TL;DR

My aunt bought some houmous thinking it was vegan when it wasn't. How do I tell her she made a mistake without upsetting her?

Background

The other day, I was at a family dinner. My aunt didn't mind making it a vegan meal.

She bought houmous thinking it was vegan. My little sister pointed out (to me, privately) that it wasn't vegan because there was some white cheese inside (she knew because she had helped to transfer the houmous from the box into a nicer container. I didn't ask her if she actually did read the ingredient list but she wouldn't have known there was "white cheese" in it otherwise. I wasn't very surprised because I have seen houmous with cheese in it in the past).

Later during the meal, my cousin asked me if I had checked that the chips were vegan because, sometimes, there are eggs in it. I hadn't (I didn't know they put eggs in some chips), my little sister ran to see if they were, they were.

My aunt got mad at my cousin (her son) and said that she had checked the chips and that she also had checked the houmous and there weren't any eggs in it so both were vegan.

I didn't say anything to my aunt (because I didn't want to upset her further). I just double checked with my sister that the houmous wasn't vegan (she was sure that there was cheese in it, I believed her).

The Problem

My aunt bought the houmous thinking it was vegan (because it had no eggs in it) but it wasn't, as there was cheese in it. Now she might make the same mistake in the future. I don't want this to happen but I also don't want to hurt my aunt (she is a very sensitive person).

What I tried

Nothing. When she told my cousin she had checked for eggs, it was a very bad timing to tell her that the houmous was, in fact, not vegan because of the cheese.

Question

How to communicate to my aunt that she made an honest mistake when buying the food for this family meal, without upsetting her?

Notes and clarifications

  • I'm the only vegan in my family but my other cousin (my aunt's daughter), who wasn't there that day, is vegetarian.

  • Even though my little sister is not a vegan nor a vegetarian, she is very supportive of me and will always be on my side when it comes to veganism.

  • My aunt knows the difference between vegan and vegetarian (she had put vegan cheese on the lasagna and she buys me rice milk when I stay for the night). I think she just didn't notice the cheese in the ingredient list (I, myself, had the same problem a few time when I start becoming vegan).

  • I'm 23 and my sister is 17.

  • I never saw the ingredients list but I trust my sister.

  • This happened yesterday

  • The houmous was only a part of the appetizer, not the main course (so I had other stuff to eat).

up vote 11 down vote accepted

I'll start this answer by saying that (as per Jim's answer) it is important that it is an honest mistake on the part of your aunt. (Things are very different otherwise.) Given this, it is likely that your aunt will try harder not to make the same mistake again, because if she cares for you she of course wouldn't purposely try to give you food that you feel uncomfortable eating. And that is the starting point you should keep in mind.

Hence your objective is not to point out the mistake (unless you already have a very firm and stable relationship, which you don't seem to have yet), since you said that she is a sensitive (presumably to criticism). Rather, make it easier for her to avoid the same mistake the next time. To do so, perhaps you can put it to her as a request:

Thanks for the meal! Do you mind trying to get XXX houmous or YYY houmous the next time, since I very much prefer them, since the other brand seems to have some unusual ingredients that don't suit me well.

This way, you encourage her by implying that you would appreciate her cooking such a meal again, just with a substituted ingredient. Since she made an honest mistake, she would in fact be happy to know what brand to look for, as opposed to having to hunt for a suitable brand on her own (and potentially getting it wrong again).

Note that it would not be nice to make this request too soon after the meal. Perhaps wait one or two days, so that you can mention this just in passing.


Also, consider the following point, though it has nothing to do with the question of communicating to your aunt. If your reason for veganism has to do with morality, then not buying non-vegan food supports that stance, but if a mistake is made and you or someone preparing your food has already bought non-vegan food, you may wish to think through whether rejecting that food will still support your stance. In my opinion, sometimes it is better to just accept honest mistakes on a one-off basis as long as there is little risk of people using that one-off acceptance against you, because the 'damage' usually cannot be undone (that food often cannot be returned). If your reason for veganism has to do with health, then infrequent mistakes should not have much impact on your health, so it can be wise to take them in good stride. Of course, this is just my opinion as a non-meat-eater who has faced similar circumstances, and your viewpoint may differ.

