Meat-Eaters Ordering Vegetarian: Polite? Or Phony?

Why would a meat eater, when going out to eat with vegetarian friends, choose to order vegetarian food if s/he could have ordered meat at the same restaurant and would have preferred such a meal? Is that actually a show of respect? Or is it incongruence? Or cowardice?

Do meat eaters do this because the presence of vegetarians causes them to care a little more about animals? Or do they care more about the feelings of their vegetarian friends? Or do they simply lack the courage and conviction to be fully themselves in the face of opposing social pressure and the potential for judgment? Do they fear eating differently than the group?

A committed vegetarian doesn't switch diets in a room of 100 meat eaters, regardless of whether it might cause anyone discomfort. So why do meat eaters so often feel the need to semi-apologize for their choices when the opposite situation arises?

This was shared on Facebook by a friend of mine who runs a widely-read personal development blog. I thought it was an absolutely fascinating question--something well worth thinking about, particularly since I've been in exactly this situation countless times. Readers know, we here at Casual Kitchen love vegetarian and vegan cuisine, but we also eat meat too from time to time.

And yet, whenever I'm eating with vegetarians, I almost always order a meatless dish. Moreover, when we have vegetarian or vegan friends over to our home for dinner, I make a point of cooking foods they like and that fit their diets. Otherwise, why invite them at all?

Quite honestly, the perspective above never occurred to me before, which is why my initial thought was that my friend was simply over-interpreting a simple act of common courtesy. Here's his striking response:

I know it's often due to politeness or courtesy. What I'm asking is: Why would a meat eater perceive this as a courtesy? If they feel comfortable eating meat, then why wouldn't they feel just as comfortable eating meat in front of those who don't?

So.... is it a courtesy or isn't it? All of a sudden I'm not so sure.

Readers, what do you think? What would you do as an omnivore eating out with vegetarians or vegan eaters? Would you order meat? Or veggie? And now that you've read the discussion above, do you consider it courtesy? Or incongruency?

Share your thoughts below!

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Scott said...

I'll often order vegetarian when eating out with vegetarians for a couple of different reasons:

One: I know some (not many, but a few) vegetarians that find the sight of meat on a plate disturbing and so it's out of respect (much the same way that I wouldn't order a strong curry dish when eating with someone who doesn't like the smell of curry).

Two: even though I'm definitely a meat eater I do enjoy vegetarian dishes as well so I'll often ask for vegetarian recommendations and have discovered some really good meals I never would have otherwise experienced.

I used to work near a gastropub that had an amazing vegetarian burger that I ordered all the time (delicious beetroot/mushrrom/walnut patty). I once asked for bacon on it which drew some interesting looks from the server.

Scott said...

Follow-up to the above: and of course if I'm having a vegetarian/vegan over to my home I'll absolutely prepare a meal fit to their diet. As you say, why bother inviting them over otherwise? Again, I've discovered some great new recipes when preparing a meal for someone who eats differently than I do.

Anonymous said...

Depends. If I'm going out and there won't be any sharing of meals I'll order whatever I want meatless or not (but I might reconsider the rare steak....) However, if its something that lends itself to shared dishes then I'll get something vegetarian so everyone in the group can share it around.

Stuart Carter said...

veg*ns are some of the worst whingers on the planet. Ordering food that doesn't offend their delicate sensibilities ensures that I don't have to listen to their bleating for the rest of the night ;)

Raymond Ullmer said...

I think the most obvious reason for a meat eater to order a vegetarian choice when with a vegan is to simply satisfy curiosity. By definition a meat eater usually orders meat, and here is a novel opportunity to explore a new section of the menu with expert advice at the table.

Tragic Sandwich said...

If I invite someone over to my home, I want them to feel comfortable and enjoy themselves. That includes serving food they will feel good about eating. It doesn't mean I only serve vegetarian or vegan options, but it does mean that if I know you are a vegetarian or vegan, I will do my best to ensure that you have a full meal, and not just a plate full of vegetable side dish.

If I'm eating in a restaurant with a vegetarian, I may also order a meatless dish. If I don't know the person that well, I don't want to have something on the table that makes them uncomfortable. And whether or not I know the person well, I may feel that what I want to eat at that meal does not include meat.

I eat meat. That doesn't mean I have to eat meat all the time.

Also, the original question sounds defensive and confrontational. I have to wonder why the person cares so much.

Janet C. said...

Interesting discussion. And the answer for me (as it so often is): "it depends".

