The holidays are fast approaching and for those who have the honor (and burden) of hosting, we have our work cut out for us. You have to coordinate schedules, clean the house, and last–but certainly not least–plan and prepare a meal that is delicious and suits everyone’s dietary restrictions and preferences.
On this last point, I can say that I am an expert. The foundation of my family is love . . . and dietary restrictions. We have mastered the art of accommodating a complex array of dietary restrictions and ensure that each member leaves family meals feeling full, acknowledged, and loved.
Although my grandfather passed away several years ago, his legacy lives on in our family in many ways. One of the ways we stay connected to him is through food. He was born in Louisiana and spent his childhood in Texas. He left for Detroit to attend school but brought southern cooking with him. It has long been a tradition in my family that we prepare gumbo on Christmas day.
In case you are not familiar with it, gumbo is a stew of creole origins made from vegetables, seafood, sausage, and chicken, served over rice. Proper gumbo starts with a roux, which is a base that consists of flour and butter that thickens and flavors the broth.
Each year, my family members (mostly my grandmother and older sister) spend days shopping, chopping vegetables, and preparing the gumbo. Imagine my grandmother’s stove top: there is an oversized metal pot with steam coming off the reddish-brown liquid. I bet you can smell the rich, savory broth.
There is one problem: you are envisioning something wrong. There is not one pot; there are four. This is not to make a larger quantity of gumbo. This is to accommodate the many dietary restrictions contained in my fairly small family.
Working With Our Restrictions
My grandmother is allergic to shellfish. My aunt, cousin, brother-in-law, and son are allergic to nuts. One of my sisters and her husband are dairy-free. My mother is gluten free and pescatarian. The same sister does not eat fish and for about 20 years, I was vegetarian (but started eating seafood last year).
This non-exhaustive list of our restrictions does not even include preferences, which are equally varied and inconsistent. Picking any menu that would accommodate all of these limitations is a difficult task. Taking a family recipe and altering it to fit this mold is impossible. Yet, our family does it.
On the stove every year, there are four pots of gumbo. One with everything. One that has meat and no seafood. One that is gluten free with seafood but no meat. And a final small pot that is vegetarian.
Does this require a lot of extra planning and effort? Yes. Does my sister run the kitchen with precision that the military and NASA would marvel at? Yes. But this is how we show love and validation to one another. Taking the time to ask someone’s preferences or limitations and then making an effort to accommodate them is kind and loving. It shows that you see and acknowledge them.
How to be the Hostess with the Mostest Inclusive Meal
Here are some tips on how to be inclusive of different dietary restrictions and preferences this year:
As you make plans and extend invitations, ask the guests for any dietary restrictions. Even if you think you know, it can’t hurt to ask. Ideally, you want to have at least a couple offerings that fit within each guest’s diet.
List the ingredients.
Be prepared to tell people what is in each dish. You may want to use small tent cards for a short description of the dish or to list common allergens.
These days, it is really easy to make substitutions to make recipes compliant with different dietary restrictions. If you want to stick to a tried-and-true recipe, you can always make a second smaller version with the substitution. Here are some tips for common substitutions:
- Dairy: For milk substitutes, there is an array of options. For baking and cooking, I recommend soy milk or oat milk. They both have a mild flavor and a texture similar to milk. My favorite brands are Silk and Planet Oat.
- Gluten: Different variations of gluten free flour are good for different purposes. For baking, you might want almond or coconut flour. A number of all-purpose type substitutes exist that can be used 1-for-1 in recipes. I love the brand Bob’s Red Mill, especially their 1 to 1 Baking Flour!
- Meat: My favorite brands for meat substitutes are Morningstar Farms and Quorn. Both have a wide range of products and Quorn tends to have less processed ingredients than some other brands and a lot of their products are also gluten free. Impossible and Beyond Meat products are very popular and regarded as tasting pretty similar to real meat.
- Takeout: If you are ordering takeout, stick with the types of meals that come separately to be individually assembled by each person. Some of my staples are Mexican and Middle Eastern food. These can both accommodate a lot of restrictions, and are commonly served in a style that allows for a lot of flexibility and choice!
It may take some extra time and effort, but your family and friends will appreciate the thought. These gestures will go a long way towards making your guests happy these holidays.