Updated: Jul 28, 2019
In my experience, the happiness found in bringing a person with food restrictions into the fold (and having everyone eat mostly the same food) outweighs whatever is being given up. No one misses what isn’t being served. When possible, practice food inclusion at all of your holiday gatherings, classroom festivities, and dinner parties. Graciously and deliciously feeding those with difficult food restrictions can be a host’s greatest delight.
THE HOLIDAYS: Make New Traditions
When my side of the family gets together for the holidays, we have 5 celiacs at the table, including one with an anaphylactic peanut allergy. Shellfish allergies, lactose intolerance, evolving autoimmune elimination diets, and vegan experimentation adds dizzying levels of complexity to the menu. There is even an allergy to white potatoes, and potato starch is in virtually all of our homemade gf baked goods.
Are we able to share holiday meals in harmony, and can we do it without constantly talking about gluten? With some common ground rules, communication, and understanding, the answer is now yes--as long as we avoid politics! There was some tension along the way, but we got there eventually. My sister, mother and I find genuine satisfaction in meeting the “allergy iron chef” challenge with meals just as fabulous as the ones served before all this madness started 10+ years ago. It is much harder when you don’t have any allergy allies in the family. If you can rope in at least one empathetic advocate, you can hopefully make it happen.
5 Tips for Holiday Dinners
1. Establish a game plan: Banning items vs some guests skipping dishes
Based on the high risk factor and the need to avoid cross contamination, my side of the family never permits gluten or peanuts. We then make sure there are sufficient options for everyone else’s restrictions, even if they can’t eat everything.
On my husband’s side of the family, where my kids’ celiac is the only food restriction, we used to place the gluten free items on a separate table and serve my kids first as an added precaution. Over the years, as awareness grew, and a few more people realized they were gluten intolerant, this side eventually began to make most or all the meal gluten free. They felt the joy of having my kids fully included, even if it meant shaking up some traditions. Shout out to my mother in-law and sisters-in-law for being so supportive!
2. Match food assignment with expertise
People who care and take the time to understand can gradually be given more responsibility. Respect that there is a learning curve and that there will be bumps in the road. An enthusiastically prepared gluten free cheese platter can quickly be ruined if glutenous crackers are there, too. Try to be gracious about it, so they don’t stop trying.
Those that find it too overwhelming can only be assigned things they can’t mess up, e.g. fruit, seltzer, crudite (without dip), wine, packaged goods that are labeled nut and gluten free.
It is important to ask any new guests about their food restrictions and make sure they understand not to bring anything without discussing it first. If people bring unsafe items, you could have a side table with someone watching to make sure no items or even crumbs travel to the primary serving area. The people who have their food put on this Side Table of Shame won’t want to do that again. One aunt gets special kudos for just not serving any of the brought items that didn’t follow her established Thanksgiving game plan, although it did cause some residual tension.
3. Encourage over-communicating and labeling
Everyone is allowed to ask questions without feeling badly about it. It is very scary for symptomatic celiacs and those with anaphylactic allergies to trust food they haven’t seen prepared. Have lots of discussion when planning the menu to make sure everyone is comfortable. Everything on our table is gluten and peanut free, but we label for all the other things too. Post-its work. If you use packaged goods, bring the labels. Bring the recipes. Make it easy to ask questions. Make it so they want to eat the food with the same enthusiasm as someone without restrictions.
4. Maintain holiday menus and recipes that work
Holidays often involve repeating the same favorite things, so keep track of what worked and who made them. Create new traditions this way.
5. Pick your battles
You go to the holidays with the family you have, and not everyone’s family is flexible. Try educating and cultivating understanding in between events when it’s not as stressful. If you really just face resentment and lack of interest, bring the parts of the meal that are most important to you to share, and make sure those at risk from cross contamination are served first. You can bring individual food to supplement. Practice food inclusiveness with your compassionate friends instead and move on.
CLASS PARTIES: Don’t Leave Kids Out
Sorry, but leaving kids out is just plain mean. Adults can set an example at class parties. My children were diagnosed with celiac at ages 7 and 9. I would often hustle to drop off a gluten free cupcake after a last minute heads up, or stick a candy bar in their backpack, but often my kids just did without. Resilience is a good thing, but it was a tough adjustment for them. There was a steady stream of holiday and birthday parties in the classroom. Therefore whenever I was class parent, I actively tried to shift the culture towards inclusion.
