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.

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