The holidays always seem to be more enjoyable when you’re gathered around the table with family and friends to share good food. But in a world filled with obesity, diabetes, allergies, and dietary restrictions, cooking a traditional holiday meal can be challenging.
So, just how DO you handle it when your sister can have no gluten, Dad is diabetic, Aunt Sally is a vegetarian, and your cousin Ed is allergic to nuts?
“Make better choices on what to serve, and modify your recipes,” says Pam Brisky, Clinical Nutrition Manager at Georgia Regents Medical Center. Brisky suggests including the following items on your holiday menu:
• Roasted Turkey
• Glazed Ham
• Cornbread Dressing
• Cranberry Salad
• Sweet Potato Casserole
• Parsley Buttered Mashed Potatoes
• Green Bean Casserole
• Creamy Macaroni and Cheese
• 7-Layer Salad
• Dinner Rolls
• Banana Cream Pudding
• Pumpkin Pie
“Roasted turkey should be OK for all diets,” says Brisky, “except maybe Aunt Sally, the vegetarian in your dinner party. If you plan on serving gravy with your turkey, you should prepare it according to a gluten-free recipe.” Another popular holiday meat is glazed ham, but as with the gravy, you will need to slightly modify the glaze so that it’s gluten-free.
So what’s the big deal with gluten? Gluten is a protein found in several grains, but some people cannot tolerate it. For those with celiac disease, gluten causes inflammation in the small intestines. Brisky says a good way to remember which grains to avoid is the B.R.O.W. acronym – to eat gluten-free, a person should avoid eating Barley, Rye, Oats, and Wheat.
Your turkey may not be gluten-free if it is pre-brined or marinated, says Brisky. Her recipe calls for coating the bird with butter, herbs, salt, and pepper and cooking it in the oven. For gravy, she uses the droppings from the turkey and corn or potato starch to thicken it instead of flour.
When it comes to Cornbread Stuffing, Brisky says, she will not bake the stuffing inside the bird because that is not a safe cooking environment. She substitutes gluten-free bread for wheat or cornbread. A moist stuffing with adequate fat and seasonings will taste great, and no one will notice gluten-free bread was used, she says.
Dinner rolls: Buy or make dinner roles that are gluten-free, or serve your gluten-free sister a slice of the gluten-free bread used in the stuffing.
Pies: “I doubt the rest of the family would like pumpkin pie with a gluten-free pie crust,” says Brisky, “When I make the pies, I will make baked pumpkin custard as well for Sister and Dad (less carbs!).
Banana Cream Pudding: “I will make the pudding with corn or potato starch instead of flour. I will serve the vanilla wafers on the side instead of in the pudding (so Sister can have some). This works for Dad, too (less carbs!).”
Sweet Potato Casserole: “This has already been altered for Uncle Ed (because I don’t use nuts), and the new recipe will work for Sister’s gluten-free needs and help out Dad, too (less carbs!).”
Green Bean Casserole: “I know this is such a popular family dish, but it is so high in calories and fat that we need to start a new tradition,” says Brisky. She recommends serving a mixed vegetable dish of green beans, mushrooms, and onions, because everyone can have this dish.
Creamy Macaroni and Cheese: “This is one dish that I cannot make gluten-free and meet the expectations of the rest of the family. The alternative here would be to make a separate macaroni and cheese dish for my sister with gluten-free pasta and corn or potato starch. Of course, she may not even want this high fat and calorie side dish.”
By making adjustments, such as using sugar substitutes, skim milk, and fat-free and reduced-fat ingredients, you can also make the meal healthier for everyone.
Brisky says the uncle with a peanut allergy has the most serious condition, as it can be life threatening. She recommends that you assure your uncle that you have a “nut-free” house. Back that up by removing all nuts from the house – no cooking with any nuts or nut oils; no peanut butter stocked; no snacks, desserts, or side-dish toppings containing nuts.
“I would alter the sweet potato casserole to a more ‘diet-friendly’ recipe that eliminates pecans for the uncle and also would not have added carbohydrates (flour) for Dad who has diabetes. Eliminating the flour will also make this a recipe acceptable for my sister. Oven-roasted sweet potato wedges with a light crust of buttered brown sugar would be acceptable to all the diet restrictions.”
If other guests or family members bring food, make sure you scrutinize their recipes and ask how dishes were prepared. You may want to remind them that not everyone can eat the same things anymore.
A few last words of advice from Brisky:
• Don’t skip meals before the Thanksgiving meal to save calories and carbs. This will make it harder to control blood sugars.
• Before serving yourself, look at all the foods. Remember to follow the diabetes plate recommendations – half your plate should be vegetables, ¼ protein, and ¼ carbohydrates.
• It will be tempting to have the sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, stuffing, and a dinner roll. But these are all carbs and should be limited to ¼ of your plate.
• Stick with calorie-free beverages such as water, unsweetened tea, or diet soda.
• Have one dessert (pumpkin custard or banana pudding minus the wafers). Eat slowly, and savor the flavor.
• After the meal, take a walk with other guests. Exercise is a great way to lower blood sugar levels, and it takes you away from tempting foods!
Additional resources for health information and modified recipes include:
aanma.org (American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology)