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Alyssa Simpson RD, CDE, CLT
Alyssa Simpson

RD, CDE, CLT​

7 Tips to Navigate Thanksgiving With Food Allergies and Sensitivities

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registered dietitian weight loss tips

If you deal with food allergies or intolerances, you might be feeling some anxiety about the foodiest of all holidays: Thanksgiving.

Many people get really excited about this holiday. They eat with reckless abandon until they are about to burst. And the worst they have to deal with is the post-meal food coma. But for most of my patients, a food-based holiday can be a cause for more stress than joy.

While food intolerances, sensitivities, and allergies may put some limits on your Thanksgiving menu, it is still possible to enjoy this holiday. 

Here are my top 7 tips for navigating (and actually enjoying) Thanksgiving if you have food intolerances, sensitivities, or allergies:

Tip #1: Educate yourself

Navigating food issues is a challenge. When you are cooking your own food, it’s easier to control what you eat. But if you are eating packaged foods or a meal prepared by someone who doesn’t understand your needs, it can add some extra challenges.

Many commonly reactive foods can hide in dishes where you might not expect them. If you’re lactose intolerant, it’s easy enough to avoid drinking a glass of milk. But it can be challenging to avoid the dairy hiding in foods where you might not expect it.

If you’re gluten-intolerant you’re unlikely to mistakenly eat that Thanksgiving roll. But there are other traditional dishes where gluten might show up — like stuffing, or even gravy.

The most common allergens you’ll find hiding in a traditional Thanksgiving dinner are dairy, nuts, soy, and wheat. 

So let’s take a closer look at some of the traditional Thanksgiving foods and the potentially problematic ingredients that may be hiding in them. When you know what to watch out for, you can enjoy your Thanksgiving dinner without suffering the consequences of unintended exposure to your problem foods.

Turkey

Many commercial turkeys contain more than just meat. Self-basting turkeys may contain dairy, soy, and wheat. If you are buying the turkey, opt for a natural turkey that contains only turkey and water.

Dressing and Stuffing

Most dressings and stuffings are made with wheat-based bread. There are gluten-free stuffing recipes. But if someone else is making this dish, it will likely contain wheat.

Mashed Potatoes

Mashed potatoes often contain dairy products in the form of butter, cream, or milk.

Gravy

Homemade gravy is often thickened with wheat flour. So If you are avoiding wheat or eat gluten-free, this may be an issue for you. There are other thickeners available including cornstarch and arrowroot powder.

Watch out for gravy packets that may contain wheat, dairy, and soy.

Pumpkin Pie

The shell of any pie is typically made from wheat, whether it’s a pastry shell or a graham cracker crust. Pumpkin pie filling may also contain dairy.

Tip #2: Contact the host ahead of time

If you are at the mercy of someone else’s cooking for Thanksgiving, you’ll need to reach out before the big event. I’m not suggesting you ask for special treatment. But it is a good idea to know in advance which of your problem foods and ingredients will be making an appearance on the dinner table. 

Most people understand the seriousness of food allergies. But not everyone realizes the discomfort that can come from food sensitivities and intolerances. If your host is uneducated, you can explain to them that you aren’t just a “picky eater”. You don’t have to go into detail about your symptoms if you don’t want to. But letting them know that you have a medical challenge can smooth over misunderstandings.

Try telling them something like, “I react badly to this particular food and need to avoid it.” Then ask them if your troublesome foods are in any of their planned recipes.

An upfront conversation can make it clear that:

  1. You’re not being “rude” if you pass on some of the dishes.
  2. You aren’t asking for special treatment — just information.
  3. You’re looking forward to enjoying the company at the meal.

Tip #3: Bring a dish or two that you KNOW you can eat

When you talk with the host, let them know you’d like to contribute to the meal. Then you can bring some food that you can enjoy without consequence. 

And if you already know which of the host’s foods contain problematic ingredients, you can plan your recipes strategically to make sure that you get to have your favorites. 

You can bring enough for others to share. Or, if the host isn’t serving much that you can have, it’s totally okay to bring single servings of your own food. 

Tip #4: Plan some before and after snacks

If you know you’re going to have to pass on much of the meal, don’t let yourself stay hungry. You can snack before and after the meal, or even bring your own meal if what your host is serving is problematic.

Tip #5: Read the labels

Canned, boxed, or otherwise processed and commercially packaged foods often contain ingredients we wouldn’t expect. So make sure you read the labels before you consume a packaged food item.

Do some research on where your problem food hides. Gluten, for example, can show up in ingredients like modified food starch, hydrolyzed protein, and malt flavoring.

Tip #6: Focus on the other aspects of Thanksgiving that you enjoy

Yes, Thanksgiving is primarily a food-based holiday. But there are other things to focus on. Maybe you’re getting to see family and friends that you’ve missed, especially with the social distancing we’ve all experienced over the past couple of years.

Enjoy the non-food Thanksgiving traditions like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the National Dog Show, or the football games. If you’re a shopper, you might want to go get a newspaper and peruse all the Black Friday ads.

Tip #7: Cut yourself some slack

Thanksgiving can be rough if you are navigating food intolerances, sensitivities, or allergies. And it’s okay to feel what you feel about that. You don’t have to be super positive or pretend that you’re excited when you’re not. 

If you’ve just discovered your food issues during the past year, this may be a challenging time. It’s okay to be sad and grieve the loss of carefree holiday eating.

And if you give in and decide to eat foods that don’t agree with you — enjoy them, forgive yourself, do what you can to mitigate the resulting symptoms. No one is perfect. Eating a restrictive diet is hard on a normal day. If you eat some of your problem foods (either accidentally or on purpose), reach out to your practitioner for some tips on how to best reduce the reactions you are experiencing. 

Thanksgiving will come and go. And if you’re working with a practitioner on solving the root causes of your symptoms, you may be able to eat more of your favorite foods by next year.

Need some help navigating the holidays with food allergies and sensitivities? Let’s chat. I have helped hundreds of clients feel better through food and lifestyle changes. Let’s get you on the road to getting your life back.

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