If you say you’re allergic to something, people don’t hesitate to go out of their way to avoid cross-contamination. Mentioning being a vegan, however, often leads to an immediate flood of questions.
Friends who didn’t think twice about your food a minute before suddenly care about your protein intake, and your salad goes from looking good to looking pretentious. It can be hard to know what to say, especially when you’re a freshman eating with new friends in a new environment.
Do you sit back and let them criticize your macronutrient levels, or lecture them on the benefits of a plant-based diet? Is there an in-between?
As my first semester of college comes to an end, I’ve learned a few tips and tricks. Here’s a quick list of essential do’s and don’ts for dining hall diet talk:
1. Make your diet the first topic of conversation when you get to college.
Figure out what options you have in the dining hall and eat them like everyone else. Don’t complain about the lack of vegan options on the first day of school. Everyone is dealing with their own dietary changes and challenges, and you may unintentionally make them feel more stressed or pressured about eating. Remember that everyone’s journey and upbringing with food is different.
2. Let your diet get in the way of spending time with your friends.
Just because you can’t eat ice cream doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go out to ice cream with your friends. In fact, most ice cream places have a sorbet option. If your friends are going out for a milkshake or dessert run without any diet-friendly options for you, or you avoid eating processed desserts, tag along for the ride. There is no point in sitting alone in your room all night––you won’t just be missing the ice cream, you’ll also be missing the opportunity to bond and have fun with new friends.
3. Make every meal a lecture session for your friends.
While the horrible documentary you just watched on Netflix may have been life changing, it isn’t the sort of thing people want to hear about over their food. Sure, it will make an impact, but they’ll probably leave with the confirmed stereotype of the preachy vegan, not a desire to change the way that they eat.
1. Be mindful of where you talk about your food.
Let your new friends know about your diet outside of a cafeteria setting. When you first get to school, there will be plenty of opportunities to share fun facts about yourself. These instances are the perfect time to bring up your dietary preferences. By talking about your diet outside of the cafeteria, you’ll avoid making other people feel uncomfortable or guilty for the food on their plate. They also won’t be as likely to judge your eating habits.
2. Research your surroundings.
Take some time to figure out where the best places are for you to have a treat. Does the local coffee shop have a vegan cookie? Does the ice cream place have coconut ice cream or a smoothie option? Once you figure out the best places for you to go, suggest them to your friends when they’re deciding what they want to eat. It’s more than likely that they’ll be happy to go somewhere that accommodates everyone.
3. Answer the questions your friends have about your diet with a positive attitude.
Chances are, your friends will wonder where you get your protein from, or what vegan foods are “actually” good. This is the time to talk about your reasons for going vegan* in a positive way and share information about the amazing food you get to enjoy. Remember to talk about your diet in the “me” form, or in the context of your own experience––talk about how you felt when you learned about the meat/dairy industries, or how much better you feel physically on plant-based foods. Don’t tell your friends what they should do. If they hear about your good experiences and the benefits that you are enjoying, they will see your diet in a more positive light. Who knows, maybe they’ll even try it.
Always remember that your diet is your choice and your friend’s diet is their choice. If you want to be more vocal about your beliefs, start a vegetarian group on campus, or take a health/nutrition class. PETA also has some great ideas to increase vegan awareness on campus. When your friends do ask questions, answer positively. No matter what, keep in mind that there will be people who won’t understand why you chose to give up ingredients so essential to the Standard American Diet. Don’t let them ruin the way you feel about eating plant-based food. You’ll always function best if you do what’s best for you.
*These tips work for any by-choice dietary change (Vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, paleo, etc.)