It’s exactly one week from Thanksgiving. While most normal people are looking forward to a three day workweek, tryptophan overload, and Black Friday sales, food allergic families are quietly (or not so quietly) panicking over the thought of The Big Feast.
When you deal with food allergies and/or food intolerances, big food oriented gatherings like Thanksgiving become a minefield.
Instead of being able to relax and enjoy the fellowship of your friends and family, you spend the entire time wondering if and when you or your children will get sick.
However, with a lot of planning and respect, food allergy families and their non-allergic family and friends can all enjoy a wonderful day together.
Don’t get me wrong…it won’t be easy! And if you’re like me, you’ll still be nervous with all that “unsafe” food around.
Still, it is possible to pull off a Thanksgiving where everyone has something to eat, and nobody gets sick.
This will be my 4th year of surviving Thanksgiving with varying degrees of food issues complicating matters, so I decided to share some tips that help enormously.
TIP #1: PLAN AHEAD
Most people plan a Thanksgiving menu in advance, but usually don’t have to spend much time on it. After all, it’s a traditional meal, right? So tradition says that “our family has had turkey and dressing, and _____ side dishes since Grandma was a baby, so that’s what we make”.
Food allergy families will have to plan a little more thoroughly than that.
For starters, you’ll need to decide your general approach to Thanksgiving. There are 3 basic options.
- The “No-Thanksgiving” Thanksgiving. You tell your extended family to stay at home, and you and your immediate family sit down to a fairly typical meal for you that is completely, 100% safe. (This is a perfectly valid option if your food allergic family member is highly sensitive, and your extended family is highly INsensitive.)
- The “Only If We Trust You” Thanksgiving. You invite only the most conscientious, respectful members of your extended family over for a semi-safe meal. There will be dishes on the table that aren’t safe, but you decide to risk it due to the nature of the people you’ve invited over. They’ll work hard to keep accidental food ingestion a non-issue.
- The “We Can’t Figure Out How To Get Out of It” Thanksgiving. You suck it up and decide to go to the completely unsafe, large family gathering with people who have varying degrees of understanding and respect about your food issues. This is the most challenging of the three, as it means you’ll have to bring every single bite of food your family eats with you and you’ll have to eat in shifts so someone trusted can keep an eye on the kids at all times to ensure no accidental food snatching takes place. You’ll probably also have to detox your wardrobe and bathe everyone the second you get home to remove residue of dangerous foods.
Whichever game plan you decide to follow, you’ll need to plan out the menu as thoroughly as you can. It’s actually easier to do this if you choose options 1 or 3; then you just make typical foods that are safe for your family. It’s basically just another normal dinner night!
Option 2, though, means you’re actually going to attempt something that somewhat represents a typical Thanksgiving feast. You’ll have to look for allergy free versions of traditional dishes. This is hard, but not impossible. (Check out the links at the bottom of this post for ideas!)
Some dishes won’t be doable, but you can sub other safe sides for those. And the respectful, courteous family and friends you invite over won’t make a big deal out of it (or they’ll bring the dish they can’t live without but make sure they’re the only ones who eat it).
TIP #2: DELEGATE
Staying home with no one else coming over makes it simple. It’s a normal dinner, so no extra effort involved!
Options 2 and 3, however, mean you’re going to need to divide up the workload. No matter how you cut it, two complete dinners are required for those options…and nobody can make all that food single-handedly without going insane!
If option 3 is in play, just notify the coordinator of the large family gathering that you will be providing all the food your immediate family will eat, so they don’t have to worry about making anything for you. All they need to do is provide food for everyone else. Ta-da! You’ve delegated.
If option 2 is in play, decide who will be the main cooks on the big day and coordinate with them. Who will cook which dish? Where will it be cooked? Cooking the allergic persons foods in the safest kitchen and relocating it (if necessary) is probably the best option, but the other foods can be cooked wherever.
Try to be considerate and keep the workload fairly evenly split.
TIP #3: SET RULES
Set down some rules before the feast begins.
Your rules will vary depending on your needs, but some of the rules I’ve used in the past are:
- All the food goes on the kitchen counters. Load your plate and bring it to the table. (This means my kids have less to snatch from when we’re sitting down to eat.)
- As soon as you’re done eating, plates get scraped off and put in the sink. (No little bites sitting unattended, tempting my kids.)
- As soon as dinner is over, food gets covered and put away (as much as possible). Leftover munching is fine…you’ll have to get it from the fridge. No food left on the counters.
- No sharing off plates.
- Each dish gets its own serving spoon. No sharing or swapping.
- No one feeds my kiddos except me or their Daddy.
I’m sure there are other rules that you can think of that will be necessary for your family, but that might get you started.
TIP #4: TRY TO RELAX
Having all this food around is stressful for food allergic families, but if you’ve planned ahead, delegated, and laid down the rules, I’d encourage you to try and relax. Remember to enjoy the company of the people you are with! Sometimes you’ll only see these folks a handful of times per year, and that’s always worth savoring.
Besides, it IS Thanksgiving. It’s a day to remember all our blessings and truly express our gratitude for them. Our children (or ourselves) may have food issues, but we all still have much to praise.
However, if you find yourself in a situation (particularly in option 3) where there isn’t time to praise and relax due to the danger of the scenario, then the last tip I can share is…
TIP #5: HAVE AN EXIT PLAN
Decide ahead of time what your safety limit is, and agree that when that limit is reached, YOU LEAVE.
Doesn’t matter if you haven’t seen Great-Aunt Edna in two years.
Doesn’t matter that the kids were getting a rousing game of chase going in the hallways.
Doesn’t matter that the Game is on.
Doesn’t matter ANYTHING except that there are plates of food at the kids eye-level with no one eating off them, bowls of food still sitting on the table with no one around, and you caught your Cousin Larry trying to slip your dairy allergic kiddo a bite of pumpkin pie.
SEE YA, FAMILY! We’re outta here!
After all, leaving a place where a food reaction is inevitable is certainly something to give thanks for, right?
Those are my best tips for surviving – and maybe even enjoying – Thanksgiving (or any large holiday feast) with food allergies and/or intolerances.
Do you have any extra tips you’ve found useful?
Oh, just in case you’re struggling with your own menu, here are a few of my recipes you might find useful for Thanksgiving:
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and Real Food Wednesday.