evaluate yourself and the reasons why you don't eat meat.

If you are the type of vegetarian that gets grossed out by the sight of anyone consuming meat, here is what I suggest:

For friends, my advice to you is to change your social circle. Why would you consider entertaining or being entertained by people who eat meat when you are so sensitive about the issue? You are making yourself unhappy surrounding yourself with their company (and you are not doing anything positive for them either by becoming nauseous around them!). If you are that sensitive as a vegetarian, I advise you to begin making changes to surround yourself with a different group of people more in harmony with who you are and how you feel...i.e., other vegetarians.

Of course, when it comes to family, we can't choose them like we do with friends. In the case of family, my suggestion is to share how you feel with them, or at least one or two members of your family with whom you're close. Tell them how sensitive you are about meat eating. Family should be understanding to each other. If they are not understanding about how you feel, then that releases you from any obligation to entertain them.

DON'T: Force your vegetarian choices on others.

If you feel strongly and ideologically about meat-eating as opposed to vegetarianism, a dinner party is not the place to stage a protest against eating meat even if you feel that going vegetarian will help save the planet. As a host or hostess, you are doing a disservice to your guests to force them to comply with your lifestyle and to force them to see the benefits of vegetarianism.

As a guest of someone else or at an outing with friends, forcing your belief system on others while you dine makes you look bad and can have ongoing repercussions. Depending on your relationship to the other people, this kind of behavior can have a major impact on your life. This is especially true for those with whom you work. But it is equally important with your family and close friends who you care about. So, whether you're hosting the affair, a guest, or dining out with others, don't discuss controversial issues while at the table. Keep your planetary views to yourself for another time and place.

DO: Be flexible. When I say flexible, I mean roll with the situation. Have a sense of humor for light jibing but develop a witty edge, if you can, for anything that goes beyond good-natured humor.

The importance of staying flexible - flowing with situations as they arise, responding humorously to light teasing but having enough of an edge to not be pushed around - this flexible, flowing approach is vital to you and your sense of control (especially if you are the host). But also, whether you are hosting the dinner party or going to someone else's house as guest or out to dinner with non-vegetarians, being flexible in your responses will give you confidence.

Flexible means being compassionate and kind, but not being a pushover. If you are the host or hostess, be accommodating to your guests but control the direction of the conversation. If you are a guest, be courteous to your host or hostess and accepting to the other guests but don not allow yourself to be pushed around.

Be assertive and serene in the knowledge that your being a vegetarian is your choice and it is really not anyone else's business to judge or criticize you for that. So calmly handle, and do not take to heart, any jibing or taunting from others who feel the need to put in their two cents about your own personal choice.

DON'T: Don not judge others for their choice to eat meat. Remember the Golden Rule? "Do unto others as you would have done to you." Understanding begets understanding and just as you don't like judgmental comments from others about your choice to be a vegetarian, don't do the same to others. Simply look at it as they make their choices, you make yours - enough said.

Another point to consider here: If you expect others to respect your choice to not eat meat, likewise consider their choice to eat meat.

So, to wrap it up, it is essential to plan ahead to know what to do to preserve the good feelings of others and to represent yourself as a gracious host or hostess, or a polite guest. If you are the host or hostess and you know that your guests eat meat, don not deny them their pleasure. If you don not want to cook meat in your kitchen, then buy already cooked meat from the market or have it catered.

If you're invited out to dinner by friends who want to visit the local barbecue pit, it's time you fess up to your friends and tell them that you don't eat meat. After all, they're your friends, right? If they don't understand or don't like you for your choices, then they are not really your friends. Find other friends. Real friends will work with you to choose a restaurant to satisfy your tastes and theirs.

There is another alternative to this barbecue restaurant scenario if you're a more moderate vegetarian. Most barbecue pits offer fish or chicken so you can go with them and have fish (or chicken. But that depends on you.

And what about the scenario regarding your boss's steak and burgers dinner? Depending on your boss's personality, how understanding a person he or she is, you could tell your boss that you don't eat steak or burgers. There could be any number of reasons for your not eating steak or burgers, including doctor's orders or an allergy. But tell your boss when you receive the invitation, not at the event itself, so your boss can plan an alternative for you.

The other thing you can do, if you do not want to tell your boss upfront when you get the invitation, is to take a small piece of meat unless you absolutely cannot do it for health reasons, etc. You can fill the rest of your plate with generous sides and salad. You do not actually have to eat the meat if your do not want to but it diffuses any tension which will have the effect of redirecting attention and conversation away from you. In that way, as a guest you maintain proper decorum to politely fit in with the others and attention will be focused where it should, rightly on the graciousness of your host or hostess and the dinner event.

I hope I have helped smooth things for you.

NOTE: I origianlly wrote this article in response to questions regarding handling Thanksgiving Day for vegetarians. It is has recently come to my attention that this list of Thanksgiving do's and don't's for vegetarians should be applied universally in the workplace or in our personal lives almost every day. Thanksgiving is not the only time when we vegetarians may be in a position to host or attend a dinner event among meat eaters. This article deals with how to handle situations in a positive way for yourself and the others around you.