A Guide To Being A Guilt-Free, On-Again Off-Again Vegetarian

I’ve been an advocate for animal welfare and reform in the factory farming industry for many years now. My dedication to the overall movement of animal rights will be with me until the day I die. But as a writer, I am obligated to be honest, and so I must confess: Every once in a while this girl chows down on a cheeseburger. That’s right, my name is Krista Houstoun and I’m… a crappy vegetarian.

Judge not: Lord knows the “oops, I’m an honest vegetarian who accidently slipped on a slab of meat and ate it” club is immense. And this is my written dedication to that club.

So. Once you accept that you are primarily a vegetarian and only very rarely eat meat — and very sustainable meat, thank you very much — you have three options:

First, you could re-label yourself as an “ethical carnivore.” And I do not recommend going down this road. Ethical carnivore essentially means you reject factory farming but not meat itself; it means you buy really expensive meat and it probably means you care more about your health than the health of animals or the environment — a clear divergence in thought from vegetarianism. And a world where a TV show called Cougartown is revered just isn’t ready for that kind of highbrow foodie philosophy.

If you do go down this road, you’ll come off as snobby considering most lay-people don’t really 1) understand or 2) give a crap what that means. And second, the concept of an “ethical carnivore” is, as it stands, mythological — even the spearhead of that movement, Michael Pollen, cheats like hell and inevitably eats factory-farmed meat since, as he puts it, “social values matter more.” Bottom line: Eating meat sometimes but not other times and trying to label yourself something esoteric only confuses people and makes you seem like a pretentious jerk who isn’t true to their convictions. So, no.

The second option is to drive yourself crazy via self-imposed or societal guilt-trips. Don’t do this. Guilt-trips are so 20th century; in the 21st, it’s all about entitlement.  And you, my “do-gooder” friend, are entitled to flexible morals — a misstep here or there? No big. At least you are trying, and as long as you are trying to eat less meat, you are making a difference, because do you know what you have that many people do not? Awareness. And awareness is pivotal to eliciting change; it’s the first step. So, now that that’s settled, being a bad vegetarian ends up only being terrible on the social front. Because society will judge you.

Which brings us to the third and most desirable option: Keep your meat-eating slip-ups as private as possible. If you don’t feel guilty about eating a grass-fed — or even better, grass-finished! — steak every once in awhile, leave it to your friends, family and larger society toguilt-trip you into feeling like a dreadful human being. You cannot let this happen. Do not let them — whether ‘they’ are meat lobbyists or PETA activists — tell you that you aren’t doing good enough. Unfortunately, the only way to truly be a guilt-free, on-again-off-again vegetarian is to be truly sneaky.

I have been sneaking around for many years now, and have thus compiled a set of guidelines for bad vegetarians everywhere. Consider it my little slice of community service.

Rule #1: Eat your “occasional” burgers in total privacy. If you cannot seem to follow this one simple rule, read remaining rules.

Rule #2: If you need company in order to eat, you must pick one sole confidant. A confidant should be someone who you know will never use it against you as black mail. It’s someone who isn’t jealous of you and would never have a reason to wrong you or debase you in front of your friends. In other words: It isn’t your lover.

Once you’ve found your person, make sure to never slip around anyone except them. If you start slipping around more than that one trusted person, your group of friends won’t take you seriously when you recommend that new organic, vegan restaurant down the road for lunch. And you would hate that.

Rule #3: If you are forced to break down in front of people, make a scene about it. Girls, I recommend you put on your theater hat and act a little faintish (or even better, if you’re a natural Julia Roberts, do faint). Once your friends have taken notice and are cooing and comforting you, subtly suggest, “I’m at the end of my period cycle, maybe my body needs iron?” Your girl friends will understand and your guy friends will shut down at the words “period cycle.” Voila: burger granted, guilt-free. Guys, I don’t know what to tell you other than don’t you wish, just this once, that you were a woman?  There’s really no get out of jail free card for you that I’ve found.

