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Tips for Making a Gluten-free, Allergy-free Thanksgiving Meal

Are you cooking Thanksgiving dinner for family members with allergies? Here are some tips.



Thanksgiving can be a special time for friends and family as they gather around a large feast and reflect on everything for which they are grateful. But when someone with food allergies sits down at the table it can feel like a walk through a minefield.

“Individuals or parents of children with food allergies are in a terribly awkward situation during the holidays,” explains Gina Clowes, national director for training and outreach for Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE), a food-allergy advocacy organization. “They have to get up their nerve to talk to the host. They have to assess if they can truly trust that the host can provide a safe meal.”

The guest with allergies might wonder: Will the host be offended if we volunteer to bring part of the meal? Or eat in advance? Or decline to eat something?

According to FARE, up to 15 million Americans have food allergies, including 5.9 million children. With common ingredients like milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish and shellfish at the top of the list of 170 food allergens, holiday meals can be a difficult time for many.

Local parents and food experts have advice on how you can make a Thanksgiving meal that is safe and delicious for all your guests.

Ask questions, read labels

Allison Horvath, of Newark DE, has a son with severe dairy and tree-nut allergies and she emphasizes the importance of communication.

“If you are not sure about something, ask. Read all labels,” says Horvath. “Understand the person’s food allergies and the severity of them. We are not trying to inconvenience you. We are just trying to keep our loved one safe.”

Philadelphia-native Laura Hahn, a gluten-free chef, author and winner of NBC10’s Next Local TV Chef, lives with celiac disease. While not a food allergy, the disease forces Hahn to avoid gluten, which can be found in wheat, rye, barley and, sometimes, oats.

Many store-bought products contain gluten, including cranberry sauce and cream of mushroom soup.

“Gravy is a huge one,” she adds. “Over the past year, a lot of the powder gravy mixes have a gluten-free option.”

Make simple substitutions

If you cook from scratch, many ingredients can be substituted to make recipes allergy-friendly.

“If you make gravy at home, I recommend cornstarch. It does the same exact thing as flour and it’s gluten free,” says Hahn.

Fortunately, alternatives are easier to find, says Alyson Harris, a Claymont, DE mom of two kids with dairy allergies.

“Over the last four years, some amazing butter and milk substitutes have become available and are not too much more expensive,” says Harris. “My favorite is garlic mashed potatoes made with a dash of soy milk and Earth Balance butter substitute. But watch for flavored or sweetened milks; they are terrible in potatoes.”

Since she cooks for her daughter who has egg and soy allergies, Jennifer Vichko, of Yardley PA, has found a few tricks, such as coconut aminos to substitute for soy sauce, and canola, coconut or olive oil instead of vegetable oil.

“My family has accepted our new normal of being egg and soy free and no one feels as if it sacrifices flavor,” says Vichko. “And my daughter feels included and able to enjoy the same foods as the rest of our family.”

Know the source

Be cautious when it comes to storebought items, particularly baked goods and chocolate.

“Desserts are where it becomes tricky,” warns Lyn Vijayendran, of Doylestown, PA, whose son has nut allergies.

“I ask hosts questions about pies and casseroles especially, as they are notorious for either ‘hidden’ nuts in the food or were made near nuts and peanuts,” says Vijayendran. “Ensure that desserts were not made in a facility where nut and peanut desserts are made, which, honestly, rules out most bakeries.”

How the ingredients are handled before they arrive at the bakery is important too.

“Always watch out for sourcing,” explains Jen Kremer, manager at Sweet Freedom Bakery, a gluten-free, vegan, soy-free, corn-free, peanut-free, refined-sugar-free, kosher bakery in Philadelphia. “You want to make sure that from harvest, to milling, to storage and packaging, that great care has been taken to keep the food safe.”

Avoid cross-contamination

Be sure to avoid cross-contamination from prep to clean up, says Jax Peters Lowell, author of Against the Grain, The Gluten-Free Bible,

“Never let people jump up and clear the table for you,” warns Lowell. “Sweetly turn down all offers of packing leftovers into refrigerator containers. This is a landmine of cross contamination — glutenous spoons filling gluten-free containers, knives coated in cake crumbs — you get the idea.”

Let your creative side take over

Joshua Bullock, owner of Farmer’s Keep, a Philadelphia restaurant that boasts a gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free, nut-free, and shellfish-free menu, says he loves the challenge to create delicious meals anyone can enjoy.

Bullock, who hosts Thanksgiving every other year and has cousins and a sister with food allergies, says he’s found several ways to make traditional dishes free of allergens, like homemade cornbread for stuffing and starchy potato water to add creaminess to mashed potatoes instead of milk or butter.

“For the green-bean casserole we’ll use soymilk and thicken that with cornstarch slurry. For the crispy onions on top, I like to use fresh onions, like a shallot, buy a gluten-free flour, dredge them in that, throw them in the oil and crisp them,” he explains.

Most important, enjoy yourself. “Don’t feel like you have to make certain foods. Think of alternatives. Think outside that traditional Thanksgiving box. That’s one of the best things about food, is you can have fun,” he says.

Michele Haddon is a Doylestown, PA-based freelance writer.

Tips for Preparing a Safe Meal

Gina Clowes, FARE’s national director of training and outreach, shares steps for planning a safe holiday meal for guests with food allergies.

Have a discussion with your guests.

  • Find out what allergies they have.
  • Be honest about what you are willing and able to do.
  • Encourage your guest to bring safe dish to share.

Understand the severity of your guest’s allergy.

  • Some guests may react when their allergens are cooking (e.g.boiling, steaming).
  • Eating an allergen and kissing a loved one with allergies can result in an allergic reaction.

Never guess that a dish or ingredient is safe.

  • Read all ingredients, including spices.
  • Understand labeling laws. Only the top 8 allergens (milk, wheat, egg, peanut, tree nut, fish, shellfish, soy) have to be listed in plain English. Other foods can hide behind words like “natural flavors” or “spices.”
  • Heed precautionary warnings such as “may contain” or “processed in a facility.”
  • Save all labels.
  • Alcoholic beverages can contain food allergens but they do not need to be labeled.

Avoid cross contamination.

  • Prepare foods for guests with allergies first.
  • Wash hands before preparing foods and use all clean utensils, pans, bowls etc.
  • Make sure the area is clean and free of cross contamination
  • Prepare one food at a time.
  • When in doubt, open new containers. Foods like butter, or jelly can be contaminated with allergen if a knife touched one food and then the next.
  • Some foods, like chocolate, are already prone to being cross contaminated with allergens (e.g. dark chocolate often contains milk even though milk is not an ingredient.)
  • Know that some foods, (e.g. breads, bakery items, dessert items) may not be safe even if a specific allergen is not listed in the ingredients.
  • Allow your guests with allergies to be served first, or to make up a safe plate in the kitchen and put some second helpings aside for them as well.

Special considerations for young children with allergies.

  • Keep allergens out of reach. Confine food and snacks to certain areas or make sure that any food that is out and available to small children is safe for all.
  • If toddlers and preschoolers are allowed to eat allergenic foods around others, help keep the environment cleaner by making sure their hands are cleaned after eating.
  • Kids like to share or can inadvertently grab another’s drink. It may be helpful to avoid children’s allergens during a family gathering if possible.  Either way, close supervision is required.

And finally

  • Don’t be offended if your guests choose not to eat your food, or only eat some things. There is so much to know about food allergies. Even with the best of intentions, your guest may have seen areas that cause concern.
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