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How to Talk About Food and Not Piss People Off

How to Talk About Food and Not Piss People Off

You’re at the annual family gathering and your uncle offers you a plate covered in meat. You stall. Do you tell him you recently went vegetarian? Maybe you should just suck it up and eat it. No, you decide to stick to your ideals. But you’re nervous. What do you say?

“Um… thanks… but I recently stopped eating meat.”

“My god! Why?”

Talking about food isn’t always easy. Especially when we make individual choices that don’t match up with those of the people that we’re eating with. On one hand, we want to have a conversation about food, get other people to think about what they’re eating. On the other hand, we don’t want to offend people and push them too far, for fear that they’ll close off and not be open to change.

If you care about what you eat and are on a quest to get more people eating real food, this is certainly a dilemma in which you have found yourself at one point or another. Food is emotional, which is why many people have strong reactions regarding it. Tell someone you’re off gluten and they go on a tirade about how they could never give up bread. Tell someone you’re trying to cut out processed foods and they remind of how they have a family and how impossible it would be to give up macaroni and cheese.

For a compassionate, caring person who loves food, these situations are tough. We want to get people involved in a conversation about how to eat better, but we want to have that conversation without being alienating. We want to be inclusive. We want to be supportive. We want to get people engaged without scaring them off within the first few minutes.

How then do we talk about food without coming off as if we’re on a soap box? Ultimately, it comes down to basic communication skills and respect.

1. Listen

You know what’s often more impactful than talking? Listening. Ask questions, the kind that prompt someone to think about what they’re saying and work through things on their own. Don’t assume you know someone’s personal stance to food, listen to what they have to say first.

2. Know your audience

If you’re at the meat-heavy family summer barbecue, it’s probably not the place to immediately launch into statistics on how bad the pork industry is at the same time as you pull their plate away from them. They’ll be offended, you won’t be heard, and there will never be a conversation to be had about today’s current meat industry, which is unfortunately, a missed opportunity. Very few people will make drastic changes overnight and because of that, you want to know who you’re talking to. This allows you to frame your thoughts in a way that makes sense to them. You want to be tactful and impactful and that requires knowing who exactly you’re speaking with.

3. Ease into it

While you may spend your days discussing food politics, remember that not everyone is always on the same page, and launching into an intense debate too quickly can be overwhelming to some people. Eating well often gets equated with a certain level of pretentiousness, and you want to avoid that. Real food is something that we can all care about, so make sure you go slow enough to get everyone on board.

4. Be relatable

Let’s be honest: whatever your personal position on food is, it didn’t happen overnight. Most of us have gone through a transition at one point or another, and that transition is usually one that has taken time. Why did you stop eating processed foods? What was your turning point? What recipe was it that finally made you love broccoli? When was the first time you met a farmer? The more you pepper your conversation with relatable personal stories of your own trials and tribulations, the more people realize that you too have gone through a learning process.

5. Lead by example

Sometimes it’s far better to simply act than to speak. You don’t always have to give a reason for your choices; sometimes it’s as easy as simply showing them.

6. Show passion

Passion is contagious, and if you show how excited you are, about food that comes off a lot better than if you just appear to be lecturing. Excited about everything that was in your last CSA box? Really happy about how a new recipe turned out? Share those things and get other people excited about eating real food in the process.

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Photo Credit: Greg Younger

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614 comments

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8:23PM PDT on Aug 19, 2014

Talking about food is often an interesting topic, it can be pleasant, exchanging recipes or recommending a certain restaurant or it can be insulting and nasty.

For example, there is a certain type of tick that can actually cause an allergy to red meat if it bites a person. There are some people, as a result, cheering on the idea of people being bitten and saying things like 'good ticks,' or wishing that they could release millions of these ticks on the omnivore population. One such comment annoyed one person, who has this allergy and she told them to keep their food wars arguments to themselves as she must be very careful what she eats, avoids restaurants due to threats of cross contamination. When people joke or laugh at threats to other people's health because they disapprove of what someone eats, it gets rather insulting. If the bite can affect people eating red meat, who is to say that one day it won't affect someone eating Brussels sprouts? I sometimes have allergic reactions to eating strawberries and break out in hives. Food allergies are nothing to be laughed at and wishing them on others is nasty indeed.

2:04PM PDT on Aug 14, 2014

add a little dash of paranoid delusion......and an underwhelming dab of sympatico.

