About the word “vegetarian”

“Vegetarian” is a word that means somewhat different things in different subcultures. If you’re feeding a vegetarian, it’s important to make sure that you know which definition of the word they mean.

In most English-speaking cultures, “vegetarian” means “someone who doesn’t eat animals.”. That includes red meat, poultry, fish, and anything else you’d have to kill an animal in order to eat.

In some subcultures, “vegetarian” can mean “someone who doesn’t eat meat”, where meat is defined more narrowly than “all animals.”

For instance, in the observant Jewish community, most people don’t think of fish as meat (in part because it’s not defined as meat in the rules about keeping kosher). So, in many Jewish circles, a good percentage of people who describe themselves as vegetarians eat fish, but not other animals.

From both sides of this, it’s worth being aware that “vegetarian” is a word that’s used different ways in different communities. If you aren’t sure, it’s ok and good to ask what someone eats. Similarly, if you’re vegetarian and someone asks you whether you eat fish, it’s a legitimate question, not them being willfully ignorant about what the word means.

Short version: “Vegetarian” is a word that’s used differently in different subcultures. If you’re a vegetarian eating with someone from a different community, it’s important to make sure that they understand what you don’t eat. If you’re feeding a vegetarian, it’s important to make sure you understand which definition of vegetarian applies to them.

Note for people on diets

I’ve noticed that often, people who diet assume that everyone else around them either is or should be dieting. This can cause problems when they are responsible for feeding others.

Some examples:

  • If someone is planning a conference and all the food they make available is low-calorie
  • If someone is hosting a speaker from out of town in their home, and they only offer them a very small amount of food, and it’s logistically difficult for the speaker to get other food
  • A babysitter feeds active kids a green salad and nothing else for lunch

So, here are some things to keep in mind:

Other people’s nutritional needs might be different from yours. When you’re feeding someone, it’s important to feed them according to *their* nutritional needs.

This is particularly the case if you are on a low-calorie diet. When you are responsible for feeding others, it’s quite likely that they will need more calories than you do. Especially if they are children. Double especially if they are teenagers. (And this is especially important for teenage girls, since they’re often actively being pressured into diet culture.)

Low calorie food isn’t inherently healthy. It’s healthy in a particular set of circumstances. It’s unhealthy and dangerous in others.

If you’re feeding people, meet their nutritional needs. Don’t feed them according to yours.

A reason it can be dangerous to compliment people on weight loss

Some people struggle very unpleasantly to get enough to eat.

Some of these people are fat. 

Sometimes, being mostly unable to eat makes people lose tons of weight quickly.

This is not a good thing. It’s awful.

And dangerous.

And it can make things worse for people. Talking that way can make it harder for fat people to understand that something is actually wrong when they don’t eat.

And even if they do know, it can send the message that you’re not a safe person to discuss this with, or that it’s not safe to eat substantial food in front of you.

When food is too hard: Sometimes making and freezing helps


When you can cook, make more than you need and freeze the excess. Make sure its something super nutritious. Then, when you can’t cook, just unfreeze one of your pre-prepared meals. That way, you can get all the nutrition you need at a much lower cost than a take-away.

Realsocialskills said:

That is an effective strategy for some people, some of the time. Especially when you use paper plates to eat the food.

It’s not completely effective for most people who have this problem, but it can be useful.

Some thoughts on how to do this:

  • Freeze the food in individual portion sizes, not big tupperware containers
  • If you’ve frozen something in a large block, it’s not likely that you’ll be able to eat it when you’re low on spoons
  • One way to do this is to use freezer bags to freeze the food. Put a meal-sized amount in each bag. Then press the air out.
  • Make sure the bags are freezer bags and not storage bags – freezer bags preserve frozen food better.
  • Keep paper plates and plastic silverware on hand

But also keep in mind that this doesn’t work for everyone, and that it’s ok if you need a different strategy, or if you sometimes need a different strategy. Some reasons it might not work:

  • It only works if you are often able to cook. Not everyone *has* a time when they are able to cook.
  • If you can’t reliably recognize homemade frozen food as edible, freezing food ahead of time won’t be reliably helpful
  • Defrosting and heating food might still be too many steps sometimes.
  • It’s not always obvious how long to microwave things for
  • And it can be really hard to figure out how to heat things evenly
  • Freezing food changes the texture in ways that can be a problem for some people

If freezing food works for you, it’s a good strategy. If it doesn’t work for you, or doesn’t always work for you, that’s ok too. It just means you need other strategies.

One thing to try if washing dishes grosses you out

I have a suggestion for when you’re too grossed out by doing dishes – get some rubber dishwashing gloves, maybe in a nice pattern, it makes you feel really insulated from the muck, like you’re in a spacesuit, and you don’t have to touch anything gross
I hadn’t thought to mention that; thank you for pointing it out.
I do want to mention that gloves aren’t a good solution for everyone – some people can’t tolerate the texture of gloves, or the things that can happen if water accidentally splashes into the gloves.
Gloves can be a really great strategy for some people though.

When food is too hard

Related to the remembering food exists thing, do you have any advice for what to do when your depression is making preparing food seem so hard that you’d nearly prefer to just go hungry?
A couple of suggestions:
Order a pizza, or some other form of food that gets delivered to you
  • Hunger feeds on itself and makes everything harder
  • If you’re in a state of mind where preparing food seems too difficult to be bearable, ordering food can often break that cycle
  • So can getting takeout or going to McDonalds
  • This is not a frivolous expense
  • And it’s not necessarily more expensive than preparing your own food. McDonalds has a dollar menu.
  • When you’re starving from not eating, it is not the time to worry about health food. Making sure that you eat comes first. Eating anything (that you’re not allergic to) is healthier than regularly going hungry because you can’t bring yourself to eat.

