Wondering how to stick with healthy plant-based eating when you're at family meals and social gatherings? We've got tips for planning ahead, what to do when you get there, and how to address the many questions that may arise regarding your food choices!
One of the most daunting tasks for anyone who has recently adopted a whole foods plant based diet is figuring out what to do - and what to eat - at family and social gatherings. Though you may be steadfast in your commitment to eating this way, it can be hard to communicate this to others. And it can be harder still to avoid offending hosts at dinner parties, holiday meals, and other food-related get-togethers because you can't eat most of what's on offer.
That's why I've put together this little guide to help you figure out what to do, what to say, and how to stay healthy (and sane!) when dining socially with others.
What to Do Before You Go
As always, preparation is a key element. When you're invited to an event where food will be served, talk to your host about it. You can choose to offer as much or as little information as you wish (including medical requirements). What you choose to share will likely depend on who you're talking to, and how well you know them. Close family members may already be aware of your dietary needs, so have a chat and see if they can prepare something suitable for you. You can even send them some recipe ideas if they're interested. Many people, unfortunately, are likely to be overwhelmed by the task, and in this case you have two options:
1. Offer to bring something along
Enjoying a social occasion that centers around food is easiest when you bring along tasty, satisfying plant-based dishes that everyone can enjoy. This way, you relieve your host of the extra work, and at the same time give others the opportunity to see that there’s no lack of variety or flavour in your food! By bringing along vibrant salads to share, or some oil-free dips and spreads, or even a healthy vegan dessert, you’re giving yourself more options as well as contributing to the meal as a whole.
2. Eat before you go
This might sound ood, or even anti-social, but let me take a moment to explain. If you're heading to an event where the dining will be quite casual, this is a totally viable option. By filling up on healthy starches before you go (like whole grains and legumes) it won't matter if there's a very limited selection of foods available to you once you get there. Because you've already eaten, you won't be distracted by a growling hungry belly, and you can focus more of your energy on the company and the event itself.
Which brings us to our next issue...
How to Approach the Topic with Others
We've dealt with how to prepare yourself, but how do you deal with others once you get there? What should you do when people ask you questions, like "why won’t you have any of my barbecued chicken?", or "what's this weird diet you're on?", or "where do you get your protein?" These and other queries can and will come up. They may range from perfectly reasonable to annoyingly aggressive. But whatever the question, it's always better not to engage in too lengthy an explanation, or to get too involved in defending your choices. I've found it's generally best to simply mention the effect that your way of eating has on your health, and you personally, rather than making general statements or relating it to others. While you might think it’s helpful to mention how your brother’s eating habits have contributed to his current high blood pressure, not everyone will appreciate your viewpoint! And bringing it up at a social or family gathering is probably not the best idea, especially if there is a lot of non-plant based fare on the table.
We like to use 'Three P’s' when constructing our responses: be pre-emptive, be positive, and be polite. In other words, expect to be asked about your food choices, and have some short, friendly responses ready so you can get on with enjoying your meal. Some suggestions include:
“Well, it's been working really well for me, so I’m going to stick with it.”
“I’m feeling better, have a lot more energy, and have noticed a lot of positive improvements to my health. I’d really like to keep doing it and see what happens.”
“I actually really enjoy eating this way. The food is tasty, and I feel great after a meal. My stomach is thanking me too!”
“My doctor is happy with the effect the diet is having on my... (blood pressure, blood sugar level, weight, etc.) He/she thinks I should keep it up for the sake of my health, and I agree.”
In many instances, friends and family members will also have positive reactions to your decision to adopt a plant-based diet. Some will be genuinely intrigued and want to ask you more about the research behind it, or ask if you think it would be good for their weight/mood/diabetes/heart problems. They may even want a list of recipes because they want to start eating more healthily. In these cases, it’s fun to engage and to share resources that will give them an insightful introduction to whole foods plant-based eating. Some helpful suggestions could include:
Recommending that they see the documentary film “Forks Over Knives” (you could even carry a DVD copy to share with friends and family should the opportunity arise!)
Giving them the titles of a couple of excellent introductory books, including:
The Starch Solution by Dr John McDougall
21 Day Weight Loss Kick-Start by Dr Neil Barnard
The Forks Over Knives Plan by Dr Matthew Lederman
My Beef with Meat by Rip Esselstyn
Referring them to the websites of:
Sharing the links to PlantPlate’s Article section for transitioning tips, our Video section for informative presentations, or our Recipe section for meal ideas
Above all else, social gatherings and family meals are about enjoying the company of others. Try to focus on the comradery, the conversation, and the chance to be together and share a meal - even if your plates look nothing alike!
Article photo courtesy of Nell Conway via Flickr