Every parent knows there’s a risk when a child goes away for an extended period of time, whether to a camp, college, mission or job. That child, when he returns, will be different in some way. Hair that was blond might be pink. The voter registration card may reflect a different political party from yours. And the carnivore you raised may now be vegan.

For parents who grew up eating hamburgers and pot roast, and fed their offspring similarly, the latter can be quite a shock — particularly since, at a casual glance, the number of vegans in the U.S. seems miniscule.

Last month, Gallup released its latest survey on dietary preferences and said that 4% of Americans identify as vegetarians, and just 1% as vegans. That doesn’t seem like anything members of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association would stay up late worrying about.  The numbers are consistent with polling from 2012 and 2018, Gallup said.

But as it turns out, the numbers change when you break them down by age, as an Economist/YouGov poll did in 2020. That survey found that 15% of Americans under 40 identify as vegetarian or vegan, which helps to explain why so many products these days carry a vegan symbol.

And why I’m already worrying about what will be on my Thanksgiving table this year.

With no advance notice or fanfare, my 23-year-old son announced in January that he was vegan. I would have been less shocked if he’d said he was becoming a circus juggler. This was a kid who loved sausage and brats, crayfish and shrimp. Since early childhood, he had enthusiastically consumed types of meat I won’t cook, let alone eat. There had been no pivotal moment, he insisted. He had friends who were vegan and had been reading their posts on Instagram about animal cruelty, and he just decided he was done with it.

He’d just taken a short-term job in Philadelphia, and I figured the cheesesteaks would make quick work of his veganism. But when he came back, he was even more resolute. Only now, his veganism wasn’t just about food, but also clothing and toiletries. Who knew there was vegan shampoo? I do, now that it’s in my bathroom.

Veganism, he patiently explained to me, isn’t just about not eating animals or testing products on them, or housing them inhumanely. It’s about not exploiting them in any way — to his way of thinking, they are not here for our use and deserve to live their lives free of human interference.

Soon thereafter a pamphlet from Foodispower.org, a “vegan food justice organization,” appeared on the refrigerator door, shaming me every time I took out an egg. Can this family’s holiday season be saved?

Live and let live

At our house, it’s not unusual to step outside in the morning and see a drinking glass or jar on the porch, evidence that someone has re-homed a spider during the night, rather than kill it.

That’s on me. I raised my kids to “live and let live,” even as I hypocritically put meat on the table throughout their childhoods. So I have to admire this young man who has radically departed from the way he was raised to live in a way he considers more moral.

Dr. Peter Attia, a hunter, recently said on his podcast, “If you can’t actually kill an animal, psychologically, then maybe you should question whether you actually should be eating them.” If we all seriously did that, there would be little need for the “animal kill clocks” that track in real time how many animals have been slaughtered each year.

Despite all this, I am an omnivore, albeit a conflicted one. I feel better when I eat meat and eggs, more satisfied. But I also love my son — and his younger sister, who, three months ago, announced that she was now vegetarian. I only have four children; if this continues, I’ll soon be outnumbered. I want to honor their choices, and not have anything in the house that will tempt them. I also still want a Honey Baked Ham.

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For help, I reached out to the Vegan Resource Center, which, as it turns out, has a vast library of articles that help vegans navigate life with omnivores. Not surprisingly, the holidays are a looming pain point on both sides of the divide.

“Being vegetarian/vegan can sometimes feel like you are making a situation more difficult for those cooking at family gatherings,” one writer said. But surprisingly, the vegans writing there seemed perfectly content with eating what they can at a family gathering and ignoring the rest, bringing their own food, or even waiting until after the gathering to eat, as my son recently did at a family reunion where barbecue and shrimp were the entrees.

Vastly different from the militant animal-rights activism of groups like PETA (in fact, I’m told PETA is out of favor with my son and his friends because of the euthanasia scandal a decade ago), these young vegans seem remarkably laid back, hoping to win family members to their cause by sharing tasty dishes.

“One of the best ways to convert those you know to veganism is to cook for them. People (especially those who’ve eaten the Western diet all their lives) are so accustomed to meat being a part — nay, the main part — of their meals, that gathering around the table for an all-plant foods meal seems an entirely foreign idea to most,” vegan Anna Lam wrote.

She went on: “Mindsets can be obstinate, so changing mindsets must be a delicate process. That’s why whenever I visit my family, I make sure to at least offer to cook meals or help cook them. If I have it my way, I completely commandeer the kitchen just to make my being vegan not a burden for others. This way, they don’t feel they are pressured to accommodate me, and I can open their eyes to the bountiful kingdom of plant-based foods that we can all enjoy without another creature suffering for that enjoyment.”

If this is vegan propaganda, bring it on. I’ve been looking for help in the kitchen for 25 years.

Deliver me from tofurky

And sure enough, as a vegan, my son developed a new interest in gardening and in cooking from scratch. Whereas at the end of a busy day, I often succumb to the Chick-fil-A drive-thru, he will work an eight-hour shift, go for a run and then start patiently chopping vegetables for his evening stir-fry for one. He makes vegan pancakes and vegan cinnamon rolls that are better than Cinnabon and has introduced me to a delicious black-bean spaghetti that has 45 grams of protein per serving, more than three times the amount of protein in a McDonald’s hamburger.

Last week, he made a hearty vegetable soup with black beans, sweet potatoes and fresh carrots, green beans and corn. I, who grew up on Campbell’s, looked on with a mixture of disbelief and awe.

True, I look askance at the “plant butter” he uses, which seems much like the margarine my generation eventually learned was bad for us. And even as someone who will risk my life to scoop a turtle out of a busy road, I can’t subscribe to the idea that there is no use of animals that is ethical.

But the young vegans may yet convince me. And they are having an effect. I’ve never noticed until this year how many products are now marketed as vegan or cruelty-free. The young vegans will not tolerate the mistreatment of animals that the boomers looked away from. Whether or not we choose to eat meat, we should all respect them for that.

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There’s some evidence, however, that the market for plant-based meat alternatives is already slipping.

Recently, Food Business News reported, “Following a peak in 2020, CoBank found plant-based meat sales have continued to decline since 2021, citing recent data from Circana that showed a nearly 21% decrease in volume sales for the 52-week period ending on July 2, 2023. Investments in the category also have slowed, along with all alternative proteins, falling 41% for plant-based meat, seafood, eggs and dairy companies in 2022.”

But the publication noted that the decline in sales has paralleled the rise in inflation. Meat alternatives are pricey, and factory farming has cheapened the life of animals so much that you can fill a “biggie bag” with meat at Wendy’s for less money than you can buy an Impossible Whopper at Burger King. Despite my enduring love for Chick-fil-A, the price of chicken nuggets generally has always seemed to me evidence of some societal moral failure.

So I will cheer on the young vegans, even as I mournfully contemplate a holiday season without turkey or gravy. As much as my love my son, emotionally I am light-years away from tofurky.

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