Tips for enjoying good food and good company
As we all know, the holidays can be stressful: buying presents, decorating, traveling and visiting family and friends. Visiting family can create particular problems if you follow the gluten-free diet and everything is planned around meals.
No one wants to get sick over the holidays. But it can be difficult to manage your dietary needs when someone else is in charge in the kitchen, particularly if they are unfamiliar with how to make a safe gluten-free meal. Sometimes intentions are good, but the end result is food you can’t have because of particular ingredients or cross-contamination issues. Other times your diet is not taken seriously and little effort is made to meet gluten-free needs.
In all these cases feelings can be hurt around the holiday table. And family dynamics and holiday expectations often come into play. But there are steps you can take to make your visit safe and pleasant.
When food is mingling along with the family
Cross-contamination is probably the single biggest concern when you are sharing the holiday meal with family. Most hosts do their best to create a few gluten-free options, but things happen that could easily turn a gluten-free meal into a cross-contamination nightmare.
For example, the cook might not know that while most plain turkey and ham is gluten free, you always have to read the label to be sure no gluten-containing ingredients are used in seasonings. They might be unwilling to give up the tradition of stuffing the turkey with wheat bread, thinking you can still have a slice. Or it can be something as simple as absent-mindedly using the same spoon to dish out wheat-based stuffing and then the otherwise gluten-free mashed potatoes.
The best solution is the common-sense approach of talking to family members who are hosting ahead of time. Ask about the items they’ll be serving. Explain how easily cross contamination can occur and offer to help in the kitchen. Sometimes the best thing is to simply ask what you can do to be the most helpful, advises Melanie Potock, an author who has written about the joys of food and a feeding specialist who works with gluten-free and allergic children. It could be by bringing dessert or side dishes or baking gluten-free bread. It might simply be providing a gluten-free version of an ingredient, pasta, for example, that can easily be used in a favorite family recipe.
Alexa Trussoni Cushman of Fairfax, Va., has celiac disease and has done all of the above to make it easier for her hosts to meet her gluten-free needs. “I approach friends and family very openly about my needs … but I need to know whether to bring my own things or if they can handle gluten-free cooking,” she says. Gluten-free pie and gravy have always been welcome contributions.
If you happen to be the host of a holiday meal that includes a gluten-free family member, don’t be offended by offers of help. “Often, people on restrictive diets come prepared, so, if they offer to bring a dish to share, let them,” etiquette expert Emily Post says on emilypost.com. Also, go over the foods you are serving and their ingredients with your guest. Accepting preparation tips will give you a quick education. And you may be able to keep your guest from accidentally consuming gluten.
Once the food is out of the kitchen and on the table, cross contamination can be avoided in a few ways. If every item has a separate serving utensil at the start it will reduce chances of wandering spoons and ladles. If other guests are unlikely to be mindful of keeping serving utensils separate, it’s usually a good idea for gluten-free guests to serve themselves first.
On a buffet, it can be helpful to have artfully done little cards that specify which foods are gluten free. This does double duty by letting gluten-free guests know which items they can have and it reminds other guests to be careful about cross contamination. Gluten-free foods can be grouped together on the table to further keep them separated from gluten-containing items and accidental cross contamination. Some families have a separate gluten-free table, and though this may seem a little extreme, they say it works well and has enabled them to keep sharing the holidays.
The gluten-free diet gets no respect
Another serious issue that sometimes comes up during holidays with family is a lack of acceptance or understanding of the real need for a gluten-free diet.
Sonya Nelson Goergen of Moorhead, Minn., has celiac disease and finds people don’t “get” what gluten is. “They think that it’s like eating low-fat for people who have heart disease,” she says. “They don’t understand why you can’t just have a little.”
Others who have celiac disease or gluten intolerance say they have run into situations where family members have said a dish was gluten-free even though it actually contained some gluten. In some cases, the family members did not understand that even a little gluten is forbidden. In others they purposely dismissed concerns about gluten as overblown and complete avoidance as unnecessary.
If you were sick prior to being diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten intolerance and your family is familiar with your journey to good health on the gluten-free diet, they are more likely to understand the importance of sticking to it. If not, do your best to share information about what being gluten-free means and how critical it is.
If you have family members who resent having to alter traditional dishes to meet your needs, spend some time before the holidays to perfect one or two recipes in versions they’d never suspect were gluten free. Make sure everyone knows it’s OK if some of the foods served are off limits to you as long as you have some choices. That can head off complaints that everything has to revolve around you and your gluten-free diet.
Of course, it would be ideal if most foods were gluten-free and everyone was accepting and caring about the particular issues you face. But most families are not ideal, and everyone has to give a little to get along.
If the gluten free guest is your child, take any extra steps to be sure they will have enough gluten-free options during your visit. It can be particularly hard for kids to pass on breads and desserts that have gluten so bring along their gluten-free favorites in these categories. If your children are very young you are likely to fill their plates and can look out for cross contamination. Once they are old enough to serve themselves, make sure they understand they should take the same kind of precautions as in a restaurant and verify the gluten-free status of the foods they choose.
Family members who host holiday gatherings should know you would prefer that they be honest about any possible gluten-containing foods or cross-contamination issues. Let them know it works best for you to decide, based on some basic factual information, whether you can put something on your holiday plate. They may feel more comfortable knowing the decision about whether something is safe is taken out of their hands. Also let them know you appreciate the attention and effort that goes into serving gluten-free options. A nice host or hostess gift, perhaps something that happens to be gluten free, is a concrete way to say thanks.
If problems persist
When all else fails — take the holiday meal into your own hands.
If you continue to struggle to have a happy holiday because family members can’t or won’t give the gluten-free diet its due, then it’s time to move the celebration to your house. Another more positive reason to host could be that you are confident enough in your gluten-free cooking skills to put on the holiday production. Whatever the motivation, a holiday in your house makes it easier to have a gluten-free meal with all the fun side dishes and dessert you want — with no fear of cross-contamination.
Trussoni Cushman, who is pregnant with her first child, is looking forward to making that switch. “We plan to do most holidays at our house after this year,” she says. “And whoever wants to join us can do so, as we want to establish traditions in our home.”
If you live near family, you could also have a movable holiday where you host either the main meal or just dessert. That way you have control over one portion of the day’s celebration.
Some accommodations for the gluten-free diet have to be made somewhere during the holidays. But that does not mean worry or disagreement should overshadow the happiness we associate with the season. Make the arrangements that work best within your family and then enjoy each other’s company.
Here’s an easy guide you can give in advance to a host who has invited you to a holiday meal:
I am looking forward to sharing the upcoming holiday with you. If you are looking for gluten-free foods for the holiday meal to which you have so graciously invited me, here are a few you might try.
- Jennie-O or Honeysuckle White Turkey (double check label/website)
- Mashed potatoes with butter
- Mix turkey drippings with corn starch as a thickener for gravy
- Any steamed vegetable
- Ice cream sundaes or Jell-O for dessert
Amy Leger is the mom of a 13-year-old gluten-free daughter. She writes about all things gluten free on her website, thesavvyceliac.com. Amy lives in Minnesota with her family.