Let me explain: my husband was a meat eater when I met him (as am I), although he was raised a vegetarian. Yet several years ago he went back to his vegetarian roots. So this is an issue I deal with daily. I would never dream of cooking meat in the house...what's the point if my loved one won't eat it? So our meals at home are all vegetarian, although about twice a month he will eat fish (and he's usually the one to cook it). OTOH, I love my ham sandwiches for lunch, so there is often meat in the fridge. And he has made it very clear to me that he's fine with me eating meat when we go out to dinner (which these days is fairly rare...maybe once or twice a month as well). In fact, he encourages it. He tells me that he appreciates me for not eating meat at home (even those ham sandwiches are taken to work:-) and feels that in return I should freely eat meat when someone else is cooking. (Of course, as many "part time vegetarians" will tell you, you tend to crave meat less if you don't eat it every day. (Or at least that's my experience. Besides, we tend to pick restaurants that have good vegetarian options so that he can enjoy his meal out, and as someone pointed out earlier sometimes those options sound as good to me as the meat I don't ALWAYS eat meat when we eat out).

That being said, I would never dream of ordering meat when I eat out with other members of his family. Their vegetarianism is connected to religious beliefs and not just a preference. I know that watching a family member eat meat is offensive to them, and so I abstain. Again, if we DO go out with his family, we have already chosen a place where there are plenty of good vegetarian its not really a sacrifice. And I learned this courtesy from my husband: back in the days that he did eat meat, he would never eat it around his family. If you love someone, why risk offending them?

And as for invited friends, the first thing I do when folks are coming over is ask them as to food preferences/allergies/whatever. Again, these are friends. Why would you serve them something they can't/won't eat? I still remember my new friend's deep embarrassment the first time I ate at her house. We were all home cooks, and we got into a conversation about foods we liked/didn't like. I went into a semi-rant about how I absolutely can't stand bananas and will never eat them (and explained the long story why...its an aversion thing). Well, guess what my friend had made for dessert (Yep, a beautiful banana tart). She felt terrible and I felt worse for opening my big mouth. That was the day I learned to ask new guests if there is anything they don't like...and I think she learned that lesson as well:-)

So once again, courtesy rules. If your guests don't care if you eat meat, go ahead. If you get the feeling that they do but are too polite to tell you so, order veggie. If in doubt, do what your host does. A good host/friend will start a meal out by saying "I don't eat meat, but please, I don't mind if you do" (if that's the case). A better host/friend will just order something vegetarian but not make a big deal about it. Once again a rule we follow in my family (developed by my dad, and hence known by all the cousins as "Grandpa's Rule") applies: "Eat it and shut up about it, or don't eat it and shut up about it."

Words to live by:-)

chacha1 said...

I would eat whatever looked most appetizing to me on the menu. In a restaurant that offered a full range of options, that would generally be a dish with some kind of animal protein involved.

I wouldn't order something like a head-on fish or whole squab, and I guess that would be because I wouldn't want to flaunt the fact that I was eating an animal.

But then, options like that are uncommon, and I doubt they would be found on the menu of a restaurant that was actively trying to attract vegetarians or vegans.

Jolene said...

I don't deliberately choose vegetarian items when I'm having dinner with veg*n folks, but considering that I often choose vegetarian dishes because I like them (regardless of the dietary habits of my dining companions).

Part of me wonders why this is an issue. Does it matter why an omnivore chooses a vegetarian dish? If I was a veg*n and someone chose to eat a veg*n dish in order to make themselves seem more acceptable, that's an issue for the person making that decision, not me. For those of us that are omnivores, we each need to make our own decisions about what to eat when we are having a meal with veg*ns (and the reasons behind our decisions may be important to us and be worth examining - or not).

Marcia said...

I think it's courtesy. I am a meat eater but I also love to cook and eat vegetarian and vegan food. I do not eat meat for every meal, not even every day.

So why wouldn't I eat veg when I eat out? In times past, when I've eaten with veg friends - they have picked the restaurant (their town) based on places where the veg food is good. So I always ask their opinion on what is good.

David Somerville said...

I am an omnivore. There is nothing strange about an omnivore eating pasta and veggies. I am not a meatavore.

I could choose to order ice cream for dinner.

On another note, it makes the dining experience more communal. "Hey, that looks great! Let me grab a bite off of your plate!"

Anonymous said...

Having lived with two vegans for four years, I rarely feel obliged to order veggie if there's something meat-filled on the menu I'd enjoy more. That said, I will order veggie in solidarity if I feel we're getting the side-eye from other dinners. I've never been harassed by a vegan or vegetarian about my diet, but I have watched complete strangers harass my friends about theirs time and time again.

Anonymous said...

As Janet detailed, it depends on why they don't eat meat. If it's for health reasons or personal taste or fear of restaurant sanitation or perhaps even for environmental reasons, it obviously has nothing to do with you or anyone else. If it's because of deeply held ethical reasons, then it depends how much you like and respect them. Obviously it's courteous not to flaunt something you know is offensive to someone you care about.

You could also just ask, as I have and have been asked on numerous first dates: "I know you said you're vegetarian -- do you mind if I order meat?" (If they do and you think that's stupid, simply reconsider your friendship. It's not that hard to figure out what you're willing to put up with for any given person.)

As a side note I always think it's really weird that some people can't conceive of eating a meatless meal. I get that some people eat more meat than others, and some people enjoy it more than others, but people who refuse to eat a meal that doesn't contain it? So bizarre to me.