Healthy Living

How to Cook A Vegan Thanksgiving

vegan turkey on bed of spinach with gravyVegan Thanksgiving. Sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? But that might be until you learn the truth about turkey: Most conventional birds have been inbred to the point that they can’t even reproduce naturally. And many are stuffed full of chemical fat-inducing hormones and pesticides—even before you stuff them.

The idea of giving up the bird comes with backers. Doctors say we should reduce meat consumption for optimal health. Scientists recently recommended halving meat consumption to reduce environmental impact. And vegans point out that giving up animal products positively contributes to the fight against global warming: Livestock and poultry production tipped the scales in 2009, claiming responsibility for 51% of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Worldwatch Institute. Just reducing your meat consumption can really make a difference in your health and the health of the planet. Luckily, many traditional Thanksgiving dishes can be made vegan, with very little effort.

Vegan Thanksgiving. Sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? But only until you learn the truth about the holiday spread. To make a dish vegan, simply remove all animal product from the recipe (butter, cheese, milk, meat) and replace them with vegetable-based products (olive oil, margarine, nut-based milk, soy-based meat alternatives). At our Thanksgiving table, we love sweet potatoes roasted in olive oil, onions and garlic, mashed potatoes made with organic margarine, green beans with hummus, and brussel sprouts braised with vegetable broth.

And then there’s the main course. Can’t give up the roast but want to give the holiday a vegan whirl? Look for a “turkey” made from GMO-free soy. If your guests demand tradition, consider a turkey that’s organic, free-range and mates naturally—what I like to refer to as a sexy bird.

Our family’s had a lot of practice with both. My husband and I both have had long-range stints with vegetarianism, during which we baffled Depression-era grandparents who couldn’t understand why we’d pass up a square meal with at least a triangle’s worth of red meat. Today, we live a semi-vegetarian life to the chagrin of my Nebraska-born father, who tolerates the grilled tofu that I often serve up—although he’d probably rather have chicken.

My aunt and uncle were the touchstones for planning our holiday meal. They’ve been pescatarian for more than 40 years. Until recently, they lived “off the grid” in a house perched on top of a ridge in the mountains above Santa Rosa. The water was from a well; kitchen run-off fed the garden. Everything they did was about being conscious of their impact on the environment, even down to their decision not to eat meat.

I remember the first holiday we spent with them as a family, when my son was barely toddling. The side dishes were organic, many of them from the garden, and the centerpiece was a wild-caught salmon. Although we smiled and nodded when my aunt and uncle talked about factory farming and buying locally and the dangers of pesticide-laden tomatoes, we were happy to go back to our convenient city existence, mere blocks away from a Costco where we could buy food in bulk.

What a difference a decade or so can make. My family table is filled with organic, locally-sourced and primarily vegetarian foods. There are no gray-water system or solar panels at my house—yet. But we’re doing everything we can to minimize our dependence on the grid. And with every decision we make, we try to remain aware of our impact.

Quietly, consistently, my relatives inspired many of these changes in the way we live. And they did it without judgment: They offered information, they answered questions, but they never pointed fingers—they never criticized me for living in my life a different, less sustainable way. They simply lived by example and waited for the world to come around.

Hopefully, it’s starting to.


  • michelle

    I prefer Field Roast en Croute, usually available around holidays, which blows tofurkey out of the water (I still love Turtle Island’s stand-alone sliced tofurky, but as a roast, no…) My omni boyfriend loves it and we have it alongside turkey breast for our mixed thanksgiving each year. And yes, all the sides and desserts can easily be made vegetarian and vegan with no complaints from the non-veg side. Who knows, maybe one day the turkey breast will be absent from the table, I can dream. 🙂 Great post, thank you!

      • melissa mc

        i’ve heard the same thing about this particular brand but have a difficult time finding it —- can always get the Tofurky roast though….. the vegan haggis recipe above sounds wonderful and a must try!! 🙂

    • Rachel Sarnoff

      I would guess that you’ll still need to offer them the traditional turkey fare, but maybe you could try also having a tofurkey so everyone could try that version, too? Then maybe next year… Thanks for reading Toni!

  • Kathie

    My husband and I haven’t had the “”traditional” Thanksgiving in at least the last 7 years. At first it felt odd to have to respond to people’s gasps “you don’t have TURKEY?” and then over the years it felt less odd and now we kind of look at other people and think how can you be joyous at this animal who suffered before it was even killed. Peaceful Thanksgiving is the way to go, and we love ours.

  • Mia

    I say bring back the haggis, but make it vegan. Using chestnuts or soaked nuts as a meat base with soaked and cooked sorghum and pungent mushrooms would work. It’s meaty and calls for a gravy. Try making a mix with at least 30% chestnut or soaked nut meat and 30% dried and fresh mushroom mix and 10% cooked sorghum plus the balance in veg (celery root rocks) and aromatics along with a binder. If you wanna get fancy, make into a loaf, wrap in fig or grape leaves and then bake in a salt crust (sans egg white). Slice and serve with some porcini gravy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *