Honoring Special Diets During the Holidays

Honoring Special Diets During the Holidays

A Thanksgiving meal without the stuffing? Christmas without the eggnog? Hanukkah without latkes?

The holidays are traditionally a time for big meals with predictable main courses and side dishes, but for those with dietary restrictions, each meal brings a challenge.

Honoring Special Diets

“There is an old family dinner roll recipe that is completely out of the question for me,” said Sofie McConnaughay, who owns a skin care studio that caters to people with allergies and sensitivities (www.thewickedhair.com) in Boise, Idaho. “It's sad, because they're my favorite part of the holiday meal experience!”

Ms. McConnaughay is among the many people who have to stick with a special diet—gluten-free, nut-free, dairy-free, and more—even during this festive time of year.

“Special diets can really effect people over the holidays,” said Christie Korth, a holistic nutritionist and Founder and CEO of Happy and Healthy Wellness, Inc. She is also the author of “The IBD Healing Plan and Recipe Book” (IBD is an acronym for Irritable Bowel Syndrome).

Ms. Korth pointed out that seemingly safe foods such as mashed potatoes, stuffing, macaroni and cheese, or steamed vegetables with butter can be no-no’s for many special diets. “The way around it is to make sure you bring yummy dishes to your family celebration and enjoy your own food,” she said. “What I have found is in many families while there may be some resistance to a special diet in the beginning, over time there are family members that are very accommodating to dietary restrictions.”

Rather than have the family miss out on something they love to eat every year, Ms. McConnaughay’s solution has been to keep making the dinner rolls she loves for everyone to eat and enjoy. “I also bring fresh, homemade butter and other delicious toppings so I can slather my gluten-free bread just like they're doing,” she said. “It helps me feel included, and gives us something to talk about besides the rolls.”

New gluten and dairy free recipes have been a lifesaver for Ms. Korth’s family holiday meals. “For stuffing I use gluten-free bread and a buttery spread that does not contain dairy,” she said. “I love taking a favorite recipe and making it healthier and safe for my sensitive tummy. I have even made my grandmother’s beloved Linzer tarts both dairy and gluten free!”

What is comes down to is communicate and mutual respect between family and friends as they share a meal and time together. “My family, friends, and I are quite open about what I can and cannot eat,” said Ms. Connaughay. “They don't always understand, but they're supportive. If I'm attending a meal, they know there is no expectation that the entire meal be gluten-free.”

It’s all about compromise: Ms. McConnaughay’s family and friends will add rice crackers to an appetizer tray, substituting gluten-free pasta, and providing more vegetable dishes, have been creative ways to make sure everyone gets enough to eat. “These are all ways hosts can feel like they're making a meal everyone can enjoy, without putting the attendees who do not have restrictions in the uncomfortable position of not liking the offerings.,” she said.

Another hurdle to being on a special diet is that some family cooks might take it personally when someone stops eating their dish. “Some people, whose identity is closely tied to the meal's success, may associate an inability to eat something with dislike of certain dishes,” said Ms. Connaughay. “Such associations are particularly difficult for a person who's trying to adjust to a new diet. They don't want to offend anyone, so may eat something they know will make them sick just to keep the peace.”

But over time, people adapt. Just like trying a new food, it can take time to develop a comfort level with differing dietary needs, but as each Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, and other holiday celebration rolls around, families and friends are more at ease.

“As time goes on and one gets used to a special diet, it becomes easier,” said Ms. McConnaughay. “You learn what you can and cannot have, and your palette changes to accommodate the difference in tastes. Those first couple holidays are rough though. Not just because you can't eat as many of the items you have in the past, but because family members and friends ask a lot of questions as to why you can't eat them. Dinner turns into an education instead of a celebration.”

For those worried about eating something at a holiday meal that will make them sick, plan to eat before you go and don’t hesitate to call ahead and ask what is being served and alert a host to your dietary concerns.

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