Rule #4: If you come from a conservative family, never ever slip around them. Conservatives love meat more than Wall Street and almost as much as God. Coming home and saying you’re a vegetarian to conservative parental units is almost like coming out of the closet as gay. I’m talking about the risk of excommunication here — scary stuff.

However, if you’ve finally convinced your meat-three-times-a-day family to prepare vegetarian options when you come home to visit, never slip around them. I don’t care if they’re family. Family schmamily — they are your worst critics. They live to judge you. If you slip once, they will never take you seriously again and you’ll be making your own salads every time you visit. No more home-cookin’ for you, sucka! Plus, think about if after declaring your homosexuality you “just once” dated a boy and told them; they would always think there is a slight chance that you’d turn out “the right way.” Never give them a sense of false hope like that.

Rule #5: You must eat vegan whenever you are around vegan friends to repent all carnivorous slips. Otherwise you will just feel like a shithole whenever they order a soy-cheese quesadilla for lunch and you just accidently had bacon for breakfast. You must eat the soy cheese because you must keep yourself disciplined and balanced. Vegetarian is the middle way, but if you are going to be radical and chow on some bacon every once in a while, you better make sure to discipline yourself with soy cheese. Consider this reciting your Hail Marys.

What we eat matters. It matters a lot. When we change what we eat, we change the world — perhaps more so than any other act. What example are you going to set? What kind of vegetarian are you going to be? Are you going to be the vegetarian who flaunts their infidelity, making everyone around you think vegetarianism is just a joke, just a trendy hipster fad? Or are you going to be the kind of vegetarian who holds their affairs close to their chest, all the while giving those around you a moral compass to reference and, hopefully, mimic? I think you know which is the right choice. Don’t let the whole world down. TC mark

image – Shutterstock

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  • Madeleine

    What a judgmental world you seem to live in! I’m very sorry for you.

    How about eating what you’d like when you’d like, not setting any label to it whatsoever, and damning anyone who tries to give you flack for it? Problem solved.

    • nathaliew817

      Yeah, let’s NOT think about the environment en animals. Who needs the earth anyway, right?

      • Madeleine

        I don’t believe I said anything about the environment or the animals in my statement. (Let me remind you that you don’t know how I eat, what I do, or where I stand on environmental rights and issues.) Have the decency to base your sarcastic conclusions on some evidence.

    • Andi

      I completely agree with you, Madeleine. Honestly, who cares?! What you eat is your own damn business. Sure, caring about the environment and the welfare of animals is a noble thing, but life is far too short and unpredictable for you to not treat yourself every once in a while; more so than that, why care what another person thinks about your eating habits?

      • Rory

        Exactly. I don’t eat meat for moral reasons. i am vegetarian. If I needed to “sneak” meat every once and a while, my views are clearly not that strong any more, and guess what, I WOULD NOT BE A VEGETARIAN ANYMORE.

      • nathaliew817

        Indeed Madeleine, you DIDN4T say anything about the environment. “How about eating what you’d like when you’d like, not setting any label to it whatsoever, and damning anyone who tries to give you flack for it? ” … where’s the rest?

        Point proven

  • Aaron

    sorry but this is all of a bit of bollocks to me. There is no animal friendly meat. You either make the connection and stop it altogether or “eat the occassional cheeseburger”. It is black or white.

    • Veronica

      It is not at all black or white. (What is, really?) Eating the occasional cheeseburger = eating much less meat than most standard omnivorous people = that much less consumption of animals, support of the meat industry, etc. It makes a difference.

      • Rory

        Then do it, dont call urself veggie and throw a burger down the hatch when no one is checking up on you

  • victoria

    this might seem really ridiculous, but what about the option of not making a big deal about the things you eat if you don’t actually give enough of a shit about not eating meat/animal products to commit to it full-time? or if you genuinely are okay with eating some meat, just…doing it?

    because that works too

  • Guest

    Rule #4 applies even more intensely when you go vegan. The conservative wing of my family had to get used to the idea of vegetarianism with my parents back before I can remember, so I didn’t realize that going vegan might cause waves in the family till Thanksgiving… I never realized that food could be used so effectively to comment on how I’m a no good liberal.