1:53PM PDT on Aug 14, 2014

@Simon V: Thank you for saying that. And they do come into my home and ask about it. It's not me who brings it up...they do. I only will have mentioned it in a food situation where I didn't want to be offered animal products, so I'll tell them I'm vegan so "no thanks," simple as that. Their obvious defensiveness starts there. So every time I see them after that they continually talk about meat/milk/eggs, with an "oops, sorry" sort of nonsense that follows. It's nuts! Then when I talk about how I love my good diet, they say I'm preaching. But I know how to shut them up, just by asking them to remember who brought up the subject. Then the subject quickly changes. People, wow, such pieces of work.

3:10PM PDT on Aug 13, 2014

One way to freely talk about veganism is to wait until those people are in my home. I have every right to decide what topics will be discussed in my home. I also ban meat in my household and will never provide meat for anybody just as a Catholic should never have to provode an abortion (or drive a person to have one) or a person who opposes the use of illegal drugs should never have to provide them to anybody.

Another way to freely talk about veganism is to wait until the other person asks. Anybody who starts an anti-vegan conversation has no right to criticise me about talking about veganism.

5:58AM PDT on Aug 12, 2014

I can say that one negative aspect of veganism is the restricted diet.
It isn't a healthy diet for some people.
It's great for those who can be healthy on it, but not everyone can be healthy on it due to food allergies and sensitivities that restrict their diet....or other genetic issues.

We don't choose to be born with allergies or other issues, and in order to be healthy we often have to eat certain foods and avoid certain foods so as not to aggravate a medical issue.

It would be nice if the more militant and zealous vegavores realized that not everyone is like them, and it doesn't make them superior or inferior in any way.....just different.
We're not all blonde and we don't all have blue eyes and wear size 7 shoes.

2:41AM PDT on Aug 12, 2014

@ Nikolaos B: The only thing about Vegans that is negative is not the diet. Eat Vegan if you want. Let us eat as we see fit. There is no "one size fits all"

The attitude some take is reprehensible

Vegans are not:

More evolved
More ethical
More empathetic
More compassionate

etc

The self aggrandizement and smugness some Vegans show make me wonder if you guys are missing a vital nutrient in your diet which interferes with your humanity

10:57PM PDT on Aug 11, 2014

Could someone of the non-vegans here list down those negative aspects of veganism with regards to how those aspects are positive in non-veganism?

Also, I have read a lot about personal choice in diets. I can say with certainty that none of the carnivores I know made ever a choice to not be vegan. Nobody of those I know, woke up one day and said to herself/himself: "I have thinking a lot about it... Today is the day I will stop being vegan. I will start eating meat and eggs and drinking milk. Plus I am going to buy the products that are tested on animals and contain animal byproducts in them." Or something similar.
We are all born in to a non-vegan world, so by definition we are non-vegan, save for a very few exceptions.
It is the same like for instance being a christian orthodox in Greece (I am talking abt vast majority). You don't choose to be baptized or raised as one. You are simply born as one into that society.
Then when you grow up you can choose or think for yourself (or not think) to change, renounce christianity or religion. As I have done. Same goes for non-veganism as far as I have seen. They might adjust their diet, but never made a choice to stop being vegan because they simply never were. People that are born today as vegans might be able to say one day: "I choose to start being a non vegan". But of those here, I don't think someone can make such a claim.

I prefer to be a militant vegan (which I am not), than a militant carnivore like some.

9:03AM PDT on Aug 8, 2014

LOLOL Barbara D ..... I would very much doubt that anyone, who is fine with the diet both physically and mentally (and the other life changes involved in veganism), would question their individual decision ..... unless things changed FOR THEM. But the "fanatical" factor is really worried that they might lose impetus towards their conversion goal, if it can be seen that all is not 100% "rosy" in their garden ...... so they hit the "panic" button and turn on everyone, with even more venom than before !!

7:13AM PDT on Aug 8, 2014

There might be another aspect. Apparently, some people feel something is *right* only if everybody else is saying or doing it.
Could comments on the negative aspects of veganism cause insecurities and lead to having to question the validity of their position?

6:47AM PDT on Aug 8, 2014

Thank you, Anna, for a good article. However, I think you missed a very important piece of advice ..... the one which most of your intended audience seem to forget at times .....
8. Be respectful.
Your choice is YOUR choice ..... the choice of others (whatever it may be) is strictly THEIR choice. Explaining your reasons (for you doing things your way) should only be done within the confines of supplying information so that your "listener" has more information to consider. Forcing the issue is disrespectful and an infringement on their right to CHOOSE.

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