  • Not sure I agree with this... while it might help with this specific food it won't reduce the risk that she might make a similar mistake on another food. And, what will your answer be if she inquires which usual ingredient you're talking about? – Selvek Oct 10 at 22:45
  • @Selvek: That's precisely why it is extremely important that the assumption of "honest mistake" is correct, which implies (as I wrote) that "it is likely that your aunt will try harder not to make the same mistake again, because if she cares for you she of course wouldn't purposely try to give you food that you feel uncomfortable eating." That is why the reason to tell her anything at all is not to point out the mistake, but to make it easier for her to find the suitable brands. Finding vegan food is hard, and it is easy to miss some ingredients. [cont] – user21820 Oct 11 at 4:46
  • @Selvek On a personal note, I'm planning to use this technic and clearly state that "Some brand put cheese in their houmous. Thankfully, I know to look for the bold ingredient in the ingredient list". – Noon Oct 11 at 4:46
  • [cont] Worse still if it says in tiny print "This product was manufactured in a facility that also processes dairy products", but not in the ingredients list. I have myself frequently made similar mistakes even when buying for myself. Saving the headache/stress of searching for the right brand will probably reduce mistakes. – user21820 Oct 11 at 4:48

Her becoming upset about the matter will most likely come from a place of trying to make you feel included but failing to do so (seeing as she had checked the ingredients but missed the cheese by accident). I would approach the subject with a very polite "thanks for putting in the effort to make me feel included"-mindset.

Make sure to let her know that you appreciate the effort she put in, but explain that unfortunately a lot of food is very tricky to find in vegan/vegetarian forms, even as a veteran vegan/vegetarian. I'm sure you've got some stories about finding some tasty looking food, but then finding out it was non-vegan that you could tell her to let her know that it is very tricky.

This is the way that my SO has talked to my family when presented with food that she could not eat (diabetic), and instead turns the "I can't eat this!" into "I saw a really good light soft drink that turned out to be incredibly sugary; it's so hard to find good alternatives" story. This also reduces the blame/shame put on the party that purchased the item.

I've bought houmous many times and made it to a variety of recipes, and cheese isn't a typical ingredient. Neither is egg, by the way. I probably would check the label f I was feeding a vegan but very much as a just in case step. (The one I had a lunchtime states: "Ingredients:Cooked Chickpeas (53%) (Water, Chickpeas), Water, Tahini (Sesame) (13%), Rapeseed Oil, Concentrated Lemon Juice, Salt, Garlic."). If present I would expect it to be mentioned prominently on the front of the pack, as an additional ingredient (as for example chilli would be). The reason for this, to quote Wikipedia, is:

Hummus is a common part of everyday meals in Israel. It is made from ingredients that, following Kashrut (Jewish dietary laws), can be combined with both meat and dairy meals.

I would reassure her that she was caught out by something abnormal -- it's not her fault if they put non-standard ingredients in there. I would prefer to do this quietly, without involving anyone else, though I certainly wouldn't hide it from them. I like to avoid a fuss, and it wouldn't help her either to make a bigger deal than necessary. If the best opportunity to say something along the lines of "you really don't need to worry on my account, it's not your fault they used a weird recipe" is in front of the others, that's also good, especially as once said you've got the chance to move on - so saying it early is good.

  • 4
    We prefer answers on this site to include some explanation of why you’re suggesting this course of action. For example, have you done this successfully in the past, or read about this technique somewhere? And can you elaborate on how to reassure her - what would be good timing, anything to avoid saying, should the sister be involved, etc.? – Em C Oct 8 at 16:58
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    @EmC, while some of the other points may be lacking (I'll try to fix that) I think the *why * is pretty clear - she had no reason to be looking for something so unusual. – Chris H Oct 8 at 20:26
  • Hey, thanks for the answer! Would you mind editing to add more details though? For example, why you think this is a good idea: "I would prefer to do this quietly, without involving anyone else, though I certainly wouldn't hide it from them". And why you think it's also okay in front of others? – Noon Oct 10 at 16:32
  • @Noon I've made the first more obvious. The second needs no more as I already explained that an early reassurance is good; even so that may be more obvious too given the addition to my preferred option. – Chris H Oct 10 at 16:45

