Bringing Everyone to the Table: Accommodating Special Diets During the Holidays

by Kathleen Nay

Thanksgiving is over and the leftovers are dwindling, but there is more holiday eating and meal prep on the horizon. As food and nutrition professionals, we understand that emotions can run high when it comes to sharing meals, traditions, and dietary restrictions with a crowd. So what can a holiday meal that balances a variety of special diets look like?

In my family, every shared meal requires some logistical acrobatics. We have vegetarians, vegans, people with nut allergies, and people with Celiac disease. Some of the dietary restrictions are self-imposed—my husband and I choose not to consume meat, and he prefers to extend that choice to eliminating all animal products, including eggs and dairy. (Me? Well… I enjoy cheese and sour cream, and the occasional fried egg.) But the dietary restrictions of others in our family are not by choice. My brother has a severe tree nut allergy; my mother in law has Celiac disease and must be careful to avoid even a crumb of gluten. Most in our extended families also abstain from alcohol. Needless to say, communal meals can be a challenge.

This year our guests included some friends from undergrad, one friend's dad and cousin, and my husband's parents. We tried to make our meal both vegan-friendly and gluten-free where possible. Photo: Kathleen Nay

This year our guests included some friends from undergrad, one friend’s dad and cousin, and my husband’s parents. We tried to make our meal both vegan-friendly and gluten-free where possible. Photo: Kathleen Nay

Last November, the New York Times published an article about the ways in which special diets can heighten tensions at the holidays. The article focuses its attention on teenagers and children who use dietary restrictions to exert their budding independence. While I think it misses its mark in this regard—there are plenty of adults, young and old, who have legitimate reasons for their specific dietary needs—this doesn’t change the fact that tensions often run hot around holiday food traditions, regardless of the reasoning.

Though the article itself was published over a year ago, the comments section is still active—and telling. There is much hand-wringing, with recent comments ranging from, “Why make Grandma cry? Eat it and say thank you!” to “Welcoming people into your home involves actually being welcoming. When I invite people over I always ask about food restrictions…” to “Sounds awfully complicated to be required to chart everyone’s restrictions.”

So how do you plan a holiday meal that is inclusive of every eater’s needs? In our household, we’ve figured out a few strategies that work for us and our loved ones.

Be up front about your needs, and ask guests if they have special diets.
When sending out invitations for the holiday gatherings, we tell guests up front that we’re a vegan/vegetarian household. Giving people forewarning about the foods you personally cannot eat gives them a chance to plan accordingly, and saves you both from embarrassment at the dinner table. Likewise, as you plan your meal, ask your guests for advice about any foods they avoid and alternatives they prefer. This will give them some assurance that there will be something they can eat.

Barring any severe allergies, invite guests to bring what they like (even if you might not eat it yourself).
Although we’re vegetarian, turkey has been served at our table! A benefit of hosting potluck-style meals is that everyone gets to bring at least one dish they know they’ll be able to eat. When we’ve hosted holiday meals in the past, we usually make most of the dishes, but include a list of suggested sides that people might bring to complement the meal. At Thanksgivings past, I’ve always told guests that they should feel free to bring a turkey if they’d like to have it (because I know that most people are thinking, what’s Thanksgiving without turkey?) One year, a friend felt up to the challenge of roasting his own bird, so he brought it to share with our other omnivore guests. (Our cat was also very happy to have real meat scraps thrown her way.) Not only does this make guests feel more welcome in our home, it also gives people the space to cook what they’d like.

Emma wonders hopefully whether anyone brought turkey this year. Sadly, no one did. Photo: Anna van Ornam

Emma wonders hopefully whether anyone brought turkey this year. Sadly, no one did. Photo: Anna van Ornam

Make sure to include at least a few dishes that everyone can eat (and be clear about which dishes have hidden ingredients someone may wish to avoid).
Remember that not everyone will necessarily eat everything—and that’s okay. At our recent holiday gathering, everything was vegetarian, but not everything was vegan or gluten free. There were “meatballs” made from quinoa and black beans—gluten-free, but not vegan. However, we also had Portobello mushroom patties on our table—both vegan and gluten-free! If there are dishes that are not made from scratch, be sure to read labels for hidden ingredients.