As class parent, at the start of the year I met with the teacher and asked that in the spirit of building community, we restrict classroom food to snacks that the entire class could eat. Once I promised to find good alternatives, the teacher always agreed. The school nurse provided me with the names of students with allergies and I emailed the parents asking for all allergens that we should try to avoid. I was energized by the appreciation of these parents who had never been asked this simple question before. I then worked with the parents with the most food restricted children, to create a list of potential snacks. I took pictures of the labels and shared them with the allergy parent group to get consensus. We distributed a list of safe class snacks and established the policy that any other snacks would need to be pre-approved by me. The parents complained at first, but--surprise!-- the kids were totally fine with it! At the parties, the non-allergy kids didn’t really care about the food and the kids who had never before eaten at a class party had huge goofy grins on their faces. We brought all the labels in for them to check. It was joyous.
I searched my old emails and found our party food list from seven years ago from a particularly challenging class. One child’s allergens grew to also include potatoes, so the potato chips were replaced with the items marked "New" and we made sure to date the revised list. These foods were then recirculated among allergen parents for agreement. If teachers are not supportive, I suggest going through this same process anyway to provide common safe alternatives for those with allergies. If you aren’t a class parent, you can volunteer to take on this specific role.
*Safe Party Foods for 5M
gluten--wheat, rye, barley, malt, oats
soy (soy lecithin is OK),
peanuts, tree nuts, corn (corn syrup is OK),
shellfish, turkey, chicken, milk,
sesame, coconut, chickpeas, mango,
pomegranate, orange seeds,
Note: Please avoid baking or cooking for risk of cross contamination
(Halloween shaped ones are at Shop Rite)
Dum dum pops
Mike and Ikes
Veggies and Fruit
(no mango, pomegranate or oranges).
Grapes, Berries, etc.
NEW: Beanitos Black Bean Chips
(Corn, Gluten and Soy free…at Kings)
NEW: Newman’s Mild Salsa (goes well with Beanitos chips)
Snyders gluten free pretzels
Cotton Candy (as long as no milk)
Trader Joe's Brown rice crispy treats
Ice and fruit based smoothies
(No milk or soy can be added. Water and fruit only.
Wash blender well first, preferably in dishwasher.)
Italian ices (check ingredients carefully)
Sharon’s sorbet (NOT Chocolate, Coconut or Mango)
Haagen Daaz sorbet (must check each flavor)
* Don't assume that these labels haven't changed since I did this! Recheck them!
DINNER PARTIES: Make the Effort
If you care enough to figure it out, you can always feed someone with food restrictions. When you decide to make the effort, it is a loving gift. Ask all guests ahead of time about their food restrictions as it’s important to you that they are able to eat, and make sure that everyone invited understands not to bring surprise food.
Gain your guests confidence before arrival as they are sadly probably not accustomed to people genuinely trying. You must demonstrate that you “get it” or they may only pretend to eat. My daughter often had people surprise her with a home baked gf good that they made just for her. Instead of being delighted, she felt pressured to eat something she feared would make her sick or risk appearing rude.
Over-communication during menu selection, cooking, and serving, makes everyone more comfortable. Text pictures of recipes and ingredients when planning the menu to confirm acceptability but also to increase comfort level. Discuss the details of the food preparation beforehand in minute detail. State things that show you understand (e.g. I am using a foil cake pan and mixing the batter by hand to ensure no cross contamination. I bought brand new dairy free margarine and have only used it for this. I used Enjoy Life chocolate chips that are gluten, dairy and soy free.) Keep recipes and labels on hand in case, and encourage guests to ask questions about the food preparation. If they still don’t feel safe and don’t eat what you baked, be gracious about it and imagine how scary it is to be in their shoes.
I am more relaxed entertaining when I get all the work done beforehand and can just enjoy my company. Because of this, I love my zojurushi rice cooker as you can prepare rice ahead for any sized crowd, and just have it waiting. Below is a simple but elegant menu from a recent dinner party which included a gluten free guest anaphylactic to milk and eggs.
What a pleasure to see him enthusiastically enjoy his meal along with everyone else!
Prepare Ahead Menu: Gluten, Nut, Milk and Egg Free
House salad with labeled bottled dressings
Basmati white rice cooked in rice cooker
plated with raspberries and sprinkled with confectioners sugar
(makes one dozen cupcakes, baked at 350 for 12-14 mins)
Go forward and spark the joy of food inclusion!