The holidays are a time of celebrations, food and family, but they can also come with a heaping side of stress, especially for those who are on the gluten-free diet. If it’s your first holiday season since diagnosis, family dinners or work parties can feel particularly intense. While many choose to host holiday meals, which allows for more control, there are occasions where it’s necessary to be a gluten-free guest. How can you enjoy a holiday event without worry, and what strategies can you use to deal with family or friends who just don’t quite understand?
1. Breaking It Down
Traditional holiday celebrations almost always revolve around food, whether that’s a cookie swap party, after-work social or Thanksgiving dinner. The gluten-free diet can force an abrupt change in holiday traditions, and that can be uncomfortable for many. “Holidays are a time when you feel connected to family and friends, and there are a lot of traditions around food,” says Angelia Parsons, LISW, from Light the Way Christian Counseling in Bellefontaine, Ohio. “When you can’t full participate, it’s easy to feel alienated.” She suggests that family and friends often don’t know how to react to the new normal. “There are certain struggles in life that all of us can identify with, but not everyone has had to make significant changes in their diet.”
Katie Wallace, age 24, from Findlay, Ohio, recalls her first gluten-free Thanksgiving. “It was very confusing. At that time, we were still trying to figure out how to cook gluten free, so I felt like I couldn’t eat anything at all.” Her mom, Karen, recalls feeling a lot of fear. “I made a lot of the food myself that Thanksgiving because we were going to be eating at a relative’s home and I wanted to make sure she was safe. It was so scary at that time.”
2. Sizing Up the Situation
The first holiday season can be overwhelming, but that doesn’t mean you should stay home. Depending on the circumstances, it may be possible for others to prepare safe foods, especially if they are open to suggestions. Sometimes that involves finding an ally or two. For Katie, it was her aunt and uncle who made her feel most welcome. “One of the first Thanksgivings after my diagnosis, my aunt laid out several gluten-free snacks and had everything separated for me. She even had cookies that I could eat.”
Karen remembers how positive that experience was for her daughter. “They took special care to make sure she was covered,” she recalls. “Other family members try to be helpful, but they don’t always get it. They’ll think they’ve made a safe casserole, and then we’ll find out they used a cream of mushroom soup that has wheat in it.” Because of this, Karen tries not to leave anything up to chance. “I make a lot more food than most people do when they are eating at someone else’s house, but I want to be sure she always has something she can eat.”
The Wallaces have some favorite go-to holiday recipes (see below). “Our favorite dessert to take places is monster cookies,” says Karen. “They’re great because we don’t even have to say they are gluten free. Nobody knows that I use gluten-free oats, and they taste fantastic.”
Work events, however, have been more problematic. “I worked in retail for a few years, and no one at my job understood [the gluten-free diet],” Katie recalls. “I dealt with it by bringing safe foods that were appropriate to share—fruits and vegetables, or a meat tray.” If the workplace holiday party is at a restaurant, try to have input on the choice of venue. If that’s not possible, eat before you arrive and enjoy socializing over a beverage.
3. Working With the Host
If you’ve found a family member or friend interested in making a gluten-free dish or two, offer to provide suggestions, not only on recipes but also ways to prevent cross-contamination. If you are comfortable, offer to help your host prepare some of the meal. Stick to naturally gluten-free foods whenever possible; it may feel less daunting to your host than making a specialty dish. Most ham and turkey are gluten free, but request that some be left plain without broth, gravy or glaze added. Keep the stuffing out of the bird—it’s not only a gluten problem, but it’s also a food safety issue! Mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes are almost always safe choices, but ask the host to leave out any added flour. A fruit or veggie platter adds color and provides a break from all the high-calorie, high-fat items that often end up on the table.
Keep in mind that mistakes happen, even with the best of intentions. Be prepared with some of your own food, so you don’t go hungry or, worse yet, eat something that’s not safe. While you may have been on the gluten-free diet for a while, this is likely all new to your host, so try and be as understanding as possible. A gluten-free host or hostess gift can also become part of the meal—a basket of gluten-free cookies, fruit or a bottle of wine are all good choices.
4. Dealing With Difficulty
It can be difficult to speak up for yourself, especially if it’s your first gluten-free holiday season. Family members or friends who suggest “just one bite” are typically well-meaning, but it can be difficult to say no without feeling guilty. Parsons offers some suggestions for dealing with these situations. “One thing to remember is that family members may feel like offering you food is their attempt to include you,” she says. She reminds those on restricted diets that when friends or relatives don’t seem to understand or aren’t sympathetic, it’s more about their fears or feeling uncomfortable. “It’s their coping mechanism—they don’t know what to do with the changes in your eating. It will take time for them to get comfortable with that.”