A sampling of what was on our table this year. Photo: Kathleen Nay

A sampling of what was on our Thanksgiving table this year. Photo: Kathleen Nay

If you can use a substitute, do.
Not every recipe lends itself to being easily converted to a nut, gluten, or dairy-free dish. But try to make simple swaps. Toss veggies in olive oil instead of butter to go dairy-free. Use vegetable stock instead of chicken or beef stock to make a dish vegetarian. Consider using a plant-based milk like nut, seed or soy instead of cow’s milk. Use gluten-free cornstarch to thicken the gravy. Try crushed ginger snaps to make a gluten-free crust for your pumpkin pie.

Leave the toppings on the side.
We have a recipe for lemon green beans that we absolutely love. The toasted pistachios sprinkled on top gives them just the right nutty flavor and crunch. But when my nut-allergic brother visits? Leaving the pistachios in a dish on the side is an easy fix.

Don’t question what is or isn’t on a guest or family member’s plate.
Whatever people chose to eat or not eat while at your house—just don’t worry about it, and don’t be offended! A friend of mine in recovery from anorexia recently reminded folks on her Facebook page to be sensitive to friends and family who suffer from eating disorders, which might not be outwardly obvious. She advised that comments about weight, talk about having to diet or exercise to work off your holiday meal(s), and general comments about not “needing” to have seconds or dessert can be triggering for folks with eating disorders. What a person decides to put on or leave off their plate is their choice. If a guest isn’t into a particular dish you’ve made, just remember that whatever their reason, it probably isn’t about you.

I'm thankful for friends who let us try out sometimes-unusual recipes on them! Photo: Kathleen Nay

I’m thankful for friends who let us try out sometimes-unusual recipes on them! Photo: Kathleen Nay

Finally, share your recipes!
We’ve hosted lots of friends and family at our place over the years. Most of our friends don’t typically eat strict vegan diets, but thankfully all of them have been willing to try our sometimes-weird recipes. (Not a holiday food, but jackfruit carnitas, anyone?) Sometimes they’ll even ask how we make a particular dish. I believe that good food is meant to be shared, and I’m always happy to do so if it means making future meals together a little more inclusive.

Kathleen Nay is a third-year AFE/UEP dual degree student who’s been vegetarian for nearly eight years (though she admits to the occasional sneaky turkey sandwich). Her cat Emma, seeing her humans eat only vegetables, thinks human food is utterly bland and will stick to her kibble, thank-you-very-much.

Advertisements

Thanksgiving: A Misunderstood History

by Sam Jones

The holiday that many of us are looking forward to this month is actually based on a complicated history of conflict and controversy. As disease threatened the very existence of Native American tribes across New England, the Mayflower pilgrims were dying of starvation. Sam Jones recounts how the social history of Thanksgiving saved some and devastated others in order to give celebrators a new perspective on tradition.

As a kid, I was always taught that Thanksgiving is an American tradition based on a feast held a long time ago between the Native Americans and my European ancestors. As the tale goes, the pilgrims welcomed the Native Americans to their celebratory harvest feast and the two communities lived harmoniously for years. I was also taught that the Native Americans felt, or should have felt, grateful for the pilgrims’ generosity and help. Even today, this narrative is still presented in schools and households from the point of view of the pilgrims, portraying the Native Americans as dependent and voiceless. However, a closer look at the history of the first Thanksgiving reveals that the opposite may have been true—the European settlers could not have survived without the Wampanoag tribe of modern-day Massachusetts.

Photo: Sam Jones

The first Europeans to arrive on the eastern shores of what is now the United States of America were not the pilgrims who settled Plymouth in 1620. Europeans from France, England, Spain, Portugal, and Italy had all been travelling and trading along the eastern coast for over a century prior to colonization. Many of these travelers were trading more than just steel and jewelry. In fact, some travelers killed and captured indigenous people to sell in the slave trade.

