My friend Michael Edwards, editor of Organic Lifestyle Magazine (and his very pregnant partner) are, unsurprisingly, extremely healthy and particular eaters. I won't go into detail about what they do and do not eat, but suffice to say, it's at least as complicated as my own list. (I'm vegetarian but don't each much dairy save raw cheeses; I don't eat processed foods, generally stick to whole foods, and am off sugar, but not necessarily other sweeteners; maple syrup and honey are OK. I drink wine, cider and alcohol, but not beer).
Typically, this is not that big of an issue — I eat out in New York City where the dining options are endless, and my boyfriend and I prepare food at home.
But around holiday times, the issue of what you do or don't eat (never mind politics) can become totally awkward. I'm headed out to sea on a Thanksgiving cruise and effectively skipping the holiday this year, so I can breathe a sigh of relief. But Michael and his partner are eating at his uncle's, and they're not sure how to politely let their generous hosts know about their particular needs. (Let me just insert here that I don't think anyone should give up their eating habits — whether that's a new or established diet — just for the holidays. Being a healthy eater in American society is difficult enough as it is, and those who are committed to it deserve support, not just another round of "Just eat XYZ already!")
It's one thing if you are hosting a holiday meal; you can cook what you like. But nobody wants to be a pain-in-the-butt demanding guest. So here are some options for Michael, me (next year) and the rest of us who care — deeply — about what goes into our bodies, whether for health, religious/spiritual or environmental reasons. (And remember, the most important thing at Thanksgiving is your presence, not what you do or don't eat!)
Tell your hosts: If your host can handle and understand it, just come clean, especially if your food choices aren't that complicated. In my own case, I've most often shared Thanksgiving with my aunt, who was a vegetarian for more than a decade but still eschews processed food, loves local produce and vegetables, and generally eats much the way I do. She knows (seemingly by radar, at this point) what I will and won't eat, and at Thanksgiving there's always plenty of choices for anyone, including me. If you are basically vegetarian but eat fish, just tell them you won't be partaking in the turkey (they may end up ordering a smaller one), or if you are dairy- or gluten-free, it's nice to mention it beforehand, and a good host will point out which dishes contain butter, cheese or milk. If your list is more complicated, it might be best to use one of the tactics below (simplest to most complicated).
Bring your own food: Only the oldest-school hosts will be insulted if you bring your own food because of your particular eating style. The most important thing is to make enough of whatever it is to share. This should NOT be a serving for one! If you are bringing food to a meal, bring plenty of extra portions (you might be surprised who else at the dinner will be super-appreciative of this); if you present it with love and courtesy (and ensure it's a super-yummy dish), this is a great way to get a chance to eat along with everyone else, enjoy what you're eating, and even introduce a new food to an old-fashioned crowd (raw lasagna made with fresh tomatoes and cashew cheese, anyone)?
Eat beforehand, then just pick: If you are on a diet, or otherwise just don't trust yourself around food if you're hungry, eating a good meal of your normal stuff right before you head over to dinner is a smart way to go. Then take a small plate of foods you can eat, and take your time over each bite, be sure to eat as slowly as possible and have some good conversation to offer while others are eating. This is a hard way to go, especially if you are dieting. But keep this in mind; the next day — or the next year, if that's when you'll see them next — your friends and relatives will remember much more about the quality of your presence at the dinner, the conversations they had with you and the general good time they had, and much less about what you ate. Don't let anyone bully you out of your healthy eating choices; they are not negotiable, and your body is your temple, not theirs. Stand up for yourself — kindly, politely — and you have nothing to be ashamed of.
Lie: Yes, I'm advocating lying. When I was a little girl, my grandma taught me that lying was wrong, very wrong. Unless it was to save someone else's feelings. In the case of food and Thanksgiving (and especially elderly or particularly narrow-minded folks), just plain make up a story about why you can't eat their meal. There are plenty of good ones: You have recently suffered food poisoning and can only really eat crackers, and maybe a bite or two of carrots; you are having a medical test which requires you to fast for a period of time beforehand; you ate too much at your friend/aunt's house/food pantry your volunteered at before you came, and just can't possibly eat another bite. The key to lying well is to believe it yourself; whatever story you choose, stick to it, believe it, and know you are doing it to save your great-grandma from feeling like a bad hostess for not understanding what "vegan" means.
Best of luck! I'll never forget the Thanksgiving I spent with my then-boyfriend's family in the Midwest, where everything came from a can or had meat on it (and everything else tasted like pure fat and salt; was it a potato, or corn of some sort?). I was so hungry, I almost lost it, went away to cry by myself, then insisted we drive a zillion miles to Whole Foods so I could find edible food. I felt terrible, embarrassed, and made myself sick from nerves, and they did not appreciate my weirdo New Yorker demands and horror at everything placed in front of me at their dinner table (I have nothing but apologies for the boyfriend, poor guy). Trust me, it's better to plan ahead and/or lie.
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MNN tease photo of Thanksgiving table: Shutterstock