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Holiday Parties for Every Diet: How to Plan an Inclusive and Safe Feast

Nov 28, 2023 ● By Madiha Saeed, M.D.
Holiday Parties for Every Diet

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Inclusivity and respect are at the heart of a memorable and enjoyable experience around the holiday table. “Nothing can spoil a wonderful holiday faster than when your family or friends are unable to enjoy your delicious food,” says Julie Matthews, a certified nutrition consultant and founder of Nourishing Hope. From allergies to religious restrictions and ethical choices, understanding and accommodating guests’ diverse dietary needs is the foundation of a successful gathering.

According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, more than 17 percent of the adult population is on a special diet on any given day. Food Allergy Research and Education reports that 85 million Americans have life-threatening food allergies and intolerances. Plant-based diets are also on the rise, with 5 to 6 percent of Americans identifying as vegetarians.


Preparation and Communication

With a little creativity and careful planning, the holiday table can offer a diverse and delicious spread that everyone will enjoy. “Communication is an important first step when it comes to accommodating your guests’ dietary needs,” advises Yvonne Maffei, chef and creator of MyHalalKitchen.com. “Speak to them in advance to gain insight into their needs, giving yourself enough time to plan your menu and shop for any unique ingredients you might need.”

“To make sure that guests with specific dietary constraints don’t feel isolated or singled out at the table, try to replicate the same dishes for everyone. It’s also helpful for each dish to be labeled so guests don’t have to ask, particularly if it’s a large gathering or buffet style,” says Maffei.

“Prepare as much as possible ahead of time, if not all of it,” says Matthews. “It makes the environment feel more inviting, and you are able to focus on your guests. If other people are bringing dishes, ask them for the recipe ahead of time so that you can inform your guests.” 


Food Allergies

Party hosts need to pay special attention to food allergies, intolerances and sensitivities, which can cause uncomfortable or even life-threatening reactions, including bloating, diarrhea, skin reactions, swelling, breathing difficulties and anaphylactic shock. To prevent cross-contamination and provide peace of mind for guests, designate allergy-friendly cooking utensils, cutting boards and dishes. Here are a few substitutions for the most common offenders.


Dairy: For those with lactose intolerance or a dairy allergy, serve plant-based milks made with almonds, soy or oats. Replace butter with coconut oil, olive oil or plant-based butters.

Eggs: Substitute with applesauce, mashed bananas or commercial egg replacers, especially in baking. Tofu is a good alternative for scrambled eggs.

Peanuts: Eliminate the potential for crossover allergies by avoiding other nuts that are processed in the same facilities as peanuts. Sunflower seed butter, tahini and almond butter are tasty and healthy alternatives in recipes.

Tree Nuts: Use sunflower, pumpkin and flax seeds instead of tree nuts. Coconut or dried fruits can add texture and flavor. Roasted chickpeas are a crunchy, nutritious alternative.

Seafood: Lean meats, legumes, tofu, seitan, jackfruit and mushrooms can be used as alternatives to fish and shellfish in recipes. Vegan fish substitutes are also available.

Gluten: Use flours made with almonds, coconut, rice or buckwheat. Quinoa works well in salads or as a main dish. Cross-contamination is a concern; choose products that are labeled gluten-free. Use gluten-free flour to thicken gravies. 

Soy: Coconut aminos or tamari can substitute for soy sauce. For recipes that call for tofu, seitan or jackfruit may be used.

Sesame: Sunflower or pumpkin seeds and almond butter can replace sesame seeds or tahini in recipes.

Mustard: Turmeric mixed with a little vinegar can be a suitable alternative in many recipes.


Restrictive Diets

Whether for health, weight loss, ethical or religious reasons, guests may be following a specific diet that omits ingredients. To respect and support their needs, here are a few recommended substitutions.


Vegan: Offer recipes made with tofu, lentils and beans as protein sources, and nutritional yeast as a cheese substitute. Replace dairy with plant-based milks.

Vegetarian: Celebrate the wonders of the plant kingdom with hearty vegetable roasts and scrumptious vegan desserts.

Paleo: For this diet that focuses on whole foods, substitute regular flour with almond or coconut flour, and refined sugar with honey or pure maple syrup.

Ketogenic: Common low-carb, high-fat alternatives include non-starchy vegetables, such as cauliflower, and sweeteners like stevia or erythritol.

Low-FODMAP: This diet for people with irritable bowel syndrome eliminates numerous irritants. Garlic-infused oil can be an alternative to fresh garlic, and lactose-free dairy or almond milk can replace regular milk.

Halal: Omit alcohol and pork products. Use meat and poultry that is processed according to Islamic law. Replace alcohol-based flavor extracts with real vanilla beans.

Kosher: Follow the dietary laws of kashrut based on the Torah and the oral tradition.


Madiha Saeed is a holistic, functional and integrative doctor in Naperville, Illinois, and director of education for Documenting Hope and KnoWEwell.


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