What Can I Eat? 25 Tips for Handling a Gluten-Free Holiday

Here come the holidays. Are you ready to handle them gluten free? Whether it’s your first gluten-free Thanksgiving, Christmas or Hanukkah or it’s been so long you’ve lost count, we’re here to help you get over some of the rough spots.

We can start by saying that the holidays have gotten progressively easier. Gone are the days when everything you made began with a complicated recipe and multiple bags of gluten-free flour. You can take a few shortcuts, just like your gluten-eating friends and relatives, by using some of the ready-made products

on supermarket shelves or by using mixes to create dishes that feel homemade.

And growing awareness means gluten free is no longer a complete unknown when you sit down at the holiday table. True, you may have to fend off Aunt Carol’s comments that gluten free is just a fad or Uncle Bob’s dismissal of  the diet as something overblown by picky eaters. Not all publicity is a good thing.

But the holidays can be a good time to subtly dispel some of the myths that have spread in the mainstream media. Consider it your goodwill gift to the whole gluten-free community, particularly those who have celiac disease and gluten intolerance.

Otherwise here are 25 tips to help you navigate the holiday gatherings gluten-free folks often face with trepidation.


Plain turkey is gluten free, so enjoy the holiday bird as long as it has not been seasoned or marinated with something that contains gluten. And stay away if the turkey has been stuffed with gluten-containing bread or slathered in gravy made with wheat flour.


Most ham is also gluten free, but you do have to find out if a glaze that contains wheat starch has been used.


Hanukkah brisket recipes often call for flour to thicken the gravy as the meat slowly cooks. You’re safe if corn or potato starch is used instead, but don’t expect that to be the case.


Cooking bags are great ways to keep meats moist, but they can be minefields for unsuspecting gluten-free diners. Flour is often used to keep the bag from exploding. Cornstarch works just as well, and most people already have it in their kitchen cupboard. This is worth mentioning ahead of time to your host.


Stuffing is a worry, but it might help to tell family and friends that gluten is not the only source of concern. Food safety can also be an issue, and a turkey that is cooked long enough to properly cook the stuffing results in dry meat. Stuffing made in a casserole dish works for everyone.


Traditional mashed and sweet potato recipes are often gluten free, but you do have to check. Some cooks add a little flour to their mashed potatoes, so ask about this outside possibility.


Be wary of any side dish with a cream base, as it’s possible a gluten-containing cream soup was used. This includes the traditional green bean casserole, which offers the double gluten whammy of concentrated cream of mushroom soup and breaded onion rings. If you want to make a gluten-free version, you can use Pacific Natural Foods gluten-free condensed cream of mushroom soup and skip the onion rings. Top the casserole with gluten-free chips, corn flakes or crackers instead. Or you can use the recipe here.


It may be surprising, but not all cornbread is gluten free. Most regular mixes and recipes call for cornmeal and wheat flour. You’ll need a specialty gluten-free cornbread. There are lots of mixes available, and you’ll find recipes here and here.


Wheat flour will also most likely make its way into the potato latkes at Hanukkah dinner. If you are making the latkes or your host is willing, it’s easy to substitute gluten-free flour or cornstarch in that favorite family recipe.


Vegetables and fruit are gluten-free go-tos, so hopefully they’ll be plentiful on the holiday table. A bright, healthy vegetable or fruit platter is a nice break from all the rich food we find during the season.


If you are looking for a hostess gift, send a striking basket of fruit ahead of time, and perhaps it will find its way onto the holiday buffet, giving you a delicious, safe option. Try The Fruit Company.


If you don’t like to bake or are too busy to do so during the holidays, order a gluten-free gift basket and take it along as your contribution to the holiday dinner. That way you’ll be assured to find a gluten-free dessert, hassle free. Mariposa, mariposabaking.com, packs a terrific gift box, and you’ll find another great option from Manhattan Fruitier.


If you have a particularly thoughtful host who has offered to make gluten-free items, direct him or her toward naturally gluten-free dishes. It’s much easier to prepare foods with familiar ingredients than to comb the supermarket aisles for the more unusual items you might find in a specialty gluten-free recipe. And maybe your host will be fine with not stuffing the turkey.


It may make you feel like an ungrateful guest, but you have to tell any host not familiar with the gluten-free diet about cross-contamination issues. It does no good for your sister-in-law to make a gluten-free cake if she frosts it with the same container of icing used for wheat-flour cookies.


If dinner is served buffet style, don’t hesitate to go first. That way you know serving spoons haven’t migrated from one dish to another.


If you have a gluten-free child, and especially if this is his or her first holiday on the diet, take any extra steps to be sure there will be plenty of gluten-free options, even in someone else’s home. It can be especially hard for kids to pass on breads and desserts, so make sure you’ve got these covered.


If your child is old enough to fill his or her own plate, make sure he or she understands it’s important to take the same kind of precautions as in a restaurant and verify the gluten-free status of foods. You can help with this.


You’ve surely heard it before, but it’s so important it’s worth repeating—if possible, bring something you know is gluten free to any holiday dinner you attend. That way you’ll be sure to have something to eat in case all the plans you laid out in advance don’t work. It helps to make it a special dish you really love.


Be sure to let your hosts know you appreciate their efforts to include you in the holiday celebration.


If you are really excited about all the fabulous gluten-free holiday dishes you can make, host dinner yourself. It can be hard work but also fun and satisfying.


On the flip side, if you get weary just thinking about everything you have to do to have a safe and filling meal in someone else’s home, host the holiday dinner yourself. This may sound intimidating, but you do have control.


If you host dinner, don’t throw all tradition out the window. Family may be more accepting of a new location and cook if they know foods they look forward to all year will still be served, though in a gluten-free version.


Although the gluten-free nature of the meal is of utmost importance to you, give it a fairly low profile if you are hosting. Serve tasty dishes you’ve prepared with care and enjoy the company of those sharing the meal with you. Dinner does not have to be a referendum on gluten free.


If guests offer to bring something, ask them to provide things that are naturally gluten free: a bottle of wine, flowers or a vegetable or fruit tray. They’ll feel included, and you won’t have to worry about a gluten-containing item working its way onto the table.


Holiday cookies are pretty time consuming no matter what, so don’t fret over the effort that goes into making gluten-free versions. To simplify holiday baking, use gluten-free sugar cookie, chocolate chip and brownie mixes as the base for recipes.

Above all, enjoy the season by preparing as much as you can in advance to leave some time to share important holiday traditions that don’t have anything to do with food.