The Ethical Dilemma: I Want a Vegetarian Wedding, But My Mother Demands That We Serve Meat!

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Losing Lunch over Food Preferences:  My partner and I are planning our wedding on a budget. We’re both vegetarian, but decided to offer one meat option (which we don’t even feel obligated to do, but thought it would be a nice accommodation for the die-hard carnivores). His mom, however, who has generously offered to chip in, says we must include beef, chicken, and fish choices. We’ve tried to explain that this would not only greatly increase the cost of the dinner, but it also goes against our desire to serve a lovely vegetarian meal.

The fact is his mom is inviting more guests than anyone else, and she says all her friends will be expecting the typical array of meats. Do we really have to comply? Can we tell her she has to pay the additional costs or we can’t afford to add them? Shall we decline her financial contribution so we can do whatever we want without feeling guilty? I can’t believe this has become such a bone of contention.

—We’ve Got a Beef

Dear Beef,

Ever hear the one about the two cannibals? Cannibal #1: “I hate my mother-in-law.” Cannibal #2: “So eat the vegetables.”

No, you can’t serve his mom to the meat eaters, but in today’s picky-eater society, you can’t ever please everyone no matter what you do or don’t serve. What you can do, however, is proceed as though your guests are civilized adults coming to celebrate the launch of your new life as a married couple—not to behave like people on a cruise complaining about what’s missing from the midnight buffet.

Every year I make Thanksgiving dinner for a mix of strictly kosher people, vegetarians, lactose- and gluten-intolerant guests, and fussy eaters (not all of them children). I make my idea of a great Thanksgiving dinner, everyone eats whatever they like and skips what they don’t like, and they all keep coming back year after year. Even more challenging, a few years ago I put together a Saturday evening Bat Mitzvah party in an amazing venue with a stunning view of the Manhattan skyline. I was challenged with myriad ground rules I had to address. First, all the food had to be kosher: either meat or dairy but not both together, and no blatantly non-kosher foods. To make matters worse, kosher caterers won’t work on a Saturday until an hour after sundown, which would lose the highlight of our venue, watching the sunset. What to do?

Only about 5 percent of the guests were Orthodox Jews who would not be able to travel until after sunset, but I didn’t want the other 95 percent of the guests (including less observant Jews, Christians, and nones) to have to forego that magic moment. So I set the cocktail hour in time to watch what turned out to be a breathtaking light show, with dinner served after the sun was down and the Orthodox contingent had arrived. I hired a non-kosher caterer who was happy to serve drinks and hors d’oeuvres while the sun was still shining. The menu was rendered effectively kosher by being meatless (but including salmon, which complies with kosher guidelines). Because there was no meat, we were able to serve dairy, which meant cheese plus creamy, buttery desserts, and the milk chocolate fountain the Bat Mitzvah girl had her heart set on.

Since we had two guests with nut allergies, rather than eliminate nuts for all (which is also a perfectly good option), we had a few nut items set apart with warning signs, plus servers who were introduced to the allergic guests (one was a small child). I knew we had one guest who required gluten-free, so before the event I told her which items were safe for her. Of course, there may have been guests with additional food issues I wasn’t aware of, but since everything was buffet, each person could simply decide for themselves what to take and what to skip.

I never heard any complaints from anyone, whether that’s because they were content, or because they knew my policy: “If you aren’t happy with what we’ll be serving, feel free to eat before you arrive or after you leave.” I refused to agonize over whether anyone missed a sit-down dinner with a slab of prime rib. Life’s too short to go crazy (or bankrupt) over a single meal, or to go against your own tastes at your own event—particularly if you’re vegetarian on principal. None of your guests will starve or get sick because there was no pepperoni on the pizza.

So stick to your own vision of what you want your wedding to be. Some people love to go all-out accommodating everyone’s preferences, but that’s what they want to do, not what they have to do or what everyone should do. If your fiancé’s mom no longer cares to chip in, you can even economize by skipping the one meat option you were planning to offer (and even some of the guests on her list, if you can’t afford them all). Focus on making your special day your special day, stamped with your identity as a couple. Maybe some guests will come away pleasantly surprised by how great meatless banquets can be. And if not, well, tomorrow is another meal.