One Native American captured by the Englishman Thomas Hunt was a young Wampanoag named Tisquantum. Historical records do not indicate how Tisquantum evaded slavery in Spain, but he managed to learn English on is journey back to Cape Cod. Upon his return, however, the thriving Native American community he had been taken from several years before was nothing more than a burial ground extending north and south along the entire coast of New England.

Photo: Sam Jones

Along with their goods, the European traders had brought various diseases, which decimated tribes along the coastline throughout the 1500s and early 1600s—90% of the region’s indigenous population died between 1616 and 1619 alone. The Wampanoag tribe was one such group that was considerably weakened by disease—their numbers were reduced from 20,000 to 1,000. When Tisquantum finally returned to what was left of his tribe, he was met with suspicion and treated as a servant to his own people.

The pilgrims arrived shortly after Tisquantum’s reunion with the Wampanoag, but nearly half of them died during their first winter in New England. Without food or a proper shelter, the pilgrims resorted to ransacking the graves and storehouses of the Native American tribes that had lived on Cape Cod prior to being wiped out by disease. In the spring of 1621, the pilgrims first interacted with the Wampanoag tribe with the help of Tisquantum who was able to use his English language skills to translate. An unprecedented treaty-like partnership was formulated between the pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe because both parties viewed cooperation as mutually beneficial for several reasons.

The weakened Wampanoag tribe needed to bolster its strength and resilience to defend against a rival tribe known as the Narraganset, which remained untouched by the spreading disease. The Wampanoag tribe strategically garnered a trading partnership with the pilgrims as a means for their tribe to exert power in the region as middlemen between the Europeans and other tribes as well as to deter the Narraganset from implementing an attack.

In the fall of 1621, the pilgrims and 90 men from the Wampanoag tribe gathered for a feast to celebrate their first successful harvest. This occasion is now commonly referred to as the first thanksgiving. The partnership between the Wampanoag and the pilgrims continued in a similar fashion for the next 50 years. During that time, several ships arrived in Plymouth to settle the new colony. While the pilgrims’ numbers and territory exponentially increased, the Native American tribes throughout the region dwindled as death and disease remained rampant. In 1675 one of the sons of the Wampanoag leader, fed up with the colonists’ laws and encroaching settlements, launched an attack against the colonists. In the end, the European settlers won at the cost of over 5,000 lives. Not only was their manpower and weaponry far superior, but the diseases they brought from their homeland certainly played an active role in weakening the Native American people as well.

The history of Thanksgiving that I was taught as a kid is simplistic and revisionist as it does not acknowledge that the Native Americans had strict intentions in interacting with the pilgrims. They were not, as I was led to believe, a helplessly ignorant group of people. They did not foolishly welcome the white man onto their shores, nor did they gratefully accept help from their future oppressors. In their weakened state, the Wampanoag tribe orchestrated a mutually beneficial partnership with the pilgrims that lasted for roughly half of a century. They arguably saved the remaining pilgrims’ lives, only to be incrementally pushed off their land and killed by foreign pathogens and pistols.

It is unknowable who would have followed the Mayflower pilgrims and in what state the Wampanoag and other New England tribes would have been in had a partnership not been formed. Although in the end, the arrival of the pilgrims in 1620 eventually did lead to the death of tens of thousands of indigenous people at the hands of disease and warfare. This is the history upon which we base our most cherished of American holidays.

Photo: Sam Jones

This year, Thanksgiving will be commemorated as a Day of Mourning for those who died as a result of colonization and as recognition of the continued oppression and racism against their people. Every year since 1970 atop Cole’s Hill overlooking Plymouth Rock, indigenous and non-indigenous people have gathered at noon for a spiritual ceremony followed by select speeches about the history of their people as well as the issues facing indigenous populations across the country today. The ceremony is followed by a march through Plymouth and concludes with a feast.

