Evan Levy had been vegetarian for two years when his mom pulled a tender, steaming hunk of beef from the oven. “Are you really not going to eat my brisket?” she asked her son, a 34-year-old physician who lives in New York City. Levy knew what a labor of love the dish was—and how much it had always brought his family together. “It felt insulting to say no,” he says.
He’d stopped eating meat in 2017 for environmental and animal welfare reasons. Giving up steak and chicken wings was easier than he thought. But he craved the communal aspects of meat eating: Home-cooked meals with family, fancy restaurant tasting menus, vacations where meat has cultural significance, and easygoing dinners prepared by friends. So Levy came up with a new framework: He now eats vegetarian at home, when it’s in his control. Socially, he indulges in meat, which he still loves eating. As for his mom’s brisket, he ate it—and enjoyed every bite.
Most people emphasize the extremes when they talk about eating meat; either they do it or they don’t. But Levy is part of a growing number of people who seek a middle ground. They’re social omnivores—vegetarian at home but sometimes partake in meat when out with friends and family. It’s different from following vague flexitarian or reducetarian principles, which both eschew clear-cut rules in favor of generally prioritizing plants over animals. Social omnivores, on the other hand, have one very clear boundary: They don’t buy or cook meat at home.
It’s hard to say how common the phenomenon is, since gray areas are tricky to quantify. But there is some evidence that more people are eating less meat: One 2020 Gallup poll suggests that nearly 25% of Americans made some attempt to eat fewer animal products during the previous year. Most of the top 10 Bon Appétit recipes of 2022 were vegetarian, indicating more people might be cooking meatless at home. The sale of plant-based foods in the US is also surging. “I see a lot more people talking about it online and in my personal experience,” says Victor Kumar, a philosophy professor and director of the Mind and Morality Lab at Boston University.
Reasons to stop eating meat are prolific. Most meat at supermarkets comes from the factory farming industry, which is cruel to animals and workers and pillages the planet. Still, it’s hard for humans to give up anything enjoyable, says Kumar. Meat is not only tasty, “it also plays such an important role in our culture and our rituals and bonding with each other,” he says. “Reserving it for social occasions allows you to preserve the things that are genuinely valuable about eating meat.” Plus, it can feel really isolating to go against the grain.
Though they all have different reasons for reducing meat consumption, the social omnivores I spoke to don’t want to proselytize their ideologies. They tend to avoid labeling their dining habits altogether. “This is my personal choice,” says Levy. “I don’t think I’m better than you because I mostly avoid meat, or something.” It’s the same story for Grace Perry, a 33-year-old writer and social-only meat eater from LA. “ I don’t use this as an identity marker and I definitely am not trying to have any sort of ethical upper hand on my friends,” she says. “If I don’t eat meat at home and then I decide to have bacon out, who cares?”
Many people who give up meat still like the taste of it, and also find value in uninhibited culinary adventures. “When I go to friends’ places for dinner, I’m like, ‘Fuck yeah, I want to eat whatever amazing meat dish you’ve been preparing,’” says Perry, who started eating vegetarian at home after moving in with her plant-based girlfriend during the pandemic. She just didn’t feel it made sense for them to be cooking their own meals. The relationship has since ended, but Perry’s new habits stuck. “I like the way this makes me feel,” she says.
Others who love eating meat have cut it out at home because of climate concerns. After watching a Planet Earth documentary about how global warming is decimating vulnerable walrus populations, Tina Liu decided she wanted to reduce her carbon footprint. But the 33-year-old product manager, who lives in New York City, also loves eating out at restaurants. “If a dish sounds good, I want to try it,” she says. She also doesn’t want to miss out on her parents’ Chinese cooking, which often features pork chops or chicken. “I understand that it’s made with love,” she says. “I don’t want to twist something that brings me joy and make it about me killing the planet.” At least not 100% of the time.
