VWPA Advice 034: How Do I Refuse Food Without Coming Off as Rude?

I have been an on-and-off vegan for the past few years, and vegetarian for 14 years. I have decided that I want to completely commit to a vegan diet properly, with none of the ‘off-again’ part that’s been happening. One of the hardest parts for me to navigate, and a big reason why I’ve found strict veganism so hard to stick to, is that I feel pressure in social situations to ‘go with the flow’ and not make demands on what food I eat or share with people. Do you guys have any good advice for this kind of thing? Of ways to politely indicate what I’m comfortable and not comfortable eating without seeming rude? For instance, if someone has cooked something for me which isn’t vegan, how can I refuse it without it coming across as totally awkward and horrible? I find this so hard to navigate! Any help or advice would be HUGELY appreciated – Gemma


This is always awkward, and though I can give you some tips, just know that it will feel weird to refuse food the first few times. The good news is, it does get easier over time and it teaches those close to you to be more careful about what they make you. Some basic tips:
    • Keep it simple: “I can’t/don’t eat that” or “No thank you” is enough. We have this notion that we have to eat what someone gives us, but really, we don’t. We all live in our own bodies and, as such, should be able to make choices for our bodies without someone else’s feelings coming into play. Not wanting to consume the thing, no matter the reason behind it, is enough. You don’t owe someone a drawn out explanation or apology.

  • Don’t frame it as a vegan problem: People who are on diets or have allergies face exactly the same issues around food. So, don’t look at it like it’s your veganism that’s the problem, when really, it’s a cultural issue. When one of my coworkers at work constantly offers me donuts that he’s brought in for everyone, I politely but firmly say no because donuts make me feel like shit and I wouldn’t want one, even if it were vegan and gluten-free (which, of course, they’re not). If pressed, I say sugar makes me feel like hot trash and leave it at that, because it’s true.

  • Tell them what (optional): If you want to help the person, let them know why you can’t eat the particular dish. I do this in vegan and non-vegan ways all the time. I’ve had friends make me vegan dishes that weren’t gluten-free, and I will gently tell them what ingredients are problematic in the dish so that next time, they can make the same thing without those ingredients, or they know what to look for when they are searching other recipes, or they know to check with me before making a dish for me. So, if there’s eggs or dairy, etc., just say, “Oh, that’s so sweet but there’s eggs in that and I don’t eat eggs” so they know for next time.

  • Apply this to yourself and spread the word: Be the change you wish to see. When you hear someone else turn something down, if they are given shit by other friends or family members, stand up for them! Say, “Hey. They don’t want it and that’s ok. Respect their decision.” Do things to make the environment more friendly to open choices: instead of passing treats around to everyone, leave them somewhere and say that they are there for whoever wants them. Find ways to be a good decision advocate to others and you’ll see others start to do the same for you and others. People tend to be better advocates when people advocate for them first. And bravery is contagious! Every time you stand up for someone else, you’ll embolden those around you to do the same.
  If I can get on an angry soapbox for a minute: As someone trying to recover from emotional eating issues, I resent that it’s seen as rude to refuse food just because someone decided that’s how they wanted to show their love, affection or comradery. It’s emotionally manipulative to decide you are going to foist “treats” on people and then get mad when they don’t want them. A huge part of my recovery is developing the ability to say no when I don’t actually want the food being offered (which is shockingly often, now that I’m paying attention). I feel best when I eat my own food, and eat certain types of foods. I’m sensitive and something like sugar or caffeine (from chocolate) can make me feel awful for a day or days. It’s been very important and empowering for me to check in with myself and say no to those things when I really don’t want them. Making conscious food choices is critical to my recovery, so for someone to get mad at me for that is gross and manipulative. I should not have to put something I don’t want in my body to seem “polite,” and neither should you. So, don’t be afraid to refuse ANYTHING offered to you. You didn’t ask these people to make you food you can’t eat, so you are in no way being rude by politely turning it down. If they choose to make judgments about you or get angry or offended, it tells you a lot more about them than it does about you. Be brave, warrior princess, and let us know how this turns out the next time you encounter it! Have a question for VWPA? Email it to [email protected] or reach us through our Contact Page!
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