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Planning Your Get-Together For Special Dietary Needs

Are you hosting a holiday meal this year? If so, it is likely that there will be a guest who is avoiding certain foods for one reason or another. Vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, and paleo diets are becoming more commonplace.

For someone with no food avoidances themselves or people they cook for, navigating the special diet landscape when inviting friends or family to dinner can be tricky. Below, I will dig into these four common diets and outline foods each diet avoids. Keep in mind that as individuals differ, so do their diets. Your best practice in planning a meal is to individually ask your guests for specific foods they avoid.

Vegetarian Diet

Vegetarians do not consume: 

  • Meat, including cow, pig, chicken, turkey, lamb, and all seafood
  • Broth, stock, “drippings,” lard (used for flavoring) derived from animal meat and/or bones
  • Fish sauce and anchovy paste, which is common in Caesar dressing
  • Rennet, an enzyme derived from animals’ stomachs, used in some cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano. Look for cheeses that specify “no animal rennet” on the label
  • Gelatin, which is derived from animal bones, connective tissue, and organs. Used in marshmallows, some candies, Jello
  • White sugar. Sugar is whitened with bone char, which is usually made from cow bones. Look for vegan sugar, which is whitened without the use of this animal product

Vegan Diet

A diet free from all animal-based foods. Everything listed above in the vegetarian section PLUS:

  • Dairy from cows, goats, sheep, or any other animal
  • Includes liquid milk, cheese, cream, powdered milk, whey powder, etc.
  • Eggs 
  • Casein (a milk protein used in some soy cheeses)
  • Honey, although it is somewhat of a common grey area. Because it’s a  food made by insects, many vegans clearly include it in their avoidances. However, many vegans do choose to eat it. 

certified vegan logoBe aware that not all meat and dairy replacements are also vegan. Some have eggs in them; and some soy cheeses use casein—a milk protein used to bind the cheese and allow it to melt easier. These products would be suitable for vegetarians, but not vegans. Look for this logo from The Vegan Awareness Foundation, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization dedicated to educating the public about veganism and assisting vegan-friendly businesses to assure a packaged item is vegan.

Gluten-Free Diet

A gluten-free diet does not include the grains wheat, barley, or rye. This includes all varieties and forms of these grains—see list below. 

Certified Gluten Free logo

Beware of Hidden Gluten!

It can be very tricky to identify processed foods that contain gluten. Look for the logo developed by the Gluten-Free Certification Organization, an industry program dedicated to providing certification services to producers of gluten-free products using quality assessment and control measures throughout production, in order to provide assurance to consumers of the safety of their foods.

If the label does not have this logo, check the ingredients list very carefully. Check with your guest beforehand to make sure the ingredients are acceptable. There aremany ingredients that contain gluten, and many of them might be surprising. Here’s a list of items that contain gluten: 

  • Barley (flakes, flour, pearl)
  • Brewer’s yeast
  • Bulgur
  • Durum (type of wheat)
  • Farro/faro (also known as spelt or dinkel)
  • Graham flour
  • Hydrolyzed wheat protein
  • Kamut (type of wheat)
  • Malt, malt extract, malt syrup, malt flavoring
  • Malt vinegar
  • Malted milk
  • Matzo, matzo meal
  • Modified wheat starch
  • Oatmeal, oat bran, oat flour, whole oats (unless they are from pure, uncontaminated oats)
  • Rye bread and flour
  • Seitan
  • Semolina
  • Spelt 
  • Triticale
  • Wheat bran
  • Wheat flour
  • Wheat germ
  • Wheat starch

Paleo Diet

A diet based on the types of foods presumed to have been eaten by early humans, consisting of meat, fish, vegetables, and fruit, and excluding:

  • Cereal grains, for example: wheat, corn, barley, rye, millet, oats, rice, sorghum and teff, also buckwheat, quinoa and amaranth
  • Legumes, for example: adzuki beans, black beans, soybeans, fava beans, garbanzo beans (chickpeas), kidney beans, lima beans, and also peanuts
  • Dairy
  • Refined sugar
  • Potatoes
  • Processed foods
  • Overly salty foods
  • Refined vegetable oils
  • Candy

Now, Let’s Get Cooking!

Okay, now that we’ve talked about what to avoid, here’s what to make and enjoy.

