Being Vegetarian in a Non-Vegetarian Family

Posted on Jun 6 2012 - 12:26am by Demelza Young

I’ve written before that I am the lone vegetarian in my family.  Considering the usual effects of peer pressure, this may seem odd (and, indeed, I do have a brother who likes to gloat about all the big slabs of meat he eats) but I don’t think it is much different from how it is to be vegetarian in society.  Some days present more challenges than others.

I do most of my own cooking, and a lot of grocery shopping.  As the only vegetarian in my family, often I am the only person eating something different at the kitchen table or around dinnertime.  While cooking most of my own meals may seem like a lot of work, it is something I enjoy and, I think, helps take the pressure off my other family members (so they don’t have to scramble to think of what to provide for me to eat).  As I mentioned in another article, though, they are very supportive of my eating choices.  While we don’t eat as a family very often, when we do all sit down together, at the very least my mother tries to incorporate a good amount of side dishes that I can enjoy.  Usually, there will be a main course for the majority of my family and then I will have a smaller one that I and anyone else can enjoy.  I cannot express enough how grateful I am that my family is accepting of my dietary choices, and how much it means to me that, for example, if my brother is grilling meat for the family he will first ask me if I want some vegetables cooked first (so as it will not be tainted by the meat). 

As a vegetarian, there is something I learned in high school from my theatre teacher that I like to incorporate: “show us, don’t tell us.”  No one wants to be lectured about what you think they should or should not eat, and if you are a vegetarian who wants to broaden someone else’s awareness about your diet I have found that demonstrating by example is the best way to go.  While omnivores are well aware of everything that they would miss (or “could never give up”) when thinking about vegetarianism, they are usually not as well informed about all the delicious meals they may currently be missing out on.  Human beings tend to be creatures of habit, but even the biggest meat lover can get sick of eating chicken after three weeks without variety.  Thus, when I voice that I am willing to make dinner for everyone for a change, there is often much rejoicing.

Even if I am not cooking for everyone, I have found that there are often people wandering into the kitchen when I am making something.  These visits are usually accompanied by vocal comments such as “that looks/smells really good!” “what are you making?” and inquisitive stares.  Generally, people are interested in what I eat (even if they do not want to follow a vegetarian lifestyle on their own) and so I will often encourage whoever is in the kitchen with me to try what I am making.  Some of my favorite moments are when the people who are with me express how delicious the food is, and then later find out one of the ingredients is something they thought they didn’t like.  As an example, one evening I was blending one of my favorite smoothies when one of my brothers walked in.  He took one look at the pink concoction, said it was cute and looked good, and graciously accepted when I smiled and offered him a spoonful.  He decided he really liked it, and opened his mouth for another bite.  When he asked what was in it, I replied with another smile: “Strawberries, bananas, cinnamon, vanilla, a little milk…and cottage cheese.”

“What!  Cottage cheese!?”

“Yes, cottage cheese.  It makes it thick and fluffy.”  Now, whenever I hear him badmouthing the dairy product I remind him that he seemed to like it just fine in my smoothie.  After that, he usually sulks and rephrases that he doesn’t like it on its own (which I can agree with).

When it comes to larger family gatherings, or visits to a relative’s house, things can be a little trickier.  This past weekend I went with my father and little sister to see my aunt and uncle.  In order to keep my aunt from feeling responsible for my special needs (or guilty about me sitting at the table while everyone else ate their fish/meat she prepared), I made sure to bring some of my own food with me.  My dad (who has special dietary needs of his own, due to high blood pressure and an uncommon allergy) sympathized with me and stopped at the grocery store so we could stock up on a few things before continuing to his sister’s house.

This particular trip was even more interesting due to the fact that my little sister, who has always looked up to me (as younger siblings are prone to do) and often followed my example, took to modeling my eating habits during the visit.  “I’m going to eat like you do!”  She expressed enthusiastically to me while at the store.  It was fun to discuss with someone else what sort of options we had and what foods we might like to purchase for the next few days.  It was certainly a learning experience for both of us, and while we partook in classics like soup, oatmeal, and an abundance of produce, my sister still learned a few new ways of preparing these foods as well as a little more about some of the nutritional information involved.

Something else I have found is that, being the only vegetarian in a non-vegetarian family, I am often asked questions about my diet and food in general.  Of course, this may simply have to do with the fact I bake and cook a lot, but on numerous occasions I have found people asking about more than just what I eat.  While I don’t have a degree in nutrition or food science (and was only able to take one class on it in college), though, I do think it’s fun to share what I know from personal research and experience, whether that is about the meaning of sodium (which is something I talked to my sister about on our trip) or my favorite way to prepare spaghetti squash.  While it may seem like it requires a little more effort than a traditional omnivore diet at times, once you get the hang of things a healthy vegetarian lifestyle really doesn’t require any more time or effort than any other healthy diet (and by diet, I mean the food you habitually consume).


Demelza Young is an alumni of Northern Kentucky University. She currently enjoys volunteering her time in her local community, reviewing online content with her cat, and sharing quality recipes.

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