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How to Host a Frugal Thanksgiving for Guests with Food Allergies

Guest post by Sonja from Frugal Gluten Free Living

Hosting Thanksgiving dinner can be stressful and costly. Add guests with food allergies, and you could find yourself over-stressed and over-budget. But if you stick to a plan, follow these tips and stay true to your budget, Thanksgiving dinner can be memorable, fun and frugal.

1. Have Your Allergic Guests Bring Their Favorite Dish

People with food allergies will be relieved if you ask them to bring a dish. Most will either pack snacks or eat meals before a dinner away, just in case they are unable to eat what’s being offered.

It’s difficult to be a gracious guest when food limitations are so severe. Having a stand-by dish they can trust because they made it will ease your guests’ minds.

2. Do Research

Ask what allergies your guests have. Be specific. If they’re gracious, they’ll probably tell you to not make a fuss, and just go about your meal planning. But you may want to tweak a dish just for them.

For example, if they suffer from a gluten allergy, you can cook the stuffing out of the turkey, so as to prevent cross contamination. Or you can use cornstarch to thicken the gravy rather than traditional flour.

Some changes are so small, but your guests will be touched that you made the effort. I know I’m always overwhelmed with the hospitality my in-laws have shown my family when we’ve stayed with them and they had gluten-free cereals and noodles for my toddlers. I never expect it but it absolutely moves me to tears to think of their thoughtfulness. (By the way, some gluten-free dishes are so inexpensive and easy, you may find you like them, too.)

3. Don’t Be Offended

If your allergic guests stay away from your grandmother’s famous broccoli cheese casserole (drool!), please don’t be offended. They are probably more upset about it than you are.

4. Keep Ingredient Labels on Hand

People with food allergies obsessively read the labels. A little MSG in a salad dressing will make my husband sick for the rest of the evening.

Your allergic guests may never ask to see the ingredient list to a casserole (I wonder about the etiquette rules for that), but you can casually comment that you have the ingredient list for that casserole if she’d like to look it over to see if she can have it.

5. Don’t Stress

Chances are, your guests are more anxious than you are. With my family’s food allergies, I plan at least a week in advance before we go to a function. I try to balance bringing snacks, versus feeding people ahead of time, so our food allergy doesn’t become center stage at an event.

It’s humbling to have such a restrictive diet (we can’t have eggs, dairy, gluten, or most meats) but we’ve learned that family gathering around food is more about family and less about food.

Sonja Stewart writes about ways to stay within the grocery budget while on a gluten-free diet. Her blog, Frugal Gluten Free Living shares recipes and shopping tips for those living with food allergies. She lives in Astoria, OR with her husband and homeschools her two young children.

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photo by atmtx

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  1. Katherine says:

    Timely post. My husband and I were just discussing this today as Thanksgiving approaches and we have several allergies. Link for Frugal Gluten Free Living doesn’t seem to work. Would like to check out her site. Thanks.

  2. Lisa says:

    This might be my favorite post ever on your blog. I have a severe food allergy- when I eat cheese, my body reacts like I’m having a stroke. So often people don’t take it seriously (“a little won’t hurt you”). Thank you so much for a thoughtful, gracious article. I appreciate it.

  3. Sherry says:

    You posted some great ideas for those of us who suffer from allergies. My food allergies are too numerous to mention so I usually eat before I go to a big social gathering. When we go to the in-laws, I usually take my own food to prepare while I am there so my mother-in-law does not have to try and remember everything that I would cause me to have an allergic reaction. We also have an autistic child who has food adversion so we have to be selective in what social gatherings we attend so those who bring food are not offended by his blunt comments about various dishes.

  4. Kristen says:

    Thank you for this article. I have a toddler with multiple food allergies and it makes it very difficult to go anywhere around food time. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  5. Whitney says:

    Great post. My son is allergic to dairy, eggs, peanuts and tree nuts and it makes every family gathering stressful. We will be bringing our own mashed potatoes, bread and “butter” as always and tracking down the maker of each dish to ensure the ingredients are safe.

    I think the “don’t be offended” bullet is the most important. I have to ask my MIL every year to remove the bowls of nuts set out on every table (even if my son doesn’t eat them, the risk of contact through others is too great). I also have to politely request other parents to not allow their children to walk around with cups of milk (one spilled drop will result in welts all over his skin.) Keep in mind that if someone makes a request they are not being paranoid – they are being mindful of their child’s life and health! Too often people hear me say “milk allergy” and hear “lactose intolerance.” I now carry a photo of him showing what happens when a drop of milk makes contact with his skin. It has certainly changed others’ perspectives.

  6. Rhoda says:

    This is our first year knowing about our son’s food allergies, and this post is very helpful to give ideas for those of us experiencing these holidays and potential allergic reactions for the first time.

  7. thank you, thank you, thank you. I just returned from a 10-day trip with a 6-year-old with gluten, dairy, egg, soy, and peanut allergies. It’s tough to travel and celebrate with loved ones when food is the center of it all.

