I Spit on Your Meat-Raising Livelihood

Dear Helena,
Three months ago I decided to become a vegetarian and have really loved it. For me, it’s more of a health-conscious decision than an ethical one, and I have really noticed a difference in how I feel. However, there is one major hitch: My boyfriend’s parents are cattle producers and big meat-eaters at almost every meal. For them, raising animals for human consumption is their livelihood, and the idea of not eating meat seems very strange. I don’t have a problem with their meat consumption; I just prefer to abstain. What is the best way to continue to be a vegetarian without offending those I eat with?
—Meat-Free in Iowa

Dear Meat-Free in Iowa,
When you break the news, your boyfriend’s parents will probably be baffled, hurt, and maybe even angry. When I posed this question to John Cunningham, consumer research director of the Vegetarian Resource Group, he said, “Meat is such a part of the identity of this family, it will be hard for them to see it as anything other than a rejection of their family values.”

Like many people, they may assume that because you’re vegetarian, you despise carnivores. Nicolette Hahn Niman, author of Righteous Porkchop, explains: “There is a segment of vegetarians and especially vegans who are absolutely convinced it is unethical or even immoral to eat any animal products. ... That influences the way all vegetarians are viewed.”

It’s not surprising that vegetarians are stereotyped and misunderstood. They still make up only about 3 percent of the total population, according to a survey commissioned by the Vegetarian Resource Group. And in the Midwest, vegetarians are particularly rare, making up only about 1 percent of the population.

But don’t resign yourself to a lifetime of hiding your uneaten burger patty under your napkin. In announcing your decision, you have two factors in your favor. First, your boyfriend eats meat, which should banish fears that you’ll show up in a “Meat Is Murder” shirt. (The fact that Hahn Niman is married to rancher Bill Niman usually reassures carnivores, she says.) Second, you’re not, in fact, an ethical vegetarian. So when you drop the bomb, you must emphasize that you respect the choice to eat meat, and you won’t be shooting baleful looks at them as they try to enjoy their prime rib.

Explain that you’re motivated by health concerns, but emphasize that that’s a personal decision. Instead of remarking on how red meat consumption increases the risk of heart disease, just say something low-key like, “I’ve found I feel better if I don’t eat it.” It may also help if you say that you understand that a carnivorous diet works better for some people than others (something that Hahn Niman believes).

By the way, make sure you’re clear with the family about what vegetarian means, because its definition is fuzzy to many. Cunningham explains, “There’s a confusion around the word meat, which means cows or pigs to a lot of people.” Many people—including some self-styled vegetarians—think that vegetarians can eat chicken and fish.

Once your boyfriend’s family has accepted your news, they may worry about making a special dish for you. You don’t want to let them do this because it will isolate you if you’re eating a microwaved veggie lasagne while everyone else shares a beef tenderloin. For the same reason, you shouldn’t bring your own food. Hahn Niman says she always lets the host knows she’s vegetarian but asks, “Don’t make any special accommodations.” If you want to avoid rocking the boat, it’s best if you just eat whatever nonmeat items are being served. If your boyfriend’s parents favor traditional meat-and-potatoes fare, there’s usually a starch and a vegetable alongside the meat. Luckily, you’re not the kind of vegetarian who will freak out if a drop of gravy happens to get on your potatoes.

CHOW’s Table Manners column appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena. You can also follow her on Twitter and fan her Table Manners column on Facebook.