Have you been excited to serve a new dish at a holiday party then remembered your cousin has a nut allergy or your daughter is vegan? Do you want to show off your culinary skills but can’t figure out what to cook because your mother-in-law can’t eat gluten and your son’s new girlfriend is a pescetarian?
If so, you’re not alone. Food allergies, food restrictions and new ways of eating are changing the ways we enjoy food together.
According to the CDC, food allergies in children increased 50% between 1997 and 2011 and about 10% of the US population has a diagnosed food allergy.
Other studies have shown that almost 20% of the population believes they have a food allergy or special sensitivity to certain foods and are restricting them from their diet.
At the same time, more and more people are incorporating greater amounts of plant-based food into their diet as they learn about its positive benefits on health, the environment, and our climate. Foods processed with sugar, fat and hard to pronounce preservatives are on the outs.
Sometimes I fantasize about slinging a plate of raw vegetables across the table to guests with (chosen) food restrictions and be done with it. But as a hostess you want your guests to feel welcomed and included.
Trying to find dishes that can be enjoyed by everyone will make your head spin and have you reaching for the takeout menu. But here are some strategies to make it a little less stressful.
1. Stop trying to design a menu that works for everyone.
I’ve tried it, it’s impossible, so just stop it.
Figure out the few dishes that WILL work for everyone and stop stressing about making them ALL work. Hint: they will probably be simple vegetable side dishes like green beans tossed with olive oil and garlic, or roasted root vegetables. Once you get into things like mashed potatoes with butter (vegans don’t eat butter), then it gets complicated.
If you try to make several versions of the same dish that can also get tricky and confusing. On Thanksgiving, my husband put the gluten-free stuffing and the regular stuffing on the same platter — you can guess what happened.
2. Serve dishes that guests can adapt themselves
If you’re trying to adapt a dish like mashed potatoes by serving it with vegan butter and no milk, you’ll be left with something that most people probably won’t like as much as the original and others might not even eat.
Instead, serve something people can easily adapt themselves.
- Can’t put nuts or cheese on the salad? No problem — serve them next to your tossed greens and let people add them on themselves.
- Serving tacos as your main dish – great! Include a variety of toppings, and be sure to buy corn tacos that aren’t mixed with wheat flour.
- Another gluten-free crowd-pleaser that will also make vegans and meat-eaters happy are Thai fresh rolls with fillings like sauteed tofu, lime & garlic shrimp, and sweet & sour chicken. Serve these with toppings everyone can eat like shredded lettuce, julienne carrots, scallions, and avocado slices. Offer a few different sauces like spicy peanut sauce, sweet and spicy Thai sauce, or tamari with sesame oil.
Meals that are assembled at the table are also tons of fun and remind us that the point of eating together is being together.
3. Ask guests to bring a dish
Sometimes people are traveling for the holidays, so asking them to bring a dish might not be realistic. But if you have some local friends and family, ask them to help you out by bringing appetizers or desserts to take some of the pressure off. On Thanksgiving, my niece and her husband (who can only eat low amounts of sugar) had to travel in their car but brought ingredients that didn’t need to be refrigerated. They made a delicious and easy apple crisp.
4. Serve a dish that can be a side or an entree
For a super-easy way to serve people with food restrictions, put together platters that include both hearty veggies and proteins and serve with a variety of dips. This is a fun and filling way to eat.
At Thanksgiving, I wanted my vegan guests to have a flavorful and filling entree but also didn’t want to make something that was entirely separate just for them because Thanksgiving is complicated enough. I came up with a squash dish stuffed with quinoa (recipe below). Some I left as a half squash for an entree and some I cut into smaller pieces as a side dish. With additional vegan side dishes, they had plenty to eat.
5. Try something new using familiar ingredients
Many people try accommodating guests with food restrictions by buying lots of ingredients that they are unlikely to use again (think almond flour, soy milk, vegan butter or cheese).
Instead of using weird substitutes for a familiar dish (I am personally not a fan of cashew cheese) try a new dish that uses mostly familiar ingredients. There are plenty of interesting dishes from all over the world that easily cater to food restrictions and can be found online. This year I served a curried coconut squash soup on Thanksgiving. While not traditional, it was vegan, creamy and delicious and included a local fall squash.
The world is changing and diets are too
Whether you like it or not, change is inevitable and food is a great reminder of that. But instead of stressing out, giving up, or tossing some carrot sticks to your guests, try adapting instead. Ask for help, create meals people can personalize themselves, or try something new. At the same time, keep serving mashed potatoes with butter (because there really is no other way). Your guests will understand and maybe they’ll adapt or be flexible too.
Delicata Squash Stuffed with Thanksgiving Quinoa
Serves approximately 8.
- 4 small-medium delicata squash or small acorn squash
- 1 cup dried quinoa
- 3 cups vegetable broth
- 1 leek, cleaned and chopped into half-moons (white and light green parts)
- ¼-½ cup dried cranberries (look for those sweetened with fruit juice and not sugar)
- 2 cups chopped kale
- ¼-½ cup chopped parsley
- ¼-½ chopped roasted walnuts or hazelnuts (for those without allergies)
- Olive oil
- Salt and pepper to taste
Heat the oven to 400. Cut the squash lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. Brush the squash with olive oil and season with salt and fresh pepper. Place on a sheet pan sprayed or lightly coated with olive oil cut side down and roast until a knife can be easily inserted into the squash (about 25 minutes)
While squash is cooking, sauté the chopped leeks in 1 TBS olive oil in a saucepan that is large enough to cook the quinoa. When leeks are softened, add in the quinoa and continue to sauté for a minute. Add dried cranberries and the vegetable stock and simmer covered until the water has been absorbed by the quinoa. Keep the lid on the pan to continue steaming the quinoa if still a little crunchy.
In a separate pan sauté the kale in olive oil until just wilted. Combine the quinoa with the kale, fresh parsley and nuts if you are using, check the seasoning and spoon into the crevice of each squash and serve.