For most people, inviting someone to dinner or out for a meal is a relatively simple affair: ask, fix a date and time, and enjoy. There are times, though, when you discover that your potential guest has a different - sometimes a radically different - diet from you. If you're not vegan and know little about veganism, but have a vegan guest, this entry is just for you.
Veganism is both a diet and a lifestyle. Most vegans will not only avoid all animal products in their food, but also in toiletries, cosmetics and clothing. This is a decision not taken lightly; most have made it on strong moral grounds and feel very deeply about it. If you wish to invite a vegan to dinner, you should be aware that they do not eat meat, fish, poultry, milk, cream, yoghurt, cheese, butter, eggs, whey, gelatin (vegetable gelatin is available and will be labelled as such), honey, isinglass (a fish product used to refine many wines and beers) or any other animal product.
Please do not be tempted to use animal ingredients if cooking for a vegan. It may be that your guest will not notice, especially if the ingredients are well-hidden, but many vegans find that having avoided animal ingredients, exposure to even small amounts can cause physical discomfort which can range from a slight stomach upset to headaches to vomiting and diarrhoea. This is not fun. Just to be on the safe side, if you have used utensils for animal ingredients, either wash them or use separate utensils for making food for your guest, and do not grill veggie burgers right next to meat. Aside from the health issues, using animal ingredients in a meal intended for a vegan is deeply disrespectful - no matter how you may resent having to go to 'extra trouble' for your guest (and if you do feel this, you may wish to reconsider even inviting them), doing something like that is simply beyond the pale. A little empathy goes a long way.
This may all seem rather daunting. You may even wonder if you can possibly cater for such a diet. But don't worry, there is a very simple way to get over the hurdle. Admit your anxiety. Tell your potential guest that you'd like to invite her or him, but that you don't know much about veganism or how to cook for a vegan. Vegans are used to this and will not be offended; on the contrary, they will understand your concerns and be pleased to work around them. Depending on how well you know your guest and how formal or informal the occasion is to be, you might:
Ask your guest if they can recommend a restaurant or a particular cuisine. Phone ahead to ensure that vegans can be catered for and make your reservation.
Ask your guest to help you plan a meal, or to bring a dish that will complement the meal you have planned.
Organise a potluck or a picnic, with the vegan bringing enough to cover her or his needs if others don't bring anything suitable (ask whoever is bringing salad to put eggs, meat and dressings separately from the vegetables). When organising potluck meals, it's best to co-ordinate for variety; six people bringing heavy, starchy meals and no vegetables or dessert can be a bit of a disaster.
Gather several take-away menus from local restaurants and have your guest help you order.
Ask your guest to lend you a vegan cookbook and get some practice in. You might have your guest help you in the kitchen.
The Comfort Zone
Differences in diet can cause social problems because food is so intimately entwined with culture. Many people feel uncomfortable around veganism because they feel that their diet is being implicitly judged and criticised, and that this judgment and criticism is, by extension, being made about them personally. While vegans generally do feel very strongly about their lifestyle, they also understand that they are in the minority and that everyone needs to make their own choices, and are unlikely to be negatively judging you for your diet. Many feel uncomfortable about explaining their reasons for being vegan to non-vegans because it is common to find themselves then accused of being 'militant' or thinking of themselves as 'morally superior' when they do - being manoeuvred into being 'the puritan' or 'the bad guy' is not a position any guest should find themselves in; conversely, many non-vegans feel uncomfortable listening to the reasons someone has gone vegan because they may feel that they are being subjected to unspoken criticism, and this can lead to a pretty miserable social experience. If you do decide to ask about the reasons for your guest's veganism, then, be sure that you can both be respectful about each other's lifestyles - the point of inviting someone to your home is to enjoy their company, after all, not to start an argument.
It should not need stating that staring at or making disparaging comments about another person's meal is rude. Neither you nor your guest should indulge in such bad behaviour, even if you're sorely tempted. Given that vegans are used to being the focus of negative attention, your courtesy will generate enormous goodwill.
We all know that Murphy's Law applies just as well to hosting a dinner as to any other event, so in order to undermine its effects, try following the well-known acronym KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid. The simpler the meal you plan, the easier it is to prepare and the less pressured you will feel. A simple meal, such as a vegetable stew served with crusty rolls, can be elegantly presented, and lighting and music are often more important in the creation of a particular atmosphere than the food itself. For example, instead of serving a fully-prepared meal, you might prepare the components and serve them up separately, allowing you and your guest to determine what goes on your plates (ie a bowl of non-egg pasta, a bowl of steamed vegetables, a bowl of marinara sauce, a small bowl of toasted pine nuts, a plate of artichoke hearts, a plate of bread with a dipping oil). Simple food, well-prepared with good quality ingredients will always be a big hit. Remember, if you're relaxed and enjoying yourself, your guest will do likewise.
So, practically speaking, what can you give your guest to eat or drink? Here are a few resources that should set your mind at ease:
Vegan Village's 50 favourite recipes are easy to make.
The Low Fat Vegetarian Recipe Archive is choc-a-bloc with vegetarian and vegan recipes of all kinds, from breakfasts to soups to sauces to condiments to... you name it.
Kate's Vegan Recipes site contains over 112 recipes from a variety of cuisines.