Accidentally eating something non-vegan is always tough for vegans. Whether you've been served something at a restaurant or a well-meaning friend or family member has made you a dish with animal ingredients, don't beat yourself up. Here's what to do instead...
When you’ve made the conscious decision not to eat animals, accidentally eating something that contains them — whether in a restaurant or at someone’s home — is unsettling and emotional.
As well as feeling sick and upset, you can also be hit with strong feelings of guilt. And you can feel more at odds with the world than ever. Especially if it’s dismissed as inconsequential by friends or family who just want to enjoy their evening.
After all, what’s the big deal? It’s just food. And you only ate a bit of it. “Jeez, lighten up.”
I’ve not eaten meat for 30 years now, and have been vegan for almost a decade. I’ve experienced pretty much every scenario you could imagine in terms of being served food I wouldn’t choose to eat. And I’ve accidentally eaten animals on several occasions.
Each incident was awful. I felt physically sick, I felt angry and disgusted, and I felt so upset that I cried.
I want to make it clear, therefore, that I’m not in any way negating your own natural and normal response with anything I say below.
As vegans, we’ve made a clear and committed choice, and it is a big deal when that’s disrespected — even accidentally. But I do believe that different scenarios call for different responses, and that we can help our future selves out by preparing for them.
I think there are four obvious scenarios where you might accidentally eat something that’s not vegan:
- At a restaurant
- At someone’s house
- In a takeaway
- At an event (a work event or a wedding, for example)
And I think in any of these scenarios you might:
- Realise what you’ve been served is not vegan, stop eating, and complain
- Realise what you’ve been served is not vegan, stop eating, and do nothing
- Only realise that what you were served was not vegan after you’ve eaten it
- Realise what you’ve been served is not vegan, but continue eating (I’ll expand on this one in detail, soon!)
I also think that in any of the possible scenarios you are justified in responding in one or more of the ways above — because each instance will be different, with different dynamics and different people involved, and your response will be determined by whatever and whoever they are.
Let’s go through them one by one…
1. At a restaurant
Dining out as a vegan has changed immeasurably. Once upon a time, we were delighted to find a single option (other than chips and salad) on a menu, we’re now living in a world where multiple plant-based dishes are our expected norm.
In most UK cities and towns, many restaurants and cuisines now welcome and cater for vegans, and there’s no shortage of vegan restaurants. But that doesn’t mean that mistakes won’t happen, or that everyone will care or react in the same way when they do.
But ultimately, we deserve the same treatment and respect as everyone else. Regardless of ethics or diet, we’re customers above all else, and expect the same standard of care over our food. So what happens if you order something, start eating it, and it’s not vegan?
Making a complaint can be uncomfortable even when it’s justified, but it’s not right to pay for something that wasn’t what you ordered or expected. Image credit: nortonrsx via Getty Images
Potential response: stop eating and complain
Often, it’s not the complaint that counts, it’s how you complain. Our behaviour has the power to influence — especially if a restaurant has little experience of vegans or has only just started offering plant-based options.
How we react will help them to improve or alienate them further, and I think we need to be aware of that (even if it feels a little unfair at times).
A polite word will always do much more than an angry scene, and humour can diffuse a situation in all sorts of ways. Making a complaint can be uncomfortable even when it’s justified, but it’s not right to pay for something that wasn’t what you ordered or expected.
Before you say anything, think about the context. This will help you decide what to say.
- A genuine mix up or mistake?
- An inaccurate description on the menu?
- A lack of understanding or care about what veganism is?
And if the staff do their best to remedy things, remember to thank them.
Potential response: stop eating and do nothing
This could be your preferred response if you are:
- At a work meal with colleagues
- On a date
- At a meal with people who already ‘other’ you because you’re vegan
- When someone else is paying and you don’t want to embarrass them
Just go with your gut here: if saying something feels like it will do more harm than good, then chalk this one up to experience and try to move on.
Potential response: only realise after you’ve eaten it
This is probably the most upsetting of all, as you’ll likely blame yourself more than you blame the restaurant. But it was something done in innocence, so try to give yourself a break.
You ate something you thought was vegan; you didn’t deliberately choose to eat it because it wasn’t. Veganism is about intention not perfection — and your intention in this instance is not at all tarnished.
