Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday! I love being with my family and going to the Macy’s Day parade and not worrying about all the gifts that the next holiday brings. The weather is crisp but we can still go for a walk after the big meal. Of course, there is the delicious foods and the memories about the foods or recipes that come with all holidays. One of our family traditions is that we eat grapefruit before the meal (thanks Grandma for starting this). We peel ~12-14 grapefruits this is a task in and of itself, my husband calls it torture. We sit for about an hour with newspaper out on the kitchen table and peel the skin and then all the white pith and membrane off each individual piece. It’s a lot of work but so delicious! I love sitting around the table, talking, and always accidentally squirting someone in the eye with grapefruit juice as we are peeling. Sounds terrible when I am writing it but something I was not willing to give up when my Grandma was no longer at our table.
Food is a big part of my life and my career as a dietitian. I work in a Pediatric hospital and help to take care of families who have to eliminate foods from their diets, from celiac disease to Eosinophillic Esophagitis, allergic colitis, FPIES and other food allergies. Every day I meet families and help educate them on the foods that they need to avoid, all the foods that they can eat and help to increase variety, give suggestions of new recipes and hope to provide some empathy and support.
As one of my patients left yesterday I said, “have a wonderful thanksgiving” and the mom turned to me and replied, “thanksgiving is not that wonderful, my daughter (less than 2 years old) can’t have apples and sweet potatoes and winter squash, it’s a hard day to avoid these foods. It’s a dance around foods, asking questions, bringing separate foods, watching like a hawk that these foods are not ingested by accident." My thoughts of thanksgiving: sitting around the table, eating great food, the relaxing atmosphere all of the sudden does not seem so relaxed. It took the wind out of my sails and made me NOT say have a wonderful thanksgiving to the next family and instead asked the question, “what are you doing for the thanksgiving holiday?” The response: “This holiday is just too hard to keep everyone safe so we spend it with just the four of us and I make their safe foods and we have a really nice time, it is easier this way on everyone.” Again my heart felt heavy for this family, and when I asked more questions of this mom and others in this situation they feel bad for the family or friends hosting and do not want to be a bother or a nuisance.
It hit me like a ton of bricks. For some, thanksgiving or any holiday or get together where there is food may not be relaxing or enjoyable because there is extra pressure around what will my family eat, how do I not be the annoying guest and most importantly will my child be safe.
So I write today not for people with allergies because they live this everyday. My message is directed at families and friends of people with food allergies or celiac disease or other medical conditions where food has to be avoided. If you are hosting a holiday and someone at your table has to avoid certain foods, I am begging you to REACH OUT to the family and do these four things.
1. Tell them that you are so happy that their family will be joining you!
So many of the moms I interviewed for this piece reported feeling guilty or did not want the host to go out of their way. As the host, if you initiate the call, that in itself speaks volumes. These families have to do this so often and would love someone to reach out to them just once and that already makes it less awkward. It opens up a dialogue and you show an interest and you may learn a thing or two about your loved one.
Parents also know how much work goes into hosting, it is not just getting the food, but the cooking and baking and cleaning and preparing. Everyone said it would just be nice to be asked and thought of, a little understanding and empathy of what the family with the allergy or medical condition has to do every day.
2. Tell them your menu and see if there is anything that you could do to tweak the menu so that their family would be safe and have something to eat at that table that everyone else is eating. Feeling included in the family meal instead of eating separate foods if this is possible would be wonderful. In our family we tweaked our sweet potato casserole to be nut free, gluten free, egg free and dairy free one year and no one complained and we all shared the same traditional dish with a few tweaks. Maybe you recipe swap out an oldie for a new goodie.
It would be so nice for the family who has to avoid certain foods to know what they are getting into and gives them a forum to ask questions about the recipes or the preparation. You can take a picture of the recipe and the ingredients you are using as you prepare to make the dish, this may make them feel more comfortable as well. For someone who is avoiding to milk and wheat, a small tweak to the gravy (recipe here) can make it so everyone at the table can enjoy.
3. Overemphasize you want the family to feel comfortable but you need help and guidance and are willing to go the extra mile (that’s if you are willing to go the extra mile). Also that you understand even if you try your hardest, this may not be safe and you will understand if the family decides not to partake in the food you prepared. The important piece is having the family or friends together. Offer to the family for them to bring anything they need as well and that if bringing a separate cooler helps get the family to the table and your home, make room for the cooler. Be understanding and thankful that you may only have to worry about this at the holiday and this family has to do this everyday.
4. Focus on the foods that they can eat and stay simple. Maybe instead of a baked brie, you have a fruit plate as an appetizer. Instead of a green bean casserole, you roast (safe) vegetables with oil in the oven.
Thanksgiving is so focused on food. For all of those families coming to a table where there is a lot more thought behind the foods before they can eat, reach out and start the conversation. We want them to feel welcome at our table and in our home and feel like they are part of the family and not isolated. I promise you just reaching out alone will make this holiday a bit easier for your guests who have it hard at every event where there is food.
Some questions to help start the conversation, after all that is where it all starts.
What are some safe snacks that could be left out?
Can I get anything specific (please tell me the brand that you buy and where to buy it)?
This is a family favorite that I would like to include on the menu, how can I make this recipe safe for your family?
What side dishes do you make at home that I could mimic for the holiday?
Do you have any good suggestions for family members hosting friends or families with allergies or celiac disease or other medical conditions that they need to avoid certain foods?