For my Thanksgiving celebration this year, I will still sit with friends and family to a meal of ham and roasted vegetables, corn bread and pumpkin pie, stuffing and mashed potatoes. I will still express my gratitude for all that I have to be thankful for. But this year, I will also be adding a new tradition—a moment of silence for all of the people at whose expense my successes lie. Because I do not think that the purpose of engaging with the painful history of this country is to make those of us here today feel guilty and ashamed or angry and resentful. Instead, I believe it is to acknowledge the voices that have been silenced and the backs that have been walked on. It is also to impress the need for more tolerance, greater acceptance, and heightened awareness. As we begin another holiday season, our traditions may not change, but the intentions behind them just might.

Sam Jones is a first-year AFE student with a specialization in sustainable agricultural development. She loves to cook and frequently enjoys a brisk walk in the woods. Her goals include getting a dog, growing all of her own food, and eating her way around the world.

Candy-Ween

by Hannah Meier

Dressing up, carving pumpkins, ringing doorbells, staying up late, gorging on candy. Halloween traditions are well-beloved in the United States, and reminisced upon fondly by even the most educated nutrition students in the Boston area. But with sugar in the spotlight of contemporary public health interventions, is it time to reconsider our chocolate-coated hallows ‘eve habit?

Hannah and her younger brother Adam in matching, handmade leopard costumes

I liked to sort my candy by type, color, and preference. Each Halloween, I would make my rounds to every house with lights on in my suburban Minnesota neighborhood. I’d ring countless doorbells and gleefully chant, “trick or treat!” alongside my costumed friends, while grown-ups scooped candy by the handful into our open pillowcases. I would relish the end of the night, coming home and dumping the pounds of fresh candy onto a wide space of open floor, sorting the Milk Duds (a personal favorite) into their own pile and relegating Now & Laters, Licorice and Butterfingers into the pile of not-so-greats that I’d probably try to trade for more Milk Duds from my brother later.

The dumping and sorting of Halloween candy was a well-loved tradition

For me, candy was a given on Halloween. Sure, there were houses that we’d visit that would hand out fruit snacks or granola bars, and I usually ended up with at least one toothbrush. But these “treats” held hardly as much excitement. My parents allowed my brother and I to keep all our candy, but we were normally held to 2-3 pieces as treats per day, max.

Fast forward 20 or so years, and I not only survived 10 years of tick-or-treating in good health, I’m now in a position of relative influence in the world of nutrition. I’ve learned enough about food to know that candy provides little more to our bodies’ cells than some quick energy and easy calories. Some would argue there are properties within candy, like added sugar, that are harmful to our bodies. I would argue that most people have nothing to worry about if candy is left as a once-in-a-while food (even a once-a-day treat). Looking at the bigger picture of overall diet is more telling. Even though most candy contains negligible amounts of micronutrients, will our bodies really know whether we ate two Snickers® fun size® bars or a Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Larabar®, give or take a few grams of fiber? I do not have an answer to that question, but I can tell you, without a doubt, that my mother would not have payed twice the price for pulverized cashews and dates.

used for comparison based on weight and likelihood of use as a Halloween candy

Now, I’m not anti-Larabar®, and recognize that if we were to compare ingredient lists, one would be a clear winner. Of course, I’m not comparing a Snickers® bar to an apple, a bag of trail mix, or popcorn—all options that would clearly be less-processed, more wholesome snacks. I’m comparing a Snickers® bar to a reasonable cousin—one that also provides the satisfaction of unwrapping a crinkly wrapper—yet happens to be expensive and out of reach for most. It’s worth taking a step back and considering whether the battle to promote “healthier” Halloween treats really holds up – we shouldn’t be relying on candy or snack bars like Larabar® for micronutrients, anyway.

Still, it’s hard to find the Halloween candy tradition benign when considering our current food environment, which makes eating large portions of highly processed foods in a fairly mindless way all too convenient and affordable every day. Holiday traditions put a spotlight on food industry favorites, and Halloween is the king of them all. Unlike food traditions surrounding holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah and Rosh Hashanah, Halloween is all about the candy.

