Helping Vegans Navigate Winter Holidays with Grace and Wisdom
From Animal Rights/Vegan Activist Strategies Articles Archive

FROM Sherry Zitter, Exploring Veganism
October 2019

Thanksgiving! Christmas! Chanukah! Other religious and social winter gatherings with family and friends! What’s not to love?...Unless you're a committed vegan.

Thanksgiving! Christmas! Chanukah! Other religious and social winter gatherings with family and friends! What’s not to love?

Lots, as therapists know. We hear story after story of clients, and some colleagues, who feel stress and even dread as they face spending time with family members they have little in common with or who consistently criticize and judge them.

For vegans, this scenario can be even more fraught with tension and apprehension. Will there be any food I can eat? Will my family poke fun at me and my ethical food choices? Will our differences divide us during holiday gatherings in ways that feel uncomfortable for all of us?

Awareness of some of these minefields can help supportive therapists ask questions to see if such issues may exist for vegan clients, as well as to help with understanding one’s own reactivity, hopes and fears in ways that diminish their intensity and increase opportunities for building bridges and productive conversation.

Although vegans are a diverse bunch, some common threads I often hear include:

  • FEAR AND ANXIETY: Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I be strong enough to speak up, if there is an opening, to explain why I am vegan — or wold any attempt to do so come across as critical and alienating? Am I a coward if I remain silent when people discuss how delicious the turkey is? What if family members push me to “just try a little bit!” I’ve only been vegan 6 months; can I resist the pressure?
  • DESPAIR, DISCONNECTION/ISOLATION: I have nothing in common with these people…why do I even make the effort? No matter how I try, I’ll always alone in this family… They just don’t care! I might as well be invisible.
  • ANGER: They don’t even make an effort to understand how I feel or what I believe! I wish I could make them feel what that turkey went through! Why is eating a damn bird so important, anyway? I wish I could just scream, but they would just think I am more crazy than they already think I am.

As therapists, we already now how to help our clients notice their feelings and learn to take care of them in ways that lessen reactivity.

ROSE: a case study

Let’s take the case of Rose to explore some ways we might help our clients think about strategies to cook up for a holiday gathering:

  • Rose’s family’s reactions when she “came out” to them as vegan ranged from “Aren’t you taking things a bit too far?” (her older sister) to “Honey, how will you get enough protein?” (her mom) to mocking from her younger brother: “Oh, here comes the lofty animal hero!”
  • At first, Rose felt so isolated and judged by her family that she found herself making excuses to skip family gatherings. But she soon missed the warmth of her close-knit family and searched for ways to overcome this sudden barrier to connecting with them.


Rose found some resources that explained the health benefits of a vegan diet clearly and simply. She offered to bring a protein-filled vegan dish to the meal, choosing an old family recipe adapted with delicious vegan ingredients.

Connecting with vegan friends before and after this event was a crucial part of Rose’s strategy. She knew which of them were available over the holiday weekend so she could text or call them for support. She tried not to expect too much change in attitudes, and resolved not to offer any of her materials unless she was asked.


When her mother and sister separately brought up concerns for her health, Rose thanked them lovingly for caring about her and explained how she manages her health well. Her explanations focused on their specific concerns, and she avoided a proselytizing tone.

She offered written materials in a low-key way, which they each accepted. She mentioned how heart problems (her mother’s concern) and weight issues (her sister’s) could often be improved just by eating a few more plant-based meals per week.

Her skeptical mother raved about the vegan version of the family’s chili recipe Rose had brought. Rose resolved to keep adapting superbly delicious dishes she knows are favorites with her clan. When her sister expressed more interest, she stressed the love of animals she and her sister shared.

Her prankster brother was more challenging for Rose. When he began his perennial teasing, she took a deep breath and teased him back gently: “So are you the marathoner-wannabe who hasn’t even heard of all the Vegan Ironmen?”

“Really!?” he said, suddenly interested, and she texted him the link to Brendan Brazier’s, Rich Roll’s and Doug Graham’s sites. For the next hour he was reading testimonials by vegan athletes on his phone.


Rose realized two essential truths about family dealings for vegans:

  1. I can’t change their reactions, but I can change my response to their reactions; and
  2. I won’t expect to change anyone’s viewpoint right away; give them slow, gradual information respectfully over time. Some will adjust; others won’t.

She also did her research, exposed them to vegan food that was close to what they loved, not out of their experience, and lined up support before, during and after her experience. This enabled her not to get into a war of words, where there are winners and losers and where people’s minds close rather than open.


Using tried and true therapy skills, with the addition of awareness, compassion and knowledge of specific resources and approaches, can help a non-vegan therapist feel confident to help a vegan client through the special challenges inherent in family-centers holidays with traditional non-vegan meals. Most vegan clients deeply appreciate the efforts to be culturally competent so they can feel seen and valued in a way many of their families are unable to do…yet. As therapists, you are crucial to that experience.

Sherry Zitter, MSW, LICSW is a longterm vegan advocate, psychotherapist and meditator certified as an IFS (Internal Family Systems) therapist. She does therapy with adults, teens and couples in English and American Sign Language. She advocates regularly for veganism, racial justice/social-economic justice and the Earth, among other causes. She co-facilitates a monthly vegan spirituality circle. Sherry is learning to extend compassion to all beings, human and non-human, vegan and non-vegan, inside and outside of ourselves — and is continually surprised by how difficult this is, especially her own foibles! Sherry can be reached at [email protected].

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