Planning Thanksgiving for Special Food Needs

Thanksgiving dinner has a set menu in many homes.The turkey, with stuffing and gravy, mashed potatoes with plenty of butter, green bean casserole made with a can of soup and french-fried onions, hot rolls, cranberry sauce, and three kinds of pie… Does that sound about right? There may be special touches, from Grandma Betty’s sausage dressing to Uncle Paul’s special pumpkin ginger cheesecake, but most families don’t vary much from tradition year after year.

With more and more people needing or preferring special foods, though, it’s getting harder and harder to make a set menu like that work. Here are some suggestions for making a great dinner that’s both traditional and flexible.

Vegans and vegetarians: Vegetarians don’t eat meat, and vegans don’t eat any animal products, including eggs and dairy products. Both groups know that they will have fewer options than the meat eaters at Thanksgiving dinner, so the key is simply to have something. A delicious salad with no animal products but nuts or beans for protein can be a great starting point. Then add roasted vegetables with a little olive oil, and French bread (no milk!) and a fruit pie. Non meat eaters can pick what works for them without feeling conspicuous, and everyone can enjoy all the dishes.

Lactose intolerant: Many Americans have trouble digesting dairy products, and many more avoid dairy foods for other reasons. Consider making those mashed potatoes with broth instead of milk if your guests are avoiding dairy. Cream, which contains less lactose than milk, will often be fine for people who are lactose intolerant. If your guests are avoiding dairy, keep whipped cream separate from desserts instead of using it to decorate, and serve cream sauces or milk gravies on the side as well.

Gluten-free: Very few people have celiac disease, a disorder which makes even small amounts of gluten off limits. But plenty of people are now avoiding gluten or grains. Usually, gluten-free eaters can just avoid bread, stuffing, and desserts. If your guests are very strict or allergic to wheat, avoid making gravy with flour, and be careful about packaged gravy, which usually contains wheat. To be the hostess with the mostest, you can treat your gluten-sensitive guests with desserts like flourless cakes, poached fruit, or chocolates.

Allergens: Food allergies are common, and some of the top allergens are standard fare for Thanksgiving. Dairy and wheat have been mentioned above, but watch out for soy in packaged foods. Eggs come up in many traditional homemade dishes, too, from dressing to pecan pie. Pecans and other tree nuts are often added to salads, vegetables, stuffing, gelatin dishes, and baked goods. If you’re not able to avoid these common allergens, label the dishes so sensitive guests can avoid the ingredients they have to be careful about. Consider adding plain rice and plain steamed vegetables to the menu if you have a number of different allergies in the family.

Planning Thanksgiving for special food needs can be a challenge, but a creative, compassionate approach can keep everyone well fed and healthy without threatening tradition.