Meat-free alternatives are dull – we need exciting vegan Christmas dinner ideas

Bangers and mash, toad in the hole, shepherd’s pie, Lancashire hotpot – meat is tightly interwoven with British culture and dining. Particularly now at Christmas, it might seem self-evident that everyone will be having a roast dinner on the big day. But what if you’re vegetarian or vegan? What are you going to eat at your family’s house, and what are they going to eat at yours?

Nowadays, there are probably two to four times as many vegetarians in the UK than in the early 1990s, when a market for vegetarian products was still in its infancy. In 1991, a survey of UK households found only 15% of dinners prepared at home were vegetarian. Today, that number has almost doubled to 29%, and Quorn have only just started to sell cooking ingredients.

Interviewing vegetarians in the early 1990s, researchers reported that some of their interviewees were given a plastic box of separate, vegetarian food at a wedding anniversary celebration. One had experienced their mother bringing “her own chicken … ready cooked” to their Christmas dinner invitation, rather than attempting to try a meat-free alternative. As a result, some meat-avoiders felt excluded from the ceremony of Christmas.

Meat-eating without the meat

Over time, the situation has got a bit better. People in the UK are generally more accommodating of vegetarians now, with many opting for meat alternatives at least once or twice a year. For Christmas, there are plenty of special offerings that go well beyond the classic nut roast. And choosing meat alternatives is reportedly better for your health, the environment, and no animals are harmed in their making.

In my research, I look closely at meat alternatives, and analyse how they are advertised. In recent years, more than a third of adverts for meat alternatives around this time of year were about Christmas, and they tell us a lot about meat-free Christmas ideals. For example, some of the earlier adverts acknowledge the challenges meat-avoiders face this time year of year.

The tofu-turkey roast is a typical vegan standby for Christmas dinner. Jay Ondreicka/Shutterstock

In 2002, an advert in the winter issue of The Vegetarian magazine presented the Quorn roast as “provid[ing] a much-needed centrepiece to the turkey-less Christmas lunch in many households”. This, as well as many other adverts, make it very clear that the “much-needed centrepiece” should look like meat.

More recently, an advert by Fry’s in the December 2016 issue of the same magazine informs readers that “being meat-free shouldn’t mean compromising on great festive food”. The alternative they suggest is also a roast. And a Linda McCartney advert from 2015 reiterates that being meat-free for Christmas is a chore:

If you’re doing the cooking, it can be tricky to know what to serve in the place of meat. Are nut roasts passé? Can cheesy tarts be served with gravy? Is a vegetable tart really substantive enough?

They then present their solution, which is again, a roast.

Opportunities for new Christmas traditions

What becomes clear from the adverts is that a meat-free Christmas is supposed to be much like a meaty Christmas. Adverts tell us that a meat-free diet should be just like a meat-based diet, but without the animals. They suggest that there is only one way to eat right, and that is a way that involves something that looks, smells, and tastes like meat, even if it is not.

Meat alternatives try to fill an animal-free diet with exactly the same custom, and exactly the same meaning. Come Christmas or barbecue, spaghetti bolognese or Sunday dinner – meat alternatives leave us with something meaty as the central feature of a dish. Otherwise, the dish is not considered a main meal, never mind an appropriate festive dinner.

Meat-free foods have adopted meat-eating culture in order to become an accepted meal option. This role for meat alternatives keeps us the symbolic hostages of meat, and therefore intolerant of other options. The result stifles imagination for what vegetarian and vegan cuisine on Christmas could look like.

Maybe in 2018, make it normal to have something other than meat-free meat. After all, Christmas dinner presents just as much of a food choice as at any other time of year. Maybe have a potluck where everyone can contribute some food. Have a buffet or cold platters. Or make everyone responsible for one course. Just do something different. Break out of the norms that keep the meat in animal-free eating.