No one wants to be “that person” at the dinner table. Having special dietary needs can make one feel like a giant inconvenience.
Our jobs as hosts, especially throughout the holidays, is to ensure that guests enjoy themselves and don’t feel like a burden.
At any large gathering, odds are that at least one person will have a special dietary restriction. From gluten-free to vegan to low-carb and low-sodium, the motive may be medical, religious or ethical in nature. Regardless of the reason, it’s important to that individual.
But time is tight, especially during the holidays. The last thing we want to do is prepare multiple versions of the same dish. Managing unique nutritional requirements needs to be easier than that.
With a bit of planning, it can be done.
Below are eight strategies for ensuring that everyone, including the host, has a happy holiday feast, plus three festive recipes that suit a variety of nutritional needs.
STRATEGIES FOR NAVIGATING HOLIDAY MEALS
As Mark Bittman, food journalist, former columnist for The New York Times and bestselling author of “How to Cook Everything” (2008, Double B Publishing Inc.) refers to it, here are “Tips for getting the big meal on the table without freaking the hell out.”
Good communication is essential. If you’re the host, simply ask guests if they have any food allergies or special dietary considerations. A quick survey in advance can save a mountain of angst later. And if you’re the guest, it’s equally important for you to share critical diet-related requests, giving hosts enough time to plan.
Make it buffet-style so that guests can pick and choose what works for them.
Opt for dishes that pull double duty. A dish that’s traditionally served as a side dish, for example, also can function as a meatless entrée for vegans and vegetarians. Stuffing made with quinoa instead of bread crumbs makes it a viable option for gluten-intolerant guests.
Label it. Use menu cards to let guests know what they’re eating, and also add any notes like “gluten-free,” “vegan” or “contains nuts.”
Keep it simple and customizable. Streamlined dishes make it easier to identify we’re eating. Salad dressings, gravies and sauces are often sneaky sources of gluten, sodium or sugar, so offering them on the side makes it easy for guests to be selective.
Have recipes and product labels handy. Keep a copy of recipes nearby in case guests have questions about what’s in a dish. Same goes for product labels, if possible, for any questions about whether a product contains certain ingredients.
Ask others to bring a dish. It’s OK to be specific even for potlucks, Bittman said, even to the point of sharing a recipe and lending them the appropriate dish for serving. “That way you can balance the menu and honor traditions, while turning your friends on to new favorites,” Bittman said.
Plan for key ingredient swaps. Use beans or quinoa when possible for side dishes that are rich enough in protein to serve as meatless entrees. Banza chickpea pasta is a gluten-free and high-protein alternative for traditional mac and cheese. Unsweetened coconut milk can be used in place of cow’s milk for an ingredient swap that’s both vegan and lactose-free. Keep vegetable broth on hand to use in place of chicken broth for otherwise vegetarian dishes. And try plant-based butter substitutes like Earth Balance butter or Nutiva’s Organic Coconut Oil with Butter Flavor – organic, vegan and non-GMO, it’s also a bargain at $7.98 for a 29-ounce jar (available at Walmart).
RECIPES: PUTTING IT INTO PRACTICE
Bittman, author of “How to Cook Everything,” shared these three crowd-pleasing recipes that also fit a variety of food needs.
Acorn squash seems to get all the attention when it comes to stuffing, but there are other varieties that take well to this treatment, including kabocha and small spaghetti squash and pumpkins. Select squash that are 1 to 2 pounds; the smallest spaghetti squash are around 2 pounds. When cutting the squash in half, do it through the equator or the stem, whichever makes more sense for the shape of that particular variety. The squash halves are partially baked, then stuffed and finished to keep the filling from drying out. This dish is gluten-free and vegan.
Stuffed Winter Squash with Quinoa, Corn and Tomatoes
Makes 4 servings
2 or 4 winter squash (depending on the variety and size)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more for brushing and drizzling
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
3/4 cup quinoa, raw
1 cup chopped cherry or grape tomatoes
1 cup fresh corn kernels
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
2 cloves garlic, minced
Heat oven to 375 degrees. Cut squash in half. If necessary, take a thin slice off uncut side so the squash half sits on counter without rocking. Remove seeds and stringy fibers. Brush interior and cut sides with oil (for varieties with edible skin, also brush the skin) and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Put squash cut side down on a baking sheet and roast for 25 minutes.