Keep stuff around that’s easy to eat and doesn’t require any preparation or only need to be microwaved, for instance:

  • A box of cereal
  • Chocolate
  • Granola bars
  • Ice cream
  • Popsickles
  • Protein shakes
  • Rice cakes
  • Peanut butter
  • TV dinners
  • Frozen chicken nuggets
  • It can also help to keep around disposable plates and utensils so the thought of having to wash dishes doesn’t deter you from eating

Get someone else to tell you that you need to eat:

  • Sometimes it’s easier to remember that eating is important if someone else tells you
  • For instance, if you text a friend saying “remind me that I need to eat” and they do, that can sometimes make it more possible

Get someone else to talk you through the steps of making food:

  • If there’s someone you can ask how to find/make food, that can be helpful
  • Sometimes what’s really exhausting is not so much doing the steps, as it is anticipating them, or figuring out what they are
  • If someone can help you through that, it can make it much more possible

The three second rule

In some very informal contexts, it’s considered acceptable to eat food that you dropped on the floor briefly. This is called the three second rule. Here’s some things I think I know about it:

Procedurally speaking:

  • You have to pick up the food right away. That is why it is called the three second rule.
  • (The reason this makes sense is that if you only dropped it briefly, you know what happened to it. So you know that nothing even grosser happened while you weren’t looking).
  • The three second rule only applies to your own food. You can’t pick up someone else’s dropped food and eat it. Eating other people’s food is generally considered gross, and combining that grossness with eating dropped food makes it extra gross.

The three second rule only applies when you can presume that the surface you dropped the food on didn’t contaminate it. For this reason:

  • The three second rule does not apply if there were obvious changes to the food (eg: lint stuck to it or it changed shape)
  • The three second rule only applies to food dropped on a dry and apparently-clean surface (eg: it would be considered gross to eat a piece of candy you dropped in a puddle or in the dirt)
  • The three-second rule only applies to dry food (eg: not a lollipop you’ve already started licking, and not an ice cream cone.)


  • The three second rule only applies in very informal contexts
  • It tends not to apply outdoors, although local customs vary
  • The three second rule is usually about snacking; at an actual meal it’s usually considered rude to pick up and eat dropped food
  • (This might not be the case at some summer camps)
  • It does not apply in restaurants or other public eating places, usually

A note about disability:

  • If people know that you are disabled, they might think it’s always unacceptable for you to rely on the three second rule
  • Even when you’re doing exactly the same thing as everyone else
  • Folks might see it as evidence that you’re gross and don’t understand anything about hygiene and manners
  • If people are reacting to you this way, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re doing anything different from what others are doing
  • Or that you are failing to understand the rule, or that your disability is making it hard for you to understand the rule
  • It might just mean that people are unwilling to let you use the three second rule

Remembering that food exists

It can be hard to remember that food exists, or notice it while it’s there.

I know a few things that work for some people to mitigate this problem:

For some people, cooking for other people regularly makes it easier to notice that food exists:

  • Sometimes remembering to cook for other people works as a reminder that you need to cook and eat
  • Sometimes the motor/sensory/tactile experience can make it easier to remember that you have food
  • Because for some people, motor memory works better than visual memory

For some people, asking other people for direct help is useful:

  • If you feel like you need to eat, asking a friend to tell you to eat might help
  • Or asking them what you should eat
  • Or how to find the food
  • Some people who can’t figure out food for themselves, *can* tell other people how to find food
  • So if you and a friend both have this problem, you might still be able to help one another

Stashing food in places where you’ll see it can also help:

  • Keeping a box of cheerios or granola bars or something else that lasts a while by your computer might work as a reminder that food exists

These are strategies I know about. Do any of y’all know about others?

More on restricted diets

Do not take food issues personally.

If someone can’t eat something, it’s not personal:

  • It isn’t a rejection of your hospitality
  • It isn’t an insult to your cooking skills
  • It isn’t a comment on your health, your lifestyle, or your diet

It’s also not any of your business:

  • Don’t expect an intimate conversation about the reasons behind the food restriction
  • Don’t make a big deal about it
  • Do not comment about weight loss
  • Do not offer unsolicited medical advice
  • Do not offer unsolicited health advice
  • Or unsolicited religious commentary
  • Or your views on vegetarianism
And especially, don’t do dangerous things:
  • Don’t try to trick people into eating things
  • Even if you think their food issue is a ridiculous phobia and that tricking them would cure it
  • Seriously, seriously, don’t do that
  • It won’t help, and this kind of thing can and does kill people
  • And, in any case, irrational people also have the right to say no

You do not need to agree that the person is correct about what to eat in order to interact with them respectfully. You just have to arrange for it to be possible for them to be in spaces you’re in, and for it to be predictable whether there will be anything for them to eat there.

Cooking for people who can’t eat certain things

Some people have complicated dietary needs.

If you want to cook for them, much sure you understand what they are.

The basic way you do this is by

  • ask them what they can and can’t eat
  • believe them
  • make food they can eat
  • don’t make food they can’t eat
  • if you aren’t sure, ask
  • If one of the ingredients is something you haven’t talked about, ask

It can also help to say that you will not be offended if they need to bring their own food.