Eating Vegan: Dealing with Social Situations

A couple of weeks ago, we asked for your feedback about where this Eating Vegan series should go, and you guys had some really great suggestions! I posed the same question about Eating Vegan on my own website and got great feedback there, too. Today, I thought I’d tackle one that folks brought up in both places:

How do you deal with being vegan in social situations and when you’re eating out?

It’s easy enough to maintain a vegan diet when you’re cooking at home. You’ve got full control over what goes into the pan and onto your plate. Things get a little bit trickier when you’re eating somewhere outside of your home.

Visiting Friends and Family

Whether you’re headed to a dinner party or a cocktail hour with hors d’œuvres, your veganism is bound to come up. If you’re close with the host, I’d recommend mentioning it when you get the invite. Folks want you to have a good time, and usually they’ll try to accomodate. It’s a good idea to have one or two easy suggestions in mind, in case they ask. For appetizers, stick to simple things like chips and guac or hummus and pita bread. If it’s a full meal, see if they have a theme and offer up a recipe, if they’re open to that.

A lot of the time, I’ll offer to bring a dish, that way there’s at least one guaranteed vegan item on the menu. Again, just see if they have a theme in mind, then whip up something vegan and portable to offer. If you make enough to share, who knows! You might even change some minds about vegan food while you’re at it.

If you’re not comfortable asking about the menu or offering a dish to pass, you might want to “pre-eat.” It’s not the ideal solution, but it beats going hungry. I’ll be honest – this can be a little awkward if you’re in a sit-down meal situation. I think the key here is keeping a chin up, ensuring folks that you have eaten, and answering any questions folks might have. I’d love to hear how you seasoned vegans handle situations like this…I’ll admit that they’re not my strong suit.

At Restaurants

It’s surprisingly easy to get a vegan meal at restaurants these days. Fifteen years ago when I went vegetarian, folks thought chicken broth was vegetarian. We’ve come a long way, baby.

If you know where you’re going to eat in advance, you might call ahead to ask any questions you might have. That way, you avoid a When Harry Met Sally moment when the server takes your order.

This isn’t always possible, and that’s no problem. At the restaurant, just scan the menu for a veggie-friendly dish. When the server comes by, you can ask if there is any egg or dairy (sometimes, it helps to specify that you don’t eat butter or cheese either) in the dish. If all else fails, you can usually count on a salad (no bacon, egg, or cheese, please) and a baked potato topped with vinaigrette instead of butter or sour cream.

A lot of places will make you a custom vegan plate if you ask. I’ve done this at many restaurants, and I often end up with the best-looking dish on the table! Just scan for dishes that you could modify into a nice, vegan meal. Ask if they can leave the meat, egg, and/or dairy out of a salad or pasta dish, and you can end up with something just as delicious as everyone else at the table!

When Things Get Ugly

Folks are bound to be curious about your vegan diet, so be ready to answer some questions about why you’ve chosen to eat the way you do. A lot of the time, it’s just genuine interest. I think it’s so important to answer these kinds of questions openly and cheerfully. You’re sort of a vegan ambassador, so put your best foot forward!

Curiosity is one thing, but it’s a whole different story if those questions turn into an attack. It is no fun when someone decides to ruin your meal because of your dietary choices, and I think this is a situation where taking the high road is the best. Maybe this person had a bad experience with a vegetarian or a vegan in the past. Maybe she is threatened by your diet or thinks you’re quietly judging her meal. Whatever the reason, changing the subject is probably your best bet, and humor is probably your greatest weapon. I’m a big fan of the “more for you” tactic. It tends to get a laugh and diffuse any tension.

Food is a touchy subject, and sometimes folks get defensive about it. You don’t want any omnivores at the table to attack you for what’s on your plate, so return the favor in advance. It’s always better to take the high road.

I’d love to hear about your experiences with eating vegan in tricky social situations. Feel free to share away in the comments!