While squash is in the oven, put quinoa in a medium saucepan with 1-1/2 cups water, bring to boil, reduce heat to medium, and simmer until water is just below surface of the quinoa. Turn heat off, cover, and let stand until remaining water is absorbed, 5 to 10 minutes. Stir in tomatoes, corn, parsley, garlic, 2 tablespoons olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste.
After 25 minutes, remove squash from the oven and turn cut side up. Divide stuffing among squash halves and return to oven to roast until squash is fork-tender, 20 to 30 more minutes. Serve stuffed squash drizzled with a little extra olive oil, if you like.
Per serving: 390 calories, 10 grams fat, 1.5 grams saturated fat, 170 mg sodium, 75 grams carbohydrate, 10 grams fiber, 4 grams sugar, 10 grams protein.
Though this is perfect for Thanksgiving, you’ll probably want to eat it more than once a year. The sweet squash, which makes the dish creamy without adding dairy, is nicely balanced with tart cranberries and the nutty flavor of the millet. This dish is gluten-free and vegan.
Autumn Millet Bake
Makes 4 to 6 servings
4 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for the baking dish
3/4 cup millet, raw
1-1/2 pounds butternut or other winter squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1-inch cubes
1 cup fresh cranberries
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1 cup vegetable stock
1/2 cup pumpkin seeds
Heat oven to 375 degrees and grease a 2-quart casserole, large gratin dish, or 9-by-13-inch baking dish with oil.
Put 2 tablespoons of oil in small skillet over medium-high heat. When it’s hot, add millet and cook, stirring frequently, until fragrant and golden, about 3 minutes. Spread in baking dish.
Scatter squash cubes and cranberries on top of the millet. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and the sage and drizzle with maple syrup. Carefully pour warmed stock over all. Cover tightly with foil and bake, undisturbed, for 45 minutes.
Carefully uncover baking dish. Turn the oven up to 400 degrees.
Taste and adjust the seasoning. If it looks too dry, add a spoonful or 2 of water. Sprinkle pumpkin seeds on top, drizzle with remaining oil, and return the dish to the oven. Bake until mixture bubbles and top is browned, another 10 minutes or so. Serve piping hot or at room temperature.
Per serving: 280 calories, 11 grams fat, 1.5 grams saturated fat, 150 mg sodium, 41 grams carbohydrate, 6 grams fiber, 8 grams sugar, 5 grams protein.
Tofu is the obvious vegan stand-in for many recipes, but here a tart made mostly of vegetables is held together with just a little chickpea batter, which itself is delicious. This dish is vegan.
Mostly Vegetable Vegan Quiche
Makes 6 servings
1 whole-wheat pie crust fitted into a 9-inch deep-dish pie pan and chilled (Make one or use a 100 percent whole-wheat pie crust like that from Wholly Wholesome, which also happens to be vegan)
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for the top
1 onion, sliced
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1-1/2 pounds chopped cooked vegetables (like broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, mushrooms,
corn, potatoes, or a combination)
1 cup chickpea flour
1-1/2 cups vegetable stock
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
Start making filling while crust is in oven. When crust starts to turn golden, remove and set oven temperature to 400 degrees.
Cool crust slightly on a rack.
Put oil in large, deep skillet over medium heat. When it’s hot, add onion, salt and pepper. Turn heat up to medium-high and cook, stirring frequently, until onion is soft and lightly browned, about 10 minutes; adjust heat so it doesn’t brown too much or crisp up. Add vegetables, stir; turn off the heat and let cool slightly.
Whisk together chickpea flour and 1 cup of the stock in a medium bowl. In medium saucepan, bring
the remaining 1-1/2 cups stock to a boil. Stir in turmeric.
Slowly stir in the chickpea flour mixture. Once flour mixture has been incorporated, set heat to low and continue to stir continuously until mixture becomes thick and glossy, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in vegetables.
Put pie pan on a baking sheet. Spoon filling (it will be very thick) into the crust. Bake until almost set, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from oven, brush with oil, and return to oven until top is golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Cool on wire rack; serve warm or at room temperature.
Per serving: 310 calories, 16 grams fat, 6 grams saturated fat, 320 mg sodium, 35 grams carbohydrate, 7 grams fiber, 6 grams sugar, 9 grams protein.
\Registered dietitian Molly Kimball offers brand-name products as a consumer guide; she does not solicit product samples nor is she paid to recommend items.