How to deal at dinner: vegetarians and non-vegetarians can find happy medium at restaurants, at home

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(for video transcript, click here.)

by Emma LeGault for The College Veggie

Nancy O’Connor was dining out with her husband and two boys at a pizza restaurant. They placed their order, waited and conversed with each other, but to their surprise and dismay, the server brought out a pie covered in pepperoni.

The vegetarian family, who had ordered a cheese pizza, explained that this wasn’t what they ordered—they couldn’t eat it. With a smile, the server said he wouldn’t charge them extra.

O’Connor, director of education and outreach at The Merc, has been a vegetarian for 39 years and has experienced plenty of uncomfortable moments at restaurants.

“I don’t want to make that person feel badly, but they were being insensitive too,” she said. “It doesn’t have to do with the cost—I don’t eat meat. No offense, but this won’t work.”

According to a 2012 Gallup poll, approximately five percent of the U.S. population said they’re vegetarian, eating no meat or fish. A 2008 study from Vegetarian Times said 42 percent of the more than 7 million U.S. vegetarians are 18 to 34 years old, compared to 17 percent aged 55 and older.

These numbers are small already, but in the Midwest, where about one percent of vegetarians live, these diets can seem dwarfed by the traditional, hearty meat-and-potatoes diet.

“We live in Lawrence, so this feels, because of the University, like a more progressive community, but [vegetarianism] is still is not the norm,” O’Connor said. “So you have to accept that if you’re a vegetarian, and there are those moments that are awkward, but the important thing is to always be open-minded and never judgmental because that doesn’t accomplish anything but turn people off.”

Going out to eat with a vegetarian presents a set of challenges. O’Connor said it’s best to clarify what kind of vegetarian a person is, and find a restaurant that accommodates both vegetarians and non-vegetarians, or at least one where a salad isn’t the only vegetarian option.

“In this day and age, most restaurants offer something, but eating out is a treat, so who wants to eat out just to eat a salad or baked potato?” O’Connor said.

Dealing with servers—like at the pizza restaurant—or other people who may not understand is as simple as being calm and respectful, and hoping the response is positive.

“As a vegetarian, I really am totally turned off by militant, self-righteous vegetarians…because everybody can enjoy meatless food sometimes even if they decide not to be vegetarian,” she said. “It doesn’t do any good to get all uppity and judgmental about people’s diets. So you have to be sensitive in those situations to communicate in a way that has as much compassion as you want people to show to you.”

Amy Schroeder, a University junior, was a vegetarian for three years and has been on both sides of the table. In high school, she was lucky enough to have a vegetarian friend she could dine out and cook with. However, it was people she didn’t know who were uncomfortable with her food limitations.

“A lot of people aren’t going to understand when they’re not experiencing it themselves,” she said.

When Schroeder and her friend decided to try being vegan, they went to a restaurant with friends, but the only item Schroeder could order there was a sandwich with Brussels sprouts. Others at the table stared.

“That instance was awkward because I didn’t know the people we were eating with, but [my friend] did,” Schroeder said. “I was like, don’t judge me for what I’m eating.”

When she moved into the dorms and was meeting new people, she felt a similar sense of discomfort when people offered her a bite of their food at restaurants in the dining hall. When she told them she was a vegetarian, the situation became awkward, even though she wasn’t offended.

“They almost seemed standoffish,” she said.

Schroeder said the level of awkwardness depends on the reason someone is a vegetarian. She said education is the best tool.

“I think if you just explain it to the person why you’re doing it, it’s easier, but I guess that’s the only thing you can do,” she said.

 

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