For some people, reducing their meat consumption is a matter of health. Taranekia Gilbert-Ross, owner of The Boujee Southerner, a new plant-based soul food restaurant in Lawrenceville, Georgia, has suffered from “horrible stomach problems” since her 20s. When a few doctors suggested she avoid beef, the 42-year-old chef decided to start eating vegan at home last year. Gilbert-Ross still eats the odd chicken breast at big gatherings with family and friends, mostly to avoid making a fuss for hosts who might not be confident vegan cooks, but considers her diet a “gateway to being a fully plant-based person.”
The menu at her restaurant, which features veganized classics such as sweet potato cornbread and braised collard greens, is an extension of that lifestyle. “Heart disease is the number one killer of Black Americans,” she says. “I wanted to create something that might help people live longer.” Though she hopes her food will convert some meat eaters to a more plant-based diet, Gilbert-Ross is meeting her customers where they are. “Food is such a comfort in many Black homes,” she says. “You can’t just tell people not to eat [their favorite dishes].”
For Libby Huggins, a 40-year-old school teacher living in Kansas City, the decision to mostly avoid meat was an easy one: “I just don’t like the consistency or the taste,” she says. Huggins also finds the meat industry “gross” and macabre. There are a few caveats. She’ll “have a bite” of her dad’s excellent pork tenderloin and occasionally sample meat-based dishes while traveling, which is a big part of her relationship with her husband.
I myself have fluctuated between hard vegetarianism and social-only meat eating for over a decade. Mostly, I eat meat for my job. A couple times a year, I eat my Polish grandma’s succulent pierogies and chicken-laced borscht, which she maintains is vegetarian. I happily devour my boyfriend’s mom’s amazing German sauerbraten every Christmas. Mom’s beef lasagna, lidded with crisped-up béchamel, is my vegetarian Achilles’ heel. I love all of these women so much, and I’m not going to reject the efforts they’ve taken to feed me.
Nearly all of the people I talked to also tended to put aside their own ideals for the sake of their hosts or dining companions. “It’s LA; everybody has dietary restrictions,” says Perry. “Still, I don’t want to be a pain for anyone.” Gilbert-Ross thinks “people will stop inviting you over if they think it’s too hard to make food for you.” Even at catered school lunches, Huggins won’t make a fuss if none of the sandwiches are vegetarian. “I’ll just remove the turkey and have the lettuce and the tomato and the bread,” she says. “I know how much work goes into hosting that I don’t want people to have to worry about me.” Liu cares more about making sure her friends and family are happy and at ease than she does injecting her beliefs into the dynamic. “I don’t want to make my preferences into a big deal,” she says.
As reducing animal consumption becomes more critical for the environment, Kumar argues that social omnivores are doing something right. Part-time meat eaters can enjoy enough of the foods they love to make the lifestyle sustainable for them, but they also have a solid framework in place so that it doesn’t feel as if they’ve “given up on their moral ideals completely” when they do consume animal products. The best ethically driven actions are those that actually achieve a desired outcome, he says. If trying to become a vegetarian means you’re going to fall off the wagon, beat yourself up about it, and stress eat a pile of meat, “then it doesn’t help,” he says.
Kumar also lightly suggests that people embrace the social omnivore badge. Labels, though embarrassing or reductive-feeling, can ultimately help create community around a movement. If we want factory farming to end—or at least radically change—then maintaining moral purity in private sort of defeats the purpose. “Ultimately, other people need to do this too,” says Kumar.
There’s one other silver lining of a veg-forward lifestyle. Many of the social omnivores I spoke to were excited about the ways in which their home cooking has blossomed since ditching most animal products at home. In the US, meat is so often considered the centerpiece of a meal, so when it’s absent, people used to eating it are required to think creatively to make a satisfying meal, experimenting with flavors, spices, and pairings. “I used to buy meat and then maybe add some sides around it,” says Levy. “Now, I’ve learned how to make vegetables so much more appealing.”