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Planning a Holiday Menu for Special Diets

These days, just about everyone knows someone with a food allergy, sensitivity or special diet need. This holiday season don’t get caught off guard by dinner guests with specific dietary restrictions. From vegetarian to dairy-free to gluten free, people have a variety of needs when it comes to food — some that are personal choices and others that are medically necessary. Whatever the reason, you’ll want to make sure all of your guests are well-fed and satisfied. I’ve got some special tips to help make this easy and delicious! First, you’ll need to inquire about special dietary requirements your guests might have. If you are sending out invitations, just include a note requesting an “RSVP with dietary restrictions, please”. If speaking directly to your guests, let them know ahead of time that you haven’t set your menu yet and would like to know if they have any special requests or restrictions. Believe me: By doing this ahead of time you can save yourself and your guests much embarrassment! It’s a great relief for a guest to enjoy a wonderful meal without feeling like a pain and without leaving hungry! Now that you know what to expect, it’s time to set your menu — bearing in mind a few tips:
  • For simple vegetarian changes, use vegetable broth instead of chicken or turkey broth when cooking.
  • For gluten free changes, choose a stuffing made from gluten free stuffing mix or a rice dish.
  • For dairy changes, bake and cook with unsweetened almond milk or other popular non-dairy milks. Have an option for non-dairy “sour cream” or “whipped cream” if appropriate. Check out our dairy aisle and freezer for a slew of alternate options.
  • For more elaborate menu changes and options, check out our recipe pages for gluten-free holiday recipes and dairy-free holiday recipes. You can also use our advanced recipe search to look for recipes that meet other special dietary needs.
And a few cautions:
  • Some allergic reactions can be life-threatening. It is critical that you think through all aspects of your cooking for a guest with a serious allergy – or ask them to help you.
  • Cross contamination can be a problem, especially with allergic foods such as gluten, peanuts, shellfish and tree nuts. That means if you chop nuts on your cutting board for one dish and then chop celery for a “nut-free” dish without washing the board, you are not really nut-free. Same goes for stirring spoons, serving utensils, blenders, food processors, etc.
  • Be aware of hidden ingredients. Adding flour to gravy may be so automatic that you don’t stop to think that the flour contains gluten. Don't worry, there are substitutes!
  • If you are making dishes that include packaged foods, check labels for “hidden” ingredients such as gluten, nuts or dairy.
You may want to consider serving your holiday meal buffet style. This is a great way to please all guests and keep the food separate. It will also introduce many of your guests to new food choices! Remember that not all of your dishes need to meet everyone’s requirements. Serving at least one protein choice with a couple of side dish options is fine. Here are some examples of what I mean:
  • If you are serving a turkey or a ham, present a tofu or lentil dish for vegetarian guests.
  • If you are serving bread stuffing, offer a rice stuffing for gluten-free guests.
  • If serving whipped cream, pick up a non-dairy whipped topping as well.
Buffet-style meals are perfect for setting out small cards, like place-setting cards, that include the name of the dish and the ingredient listing. If your meal is not buffet-style, your guests will appreciate a quick private rundown on the dishes that meet their needs and those that don’t. Now, on to the good stuff! Here are some delicious “alternative” holiday dishes you may want to try: Gluten Free: Dairy Free: Vegetarian Options: Planning a holiday feast for folks with special dietary needs? What are you planning? Got a favorite idea or recipe you plan to include? I would love to know!