You shouldn't say anything at all. Your aunt obviously made a special effort to accommodate everyone's dietary expectations but made a simple mistake. That mistake had no consequences to anyone except one person - you. If she were to do it over again, she probably wouldn't make that mistake, for two reasons: 1) As you said, she knows the difference between vegan and vegetarian. (By that, I assume you're saying she knows what is acceptable to a vegan.) and 2) It was an honest mistake.

It isn't always necessary or beneficial to point out someone's mistakes. Instead, focus on the positive and boost your aunt's self confidence at the same time. You can do that by complimenting her on the generous effort she made for all of you. You can even point out how well she prepared the meal to everyone's expectations. But just avoid any hint at her mistake. Under those circumstances, she's more likely to look at it as something she wouldn't mind doing again, rather than just a bother that brings no appreciation.

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    I see that how pointing out that she made a mistake is a bad idea. But, if I don't do it, how can I make sure she doesn't buy the exact same houmous next time thinking it's vegan? – Noon Oct 9 at 7:29

From your aunt's answer (that it was vegan because of no eggs) it sounds like she didn't even consider that dairy could be an issue. If you want to get a good result, I'd treat this as a chance for education rather than correction. You say that she understands that dairy is non-vegan. However, she clearly made an effort to buy vegan, and when challenged remarked that "it doesn't have eggs" indicating that she didn't consider cheese. Since cheese is a common component of hummus where you are, that indicates she isn't thinking about dairy. Or perhaps she's thinking about milk, but not cheese.

So you should try to discuss what makes a recipe vegan, not as a "here's how you screwed up" conversation but rather as "when I decided to go vegan, I had to figure out substitutes for these things like eggs, milk, cheese, etc". Or some such. Bring it up without saying "hey, that hummus you bought wasn't vegan".

What you want to do is educate your aunt so there isn't a problem in the future, because you can't go back and correct the past.

I'm emphasizing education because clearly your aunt is making a good faith effort to buy you something vegan. I find it unlikely that she looked at the ingredients list, verified that it didn't have eggs, and then deliberately ignored the cheese. You mentioned in a comment that even you sometimes have trouble verifying all the ingredients are vegan. You should bring that up, again not to correct your aunt, but to show how carefully the ingredient list needs to be checked.

Saying "don't buy brand X of hummus, that isn't vegan" doesn't solve the problem. Your aunt might well buy another brand that also had cheese in it. It's better to make sure she knows what to look for.

It's also possible that your sister is just incorrect, the hummus was vegan, and merely contained something that looked like cheese. Which is another reason not to "correct" your aunt.

  • 1
    @DaveG This answer has very good points but relies on the assumption that the aunt didn't know that cheese isn't vegan, while Noon already made clear that 1) As weird as it may sound, it's indeed common in France to find cheese in hummus, and 2) their aunt knows that cheese isn't vegan since she already bought her vegan cheese and vegetable milks in the past. Considering this, your answer is not addressing OP's question and is likely to get deleted. Would you mind editing it accordingly? – avazula Oct 9 at 7:05

It appears like your aunt is a bit misinformed about veganism. She thinks she only needs to look for eggs, while she also needs to look out for cheese and other dairy products.

I would recommend to slip this into a future conversation not connected to any meal she cooked for you. Say something like:

"It is so hard to find good vegan food. It always surprises me in what kinds of products you find cheese or milk. I always need to check the fine print on the back of everything I need to buy. A while ago I saw houmous in the supermarket and found that they put cheese in it. In houmous? Can you believe it?"

Important points:

  • I-statements. You are framing the problem as your problem, not her problem. That way you do not put her into a position where she needs to defend herself.
  • You don't claim she made this mistake. She should realize that she maybe made that mistake, but she doesn't lose face because you do not accuse her directly.
  • You communicate that it is an easy mistake to make and that you almost fell for it yourself (which might or might not be true, but that's beside the point).

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