Think back to the holiday feasts of your childhood: Long tables crammed with family and friends passing bowls and platters filled with all the traditional offerings.
The only food drama was likely a complaint that the turkey was too dry, someone hogged all the gravy or someone dared to mess with the macaroni and cheese recipe.
Fast forward to this holiday season. Your sister-in-law is strictly gluten-free, your niece is a vegetarian, your mom has sworn off dairy for years now, your nephew is allergic to tree nuts and your cousins include hardcore paleo followers and a couple of vegans.
Welcome to holiday entertaining in the era of dietary restrictions that people have adopted because of allergies, health reasons or lifestyle choices. Some may have religious reasons for dietary choices. Regardless of the reason, your guests’ wishes should be respected.
Rolling out the welcome mat for your family and friends means taking all these things into consideration when you plan the menu, prepare the food and serve it up.
But these don’t have to be insurmountable roadblocks that put a damper on your festive meal. We asked Holiday Zanetti, a senior research scientist and clinical investigator for Nutrilite, to help us compile some tips to ease the process.
With a little planning, good communication and the finesse of a good host, you can entertain in a way that makes everyone feel welcome and appreciated.
Check with your guests
The easiest way to identify any special food needs is to ask your guests when you invite them—the earlier the better.
If you’re using printed or online invitations, include a question about dietary restrictions on the RSVP. If you’re calling to invite them, make that question part of the conversation, or follow up with a simple text.
“Be sure to get those RSVPs in a timely manner to allow for proper recipe development,” Holiday said.
Do your homework
As you plan the meal, you need to understand the difference between a lifestyle choice, a restriction that could make someone sick and a life-threatening allergy. Your sister’s keto diet is much different than your nephew’s peanut allergy.
Prepare with care
When preparing a meal for someone with a food allergy, avoid cross-contamination that could make your guests sick.
“Food restrictions and allergies should be taken seriously,” Holiday said. “It’s critical to pay close attention to creating these dishes and ensuring an accidental ingredient does not make its way into the dish.”
A good example is to treat that food item like you would raw meat: Use separate utensils, mixing bowls and cutting boards, and wash them well before reusing them.
Side dishes are your friend
Planning a variety of side dishes is an easy to make sure everyone can fill their plates.
And some traditional favorites need only a few substitutions or tweaks to take them off some people’s “can’t eat” list. Dairy restrictions? Swap out butter for olive oil. Vegetarians? Use vegetable broth instead of chicken broth.
You can also use the opportunity to try out new dishes. In addition to traditional mashed potatoes with butter and milk, consider adding thinly sliced hasselback potatoes roasted with herbs and a drizzle of oil.
“With the internet, recipes are plentiful,” Holiday said. “There are many dishes that can be easily modified. Sometimes the best dish and most appreciated can be the simplest.”
Say yes to your guests
If your guests with special dietary needs ask if they can bring a side dish or two that they know they can eat, gratefully accept their offer.
Whether it’s a homemade recipe or something they picked up from the store or a restaurant, it allows them to contribute and removes the worry that they’ll leave hungry.
If you normally finish off certain dishes with sauces, dressings or crumbled toppings that are not appropriate for all your guests, serve them on the side.
And avoid serving the stuffing on the same platter as the turkey. Individual serving dishes are best. It keeps each item separate and makes guests with food restrictions or allergies feel safer about what they’re eating.
Want to be an A+ host? Put identifying cards or signs in front of each dish indicating whether its vegan, gluten-free, nut-free, etc. It not only lets guests know what they’re reaching for, but it’s a nice touch that shows guests you care.
No matter how much extra effort you put into accommodating any special diet needs, try not to let your guests know. You don’t want them to think their presence is a burden.
Keep the focus on enjoying time with your family and friends.
“Whether you are the host of the party or the guest, be respectful, enjoy your company, the atmosphere, share gratitude and positivity, and eat what makes you happy (or best accommodates your needs),” Holiday said.
“That is what the holidays are all about.”