You’re in the midst of preparing the food for a holiday meal and you get an email from your cousin that her teenage daughter does not eat meat in any form and eggs only if they are from cage-free chickens. Or, your brother texts you that he and his wife are trying a special gluten-free, casein-free diet for their son, who’s been recently diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.
You realize that even the salad you’re making has chicken in it, you just bought three types of cheese for appetizers and your great aunt is bringing over a tray of cookies that will be loaded with butter.
The following suggestions are not, I must say, fail proof! They stem in part from my own experiences as the teenage Chinese American girl who declared herself a vegetarian and started saying no to every dish offered at family meals, and as a mother who used to have my autistic son, Charlie, on a strict gluten-free, casein-free diet. Please add any ideas you have about how to host a holiday meal for conscientious eaters and those with dietary preferences in the comments!
1. Be accommodating
In an era of GMOs; growing awareness of how manufacturers and fast-food companies go out of their way not only to market their products to kids but even make them addictive; constant concerns about rates of obesity, diabetes and other health problems; more understanding about food allergies and intolerances and a insistence that what we eat be grown or reared in organic, ethical, humane and pesticide-free conditions, it’s more likely than not that at least one of your guests might have certain dietary needs and/or prefer to abstain from certain foods.
While it is certainly helpful to know about such far in advance, some might be wary of noting such out of concern of causing tension at a holiday meal or upsetting family traditions and only let you know at the last minute — all the more reason to provide at seat at your table for a diversity of eaters.
2. Ask if your guest would prefer to bring their own food
Some may consider it anathema and the height of rudeness to bring their own food to the house of someone who has been slaving away over the proverbial hot stove for hours. I do remember getting some odd vibes when I was 16 and insisted on bringing my own meatless meal to a dinner with my extended family!
Your guest bringing his or her own food could be the easiest answer to a dietary conundrum. Your guest won’t go hungry and, who knows, someone else (maybe you yourself) will learn (or even try) something new.
3. Let your local grocery store help you
When I put Charlie on a gluten-free, casein-free diet more than a decade ago, I had to hunt down bean flours and xanthan gum in health food stores and online retailers. I used to practically have a standing order for cases of his favorite rice crackers from a Louisiana company.
Now, I only have to walk into the local supermarket to find a whole section of gluten-free breads, pastas and other foods and to see cartons of nut and soy milk. It’s probably not a good idea to attempt gluten-free baking the day before you’re planning to have a houseful of party guests. With many more people aware of sensitivities to gluten and other ingredients, stores have responded by providing more options. Maybe they don’t carry that favorite brand of rice crackers but, when dessert time rolls around, it’s not a bad thing to be able to offer ice cream made with soy or rice milk, or other options.
4. Potlucks are Good
When my Chinese American family gets together, there is always plenty of food (as in, there’s supposed to be enough for everyone to bring home leftovers) in part because everyone brings something. If everyone is bringing a dish, a conscientious eater can provide their own and introduce anyone who’d like to try it to something new (like the burdock my aunt once brought to Thanksgiving).
5. Remember that the most important thing is getting together with family and friends
Getting together and sharing a meal, whatever its contents, in harmony is really what counts at a holiday get together. Not everyone may be breaking the same bread (because someone has a gluten sensitivity and wants to steer clear of wheat) or drinking eggnog (because they’re a strict vegan).
These days, holidays and family get-togethers have become almost synonymous with stress. Of course it’s gratifying for a cook to see people enjoy their creations. Why not open your table as well as your home to all types of eating preferences? For someone who has become too accustomed to defending their reasons for not eating meat, doing so could be a much appcireated gift.
Photos from Thinkstock