Holiday Minefield: Your Survival Guide for Dietary Restrictions

The nonstop food porn began the day after Halloween. Oh, you thought the bags of snack sized candy everywhere were bad, but this is so much more seductive. Everywhere you look, there are pictures of golden brown turkeys with dressing spilling out, surrounded by mountains of mashed potatoes, fluffy plates of cornbread, marshmallow-dotted candied yams and creamy pumpkin pies lurking on the side.

What could be more American? Turkey, corn, potatoes and pumpkins are all indigenous American foods, our culinary gifts to the world.

However, we’re also one of the most diverse cultures since the Roman Empire. That means we can all agree to sit down at a table together, but unless you want your night to end in crying and a trip to the emergency room, we can’t necessarily all eat the same foods.

Therefore, we’ve assembled this handy dietary restriction survival guide to help ensure everyone you invite to dinner can actually eat.


Vegetarians don’t eat meat; no chicken, no beef, no pork - nothing that used to have a brain. The basic philosophy is that these days, there’s no reason for an animal to die just so a human can have a meal.  That doesn’t mean vegetarians survive entirely on salads. Vegetarians can and do eat all kinds of grain products, as well as plenty of fruits and nuts. You’ll find some amazing vegetarian bakers.

A lot of people get confused because there are different degrees of vegetarianism. By definition, vegetarians don’t want an animal to die for their meal, but some vegetarians will eat eggs or dairy because those animal by-products don’t take a life. When in doubt, you’re always best off assuming all vegetarians are vegans until they personally tell you otherwise. The conservative approach will save you a lot of confusion and potentially hurt feelings later.


Vegans are essentially very strict vegetarians. They take the confusion out of things by not eating any meat or meat by products, or anything produced by an animal. This means no chicken, beef or pork, no broths made from animals, no eggs, no dairy, and in some cases no honey.

While they do eat plenty of fresh vegetables, they also eat lots of grain products, fruits and nuts. Believe it or not, a hearty sage dressing is often the centerpiece of a vegan Thanksgiving meal. After all, it’s made of bread, veggie broth (instead of chicken broth), onions, celery, sage and olive oil instead of butter. If you want to bring a vegan/vegetarian friendly potluck dish, try fresh green beans dressed in olive oil with a pinch of kosher salt and the juice of one lemon. Pop them in the microwave for about 4 minutes, or until they’re crisp-tender, and you’ve got an easy, meat-free side dish.

Paleo / Primal

The increasingly popular paleo/primal diet is pretty much the exact opposite of the vegan diet. The core philosophy here is that humans are best adapted for the diet our paleolithic ancestors ate. Therefore, followers only consume meat (preferably organic), meat by-products, fruits, nuts and a limited selection of fresh vegetables. They don’t eat any grains, beans or lentils, potatoes or processed food. This means no bread, no mashed potatoes, and no green beans at Thanksgiving.

Dairy is a tricky issue. Strict paleo dieters won’t touch it while the slightly more lenient primal dieters tend to use a lot of butter and varying amounts of milk and cheese.

Meat, roasted pumpkin seeds (or other nuts) and a fresh salad are holiday staples your paleo dieter can enjoy, but things can get a bit tense when everyone else starts digging into the pie. If you want to make an easy paleo-friendly dessert that’ll be good enough to tempt your other guests, try some simple baked apples. Core 6 tart apples without going all the way through, stuff each one with a tablespoon of butter and a teaspoon of cinnamon (plus a dash of nutmeg or allspice if you feel like it), and bake them at 350F for 15-18 minutes, or until the apples are soft. After all the heavy food at dinner, sometimes a simple dessert that isn’t weighed down with too much fat and sugar can be refreshing treat.

Celiac / Gluten Allergy

As medical science progresses, we’re discovering that more people who would’ve been considered sickly folks with a weak stomach actually have an allergy to gluten. This is good news for them. As long as they avoid any form of wheat, barley or rye, they see amazing improvements in their health and wellbeing. That means no bread, no beer, and pretty much no processed food, since most of it has some kind of gluten in it. Even a lot of commercial spices use gluten as a binder. Symptoms range from some deeply unpleasant gastro-intestinal distress to itchy rashes to flu-like symptoms that can last days, so your average celiac takes their diet very seriously.

You won’t find a lot of celiac vegetarians. However, since the paleo diet forbids all grains, it has become increasingly attractive to people with celiac disease or gluten allergies. They can eat plenty of meat, vegetables, fruits and nuts. However, unlike paleo dieters, celiacs can also eat potatoes, rice, corn and other staple foods that don’t have any gluten in them.

