So you’ve discovered plant-based eating, done the research, made the transition and things are going well. You look at the calendar and suddenly realize the holidays are coming. Now what? Most holiday celebrations in the western world have a very strong meal component. How does one navigate this minefield in a world where eating plant-based isn’t (yet) the norm? Well, read on my friend. I’ve been there and stressed over that. Today I’m giving you all the tips that helped me navigate the holidays while sticking to my whole food plant-based lifestyle.
- If You’re Hosting
- Don’t Panic!
- If You’re Celebrating Elsewhere
- Worried About Temptation?
If You’re Hosting
Here are some things to keep in mind if you’re hosting the holiday festivities in your home.
You may be feeling overwhelmed by the idea of hosting a plant-based holiday meal. Don’t sweat it, most of the holiday classics can be easily tweaked so they are totally whole food plant-based. Your guests will be none the wiser.
Mashed Potatoes – Add a couple of cloves of garlic to the pot while the potatoes boil or steam. Then drain and mash the potatoes and garlic with vegetable broth and plant milk. Add some fresh chives if you’re feeling fancy.
Gravy – Most people are concerned about what to use as a plant-based gravy. Mushroom gravy is a great stand-in that pairs beautifully with just about any savoury dish.
Vegetable Sides – Veggie sides are easily made without milk or butter.
- Roasted vegetables offer tons of flavour.
- You can do any vegetable casseroles with a seasoned cashew cream sauce instead of a dairy-based sauce.
- You don’t need butter to add flavour. Use things like balsamic vinegar, citrus juice, fresh herbs and spices to make your vegetables shine.
Stuffing – Was stuffing your favourite part of the holiday meal? Not to worry, you can make delicious stuffing without it stepping a crumb near a bird of any kind. Just prepare as usual (leaving out any animal products in your recipe) and put it in a large casserole dish. Drizzle with a little vegetable broth to keep it from drying out and cover. Bake it in the oven at 350°F, just be sure to give it a stir every so often and add additional broth if needed. Checking often will help you decide when it’s done to your liking.
Desserts – Even classic desserts can be converted with a few simple swaps. You can check out my guide to plant-based baking for some help in this area. Or, if you’re feeling a little lost, check out Pinterest for some whole food plant-based dessert inspiration.
Get Creative with Your Main
A holiday meal doesn’t have to involve a turkey, a ham or even a faux bird of any kind. There are lots of delicious plant-based options to enjoy instead. You just need to think outside the box a little to shift your thinking away from the typical holiday meal mindset.
Some great main options include:
- Roasted head of cauliflower
- Stuffed squash
- Lentil loaf
- Shepherd’s pie – made with lentils or mushrooms and veggies in the base
- Stuffed peppers
- Vegetable Pot Pie
If You’re Celebrating Elsewhere
If you’re headed out for your holiday celebration, here are some helpful tips to keep in mind.
Bring Your Positive Attitude
Everybody’s situation is a little different. Maybe your family and friends are supportive of your plant-based diet, maybe they aren’t. Maybe the questions people ask you are curious and well-intentioned, or maybe they’re antagonistic. No matter what questions or comments come your way, do your best to maintain a positive attitude.
After all, if you get testy and defensive, that’s likely to make the situation tense and uncomfortable for everyone. It’s also likely to encourage people to continue pushing your buttons and antagonize you further.
On the other hand, if you respond to questions and comments in a kind and considerate way, you greatly decrease the chances of anyone trying to belittle you about your choices. If, however, you start to feel like you’re getting the third degree, feel free to politely change the subject. If they try to circle back again, get a little more direct with something like “I’m sure there are more interesting things to discuss besides how I choose to eat” and leave it at that.
Bring a Dish or Two
If the situation allows, it’s always a great idea to bring a dish or two to share. Not only does this allow you to contribute to the holiday meal, but it also ensures that you have a couple of good options to eat. I always suggest bringing at least one substantially filling dish. This way, if the only other plant-based item on the table is a sad-looking salad, you won’t go hungry.
This is also a great way to show people that plant-based food isn’t weird or gross. You don’t have to tell people that it’s plant-based if you don’t want to (in fact, sometimes it’s best not to), but do warn people if your dish contains a potential allergen like nuts.
Speak to Your Host
If you’re comfortable doing so, speak to your host. This allows you to get an idea of what they plan on serving. This helps in a few ways. First, you can make sure your contributions complement the offerings. Second, you can ensure you aren’t planning to bring duplicate dishes. Finally, it helps to know what you are walking into. Whether there will be lots of plant-based offerings, or if you’ll be relying solely on your contributions. You can then plan accordingly.
Some people tell me they know hosts who aren’t open to having others bring food. For those types, don’t ask “can I bring something?” instead say “I’d like to contribute to the meal. What can I bring?” If they don’t offer up any suggestions, have some ready. “I was thinking x, y or z, or a combination of those. What works best for you?” If they are really pushing against your food offerings, play the ‘specialized diet’ card. “I follow a specialized diet and would like to bring a couple of dishes to share that meet my needs.” This takes the pressure off of your host to accommodate you and there should be no further argument over bringing a dish.