    • Rory

      If you decided for whatever reasons to stop, would you try and hide it?

  • http://gravatar.com/nishantjn nishantjn

    I seriously don’t get America on this matter. Up until 30 years ago, nothing was an issue. And now everyone is up in arms about saving the environment and the animals, and eating meat has become such a bad label on someone’s character. My problem here, mind you, isn’t that people are becoming vegetarians now, while large parts of the world have advocated vegetarianism for centuries, but that everything seems to be about a label!

    Get over it! Eat, or try to eat, vegetarian food as much as you can, if you feel that helps. Stop guilting yourself and others. Stop labelling yourself and others. You aren’t good or bad, virtuous or evil, based on this little thing.

    I’m a vegetarian myself, it’s not tough or a struggle for me, because I grew up this way. Also maybe because I don’t just eat regular Western food with the meat bits taken out, but actual, real, this-is-how-it-was-intended-to-be-cooked vegetarian food. I don’t overthink that as much as this article and a few of these comments.

  • Brett

    i’m not sure what the author’s going for. I agree with her implied, but never stated, central point that we should be more open about vegetarianism, encouraging omnivorous friends and family to participate in things like Meatless Monday and not criticizing others for making a smaller step than ourselves (i.e. not ranting about how pescetarians aren’t real vegetarians, not getting into the whole vegan vs. vegetarian fight),
    but then the article takes a turn for the ironic and becomes

    How Not to Look Like a Douchebag While Being a Vegetarian

    which is a different article entirely (and not nearly as ethical and/or noble)

    but i like that Thought Catalog is returning to the vegetarian conversation! people interested in the topic should check out the New York Times opinion pieces from this spring/summer

  • Rory

    Straight up, people are allowed their own views. I used to eat meat, I haven’t in a long time. but i know, that when I eat meat or fish, not by accident, Im sure as hell not going to call myself veggie anymore.
    But I especially wont say to people I am, then rock down to the closest Mcd’s for a big Mac when my friends aren’t looking. you should be ashamed of this post, and stop trying to convince people its ok to be a poser, a hypocrite, or base their life views on others opinions. Eat meat. Or Don’t. Your call. Its a personal one.

  • Rory

    I would love to see Thought Catalog’s response to what seems like a very unhappy readership here. Anything?

  • Veronica

    What about just labeling yourself as “mostly vegetarian,” thereby allowing yourself to make a difference and advocate for less meat-eating but also avoid people pointing and going “you ate meat! you’re a liar!” most of the time? (I realize people will point and yell sometimes anyway but…whatever. Also, I agree that conservative families are tougher so this doesn’t apply around them–totally agree with rule #4.)

    Also, this part is excellent: “At least you are trying, and as long as you are trying to eat less meat, you are making a difference, because do you know what you have that many people do not? Awareness. And awareness is pivotal to eliciting change; it’s the first step.” It’s not a black & white issue. Every food decision we make, at each meal or each shopping trip, makes a difference, but at the same time you can’t really afford to stress out/guilt trip over each decision individually. There’s a balance between idealizing your impact on animals/the environment and having an easy time cooking & eating food that you want to eat. Find that balance, be honest about it, and be open to changing it (hopefully in the direction of veganism :) ) at whatever pace you can.

    • Rory

      Or, you could be truthful with yourself and not call yourself vegetarian at all. If you eat veggie food 5-6 days a week and a nice roast turkey dinner on sunday, you aren’t vegetarian, you are someone who sometimes doesn’t eat meat.
      Vegetarianism is a commitment, not a habit. im not one for the labels usually, but its this simple, if you sometimes eat meat OR fish, you are not vegetarian. AT ALL

  • Guest

    Nothing makes vegetarianism seem more like a “hipster fad” then faking your dedication.
    If it was truly about reducing the meat consumption in the world instead of maintaining an image, then it’s irrelevant whether or not someone witnesses your transgressions.

