The holidays should be full of good times with friends, family, and food. When someone has a food restriction, holiday meals can be tough to prepare. When practically everyone has a different food restriction, the task can feel impossible. What do you do when the only foods everyone can safely eat are cabbage and raspberries?
If you’re facing the prospect of this kind of meal, especially as a host, don’t worry! It is possible to get through it without killing anyone (whether via poisoning or strangulation)! You might even be able to avoid making six different entrees.
Communication is the best place to start. Ask your guests privately about their food restrictions. The best time to do this is before you plan your menu, so a few weeks to a few months in advance is ideal. If you ask several months in advance, you may want to check back in with them to see if anything has changed before you do your grocery shopping, though.
Find out the specifics about what each guest can and cannot eat. Some vegetarians eat marshmallows, but many others don’t, so you’ll want to find that out before deciding on a yam recipe. Some people with food allergies or gluten-free diets can handle trace amounts, but many can become deathly ill from the slightest cross-contamination. That’s why communication is so important; you don’t want to accidentally poison a guest, but you also don’t want to jump through too many unnecessary hoops.
When in doubt, follow the deconstruction trend. Rather than a sweet potato casserole loaded with butter, sugar, and marshmallows, make a sweet potato bar. Offer plain mashed sweet potatoes (or perhaps spiced but unsweetened yams) and allow people to choose their toppings. If you’re feeling particularly fancy, you could use a crème brûlée torch to toast the marshmallows on top of individual servings.
Some families with multiple food restrictions start fun new traditions, such as taco or pasta buffets, where all the components are separate. Even with a traditional meal, you can keep things in their unadulterated state as much as possible. Keep the gravy and stuffing separate from the meat, let people add their own cheese to the broccoli, and serve the bacon bits next to the mashed potatoes, rather than on top of them.
Another easy way to accommodate all your guests is to split your dishes. Making two batches of stuffing sounds daunting, but it can be as easy as using two bowls and mixing one with vegetable broth and the other with turkey broth. One sweet potato casserole can be topped with marshmallows, the other with nuts. One batch of latkes can be fried in peanut oil, the other in canola oil. Splitting dishes allows guests to eat the same foods with minor variations.
Take your guests’ restrictions seriously, whatever the reason for them. Scrutinize labels on their behalf. The most common allergens will usually be noted, but many other off-limits foods might not be. Ask your guests to send you a list of ingredients to watch for, and consider saving the ingredients/nutrition labels for your guests to double check.
Avoid cross-contamination, especially with health-related restrictions. Contamination involves way more than just sharing stirring spoons. For instance, people with celiac disease and severe food allergies cannot eat foods stirred with a wooden spoon that has ever come in contact with the offending substance. This also applies to non-stick pots and pans, cutting boards, and many other items. Consider using disposable plates, cups, utensils, and even baking pans. Whoever cleans up afterward will also be grateful!
If someone with food restrictions only wants to eat food they’ve brought, try not to be offended. No matter how careful you are, you may not even think about some forms of cross-contamination that could potentially land your guest in the hospital. Try to understand how terrifying life is when a few stray food molecules can kill you. (On the other hand, if you’re the person bringing your own food, let the host know up front instead of letting them put in a lot of work on something you can’t or won’t eat!) This topic can often be resolved in that initial conversation about restrictions, so make sure to listen if your guest mentions this possibility.
Depending on the severity and number of food restrictions, you may have to accept that you can’t all eat the same meal—and that’s okay. The important thing is for everyone to feel safe, happy, and content together. If everyone has to eat a different meal for that to happen, enjoy the variety! Togetherness beats perfection.