Thanksgiving is the perfect opportunity let our guard down and really connect with our family and friends, as we come together to celebrate everything that we are thankful for. But, as is the case with many holidays, it is an extremely food-centric celebration. I have wonderful childhood memories of Thanksgivings spent with our extended family up at my grandparents’ cottage. But, as much as I remember the beautiful fall colours and walks to collect fallen leaves, my strongest memories are of the sounds and smells of a busy kitchen as we all worked together to prepare for, and then sit down to eat, our Thanksgiving feast.
To give my mother credit, despite being lactose and gluten intolerant as a child, I never felt like I was being excluded from the festivities and always looked forward to the holiday’s yummy dishes. There was always a huge roasted turkey with stuffing, candied yams and mashed potatoes, steamed vegetable and rice dishes, freshly baked rolls, pumpkin pie and rhubarb pies, and even an apple crumble.
But what if I had had actual allergies instead of simply food intolerances? Would my memories be the same? Would the dishes have changed to accommodate my diet? Would I have eaten from only a few of the dishes while the rest of the family enjoyed their traditional dinner, and how would that have made me feel?
Navigating Thanksgiving with food allergies or other dietary restrictions can feel overwhelming, and even seem impossible. Especially so when you are catering to a guest’s dietary needs and it is new territory for you. But with some careful planning you’ll be able to ensure that everyone has a safe and meaningful holiday and survive Thanksgiving with food allergies.
Here are some useful tips on how to pull off your first Thanksgiving with Food Allergies
- Plan your menu in advance. If you have enough notice, accommodating a guest’s food allergies doesn’t have to be overwhelming. The Internet is filled with amazing recipes and recipe adaptations that can fit any dietary requirement. Pinterest is a great source of inspiration, so check out these collections that I’ve put together with Vegan Thanksgiving Ideas and Tips and Recipes for How to Survive Thanksgiving with Food Allergies.
- Check Ingredients on Packaging. Labeling standards can vary so it is important to take extra care in checking labels for any of the ingredients you are using. Allergy warning labels will typically indicate presence of the most commonly found allergens, however
- Simplify. Don’t feel like you need to prepare a dozen different dishes, all of which are egg, nut, gluten, and soy-free (for example). Focus on a few core dishes and some neutral potato/vegetable sides, with careful attention to how many servings each dish will provide. Not sure how much to serve? Here is a great serving guideline from Goodhousekeeping.com.
- Ask for Help. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, don’t be shy to ask your guests (particularly the ones with the dietary restrictions) to contribute a dish or two. Dessert can often be a hard one when substitutions are involved, for example, so take advantage of your guest’s expertise in this area. Vegetable dishes and salads are also good options to ask for as contributions. Just be sure that any expectations for special diet accommodations are made clear to everyone contributing dishes so there are no surprises and so they are safe to eat.
- Take Extra Precaution. If your guest has a severe food allergy to something that you normal stock in your kitchen, you’ll want to take extra steps to thoroughly clean your work station and tools (with new sponges!) to avoid any cross-contamination with the “safe” food you are investing all of this energy in preparing. Move any unsafe ingredients out of arms’ reach to avoid mistakes and wash your hands often. If you are cooking with children, be sure to wash their hands extremely well since contamination can also stem from contact with play materials such as playdough.
Here are some useful tips on how to navigate Thanksgiving with food allergies
- Speak Up About Your Allergies. It will be awkward for both you and your hosts if you don’t communicate your needs in advance. You don’t want to show up and find there is nothing for you to eat any more than your host wants guests coming who won’t be eating the fruits of their labour. Go out of your way to provide helpful information on how to navigate your specific dietary restrictions. Share information like what to look out for on allergy labels, how to easily substitute problematic ingredients, and suggestions for dishes that work with your diet that everyone can enjoy.
- Offer to Bring a Dish or Help Cook. Show your appreciation to the host by offering to share the load and bring a couple of dishes, or stop by early to help with the cooking. This will be especially appreciated if you are managing multiple food allergies, or if there will be multiple guests with food allergies. This way you can be certain that there will be something safe for you to eat, and your host will be able to invest more time creating suitable dishes for the rest of the menu.
- Be Ready to Answer Questions. You know your food allergies like the back of your hand. But, people who don’t live with food allergies on a daily basis will have varying levels of familiarity with how to manage food allergies, and for them the thought of juggling Thanksgiving with food allergies may be overwhelming. Be ready to answer questions with patience and have online resources ready to share with your host to reference if you are not available.
- Be Ready to Ask Questions. Just because you communicated your diet restrictions, you should still ask about every dish to verify that they are in fact safe for you to eat – especially if you have severe or life threatening allergies.
- Be Supportive and Enthusiastic of the Effort Made. No matter the result, be sure to acknowledge the effort put into preparing diet-friendly dishes that cater to your needs, and try not to dwell on any failures. I think it is safe to assume that any gesture is well intentioned. Celebrating year after year with the same people you will find that this becomes easier to navigate as expectations are known and comfort levels are established.
- Bring a Backup. If you’re going to be dining with someone who is unfamiliar with your allergies or new to catering to food allergies, it may be a good idea to bring a secret backup snack to nibble on in case those good intentions don’t meet to your needs. Bring a couple of small but sustaining snacks to get you through the night in addition to whatever dishes are available to you.
- Be Epi-Ready. I know I don’t need to be telling you this, but have your antihistamine and epi-pen at the ready just in case a label wasn’t checked well enough or somehow contamination occurred. We all want it to be a memorable Thanksgiving, but only in a good way.
Whether you’re the host or guest, I hope this guide will help give you safely navigate this Thanksgiving with food allergies.