I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about navigating family holidays as a vegan. When you’re vegan, and even worse– THE ONLY VEGAN– in a large family gathering, it can be difficult to find common ground when old sibling rivalries and family traditions are the stakes.
Sound familiar? Many of you are dreading this holiday season, but the good news is plant-based diets are rising, not just in prevalence but in awareness and understanding.
I want to share with you how it works in my family, and hopefully you can have a happy and a healthy with yours!
When I was a kid, I would mark the line where the wood floor of my bedroom met the hallway carpet as the line my younger sister could not cross. “You can’t come in my room” I would shout. She would dangle her foot over the identified line and shout back, “I’m not in your room.” After a couple of minutes of back and forth, I would run into her room, steal her Barney doll and hold him hostage until she ran away calling for my parents.
Barney went unharmed, my sister and I eventually grew out of this stage but figuring out what to do when the boundary you set is rejected, sticks around.
All day, every day, in relationships, work, and community we are all navigating boundaries. Boundaries are a blueprint of your values and self-governing rules. These rules guide what you are willing to do or not do, and what you are willing to let others do in your space.
When you’re vegan it can feel like another childhood throwdown when the topic of food and family gatherings collide.
This time instead of my sister’s small foot dangling over the floor of my bedroom, it’s animal proteins seemingly in every available food source from the table to counter tops and in the fridge, and me surrounded by people excited to eat them, and confused (some persistently, and vocally) as to why you don’t want to participate. Like asking my sister to stay out of my room, asking your family to have an animal-product-free gathering could be ignored, or worse.
So you ask, and ask, and bargain and bargain, and when your request is rejected, what can you do? You can bring your own food and set up in the corner, the lone vegan, while your family and friends help themselves to heaping seconds of your childhood favorites; you can sit this one out, and choose not to eat with anyone who is eating animal products and join up with your family after the big event; you can get on a soap box and educate people at every gathering that it’s not genetics that gives people heart disease, the suffering of animals, and the ecological impact of animal agriculture.
Each ethical vegan will have their own soul-searching and family negotiating to do around the holidays. Depending on your personal threshold is where and how your boundary will be created, and healthy boundaries are beneficial for everyone, not just vegans.
But just because you create and set a boundary does not mean the other person has any obligation to accept your request. IN MY PRACTICE, I KNOW FIRST HAND HOW COMPLEX THE INTER_RELATIONSHIP OF BOUNDARIES CAN BE. Your conversation and negotiations may be about the dinner menu but underlying, long standing family dynamics could be adding fuel to emotions and reactions. Being mindful to separate the presenting problem, the request for an animal product free dinner with the underlying pattern of behavior or emotion that is being replayed for you is important in setting the appropriate boundary. The presenting problem and underlying concerns may require different boundaries and different conversations.
For vegans in a classically animal-food centered holiday, boundaries will get even more tricky because there are likely to be opposing boundaries being set at the same dinner table. This is where negotiations can start, “there will be some vegan food, just don’t look at the meat,” “it only has a little bit of milk in it.” As a kid, I went all in, you don’t listen when I ask you to stop putting your foot over the line, I take Barney hostage. Unfortunately, Barney’s day in the sun has passed and taking him hostage doesn’t have the same pull.
A negotiation is a counter request to scale back a little, a lot, or completely on the boundary you just set. Negotiations like boundaries can be very helpful, who doesn’t like a good win-win situation, but it can be challenging when it comes to negotiating on personal values. How much push back do you allow?
Boundaries are not meant to be a punishment or a hostile takeover, so it’s important to get clear on what your boundaries are even before the family gathering starts. What is negotiable for you? What are you willing to sacrifice?
These questions can only be answered by you. And trying to figure out your boundaries in the middle of a conversation about where vegans get protein, can be a recipe for disaster.
There is no one size fits all boundary for vegans figuring out non-vegan family meals. Just like looking for a vegan brownie recipe, you will find a bunch of recipes that all claim to be the best, but in the end, the best brownie recipe will be the recipe that fits your culinary ability and taste preference. But as is the case with all boundaries, being able to clearly articulate your position in a respectful way and stick to your principles will serve you better than ultimatums and high-flying emotions.
Good luck out there this holiday season, Vegans!
Adriana Gambino has been a practicing therapist in the Boston area for over 10 years. As a therapist, Adriana specializes in holistic approaches to behavior modification and mental health treatment. Complimenting her social-work background, Adriana is certified in Plant-Based Nutrition from the T. Collin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies at Cornell University, and is a Food For Life instructor From the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM).
Find out more about Adriana and her therapy and life coaching practice here: Adriana Gambino