Eating something non-vegan by accident doesn't make you any less vegan - veganism is about intention not perfection. Image credit:
2. At someone’s house
Things are more difficult when you’re a guest and not a paying customer. And your reaction will vary depending on whose house you’re at, and your relationship with the host: your best mate versus dinner with your new partner’s parents, for example.
So let’s focus on how you might respond if you don’t know the host very well, or there’s complicated social etiquette at play.
Potential response: stop eating and do nothing
This happened to me just the other night. We were over at our friends’ place and they ordered a takeaway. They’ve always been lovely about us being vegan and always go the extra mile. When the takeaway arrived, I realised my meal contained egg. Attempts to eat around it were in vain, so I quietly pushed my main aside and picked at the shared bits instead.
I felt sick for hours afterwards, but I chose not to say anything to our friends because I cared more about their feelings than mine. They’d have been so upset to learn they’d accidentally served me non-vegan food and it would have ruined our evening. Would my response have been different if they were vegan? Absolutely.
Would I have acted differently if I’d brought the takeaway? For sure. But in this instance, I decided silence was the better choice, and think it was the right one.
When friends of family members serve you non-vegan food, having a quiet conversation with your host is a better approach than getting angry. Image credit: Irina Vaganova/EyeEm via Getty Images
Potential response: continue eating
Dining at someone’s house is one of the only scenarios where to keep eating might apply, and it totally depends on whose house it is, why you’re there, and what you’ve been served. Let me explain.
Dinner on Easter Sunday is a big deal for my brother-in-law’s parents. So much so that we felt like royalty when we were invited. The whole thing was vegan, despite us being the only herbivores, and we felt really special and super chuffed.
Halfway through the meal, our host and cook proudly talked us through the veganised recipe for her usual Sunday feast, and as she reeled off the ingredients we heard the word “honey”.
Although honey doesn’t elicit the same feelings of revulsion as meat, fish, eggs or dairy in me, I’m still just as committed to not eating it because I care about bees. I’ve not bought it, eaten it, or missed it since I went vegan.
But here we had an entire meal for 11 people that was almost completely plant-based, and it would normally consist of meat and dairy.
To make a fuss, to stop eating, or to point out the error would have been unappreciative and counterproductive. Plus, I knew my sister and brother-in-law heard the same thing, and would likely have a quiet word on our behalf later. And guess what, five years later we’re all still eating together every Easter Sunday, and there’s no lamb, salmon, egg, or honey in sight.
Looking at the bigger picture, I call that a win.
3. In a takeaway
Like restaurants, takeaways have come a long way in recent years. Gone are the days of calling up and requesting that something come without this and without that — we can now just search ‘vegan’ on Deliveroo and voila!
But again, things are not always as they seem and mistakes do happen. And there’s something extra soul-crushing when your so-looked-forward-to takeaway arrives and it’s inedible. It totally ruins the indulgence.
So complain, definitely complain. But keep context in mind, all the same. Because there are still people behind these apps and websites, and they have feelings too.
It's never easy when your takeaway arrives and it's inedible. Do complain to the company, but remember to keep your cool with the people you are complaining too as they most likely weren't responsible for the mistake. Image credit: Drazen Zigic via Getty Images
4. At an event (a work event or a wedding, for example)
This is another one where social etiquette and dynamics will likely dictate your response. Who, what, where, and why are all things you’ll have to consider when presented with a meal that you can’t eat. Big social events are some of the most difficult to navigate as there are so many potential things at play:
- Someone else is paying
- It’s about someone else’s happiness
- You’re with lots of people you don’t know
- You’re representing a business or company
- You’re with your boss
- You’re in a different country or culture
- Family politics
The list goes on!
My advice is to once again be guided by your gut instinct. Do what feels right in that place and time — because there really is no rule book. And if in doubt, do what I do: never go to big events without a back-up sandwich in your bag.
It’s never a fun experience accidentally eating something that’s made from animals. If you’re anything like me, you won’t ever forget it. So try to be kind to yourself, and forgiving of others if and when it happens to you.
Not sure what to have for lunch? Here are our favourite vegan sandwich fillings.
Featured image credit: Krakenimages.com via Adobe Stock