  • Charile

    There is no difference between Michael Pollan touting ethical meat eating and whatever the argument that this post never quite got around to making happens to be. Sure, some people eat meat and some people don’t. The rest of us wind up somewhere in the middle, which is fine too. What is entirely useless is trying to justify why your gradation of choosing to eat meat is somehow better for the world and humanity than another’s for the white-knuckling some unnecessary, absolutist label that, let’s face it, no longer applies to you. What’s the point? What Americans, and all of the subsequent little niche consumer markets, don’t do well at is moderation.

    • Rory

      My problem with this post stems more from the authors need to keep their eating habits a secret. Like I’ve said in previous posts, I am a vegetarian, but I respect people who eat meat more than people who say they dont, and as soon as someone turns their back, they stuff their face with what apparently makes them feel passionately enough, to label themselves vegetarian.

  • http://notesonpassion.com the author

    Perhaps the author was simply trying to stress the point that it’s important to be the best you can at any given moment, and if you slip up, it’s OK, you are human, don’t let others make you feel guilty about it. Just be better next time. And perhaps she chose to make this point by mocking the SERIOUSNESS (by being not-so-serious herself, as anyone would be able to pick up from the tone) of all the narrow-minded, critical people out there who have nothing better to do than pick people apart for their every action — people not so different from the majority of the people commenting here, I’d say.

    But at least we are talking about the importance of our food choices — and perhaps that was “what the author was going for” all along?

    • Rory

      refer to comment above

      • Rory

        slip up, and admit it. More so, if you slip up, ask yourself if this is the life choice for you. If not, dont deny yourself what clearly makes you happy enough to go against you convictions, and be a hypocrite.

        I am a huge advocate for people trying to be veggie, or spreading the word of the cause, or even cutting down the amount of meat or fish they consume. At the end of the day though: its what you eat, its such a personal choice. Who cares if anyone judges you, or condemns you for your choices. Fuck them and be who you are. Veggie or Not. But dont muddy the water.

    • Charile

      I think/hope you can get people to reduce their consumption of meat in the context of environmental concerns. Anything else beyond that creeps into very personal territory and turns into unproductive, emotionally charged arguments. That said, if it matters, I eat a “mostly vegetarian” diet; but intentionally avoid using that as an identifier because it doesn’t mean anything. I also think it cheapens the term for people who actually don’t eat meat.

      If your goal is to influence people to eat less meat, I think you could be more productive in achieving those ends without putting yourself (and I mean “yourself” generically…I know a lot of people have the same motives and concerns) through a bizarre shame cycle for doing something that a) you clearly want to be doing, or wouldn’t do it (hamburgers aren’t heroine) and b) isn’t and shouldn’t be a problem in moderation. I personally only lasted two years as a self-described vegetarian, but when I found myself shame binging on sweet and sour chicken every other month, it was time to reassess. That’s okay too. You don’t have to put bacon on top of everything you eat when you stop calling yourself a vegetarian.

  • Mimi

    I was thinking about monogamy the entire time I was reading this. Probably because I’m not a vegetarian, but I do find staying in a relationship to be quite challenging and took this to heart.

    “Are you going to be the vegetarian who flaunts their infidelity, making everyone around you think vegetarianism is just a joke, just a trendy hipster fad? Or are you going to be the kind of vegetarian who holds their affairs close to their chest, all the while giving those around you a moral compass to reference and, hopefully, mimic?”

    Makes sense to me.

  • http://parttimenerdblog.wordpress.com Steph Crandall

    I tried going veggie… Then I realized I couldn’t get over a hangover without bacon… I drank a lot in college… =/

  • Shana

    Well, I thought this was hilarious!

  • weekdayveg?
  • meg

    I LOVE this. I, like you, care about the impact my food choices make on the environment, animals, etc. but being a cut-and-dry vegetarian is damn hard. And I can totally relate to the having to hide meat transgressions. I was a vegetarian for six months, and my “friends” wouldn’t let me get away with anything. Carefree meat eaters can be such bastards. Like, I’m TRYING, okay??!?!

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