Ten Tips for Staying Safely Gluten Free Over the Holidays

When it comes to living with celiac disease, we need more than just recipes, we need strategies. 

So let’s talk about some of the dangers and stressors we face and then how to have safe, delicious, fun filled gluten free holidays. 

gluten free holidays pinterest image.  Turkey with accompaniments and text "Gluten Free Holidays, Ten Tips For Staying Safely Gluten Free

The Stress of the Holidays When You’re Gluten Free

Family meals and dinner parties are right up there with restaurant meals as the greatest stressors for people with celiac.  All kinds of questions and insecurities spin through our minds:

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What do I do if my family isn't supportive?

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I don't like to put people out.

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Is it rude if I bring my own food?

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I don't like to be the center of attention.

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I don't want to feel left out.

That last one is the biggie.  Food is about so much more than just filling our bellies.  Food is at the center of nearly every human gathering and celebration.  To “break bread” together is to form a special bond.  For a person with celiac, we find out quickly how you can feel alone in a crowd, especially if you’re not eating the same meal as everyone else.  Sitting at a table with everyone chatting and commenting about the food, passing dishes around, asking for the rolls or the gravy, can seem like a pretty lonely place if you’re not a part of it. 

But the danger is real.  If you don’t know each recipe and how it was cooked and what was done to prevent cross contamination, then the meal may be unsafe for you.

How to Have a Safe, Stress Free, Gluten Free Holiday Meal

These ten tips will help you to answer those questions, deal with those insecurities and navigate your gluten free holidays safely.

1. Host the Meal

This is the safest way to ensure your holiday meal is gluten free.  You control the food. 

Yes, putting on a big meal is a lot of work but the stress you save yourself is worth it. Unless your friends and family are comfortable and knowledgeable about gluten free cooking, hosting the holiday meal yourself may be the only way to be 100% confident that everything you eat is safe.  Remember to ask if anyone else has food intolerances.  You may not be the only one.

2. Make the Meal Mostly Gluten Free

No one will even know the difference.  Most main dish recipes can be easily converted to gluten free with just a few substitutions.  You can have your turkey, ham, duck, goose, lamb, whatever you normally have for your holiday meal and make it gluten free.  Add in some regular dinner rolls and desserts to round out the meal.  If guests want to bring something, suggest they bring the rolls or a pie.

3. Make the Stuffing Separately

If it’s tradition in your family to stuff the holiday turkey with savory bread stuffing, or dressing, there are a couple of options. You can make your stuffing from gluten free bread, or if you want to have regular stuffing for the rest of the family make it separately in the crock pot.  Recent health guidelines suggest not to stuff the bird anyway as it doesn’t heat up quickly enough and can cause illness.  I stuff the cavity of my turkey with lemons, onions and herbs then serve crock pot stuffing on the side. I’ve even trained Hubby to make it so I don’t have to deal with the bread.

Remember, if the turkey is stuffed with bread stuffing, you cannot eat the meat.  Cooking and basting will contaminate every part of the bird.

4. Consider Turkey Alternatives

This is a good way to avoid the whole turkey / stuffing situation.  Just pick something else for your gluten free holiday meal.  My adult children attend several dinners over the holidays and get lots of turkey, so I often do a ham or a pork loin roast.  Both pair beautifully with my Curry Pineapple Chutney.  I’ve also done prime rib, goose, or Cornish hens for holiday meals. 

The rest of these tips are about enjoying gluten free holidays if you’re not the host.

5. Talk to the Host

Many of us with celiac find this difficult.  We don’t want to put people out.  But you can have this conversation in a polite and inquiring way that doesn’t make you seem demanding.  Start by explaining that you have celiac disease and it’s important that you know everything that’s in your food.  You’ll know right away if your host is comfortable to accommodate or not.  A few questions to ask are:

  • Will the turkey be stuffed? 
  • Is the gravy made from scratch or do you use a mix? 
  • Are the mashed potatoes made with chicken stock
  • Will the salads be pre dressed or have croutons? 
  • Ask about other sides.  Pay attention to anything with breadcrumbs, canned soups or seasoning mixes as part of the recipe.

You can suggest or provide gluten free alternatives to sauces, stocks, packaged mixes and thickeners.

6. Ask to see packages.

You’re the label reading expert, so ask your host if you can see the bottles or packages of any sauces or mixes they are using.  If there is anything questionable, then you can provide an alternative or pass on that dish.

7. Offer to Help

If you’re close enough with your host that you can dig into the kitchen and cook together, that’s perfect.  It’s a great chance to bond and educate at the same time.  I’ve forged and deepened many relationships by cooking together.

8. Fill in the Gaps

Once you understand the menu, you can decide what if anything you need to bring for yourself.  If the turkey will be stuffed but the sides are fine, then bring a cooked chicken breast or a few slices of ham.  If it’s the sides or the salad you can’t have then bring your own.  Or even better, bring enough to share. 

9. Bring Your Own Meal

This can be uncomfortable, but if your host can’t or won’t accommodate, it’s the best way to make sure you have a safe gluten-free holiday meal.   Your host may feel bad that you aren’t eating the food they prepared, but your health comes first.  Just be polite and maybe even a bit apologetic when you let them know that you’ve been sick in the past and you don’t want them stressing over your food while they’re having to put on a big meal. 

10. Bring a Dessert to Share

Dessert can be the hardest part of the meal for your host to make gluten free.  Gluten free baking is very different from regular baking, so bring a pie or cake or cookies that you can have and share with the rest of the group.  I’ve done this and been surprised that my gluten free dessert dish was gone before everything else.

Bonus Tip: Make it About the People

Most of our gatherings and celebrations center around food.  Those of us with food related issues need to shift that focus to people.  It’s awkward at first.  We may feel left out and lonely as we eat our own food among relatives that are passing dishes around the table.  But learn to laugh and enjoy your family and your friends at this special time of year and let the food come second. 

Happy Holidays!

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