From parties to presents, the holiday season is a wonderfully exciting time and also quite a busy one. With so much to do to spread cheer among family and friends, we wanted to help you navigate this festive but hectic time of year.
Whether you are the only member of your family with celiac or hosting more gluten-free diners than not, the holidays should be about celebrating this season of joy. Just as you navigate the rest of the year gluten free, you can do the same during the holidays. All it takes is a little forethought.
Planning holiday meals
Gathering loved ones around the table to celebrate is one of the most wonderful aspects of the holiday season. After a year of juggling work and school, the time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s is a chance to concentrate more on spending time with friends and family.
As you know, gathering for special meals can get complicated when you have celiac, gluten intolerance or other dietary restriction. You might wonder if the spread will include gluten-free options, cross-contamination will be a concern or you should offer to bring something.
Whether you are host or guest, you will need a plan. Approach planning with a positive attitude—your opportunity to contribute something special.
When possible, offer to host the meal. Sometimes family and friends are relieved to be guests and not hosts. Who doesn’t love arriving to a home filled with aromas of a delicious meal? While hosting entails a lot of responsibilities, overseeing the menu and preparation actually allow you to relax knowing that your meal will be safe and worry free. This is also a fantastic opportunity to show everyone how delicious gluten-free cooking can be, and you might even inspire others to start making these dishes when you are their guest.
If you are not the host, you will need another kind of plan. This is especially true if you have recently been diagnosed and just begun a gluten-free diet. If this is the case, family and friends are not yet experienced with gluten-free cooking. At a point, many of them will master gluten-free recipes, find tasty gluten-free products and become knowledgeable about cross-contamination. There is, however, a learning curve, and it will take time for everyone to understand what hosting a person with celiac entails.
Whether your family and friends are novices or pros at hosting a gluten-free diner, the best thing to do is plan ahead. Talk with the host about the dishes planned for the meal. Ask if there are gluten-free options or whether anything can be tweaked to omit gluten. You can even offer to come over early and help with the preparation.
Ask if you can bring anything, even if it’s just for you. Some hosts might even prefer you to bring your own safe option to enjoy so they don’t have to worry about cross-contamination in a hectic kitchen. While this might be a little frustrating, honesty is the best policy. If someone feels they cannot provide a gluten-free plate, that is OK. The most important thing during the holiday season is being together—not whether you are eating the same meal as everyone else.
Gluten-free dining family style
For Karen of Healthy Gluten-Free Family (healthygffamily.com), food and family go together. “On a personal level, both my husband and I come from big Italian families where food is important, especially around the holidays, where there are lots of longstanding traditions,” she explains. Even after her son was diagnosed with celiac eight years ago, the family found a way to continue their traditions gluten free.
“We have been fortunate in that both our families have embraced and supported our son’s celiac disease. So much, if not all, of the food at holiday celebrations is now gluten free,” she says. “It started with just making sure his favorite dishes plus ones we thought he would like to try were gluten free. Now just about everything is gluten free or has a gluten-free alternative, even at large family events.”
For example, Thanksgiving dinner will feature a turkey with gluten-filled stuffing, but she will make sure her son has a roast chicken and gluten-free stuffing. “He is just as happy [with this option],” she says. The family prepares the core sides—including mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and the like—gluten free, and her son also always has a gluten-free dessert.
Like Karen, Michael De Cicco-Butz, founder of the gluten-free luxury lifestyle website GlutenFreeMike.com, also comes from a family where, as he notes, “food was always at the center of our holiday traditions.” This is still very much the case for him after being diagnosed with celiac more than two decades ago, as well as a shellfish allergy.
De Cicco-Butz shares that his family has been instrumental in ensuring that his holidays are as rich and delicious now as they were prior to his diagnosis. “I have now been [a] diagnosed celiac for more years than not, so it is just part of who I am now, and thankfully my family has worked so very hard over the years to learn about the disease and make sure that our holiday meals go off without a hitch.”
Part of what makes this season so special is that he comes from an Italian family and he is married to a Bermudian, and both sides have wonderful traditions that De Cicco-Butz can enjoy gluten free.
