For a long time, Thanksgiving was my youngest son’s least favorite holiday: he has extensive food allergies, and his plate of plain turkey, baked potato and steamed green beans with no stuffing or gravy looked completely different from everybody else’s, making him feel odd and left out. By the time he was six, I realized this wasn’t a problem to be solved by “talking it out”: he had a point. Instead of traveling to visit relatives, I invited all our relatives to visit us, and designed from scratch a gluten-free, dairy-free Thanksgiving meal during which everybody could eat everything on the table. (This was extra tricky in our case, because my other two sons were allergic to potatoes and sweet potatoes, two Thanksgiving staples.)
For those of you who have kids with food allergies and are hosting Thanksgiving, I’ve included my gluten-free, dairy-free and nut-free Thanksgiving recipes here. For those of you who are heading out to spend the holiday with friends or family, I’ve learned a few tips that can help you, your hosts, and most of all your kids feel more comfortable and able to truly enjoy the holiday. I call them my Thanksgiving “ABC’s”: ask, bring, calm.
First, ask your hosts what they’ll be serving. Talk to them about your family’s food issues as far in advance as you can, and don’t be embarrassed about doing this: if they don’t already know about your child’s issues, they’re going to find out at the dinner table anyway, and you’re actually doing them a favor by giving them a heads-up and avoiding on-the-spot awkwardness. And if they do already know about your child’s issues, chances are they’re feeling anxious about accommodating your family’s needs and keeping your child safe, and will welcome an open and direct conversation.
Which brings us to the “B” part – in this conversation, you should offer to bring food items to substitute for what your child can’t eat. “Offer” isn’t exactly the right word – just state casually and matter-of-factly that you’re planning to do this. For those with gluten issues, I recommend making your own bowls of gluten-free stuffing and gravy to share with the table. (My sons always said Thanksgiving was “all about the stuffing and gravy,” and the recipes I developed over time have gotten rave reviews from people who have no allergy issues of any kind.) Those dishes can be set on the table alongside everything else, and won’t stand out because many people traditionally serve more than one type of stuffing anyway (e.g. corn stuffing and plain bread stuffing; stuffing with oysters and stuffing without).
If your child has a gluten allergy or intolerance, another potential issue you should be aware of (and ask your host about) is that some commercial brands of turkey can be injected with fillers that include gluten. This won’t affect all people with gluten issues – you know your child, and can check in with your child’s allergist or pediatrician ahead of time if needed. But if your child’s sensitivities are moderate to severe, and your host isn’t serving a turkey labeled “Gluten-Free” (many of the biggest-selling brands of turkey do now offer gluten-free options, including Shady Brook Farms and Jennie-O), just cook up a GF turkey or turkey breast ahead of time, and bring some slices that can be slid right onto your child’s plate.
You should also offer to bring one other side dish for the whole table (ask your host what they’d like you to bring) – a dish everybody will enjoy but that you can make in such a way your child will be able to have some, too. For those with dairy issues, for instance, you can make delicious mashed potatoes without butter (I add sea salt, garlic and Earth Butter vegan spread); or instead of green beans coated in butter, you can bring some made with olive oil, lemon and salt.
Again, be aware that you’re actually helping your hosts by talking openly and honestly about your family’s issues – taking responsibility and taking the weight of worry about this off their shoulders. And while it’s definitely extra work for you, it will be well worth it for your child to have a plate that looks as much like everybody else’s as possible.
Which leads directly to the “C”: the most important part of the holiday is for you to stay calm. Do the best you can, but be aware that nobody will be perfect. If you make your child’s plate look even a little more like everyone else’s than it otherwise would, be proud of yourself and let it go at that. Kids watch and take cues from their parents, so try to show them (and actually feel yourself) a calm understanding of what you can and can’t do, as well as an appreciation for all the delicious stuff they can eat.
And try to show them as well one final bit of “calm” that’s often lost in a holiday that’s become laser-focused in on food: the real point of Thanksgiving is to take a moment away from busy lives and schedules to be thankful. Whatever your religion or lack thereof, take at least a moment with your kids to thank God, the cosmos, or the random workings of chance for being together and in each other’s lives.