    My Tip – whole foods like fruits and veggies are a great choice. Allow your guests to pull a portion before adding any butter, cheese, glaze, or toppings to them. Also, don’t share cooking utensils with other foods. Dedicated utensils are a great gift to your guest. We travel with our own vegan butter that is safe for my son. He still gets mashed potatoes like everyone else, but no allergic reactions.

    When you take the time and effort to be concerned about your guests it is a beautiful thing.

    More ideas on Allergy-Free Hospitality @ Frugal Family Feasts

  8. Mrs S says:

    thank you for this wonderful post! I dread eating anywhere but home! I am severely allergic to onions (all formes including powder, salt, juice, etc…) And it is horribly frustrating to have people: a) assume that since they didnt add any onion to a dish that it is onion-free, when onion is in everything from ketchup to lemmon pepper! or b) think I just dont like onions so they can “sneak” a little in and I wont notice!

    I can’t imagine how hard it would be for a child who doesnt understand their allergy 🙁

  9. Melissa says:

    Very timely! My BIL is dairy free and I will be cooking for him for the first time on Thanksgiving. It’s actually been a blessing to me to figure out how to tweak some of my traditional recipes to make them safe for him to eat. Some of the alternatives I have come up with are even more delicious than the originals!

    • Cindy Diaz says:

      FAAN or for information for dairy free hidden ingredients and shopping lists with product names, etc.

  10. Wendy says:

    Great post!! I have severe food allergies to the nightshade veggies…tomatoes, potatoes, peppers & eggplant. I have extreme anaphylaxia reaction and it is so scary! I am hosting and cooking it all this year….so I will know exactly what’s in each dish! ; )

  11. Kristina says:

    Thank you so so much for posting this! This last year I have been so sick, the doctors did a bunch of blood tests, an upper endoscopy, x-rays, a ct scan and could not find out what was causing all my problems. I kept getting worse, been in the hospital unable to breath with asthma, throat has swelled, broke out in hives all over, finally with some investigating I decided food allergies might be partly to blame. The Dr. did some tests and we discovered I am highly highly allergic to wheat. I plan on bringing my own food to the family gathering. It is too easy to have a life threatening cross contamination. I never realized how bad allergies could be!

    • Rebekah says:

      I’m a lot the same as you, although thankfully it has never gone that far. It’s devastating to me because I loooove baking, and I just can’t do it anymore with “regular” flour. Can’t even have it in my kitchen, which is hard for people to understand… like Whitney said above, people just assume that I can’t eat it because it’s an allergy, but it’s far worse than that, unfortunately. I feel your pain!

  12. Cindy Diaz says:

    Both of my girls were born with immature digestive systems but full term 7 11 and 8 lbs. They didn’t have allergies….but ALOT of food restrictions b/c of reflux and immature digestive tracts until 2 years old.

    Whenever we went out…we always kept things white for the girls b/c we knew it was safe. I did the research on ingredients through the FAAN network so I knew where MILK, SOY, EGG, WHEAT was.

    I asked what the menu was and never asked for ingredients. We just ate plain meat, etc. for the girls.

  13. TERA - Wolf Pack Mom says:

    Great topic! I have 2 Celiac children out of 7 kids, and we are ever vigilant about gluten!

  14. Anitra says:

    Thanks for this. There aren’t any serious allergies in my immediate family, but a lot of my extended family have some special food needs (out of 5 adults: 2 are diabetic, 2 are gluten intolerant, 3 are lactose intolerant, 1 is vegan). Thankfully, nothing life-threatening; but I do try to keep in mind who it is I am cooking for and check with them about potentially problematic ingredients.

    I would never be offended by someone asking for an ingredient list or “Is there [offending ingredient X] in that?” although I may not always have the answer.

  15. Brittany says:

    This is such a great post! My husband and I (and our little 9 month old) are hosting our first Thanksgivng ever! There will be around 20 of us with 3 people allergic to gluten. I have been a little overwhelmed with everything! I understand that I don’t have to make EVERY menu item gluten free, but I want them to be able to eat the majority of everything. I thought I was the only person in this boat! 🙂

  16. jamie says:

    An allergy-free menu is actually very frugal as it simply contains whole foods. 🙂 And it’s healthy too. Think…no casseroles.

    Here is a link to our dairy, egg, peanut, oat, and berry-free Thanksgiving menus from recent years.

    This year I may add pumpkin cake or cupcakes as I’ve found a cream cheese tub of icing that is dairy free! I would also love to make some kind of squash + maple syrup dish. I’m still researching that one.

    And here is a link to a post I wrote about holidays and family gatherings with food allergies.

    Food allergies with little kids can be very frightening, especially in large crowd settings. Someone mentioned that when nuts are set out, it’s a huge danger. She is right. As my husband puts it…when allergy parents see food out that our kids are anaphylactic too, it would be like other parents seeing a gun set out on a table or a huge knife right in a child’s reach. Foods are as much of a life threatening danger to our children. And unless you’ve seen a child go into anaphylactic shock, it’s hard to comprehend that food can kill someone.

    With that said, however, food allergies are also a blessing in disguise because it forces us to eat much more healthfully. I still pray everyday that my kids outgrow their allergies though. 😉 This is a topic very dear to me and I have a whole blog devoted to sharing our experiences and trying to help others with allergies.

