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What to Serve Vegetarians At Thanksgiving

I’ve been a vegetarian for over 7 years, but I grew up in central Illinois, which is almost synonymous with saying I was raised by meat eaters. For the first 22 years I was alive, I ate meat. This made my first several vegetarian Thanksgivings very hard. What about the turkey? What about the gravy on the mashed potatoes – made from the juice of the turkey? What about the stuffing, which should be cooked in the turkey?

How could I make vegetarian Thanksgiving meal without meat?

On a day to day basis, I have usually found being a vegetarian relatively easy, but tradition has more value around holidays, and for a holiday that revolved around a meal, changing the menu was heartbreaking.

Vegetarian Main Dishes

Last year before Thanksgiving, I went to a local grocery store in search of a meat-substitute roast for the holiday. I asked the clerk at the store where I could find the Tofurky roasts and the confused teenager lead me to a large display of turduckens. FYI: although the product names sound similar, there is a HUGE difference between a Tofurky and a turducken. You should not feed a turducken to a vegetarian.

This story is just a good illustration of the way that the non-vegetarian world finds the vegetarian diet somewhat mystifying. If you’re inviting vegetarians over for Thanksgiving meal, or if you’re a new vegetarian trying to cook your first Thanksgiving meal, advanced planning and a little education will take some of the stress out of the event.

Tofurky roasts are probably the most popular main dish among vegetarians. Tofurky is a company that makes meat-substitute products for vegetarians. These products include sandwich meats, sausages, franks, links, and other vegetarian and vegan foods meant for everyday normal food consumption. Tofurky also makes a number of meat-substitute dinner roasts aimed primarily at holiday consumption. Tofurky roasts have a smokey flavor and a sort-of meat-like texture that some people love and some people hate. If you’re wondering what the Tofurky roast tastes like, Tofurky hickory smoked deli slices are similar in flavor and can be found in the vegetarian refrigerator section in supermarkets.

If you’re a new vegetarian and you’re trying Tofurky for the first time, try to suppress any expectations that the Tofurky will taste like real turkey. Despite its name, Tofurky really isn’t that much like turkey meat. The texture and flavor is different. After years of eating Tofurkys, I love this main dish, but my first few vegetarian Thanksgivings were disappointing because I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that Tofurky was just a bad imitation of turkey, when in actuality, Tofurky isn’t an imitation turkey at all. Tofurky is its own thing.

Tofurky roasts may be marinated, wrapped in foil and baked in an oven, just like a turkey. My family roasts potato chunks and carrots in the foil with the Tofurky. To bake a Tofurky roast, read the instructions on the box ahead of time. The roast will need to be thawed in advance, so don’t wait for the morning of Thanksgiving to pull the Tofurky out of the freezer.

Tofurky is not the only meat-substitute company that makes meat-substitute roasts. For several years I experimented with different types of vegetarian roasts. Some I liked better than others, some I even liked better than Tofurky, but the downside I discovered was that many companies that made vegetarian roasts did not last more than one or two years. No sooner had I discovered a company with a product I liked, than the company would be gone and the product no longer available. Now I prefer to stick with Tofurky because I’m used to the product and Tofurky roasts are available from one year to the next. With a special meal like Thanksgiving, I don’t like to take chances with an unknown product.

Some vegetarians don’t like the Tofurky roasts, prefer some other main dish, or prefer to make their home-made roasts from nuts, breadcrumbs, grains, seeds, vegetables and other vegetarian items. If you’re having vegetarian guests and you’re not sure, ask them they would prefer. They may have a recipe they particularly like, or a tradition of their own to share with you.

Side Dishes

Many traditional and popular Thanksgiving dishes are naturally vegetarian, or are easily made vegetarian. Buttered corn, mashed potatoes with gravy, rolls, roasted cranberry sauce, green bean casserole, sweet potatoes, roasted squash, pickles, nuts and stuffing can all be made vegetarian without too much alteration.

Be careful to substitute any meat broths for vegetable broth. If you make your gravy from a package, look for gravy that specifically calls itself “vegetarian”–most gravy mixes are not vegetarian. Don’t put bacon bits in the food (unless it’s not real bacon) or any other meat bits in foods meant for vegetarians. Additionally, sweet potatoes dishes made with marshmallow topping are not technically vegetarian, and neither is Jell-O, although not all vegetarians are aware that marshmallows and Jell-O are both made from gelatin, an animal product.

Desserts

This is the easy part–vegetarian desserts. Almost all desserts are naturally vegetarian. Remember that vegetarians are not vegans, and can eat dairy and eggs. Again, avoid anything that is made from gelatin–many pies like cheese cakes and mousses contain gelatin.

Vegetarian Advice and Etiquette

Many vegetarians are used to eating in the presence of meat and will not be offended if other guests at the table are eating meat dishes. Vegetarian dishes should be prepared without touching the meat dishes, although the two can be served side by side on a table.

If you’re not a vegetarian but you’ve invited vegetarians to Thanksgiving dinner, try to eliminate meat from any side dishes not dependent on meat as a critical ingredient. Make sure that vegetarians and non-vegetarians have comparable number of choices on the table, to make groups feel welcome.

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