Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s are the holidays that have punctuated “the Holiday Season” in my life. This is a joyous time for many, a time to see family and friends, take a break from work and school, and have an excuse to gorge on delicious, homemade food. But for anyone with any sort of dietary restriction, it can also mean facing a slew of awkward questions and uncomfortable looks or even hives, swollen lips, or stomach pain. In other cases, someone with dietary restrictions who is not necessarily allergic ends up with resentment after eating something that goes against their dietary rules.
People with restrictions such as allergies, veganism, or keeping kosher know that the holidays can be the opposite of relaxing. As a vegan, I have lived through many holiday parties asking if the mashed potatoes include butter; the cookies, eggs; and the soups, animal stock. Navigating the cultural standards set around holiday meals can be incredibly tricky, and many choose to not even bother, instead bringing their own personal food, eating before the event, or choosing to skip it altogether. These options serve to increase the alienation that many feel around the holidays. Even though food is not the sole — or even the strongest — force that brings us together in these times, it is a force that has a lot of power to pull us apart.
The advice here comes in two parts: one for people with dietary restrictions and one for event hosts. First, if you follow a special diet, the most important piece to emphasize is communication. Let the hosts of your dinner know that you have specific restrictions, and explain why these are important to you. Next, offer suggestions to the host for how to edit the offerings that they will be providing to be more specialty-diet-friendly. A few suggestions might be using brown rice or black bean noodles in place of regular wheat noodles; substituting Earth Balance buttery spread for butter in side dishes, mashed potatoes, and cookies; using vegetable stock instead of animal stock in soups; and replacing an egg in any baked good with a tablespoon of ground flax or chia seeds, half a cup of applesauce, or a mashed banana. But of course, ask at the event if you are unsure what is in line with your diet. And you can always bring some food, potluck-style, to show others how satisfying your diet can be.
For hosts, be cognizant of the dietary restrictions of your guests. Ask people as they RSVP if they have any allergies or follow a special diet, and try to make accommodations. If the event is more of a public invite as opposed to personal, label each dish for the eight most common allergens (wheat, eggs, dairy, nuts, peanuts, shellfish, soy, and fish), and if possible try to make some dishes that leave out these items. Additionally, there are some great product substitutions available via companies like Field Roast, Gardein, and Earth Balance as well as information about how to make common things vegan on sites such as VegNews.
Finally, for those who do follow a special diet, remember that the holidays will be trying times. People will challenge you: they will ask questions, laugh, and dismiss your choices as frivolous or irrelevant. The best way to handle these situations is to be strong in your position and have answers prepared. You should know why you follow this diet and be able to articulate it in such a way as to shut down the contradictions of others. However, don’t let issues surrounding food ruin your holiday. While it’s an important part of these times, family and friends are equally important. Learn when it’s beneficial to push back a bit and when you just need to change the subject and enjoy being with the people you love.