    • Denise says:

      I’m sensitive to dairy, wheat, gluten, eggs, chicken, soy, peanuts, almonds, and a few other things. I also have to watch carbs, as I have blood sugar issues. So I’ve discovered yams and sweet potatoes for breakfast! Here’s a wonderful yam/sweet potato dish you’d enjoy at your Thanksgiving table:
      Bake however many yams or sweet potatoes as you want to eat. When they are cool enough to handle, slice them into 1/2″ slices and remove the skins. Arrange them in a dish. Add chopped apples or diced dried apricots if you can have them. Toast walnuts or pecans and sprinkle them over the dish. Drizzle with maple syrup. Sprinkle with cinnamon if you can have it, and dot with soy-free Earth Balance spread (if you can have it). Bake it just a few minutes in a warm oven or microwave if you use one. Good stuff!!

  17. Last year I hosted Christmas at my home but had to completely avoid dairy due to my daughter having a dairy allergy (I was still nursing her). It was a bit more work but I made everything from scratch, including the chicken stock used for the gravy and the bread used in the stuffing.

    When we went to others’ homes for holidays I just avoided anything that I thought could possibly have dairy in. I didn’t mind because it was simply just what I had to do. There were a couple of times where I unknowingly ate something with dairy in it and my kids had blood in their stools (sorry, tmi!) and I felt horrible that I let them down. After that, anything even the least bit questionable or anything the said “natural flavors” on the label was out of the question.

    Having to be dairy free while I nursed each of my children (both grew out of their allergies thankfully) tought me how to cook from scratch and eat more healthfully because growing up we ate a lot of processed food. I actually read food labels and was so surprised at a lot of the extra, unnessesary junk that was in the food I had been buying!

  18. Amanda says:

    Great article! Our family is allergic to gluten, chicken, eggs, and soy. It causes my mom a great deal of frustration and stress. I usually make the menu and prepare the meals when we visit her home (she lives far away, so it’s not very often).

    Last year we gathered with friends for Thanksgiving and our friends had a gluten free table at the buffet! What a blessing!

    • jenny in cg says:

      Now that is a great idea, a separate gluten free table at the buffet! No chance of cross contamination between dishes by spoons or dropped morsels.

  19. JoEllen says:

    Hmmmm…this doesn’t have anything to do with those post (although I enjoyed it) but Money Saving Mom no longer appears updated in my Google Search Reader. Is there a reason for this?

  20. Stephanie says:

    I was at a party recently where there were twin toddlers wearing t-shirts saying “please DON’T FEED ME I AM ALLERGIC peanut/dairy/tree nut free zone my parents have my epipen on the front and the back. The parents were watching their kids like hawks but they had the shirts made after someone gave their kids the chocolate with invisible peanut butter cookies they were reaching for not realizing that would send the kids to the ER. They plan on their kids wearing shirts like that until they are old enough to self-regulate and verbalize their needs. There were 50 pair of eyes paying attention to what the twins were ingesting without being intrusive- an older kid would probably hate it but for little kids a tshirt billboard helps.
    We have so many friends with epi pens, lesser allergies and intolerances that our gatherings are potluck with ingredient lists on the table. Everyone has at least one dish they can eat and so far no one has ended up in the hospital. It is also significantly less stress on the hosts who do not want to poison their friends.

  21. Jody Purcell says:

    This is a great recipe for people who can’t eat traditional stuffing:

    From “Wow! This is Allergy Free” by Mary Yoder and Deborah Steiner
    Quinoa Dressing
    3 cups Chicken Broth (read the label on this) or water (probably safer)
    1 1/2 cups quinoa
    1 T olive oil
    1 medium onion, chopped
    1 stalk celery, chopped
    2 tsp. sage
    1/2 tsp. salt
    dash pepper
    In sauce pan, bring chix broth or water to boil. Add quinoa and simmer, covered 20-25 minutes. Meanwhile saute onion and celery in oil for 10 minutes. Add spices and mix into quinoa. Serve. (Like most stuffing recipes, I think this tastes best after it has been in the fridge a day or two when the spices really mix around – then heat it up right before serving). Serves 4-6.

    I would also say, to those who have allergies – if someone asks, be specific. It is really awkward if someone goes to the trouble to make an extra dish for you only to find out that you forgot to mention an item that they put in it. To those who do make something, don’t get bent out of shape, if this happens. Even if they can’t eat the special dish, they will be blessed that you made an effort.

    One of the best meals that I can remember was prepared by a couple who had invited me to their house for dinner. I was completely awkward, because at the time, I could pretty much only have raw fruits, vegetables, nuts and rice. I suggested that I just eat at home and then come over. She insisted that I come for a meal. When I arrived, I was blown away by all that she had done – nuts, fruits, veggies, you name it. I could start crying now at how much that meant to me probably four or five years later. (Thanks Bruce and Deb, if by some crazy chance you are reading this). Don’t stress, but if you can make an extra effort – it means a ton.

  22. Lori says:

    Thanks for taking the time to write this Sonja! I love your site!! SOOOOOOOOO many great ideas for my family members with allergies and without (who just want to eat healthier)!

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