His mother has worked hard over the years to come up with a gluten-free version of the Italian dessert struffoli. “I now enjoy a gluten-free version of a dessert that evokes so many wonderful childhood holiday memories in each bite,” he says.
The years that he celebrates the season in Bermuda, his in-laws make sure he is well fed. In fact, as he notes, “my in-laws have not only introduced me to their holiday traditions, they have lovingly created gluten-free versions to make sure I never have to go without.” From serving a gluten-free cassava pie to using arrowroot for the gravy to his father-in-law making a gluten-free version of his famed stuffing, De Cicco-Butz’s in-laws have mastered the gluten-free diet for him.
Thanks to all of his family’s efforts, De Cicco-Butz has a wonderful perspective on his celiac diagnosis. “The holidays are all about family, and I honestly believe that my celiac diagnosis has brought my families even closer together. In my family, food is synonymous with love, and there is no greater love than a family looking out for each other and making sure everyone can enjoy traditions past.”
Attending holiday parties at restaurants and venues
From friends-giving to work parties, the period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s sees numerous celebrations at restaurants and catering venues. When attending a holiday party at such establishments, do not assume that gluten-free options will be available. Plan ahead to make sure a holiday party is spent in good cheer—not worrying whether there will be gluten-free options or spending the evening hungry if there is nothing available.
Lindsey Schnitt, a professional living in New York, was diagnosed with celiac disease 10 years ago. In that time, she has learned how to navigate attending events in all sorts of environments.
When it comes to parties given by family or friends, she says they always make sure to have options for her. The same is true when it comes to her work colleagues. “I’ve been lucky enough that the people I work with and the friends I’m social with point me out or have already spoken [to the establishment] before I show up to a party I’m not planning.”
For work-related holiday events at a restaurant or venue where the host may not know her needs, Schnitt will take the time to reach out to the establishment beforehand. “For me, I’m outspoken,” she explains. “I have no problem asking beforehand, calling the restaurant” to introduce herself and explain the gluten-free diet. She notes that when reaching out, “you always have to find the right person to speak to” about the gluten-free diet, especially regarding cross-contamination.
Schnitt takes the time to explain cross-contamination and why it poses a problem for her. She will let them know that “I get very sick from cross-contamination.” Once she has reviewed all aspects of gluten-free dining, she will evaluate whether she can eat something already on the party menu or something else can be prepared for her.
Schnitt has important words of advice about asserting oneself and one’s needs: “I think it’s important to be vocal and to know that it’s OK to be gluten free, and I find now that it’s been 10 years for me, I just need to remind myself to be as strict as I was on day one.”
Regardless of whether or not there will be gluten-free options available, Schnitt always eats beforehand and makes sure to carry a bar with her in case. In fact, she has a terrific outlook on attending parties: “I always go in hoping I’ll have a second dinner, but I certainly don’t expect that.”
Gluten-free holiday reminders
When gathering for the holidays with family and friends, if there is going to be gluten on the table, one has to think about cross-contamination. Cross-contamination can occur as easily as putting the stuffing spoon in the bowl of roasted carrots, which started out gluten free but now will have gluten-containing stuffing crumbs.
If your host is preparing both gluten-filled and gluten-free dishes, make sure safeguards are in place to prevent cross-contamination during both cooking and serving. In the kitchen, clean cutting boards, strainers, pots and pans should be used when cooking or heating food (since often dishes are prepared the day before or earlier that day). Ensure nothing is prepared or heated on a surface that has just been used for a dish containing gluten. For some, this might mean designating a spot in the kitchen where only gluten-free items will be cut and prepared as well as using labels to help identify dishes that do or do not contain gluten.
When it comes to dining, if the meal is being served buffet style, make sure to serve yourself first before there are any risks for cross-contamination. If items are being passed around the table, make sure that you either take first or ask if it would be possible to have everyone pass around the gluten-free items first, before the gluten items are shared.
If you are ever worried that dishes might become cross-contaminated during the meal, make yourself an additional small plate so you will have the option to take seconds without having to worry.