Tips for Preserving Holiday Traditions on the Gluten-Free Diet

Most of us have cherished holiday memories from time spent sharing traditions with our families. All kinds of opportunities for special moments come with the parties and school and religious activities that quickly fill the calendar this time of year. Many of these holiday traditions are related to the foods we share. When you are gluten free, especially at first, beloved foods can present as many problems as pleasure. But there are ways to continue to enjoy decorating cookies, building gingerbread houses and other food related activities while preventing gluten from ruining the fun.

Cookie decorating

While plain cookies are just fine most of the year, the holidays bring out cookie finery. Whether the cookies are shaped like a Christmas trees, Hanukkah stars or seasonal snowflakes, decorating them is a big event in many homes. This tradition can continue without interruption after a diagnosis of celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. But you do have to make some adjustments.

About six months after my then nearly 2-year-old daughter, Emma, was diagnosed with celiac disease, my employer had a children’s holiday party. Cookies for decorating were everywhere. I was new to the gluten-free world, and I was not prepared. In this pinch, Emma and I decorated a few cookies together, left them at the table and immediately washed our hands.

But there are alternatives to my novice, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants choice. Christine Lintz of Napa, California, has celiac disease, and her 6-year-old daughter Gianna is gluten sensitive. Lintz manages cookie decorating parties by talking to the event host and offering to bring gluten-free cookies, icing, candy and other decorating treats.


If she can’t work it out with the host, Lintz just brings gluten-free cookies and decorating tools. “That’s the fun, to eat while you’re doing the project,” she says, noting that otherwise she and her daughter would have to stick to decorating only. You might find that other children and parents want to use the gluten-free goodies you’ve brought. It’s great to share as long as you can prevent cross-contamination. For example, gluten-containing cookies can’t be dipped into your container of sprinkles. Bring a spoon that other kids can use to scoop up some sprinkles. Likewise, utensils used for icing can’t go from a gluten-containing cookie into the icing being used on the gluten-free version. Again, use a spoon to scoop the icing onto a separate plate, which will do the trick as long as the spoon is kept clean.

Lintz says her daughter feels more involved when she helps select the decorations. “The last time we went to a cookie decorating event, we made giant gingerbread men,” Lintz says. “I asked my daughter, ‘Do we want sprinkles? Chocolate chips?’ She said, ‘Sprinkles always make things more fun.’”

Cookie exchanges

Popular neighborhood or family cookie exchanges create their own challenges.


Julia Babka-Kurzrock does a lot of baking for her husband, Serge Babka, 17-year-old daughter, Sophie, and 15-year-old son, Zach, all three of whom have celiac disease. She used to participate in cookie exchanges with friends who tried to bake gluten-free cookies. “They would try to see what they could do to make gluten-free cookies. But their mixers just weren’t clean enough. So we don’t do that anymore,” Babka-Kurzrock said.

Others have worked out ways to stick with their cookie-exchange group. They have friends or family who understand cross-contamination and work with clean utensils and safe ingredients. The of use gluten-free baking mixes, preparing cookies that can be mixed with a bowl and spoon, and using recipes that are naturally gluten free, such as meringues or flourless cookies, can help prevent cross-contamination.

Or you can participate in a cookie exchange through a local celiac disease support group. Many groups have annual cookie exchanges where the expectation is that everyone knows how to create safe gluten-free cookies. Check with a group near you to see whether an exchange is planned.


Hanukkah holiday traditions

Traditional Hanukkah recipes, including potato latkes, also presented a challenge for Babka-Kurzrock. But she now uses gluten-free matzo, which has become more readily available in recent years. Sophie Babka says her mom brings gluten-free latkes to their temple so Sophie and Zach have a supply for Hanukkah celebrations at Hebrew school.

Overall the family finds it’s getting easier to manage being gluten free during the Jewish holidays. “There are a lot of events at our temple,” Babka-Kurzrock says. “We have a lot of folks who are getting more familiar with gluten free.” At big events, the temple staff sets up a table with gluten-free foods separate from the main selection to help prevent cross-contamination.

But there is one traditional Hanukkah food Babka-Kurzrock says her children have never experienced: the fried jelly donuts called Sufganiyot. So far, they haven’t found a gluten-free version, she notes. However, it’s easy to keep the Hanukkah tradition of using oil to prepare foods by frying some simple doughnut holes.


Gingerbread houses

Gingerbread houses, with their candy shingle roofs, gumdrop shrubs and peppermint stick pillars, are irresistible for kids of all ages. But how to join in on the architectural fun when you’re gluten free? Some parents allow their gluten-free children to decorate a house made with gluten-containing gingerbread, assuming they won’t eat it anyway.

“We did buy the gingerbread house kit from a local store and made it,” Amanda Campbell of Kansas City, Missouri, says. Campbell’s 6-year-old son, Isaac, has celiac disease, and her 10-year-old son, Evan, is gluten sensitive. “We couldn’t eat it, of course,” she says. “So later we made homemade gluten-free gingerbread and sugar cookies to decorate and enjoy.”

Other parents want their children to use completely gluten-free items, including the gingerbread. Elizabeth Carroll of Chicago, Illinois, makes the gingerbread used by her 12-year-old daughter, who has celiac disease. Campbell mixes the gingerbread, rolls it out and uses paper patterns to cut out the roof and walls, complete with openings for windows and the door. She began making the gingerbread when her daughter was diagnosed about nine years ago as a way to preserve holiday traditions. “I started this all very early. I was so sad to lose traditions,” Carroll says.


If your child is making a gingerbread house away from home, talk with the person in charge see what you need to provide if you want the project to be gluten free.

While it may take a little extra work to keep holiday traditions alive, you don’t have to give up on them just because you are gluten free. As with many aspects of the gluten-free diet, it just takes a little ingenuity.

Quick construction of a gluten-free gingerbread house

You can make a gluten-free gingerbread house with this easy shortcut, though it won’t be edible.

Use gluten-free graham crackers such as Kinnikinnick’s S’moreables or Schar’s Honeygrams. Clean out a paper milk carton and cover it with gluten-free icing, then “paste” the crackers onto the sides and top.  Decorate with the icing, drawing on windows and doors, and use candy for roof shingles and other flourishes.


Also, several companies sell kits to simplify building a gluten-free gingerbread house. We found these options:

Amy Leger is the family editor for Gluten-Free Living. She also is the founder of and writes frequent articles for her website, She is married and has two daughters, one of whom has celiac disease.

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