Offer to Help in the Kitchen
This is always good practice at any event where you are well acquainted with the host. Preparing a holiday meal can be a lot of work, your host is likely to appreciate an extra set of hands. If you do help out in the kitchen, you’ll know exactly which dishes may have some hidden dairy or animal products you weren’t aware of. It also allows you the opportunity to make some subtle swaps for sides that can easily be made plant-based. Just be sure to get your host’s permission first.
I know this can add a little stress to the occasion if you aren’t comfortable with hosting big gatherings. However, it does allow you full control over the meal (or at least the parts that you provide). This means less stress for you trying to figure out what’s on the table that you can eat and what you need to avoid. It also allows you the opportunity to showcase how delicious and appealing plant-based foods can be. Win-win!
It’s always nice when people are more accommodating than you expect. Show some sincere appreciation for any effort someone makes to try and accommodate you. After all, nothing feels worse than going out of your way for someone and having them turn their nose up at your gesture. Right?
Even if they miss the mark a bit, it’s the thought that counts. Be thankful for the effort or you can be sure it won’t be made again.
Steer Clear of Certain Topics
If you’re sitting down at a table full of people about to carve a turkey, this is not the time to strike up a conversation about where their turkey came from, how it was treated, or how it came to be on the table. Read the room, my friend, you may be thinking about it, but that conversation will not be well received in this setting.
If someone does show some interest in learning more about this, that’s a conversation to have before or after the meal, between the two of you. Just don’t bring it to the dinner table.
Focus on Why You’re There
It’s easy to get caught up in the stress and worry when you may be walking into a somewhat uncomfortable situation. But don’t let that ruin your day. Focus on why you’re there in the first place. Likely, to celebrate the holidays with your loved ones.
You can choose not to focus on food and what’s happening on people’s plates. Personally I only ever pay attention to my own plate. Keep the focus on the company of your loved ones and don’t let the food get to you.
It can feel downright uncomfortable being the only plant-based eater at a holiday event. If the situation allows, bring your partner or a plant-based bud. Having someone in your corner who understands what you’re doing can certainly reduce the stress. Especially if Uncle Ed has had a few and suddenly gets really curious about where you get your protein. 😉
Plus, if they bring a dish or two as well, you’ll both know there’s plenty for you to eat and enjoy.
Everybody will approach this in a way that makes them feel the most comfortable. Personally, I don’t bring up my lifestyle in casual conversations and try not to talk about it at these kinds of events unless specifically asked. When I am asked, I try to keep my answers brief, lighthearted and appropriate for the event.
If you’re worried about push back from certain people that don’t agree with your lifestyle choices, it can be helpful to have a few polite responses prepared. Something like “It seems to be working well for me” or “I feel really good since making this change to my diet”. It’s hard to argue when you keep your responses about you, and not about them.
For those ultra-pushy people, I refuse to let them push me into an argument that would make people around me uncomfortable. After all, the gathering is not about me and I don’t want to become the reason people don’t enjoy themselves. If someone is trying to start an argument with you, I’ve found the best response (in this situation) is a simple “We’ll have to agree to disagree”. After which I will physically remove myself from the situation and go talk to someone else.
Worried About Temptation?
Some people worry that their cravings will kick in with all the food and treats around. Here are some helpful tips to help with that.
Remember Your Why
If you find yourself at an event surrounded by food that doesn’t fit in with your health goals, it can be really helpful to remember your why. Before you show up, take a minute to remind yourself why you made this change in the first place. Journal about it if that helps you. You’ll walk in with renewed motivation and be much less likely to eat something you’d rather not.
Have a Good Breakfast
Don’t show up to a holiday meal starving. This is a recipe for disaster as you’re likely to grab whatever is in front of you. Instead, make sure to have a substantial and filling breakfast. It will set you up with energy and nutrients for the day, help diminish cravings and reduce the urge to say ‘screw it’ and eat your weight in holiday chocolate.
Eat Before You Go
Only if appropriate, of course. This is a good strategy to use if you’re heading to a corporate event where the meal consists of finger foods or appetizers. It can be difficult to discern what is safe to eat at these kinds of events. If you eat before you go, it will be no big deal if there are only a couple of viable food options. You won’t be starving enough to eat something you’d rather not.
While I choose to eat oil-free at home, I don’t sweat a little oil or refined sugar in food at these kinds of gatherings. I still choose to keep it vegan, but I try to be flexible with the small details. After all, it’s the food we eat day in and day out that makes the difference to our health. A small holiday treat is not going to erase all of your efforts.
I will, however, warn you to go easy on foods that you know are heavy on the oil or sugar. Only because if you haven’t been eating it for a while, you might end up with some stomach upset if you have too much. Don’t let your food choices ruin your holiday fun.
The Bottom Line
The holidays can be stressful, especially if you eat differently than everyone around you. It doesn’t have to be though, it’s all about how you choose to approach it. Often, we can make things harder for ourselves in our own minds, constantly worrying about the worst-case scenario. In reality, those scenarios we worry about rarely come to pass.
I hope these tips help you navigate the holidays with ease. I firmly believe that the holidays are about family, friends and the ones we hold dear. What you choose to eat (or not eat) does not dictate how much fun you can have. Wishing you all the best this holiday season!
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