If you’re hosting Thanksgiving this year, chances are someone at your holiday table will have a special dietary need. With food allergies, celiac disease and so many health conditions that can be helped with food on the rise, hosting Thanksgiving can feel like a contact sport. Your sister is vegan, your dad can’t eat salt, and your best friend is on a gluten-free diet. Ug. That’s a lot to deal with. I know.
As the host, you can either get angry, judgemental and stressed out by the situation, or, instead, you can be accepting and loving of everywhere wherever they are on their journey to be healthy and eat in a way that is helpful to them.
For me, as someone with celiac disease on a strict gluten-free diet, the holidays present a lot of challenges and anxieties for me. I want to be with family, but I also hate the feeling of being a bother, nuisance or worse, I hate like I’m forcing someone who is hosting a wonderful holiday meal to have to bend over backwards for me. Chances are your friends on special diets feel that way too.
My family is willing to accommodate me because they love me (and are used to cooking GF things for me), but for those of you hosting your friend with special dietary needs for the first time, you may be wondering how to do it without making everyone feel uncomfortable, and without having to tweak or omit some of your favorite Thanksgiving foods.
This article will mostly speak to someone who is gluten-free, but you can use it as a guiding light to accommodating your friend no matter his or her dietary needs.
How to Host Your Gluten-Free Friend for Thanksgiving
1. Make sure a couple of the dishes will be naturally gluten-free.
Your friend isn’t expecting you to make everything gluten-free, but she might hope that she can enjoy some of the naturally gluten-free foods like the turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberries and salad. If you can make sure these don’t get glutened, she will be a happy camper.
The Turkey: The turkey can easily be made gluten-free if you don’t put anything like soy sauce, gravy or other ingredients in it that contain gluten. Also, don’t stuff the turkey as the stuffing contains gluten and will touch the turkey and render it no longer gluten-free. (Plus, you shouldn’t stuff the turkey if you want to maintain a juicy turkey!) Remember, all vegetables (onions, garlic, etc) are naturally gluten-free, as are fresh spices like thyme, sage, rosemary, salt, etc.
Mashed Potatoes: Mashed potatoes made with fresh potatoes, butter, salt and milk are naturally gluten-free. If you use chicken broth, make sure you purchase a chicken broth that is gluten-free as some cheap brands contain gluten.
Sweet Potatoes: Sweet potatoes, like regular potatoes, are naturally gluten-free as well. Yes, even marshmallows are gluten-free – just double check the food label to be sure.
Cranberries: Cranberries cooked in sugar and water are easily gluten-free too, as are most canned cranberries.
Salad: A salad is naturally gluten-free as long as you don’t put croutons or French’s fried onions on top of it, which contain gluten. Leave off the dressing or set some plain salad aside for your friend before you dress the salad as many store-bought dressings contain gluten. Better yet, make a homemade vinaigrette using olive oil, red wine vinegar, lemon juice and salt and pepper. Yum!
Things that someone on a gluten-free diet would avoid include the rolls, stuffing, gravy, greenbean casserole and most desserts. Just steer your friend away from those dishes and don’t worry about the fact that they contain gluten.
(My mother-in-law makes the best apple pie, but her pie crust is made with regular wheat flour. She makes the apple pie filling first, sets some aside in a small bowl for me, and then proceeds to make the rest of her pie with the crust. By doing this, she allows me to enjoy some of the gluten-free filling, which I miss, along with everyone else.)
2. Communicate with your friend ahead of time.
If you know your friend is gluten-free, have a conversation with her to let her know what she will and won’t be able to eat at your house. Have this conversation about a week or two ahead of time (or as soon as you’ve planned your menu). Your friend will appreciate the upfront, honest conversation. Tell her, “You will be able to eat the turkey, but my gravy has gluten in it,” for example. She might say, “Thank you, I’ll just bring my own gravy.”
Your friend will be over-the-top appreciative of the fact that you’re making sure a few items will be safe for her to eat. You will feel good about it and she will feel good about it. No one will feel left out or awkward – a win-win!
3. Ask your friend to bring a few things he/she likes to share with everyone.
There is no way you need to worry about making a gluten-free stuffing or gluten-free pie for your friend. It’s just not realistic nor expected!! Ask your friend if she would be willing to bring a gluten-free dessert to share, or assign her to make something naturally gluten-free as the potluck dish she brings to share, like one of the potato dishes, salad or cranberries. Please note that I don’t recommend assigning your friend to something like stuffing, as not everyone will be happy with gluten-free stuffing.
4. Have your friend take food FIRST.
If your gluten-free friend has celiac disease and/or is worried about cross contamination, tell her to take her food first before the buffet or dishes are opened up to everyone else to dig in. This way, if utensils for the stuffing and mashed potatoes getted crossed, or someone decides to dip their bread into the turkey juices, you know your friend has already taken her food and will be able to eat without getting sick.
5. Keep the allergy friendly dishes away from the other dishes.
I like to keep the gluten-free dishes separate from the rest of the dishes to ensure low risk of cross contamination. For example, if you serve buffet style, put the GF dishes at the front of the buffet line and the gluten-full dishes at the end of the buffet line. There is less risk of the items in front getting contaminated with the items at the end. Another example is to have the gluten-free pie on a separate table from the other pies, this way nothing gets mixed up and there is little danger of someone using the same utensils to scoop the two pies. Having the allergy items on a special table will ensure things stay separate and safe.
You Did It!
Remember, Thanksgiving is a time for us to be grateful for one another. It’s a time where we can be together, share in the joys of friendship, food and family, and it’s a time when we can and should be inclusive (and non-judgemental) to all eaters at the holiday table.
As you can see, you can easily accommodate everyone at your dinner table with a little planning and thoughtfulness. Good luck and Happy Thanksgiving!
Look Who’s Quoted!
I spoke with a reporter from the Chicago Tribune about how to host people with special dietary needs for the holidays. I’m quoted in this article.