I’m not aware of any official statistics on the subject, but I’d hazard a guess that, outside the confines of the PETA Headquarters, very few vegans and vegetarians have a partner who follows the same diet.
I, for one, am married to a man whose favorite meal is a rare burger topped with bacon, egg, and cheese. When T and I met as teenagers 15 years ago, the only vegetables he would touch were corn and potatoes. At that time I was newly vegetarian but, having grown up in what would now be called a flexitarian household, I’d gone through childhood without eating red meat, and could only remember trying a burger once or twice.
When T and I got together, it was initially difficult to find common ground. Spending time with his family involved me awkwardly having to explain my dietary restrictions and trying to act thrilled about making a dinner out of mashed potatoes and iceberg lettuce salad. Dinners with my family, on the other hand, meant T had to choke down tofu stir-fry and vegetables he’d never heard of.
Though we eventually found balance and compromise, it was not without a few bumps along the way. I’ll never forget the sting I felt when, the first year we were living together, T innocently offered the feedback that my stir-fries and veggie stews were “just not his thing.” Over the years, I did learn to make my vegetarian food delicious even to his skeptical palate, but bits of bacon and heavy cream eventually started to make their way into my cooking repertoire. A major reason I started eating meat in my twenties was my desire to feel like the kind of easy-going, burger-loving woman I thought T wanted. But, as I’ve waxed poetic about elsewhere on the blog (see here), eating meat just wasn’t for me. When I announced my decision to not only go back to vegetarianism, but all the way to veganism, my amazing husband didn’t even bat an eye.
All these years later, I think we finally have it down. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become comfortable enough in my own skin to embrace my herbivorous instincts and to brush off the periodic eye rolls and silly questions about protein intake and plants having feelings that used to make me red faced and flustered. T, of course, will always have a soft spot for burgers, but these days,he is vegetarian at home and a thoughtful meat eater out in the world. Thanks in part to this diet, he’s veered completely off the hereditary track towards obesity and diabetes that he’d been on, and is now far more fit, strong, and healthy than he’s ever been. Does it bother me sometimes that I can’t cook the kind of Standard American meals he loved growing up? Of course. But there is nothing like the swell of pride I feel when he tells me he has a “craving” for my vegan lasagna or dal tadka.
While of course every couple is different, here are a few tips from a couple that has learned to make it work. (Even if it’s your parent(s), child, best friend, or roommate who follows a different diet from you, you’ll find some helpful advice below.)
- Whether you’re the herbivore or the carnivore in your couple, it’s natural to harbor the wish that your partner will come around to your way of eating. Particularly if you’re newly enlightened to animal cruelty issues, you may expect your partner to share your passion and concern and take the leap into the unknown with you. But if they’re not ready, they’re not ready. Resist the urge to lecture or challenge them about why they should cross over to your side, as this will likely just alienate them. If your partner changes their diet for you without truly buying into it, the change won’t be sustainable and it will only lead to resentment down the road. Instead, accept that they are coming into the relationship with a life’s worth of their own food memories and habits and that any change will happen gradually, organically, and on their own terms.
- When it comes to dinner at home, make it adaptable. Cook up a vegan base dish (e.g. a soup, stew, or salad) or set of sides (e.g. roast veggies, potatoes, rice, etc.), but prepare separate proteins to throw in. If you’re short on time, use ready-prepared meats and veggie proteins like rotisserie chicken or packaged smoked tofu. This is also a great way to ease your meat-eating partner into eating more veggies, without making them feel like they are missing out on eating the food they like. T and I planned to do this in the beginning, but he quickly stopped bothering to throw in the chicken, fish, and cheese when he realized my dishes were tasty and filling enough on their own.
- Find restaurants that have food you both like and feel comfortable eating. While there is definitely a time and place for sucking it up and twiddling your thumbs while your partner enjoys their favorite dish (see Tip #4), being able to break bread together and genuinely enjoy a shared meal in a fun setting with the one you love is (at least in my book) essential to a happy relationship. Asian, Middle Eastern, and Italian restaurants often offer the best options for “mixed” couples, though more and more New American restaurants are making an effort to provide more satisfying veggie options. Do a little research together beforehand so that you find a place you’re both equally excited about.
- Particularly for special occasions, or just to be nice, join your partner for a meal they love, even if there’s not much for you to eat. No matter how staunch of a meat eater you are, it will not hurt you to sit in a vegetarian restaurant for an hour. And as long as you know there’s a tasty treat waiting for you at the next stop, it’s not so hard to wait patiently while your partner gets their chow on. From time to time, T and I will do a sort of progressive dinner: I’ll munch on fries while he enjoys a pulled pork sandwich at his favorite barbecue joint, then he’ll nibble on a side of stir-fried veggies while I gobble up vegan sushi. It seems a little weird, but it just makes our date night last a little longer, and that’s nothing to complain about.
- Last, but not least, be appreciative of your partner’s open-mindedness and flexibility and make sure you communicate that to them. Whether you’re a vegan who has to bite his tongue while his wife rips chicken off the bone, or a picky eater who pushes herself to give tempeh or artichokes a try, compromise is hard. It can be easy to get so caught up in wanting to mold our partners to our own ways that we forget to acknowledge that we are asking them to do hard work and make sacrifices and uncomfortable changes for us. (That being said, I’ll take this moment to thank you, T, for accepting me as I am, veggie obsession and all. Sorry about that mushy stir-fry I made you eat in college.)
Readers, I’d love to hear about your experiences having relationships with eaters of other stripes. What tips do you have?