Image Credits:
Party. Creative Commons photo by vox
The Great Battle of Hors D’ouvres. Creative Commons photo by powderedsnow

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7 thoughts on “Eating Vegan: Dealing with Social Situations”

  1. Yes! to everything you just said. :-)

    The best advice I got, when I went to plants-only dining: “Treat restaurant menus as ingredient lists!”… so you don’t have vegan nachos here? mmkay, then, I’ll have some chips & salsa, ala carte black beans (no cheese, please!), 2 sides of guacamole, and a side of jalapenos… and I see that you have roasted red bell peppers, for your chicken dish here, so could I also have a side of those, please? And a large plate. Perfect! Most restaurants (except Dixie Cafe, TGIF, and Cracker Barrel… bleh!) have lots of yum vegan ingredients, & just don’t bother (or don’t know how?) to put them together in interesting ways… if you tip well for the trouble, most servers will work with your requests/ no problem. Just (a) be really nice about it! (b) tell them (truthfully!) that you’re a quirky eater but always tip VERY well for the trouble — I usually leave like 30%, when I go heavy on the special orders. At restaurants where I’m not a regular, or that are particularly UN-vegan-friendly (like if I get dragged to a barbecue place or something), I’ve also been known to imply that I have severe food allergies to eggs & dairy; I think sometimes (sorry to say) my requests for ingredient details get taken more seriously that way. Not always necessary; but occasionally a handy tool to have in the box. Also, TOTALLY agree: ALWAYS specify different types of dairy, when asking or ordering — I’ve been unpleasantly surprised by how many folks don’t think sour cream, ranch dressing, butter, etc. are made from milk… :-/ (scratches head!)

    Good resources for restaurants/ travel:,, and

    For dinner parties/ visiting family who wants to cook for you & resists the idea of you bringing a dish (which is nearly always the best option, imo!), I find it helpful to say ‘I like whole foods, like fresh fruits & veggies — if you can buy it at a farmer’s market, I’ll love it!’… by which I mean, of course, ‘I need to be able to see that you didn’t sneak any animal bits into it!’ but I don’t say that! :-) On occasions where someone has tried to make vegan sides, but put animal junk in anyway b/c they don’t understand (‘We got you some vegan side dishes — no meat!’ er, just lots of mayo, sour cream, & cheese… hmmm, it was still really nice of them to try, but… I just can’t do it!)I might take like a spoonful of each, and push them around on my plate a lot… I only use this approach in emergencies, with elderly relatives… but, again, it’s there if needed! I do appreciate the effort, even if I’m not prepared to actually eat it. :-)

    I think the hardest thing, in social situations, is not getting sucked into nonproductive converse with defensive carnies, at someone else’s party where you’re trying to totally NOT make your food habits a big deal… I hate that!

    Anyway, thanks for the article… Eating vegan is easy; dealing with other humans… not so much!

  2. “Treat restaurant menus as ingredient lists!”

    I love that! Great tips.

    Ooh yes…I’ve done this too where folks have clearly bent over backward to provide something vegan but missed the mark. When I worked at a corporate job this happened with catered meetings, and I’d just give my boxed lunch away later on and stealthily buy lunch downstairs when the meeting was out.

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Evz…you have some really great tips here!

  3. Awesome tips! I’ve honestly never had an issue finding a vegan meal or something that can be veganized at any restaurant. However, dining at other people’s houses can prove to be difficult. Many people just don’t “get” what is an animal product and what is not(Is it just me or is that really bizarre?). I always try to eat before or bring my own dish – like you had suggested. I also try to remain a wall flower as much as possible so I don’t get bombarded with inane questions or have people ask me if I have an eating disorder!

    1. I think it’s a matter of perspective, especially when it comes to hidden animal ingredients like gelatin or whey. Some folks I think also look at veganism almost like a diet rather than a lifestyle, so maybe perceive “a little” butter/milk/egg as OK when, of course, it’s not.

  4. Lactose intolerance is what initially drove me to make the leap from vegetarian to vegan, so I always, always, always bring my own meal or eat beforehand if I’m headed off to a social situation that involves food. Occasionally I decline invitations to potlucks and restaurants simply because it’s easier–not the most fun choice, but it can be necessary at times.

    Hidden animal ingredients can cause hours of discomfort or illness for me. Even the risk of dairy cross-contamination in a restaurant kitchen is a concern. I think this has probably made it easier to explain my food choices, but there are some people who still don’t “get” it.

  5. I have found, when in a bad situation like this, that if I simply say I eat this way because I like how it makes me feel, then they don’t feel like I am judging them. Most people can easily understand wanting to feel healthy and good, and by making it about you personally, they don’t feel like you are really saying eating meat is bad. I mean what can they say… ” no! you need to eat meat too and feel bad just like the rest of us!…?” Keep it personal, your vegan because it makes you happy, it makes you feel good, your body works best with this diet. Who knows, you might make them want to look and feel as good as you and turn them around. :)

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