This means your celiac guests can’t have dressing or cornbread (most cornbread is made using a mix of wheat and corn flours). However, if your family makes rice stuffing instead of bread stuffing, simply make it in a pan instead of cooking it inside the turkey and you’ll have a dish both vegetarians and celiacs can eat. Homemade mashed potatoes or yams (without marshmallows) will be fine, but either one from a box or can will be contaminated with gluten.

As an added punch in the gut, a lot of people with celiac disease are also lactose intolerant. If someone with celiac disease is coming to dinner, try substituting almond or coconut milk beverages (available in your grocery’s milk aisle) for regular milk in your mashed potatoes and other cream dishes. (Soy milk would also work, but your paleo or primal guests won’t eat anything made with soy.)

Lactose Intolerant

Believe it or not, most people in the world can’t digest dairy after childhood. Ability to digest dairy is a pretty recent human mutation that sprang up in a geographic band stretching from Europe to India, where people were in constant contact with cows. People whose roots go back to Asia, sub-saharan Africa, or the Americas have good odds of being lactose intolerant. This means they can’t digest more than a few sips of dairy without their intestines trying to get that poison out of their system as fast as possible. It’s pretty gross.

If you have a diverse group of friends or are hosting some foreign students at your holiday meal, make sure they know what dishes have milk or cheese in them. There are some enzyme pills you can take with your first bite of dairy, but honestly those only work about 3 times out of every 4. It’s not worth playing Russian Roulette with your bowels at a holiday meal.

Over 40 million Americans are lactose intolerant. If you know you’re hosting one of them, try using a milk beverage substitute (almond, coconut or even soy) instead of actual dairy in your mashed potatoes and other dishes. Also, have an apple pie on hand for dessert in addition to your pumpkin pie, since the thing that makes pumpkin pies so delicious is the presence of cream.

Kosher / Halal

Pigs are strictly off-limit for both Jews and Muslims. This means no pork and no bacon. If you normally make green beans with bacon or put sausage in your stuffing, just leave it out. Don’t suggest they should pick the bacon out of their salad or green beans, just as you wouldn't suggest a vegan pick around the oysters in your dressing.

Strict kosher can be a bit tricky since observant Jews don’t eat meat and dairy in the same meal. When dining out or eating with friends, most get around this by simply eating vegetarian or vegan. No meat means no messy business explaining the rules.  Don’t be offended if someone who keeps strict kosher or halal brings multiple dishes to share. They’re not trying to insult you’re cooking. They’re trying to make sure they don’t inconvenience you while also making sure they have enough to eat.  

Nut Allergy

Nut allergies are bad news. Peanuts (which are actually legumes), pecans, walnuts and almonds can all cause some pretty bad reactions in people who are allergic. When in doubt, just don’t use nuts in your holiday cooking.

This has become a tricky proposition in recent years. A lot of paleo dieters and people with celiac disease use nut flours in place of gluten flours. If they bring anything that looks remotely like it could’ve been made with wheat, make sure everyone knows that it’s nut-tastic. No one wants to spend Thanksgiving in the emergency room.

Inclusive Holiday Meal Suggestion

Feeding everyone can be royal pain. Don’t be scared of putting a turkey on the table, piling up a basket full of rolls, or whipping up your grandmother’s mashed potatoes with butter and whole cream. You have a right to include your favorite foods at the table. The important thing here is that you add extra dishes everyone can eat. Think of it as an excuse to fill your fridge with even more tasty leftovers after the big meal.

If you know you’re going to have a tableside cage match between people with diverse diets, here are a few suggestions for side dishes everyone can eat, even if you have a vegan sitting next to a paleo dieter who brought a lactose-intolerant celiac date.

  • Spinach salad with diced pears (spiced nuts and herbed goat cheese on the side)
  • Carrots roasted with olive oil, salt, and Herbs de Provence
  • Sweet potatoes baked with honey and lime
  • Baked apples with cinnamon/pumpkin pie spice and butter (or coconut oil for the vegans)
  • Crustless Vegan Pumpkin Pie (coconut milk, canned pumpkin, pumpkin pie spice, agar powder, and maple syrup)
  • Roasted Garlic (simple to make and a great condiment substitute for everyone)
  • Cucumber and Strawberry salad dressed with rice wine and raspberry vinegar
  • Cranberry sauce
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