Parsons suggests a straightforward and assertive “no thank you,” “I’m really satisfied” or “I’m doing OK.” Finding a distraction also works well. “You could try changing the conversation or go to another activity, like sharing family pictures from the last year,” she recommends. Lighthearted comments may be helpful, too. “Try ‘I couldn’t eat another bite’ or ‘I might be a little nutty if I eat a piece of the pecan pie!”
In the end, there might be family members who are still pushy with food. “At some point, you might want to think about whether this relationship is a healthy one for me,” she notes. “There will always be people who support you and, unfortunately, those who hinder you. Try to touch base frequently with those who support you.”
5. Unique Struggles
Kids and teens face their own trials. Karen remembers how challenging that first holiday season was for Katie. “This was a girl who just loved bread, all kinds of it,” she recalls.
“It was so different than anything we knew.” Teens, in particular, may be very tempted to eat foods that aren’t gluten free during holiday celebrations, especially those that involve their peers. Parsons encourages parents to engage their teens in the problem-solving process. “Being different is so hard for everybody, especially them, so engage them in conversation instead of just telling them what you think they should do. Ask questions like, ‘Do you want any helping thinking through this?’ or ‘How can I support you?'”
For younger children, Parsons advises open communication during family events where bread or desserts may tempt kids. “You could try, ‘This is what I think about the party regarding what foods are going to be there. If you’re thinking about eating something, come talk to me.'” It can be challenging for kids to turn down these foods, so its’ a good idea to provide alternatives, so they don’t feel left out.
6. Staying Connected
For some, holiday meals can evoke intense fear, which can lead to a desire to withdraw from these social gatherings altogether. Parsons cautions that there are some red flags to indicate when someone needs a little more support. “Black or white thinking can be a problem here,” she says. “Saying to yourself ‘Everyone doesn’t understand,’ or ‘I won’t go to anything at all’ means your thinking might be getting a little stuck. Remember, it’s a learning process versus everything must be right all of the time.”
Change is uncomfortable, but it’s necessary. “I can understand the concerns and hesitancy not to want to be sick,” advises Parsons. “But cutting yourself off from family and friends isn’t the answer. Yes, you might be physically safe, but you won’t be emotionally safe.”
Celebrating the holiday season on the gluten-free diet brings challenges, but it also brings opportunities. You might find that family members are more interested than you expected in making sure you have a safe experience. Offer help, be prepared and be gracious, even when things don’t go exactly as planned. Remind yourself frequently that the food is just one piece of the proverbial holiday pie. Enjoy moments with family and friends, volunteer to help someone less fortunate and practice good self-care by taking time for yourself each day.
Recipes courtesy of Karen and Katie Wallace
Gluten-Free Monster Cookies
Makes 78 large cookies
“They taste great, and no one even knows they are gluten free!” —Karen Wallace
5 cups brown sugar
4 cups white sugar
2 teaspoons salt
8 teaspoons baking soda
3 teaspoons vanilla
48 ounces peanut butter
4 sticks butter
2 cups M&Ms
2 cups chocolate chips
18 cups gluten-free quick oats
Preheat the oven to 350° F. Cream the first 7 ingredients together. Add eggs and blend. Stir in M&Ms, chocolate chips and oats. Roll dough into balls and bake 8 to 10 minutes for a small cookie and 17 minutes for a large cookie.
Gluten-Free Skillet Cheeseburger Mac
“A Family favorite holiday comfort food!” —Karen Wallace
1 pound ground beef
¼ teaspoon onion powder
¼ teaspoon garlic powder
¼ teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
1 18-ounce can gluten-free creamy mushroom soup
1 soup can of water (this rinses all the good stuff out)
2 cups gluten-free elbow pasta
8 ounces reduced-fat sharp cheddar cheese
Brown ground beef and drain. Stir in spices. Add soup, water and macaroni. Stir together. Bring to boil over medium heat. When it boils, cover and reduce heat to simmer. Cook 10 minutes or until water is absorbed and pasta is done. Top with cheese and put a lid on to melt cheese. Stir and serve.
Gluten-Free Pumpkin Dump Cake
A holiday favorite of Karen and Katie Wallace.
1 29-ounce can pure pumpkin
1 12-ounce can evaporated milk
1 cup white sugar
1 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons cinnamon
1 box gluten-free yellow cake mix of choice
1 cup chopped pecans
¾ cup butter, melted
Whipped cream for topping
Preheat oven to 350° F. Mix the first 6 ingredients until well blended. Pour into a 9 x 13-inch greased pan. Sprinkle the boxed yellow cake mix on top and cover with pecans. Pour melted butter over the top. Bake for 50 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean. Serve with whipped cream.
Food photos: Karpenkov Denis/Shuttershock; Elena Veselova/Shutterstock; Stockphotovideo/Shutterstock