Trick-or-treating and candy-giving on Halloween rolled out in the United States as a fully-fledged tradition in the 1950s, alongside Wonderbread® and CocaCola®. Packaged candy was cemented as a Halloween staple during the 70’s when folks feared razor blades in apples, Samira Kawash suggests in a 2010 article in The Atlantic. Since then, Americans have taken hold of the sugar habit, purchasing upwards of 600 million pounds of candy a year for Halloween, and 90 million pounds of chocolate during the week of Halloween alone according to a Neilsen report from 2009. That’s about one pound and 3.2 ounces of chocolate per child in the United States purchased in one week.

Talk about added sugar.

The most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans, along with proposed updates to the FDA Nutrition Facts Panel, pinpoint 50 grams of added sugar as the suggested daily intake for an average adult based on a 2000 Calorie diet pattern. One pound and 3.2 ounces of milk chocolate contains about 543 grams of sugar, which averages out to over 75 grams of sugar per day if consumed in one week. And that’s just chocolate—add in sugar from other foods like yogurt, baked goods, sauces and dressings, and the scales are tipped firmly in the direction of “excess.”

So, what are we supposed to do about it?

According to an informal survey of Friedman students, a majority (64%) believe that handing out Halloween candy neither helps nor hurts public health nutrition policy, and only 55% do not believe it is our responsibility as nutrition professionals to shift our current candy-centric Halloween culture.

“Holidays are unique and have anticipated traditions that vary by family and culture,” one Friedman student responded. America just happens to have a love affair with sugar on Halloween.

But of course, Halloween candy is not the only thing contributing to chronic disease. Another student argued, “Blaming candy is like saying if we want to prevent house fires we should outlaw matches.”

Moderation was a signature theme of survey responses. “Every holiday doesn’t require candy and sweets, but it provides a good opportunity to discuss with children the importance of moderation and sharing,” one student suggested.

While I agree that moderation is a key message, and that foods like candy (or ice cream, or brownies) can indeed be incorporated into an overall health-promoting diet when approached without guilt or stress, does fixating on treats at holidays like Halloween (and Christmas, and Easter, and Valentine’s Day) really send that message? Would we be so obsessed with candy on Halloween if we weren’t constantly trying to avoid it the rest of the year?

To help make your decision—will you or won’t you participate in passing out candy to kids this Halloween?—let’s refer to my favorite decision-making tool: the Pros vs. Cons list.

 

PROS

CONS
Candy is cheap, usually on sale, and comes in many varieties Look at the ingredients list… if you dare
But chocolate has antioxidants, right? Have you ever babysat a kid who ate candy for dinner?
Dentists need more business, it’s good for the economy. Candy may be cheap, but fillings are expensive.
More likely to be viewed as a “cool house” for handing out candy. If no one comes to your door, you can wear pajamas and go to bed early.
Leftover candy

Leftover candy

 

While over 95% of Friedman students surveyed enjoy eating candy on Halloween, only 53% of them plan to hand out sweet treats to costumed kiddos this year. Most who aren’t participating in the tradition reported not having Trick-or-Treaters stepping up to their doors. Others said they would be handing out granola bars, nuts (allergies are a whole other topic worth considering on Halloween), or non-food items like stickers.

Most folks passing out candy are going with fun size bars or “whatever’s cheapest.” My building is one that will likely not be visited by young tricksters looking for treats, but if it were, I’d pick up a big bag of fun size pretzel M&Ms® (because they offer the best of both worlds) and ask every kid their name. Like one insightful second-year student added “Halloween is a great opportunity to get to know neighbors and give personal attention to your community.”

Thanks to all the Friedman students and alumni who filled out the unofficial survey and offered thoughtful and creative responses! It’s clear we can improve our Halloween traditions, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we need to do away with candy altogether.

*Statistics based on a voluntary Facebook-linked google survey of 45 Friedman students and alumni in September, 2107

Hannah Meier is a registered dietitian, second-year Nutrition Communications student, foodie, and festivity nerd. She believes in the power of food as both an instrument for health and community, and strives to make nourishing options as accessible and convenient as possible for all. You can find her on Instagram @abalancedpaceRD and Twitter @hannahrosemeier.