For both experienced and novice hosts, planning holiday meals and parties can be a challenge when some guests are on special diets or have food allergies.
"Many people don't feel comfortable inquiring beforehand about the food being served," says Kathleen M. Zelman, who is the director of nutrition at WebMD. "When the hostess is a good friend, she probably takes your condition into consideration when planning the menu."
But asking guests ahead of time about restrictions in their diets or allergies can help make guests comfortable, says Meredith Gnau, who co-leads the nutrition program at CorePower Yoga in San Diego.
"This gives your guests the opportunity to express anything they may not have come out and said, and it allows you time to plan a special dish or find a few substitutions in the dishes you already planned to serve," Gnau says. "Often individuals with diet restrictions will offer to bring a dish to the party, as well. Absolutely welcome this. It enables your guest to feel confident that they can eat without doubt and share something amazing with the group. It also may just introduce you to the next best thing!"
WebMD's Zelman says that guests who choose not to disclose their conditions can still enjoy themselves.
"If you are a diabetic, most foods will be just fine, as long as you watch your portions and limit the sweets," she says. "Individuals who have allergies, celiac disease or digestive disorders need to be careful about the foods they select. Plain and simply prepared foods without sauces are usually the best bets."
Both Zelman and Gnau agree that hosts who take more wholesome routes probably will be more successful in pleasing all of their guests.
"The trick to hosting a holiday party suitable for a wide audience is to keep it simple," Zelman says. "A baked sweet potato, instead of the casserole, and steamed veggies with a squeeze of fresh lemon, instead of a sauce or nuts, are two simple changes that will work for most diets. Roast turkey is one of those foods well-tolerated by most people, even those with food intolerances."
Gnau notes that cooking with special dietary needs in mind may sound restrictive at first. However, it can actually widen the culinary horizons of both hosts and guests.
"The truth is we eat a SAD diet," Gnau says. "SAD stands for 'standard American diet.' Unfortunately, the acronym says it all. It actually is far more limiting and confining than the philosophy of whole-foods eating. So many dishes made specifically for food sensitivities and restrictions end up being filled with more healthful, wholesome ingredients -- often ingredients that many haven't even heard of before. This gives you and your guests the opportunity to try something new."
While it might sound difficult to those of us who zap our food in the microwave, it doesn't need to be.
"As a hostess, include simply prepared foods on your menu that will be delicious and acceptable for anyone who has food concerns," Zelman says. "Fresh fruits, grilled or steamed vegetables, grilled or roasted meats, and shrimp cocktail are just a few options that most people can enjoy, even with food intolerances."
To keep your guests informed, labeling dishes is an option.
"If it's buffet-style, there are some great techniques for labeling dishes, such as taking old wine corks and cutting a slit in the top," Gnau says. "In this slit, you insert a small card the size of a business card and label the item. If it's a dish that you've made special for a guest, you can also write on the label 'gluten-free,' 'no dairy,' 'sugar-free,' 'vegetarian,' 'vegan,' etc."
Even so, Gnau suggests not listing all the ingredients.
"This leaves room for conversation when your guests try your fabulous dish," she says. "They will surely ask how you've made it and what amazing flavors you added to make it so fantastic!"
For guests and hosts alike, the key is to relax and have fun.
"Don't let your condition get in the way of enjoying the holidays with friends and family," Zelman says. "Be cautious about what you eat and drink, but focus on the camaraderie and spirit of the season."
NO-BAKE GLUTEN-FREE PIE
Combine in a mixing bowl 2 cups finely ground raw almonds and 1/3 cup agave nectar. Press into 5-inch pie dish.
For fruit pie, fill the crust with a mixture of 1/4 cup agave nectar and 1 1/2 to 2 cups seasonal fruit mixed in a bowl.
For pecan pie, blend together until smooth 1/4 to 1/2 cup pecans, 1/2 cup raisins, 1/2 cup dates, a few dashes of cinnamon and 1/3 cup water (add more if needed). Fill the crust, and garnish with pecans.
To make the crust, soak 3 or 4 medjool dates in water for 10 minutes, or until lightly softened. Place 2 cups raw almonds in a food processor, and process until finely ground. Drain the dates from the water, and add them to the almonds in the food processor. Process again, slowly adding in the agave nectar (about 1/4 cup). Press this no-bake pie crust into a 5-inch pie plate, and add seasonal fruits of your choice (blackberries, raspberries, apples, pears, etc.), drizzled or mixed with an additional 1/4 cup agave nectar.
(Recipe from Meredith Gnau.)