Vegan and Vegetarian Ideas

Here are some pre-made items you can find at the Co-op to replace meat. These items you will find in the freezer section. They will need to be thawed before cooking. Complete instructions are included with each meal.

Field Roast Grain Meat Company

Sure, many folks have heard of replacing meat with tofu, but Field Roast sought to create a protein with a firmer texture, combined with umami flavors from kombu seaweed. Here are their holiday offerings:

  • 1 lb Field Roast Celebration Roast: A rich and savory sausage-style stuffing made from Field Roast grain meat, fresh cut butternut squash, mushrooms and Granny Smith apples seasoned with a blend of rosemary, thyme and sage. Surrounded with grain meat seasoned with rubbed sage, garlic and lemon juice. Serves about four people. 
  • 2 lb Field Roast Celebration Roast with traditional bread stuffing and porcini (mushroom) gravy: Similar to 1 lb roast, but with bread stuffing and gravy. Serves about eight people.
  • Field Roast Hazelnut Cranberry Roast En Croute: A rich, hazelnut-infused vegetarian grain meat stuffed with Field Roast sausage, crystallized ginger, cranberries and apples—wrapped in a savory vegan puff pastry. Serves about eight people.


A family-owned business since 1980, Tofurky brought to market a classic meat-free Thanksgiving protein in the mid-nineties. Their holiday meal line-up: 

  • Tofurky Veggie Roast: A blend of vital wheat gluten and tofu. Serves five.
  • Tofurky Vegetarian Roast & Gravy: vital wheat gluten and tofu blend with meatless gravy. Serves five (with extra gravy left over!).
  • Tofurky Vegetarian Feast: The works! This all-in-one box contains roast, gravy, stuffing, and brownie —the whole meal. For added fun, they have created their own version of an edible “wishbone” (made from vital wheat gluten). Serves six.

Vegetarian/Vegan Stuffing ’n’ Gravy

Those who do not consume animal products will pass not only on the turkey, ham, and lamb—but also the stuffing and gravy, since these dinner sides are made using animal fat and/or stock from bones. There are readily available pre-made meatless gravy and stuffing mixes—check out your options at the Co-op. Or, make them from scratch!

Herbed Vegetarian Stuffing

Adapted from Delicious Living 

This is a favorite recipe of mine that I have made time and time again. I serve it alongside slices of Field Roast’s Celebration Roast, topped with gravy and cranberry jam. Roasted root vegetables round out a hearty meal. 

  • 4 oz. fresh spinach leaves (about 4 c. packed)
  • 3/4 Tbs. olive oil
  • 3/4 c. diced celery (1/4-inch dice)
  • 3/4 c. diced onion (1/4-inch dice)
  • 3/4 c. diced carrot (1/4-inch dice)
  • 1/8 tsp. sea salt
  • 1/8 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 tsp. chopped fresh sage leaves (or 2 teaspoons dried)
  • 1 Tbs. fresh thyme leaves, stripped from stems
  • 3 c. multigrain bread cubes (1/2-inch cubes)
  • 1/2 c. reduced-sodium vegetable broth, plus more if needed

Directions: Steam spinach in a large, wide pot with 1/4 cup water over high heat, about 1 minute, until wilted. To retain its bright green color, drain and immediately plunge into iced water. Squeeze out water, then chop. Set aside. Rinse and dry pot. Warm olive oil over medium heat. Add celery, onion, and carrots. Cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are tender, about 10 minutes. If vegetables begin to brown, reduce heat. Stir in reserved spinach, salt, pepper, sage, and thyme. Cook 1 minute. Turn heat to low. Add bread cubes, then broth, stirring well. If bread is especially dense, add a bit more broth to soften to desired texture. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately, or turn stuffing into a baking pan brushed with olive oil. Cover and heat at 350˚F until heated through. Makes 8 servings.

Prepared Meatless Gravy Options

  • Simply Organic Vegetarian Brown Gravy: vegetarian, just add water to prepare
  • Road’s End Organics Gravy Mix: vegan, just add water to prepare
  • Tofurky Vegetarian Savory Gravy: vegan, find in freezer aisle

Gluten-Free Ideas

For some great gluten-free recipes, check out my co-worker Mike Burns’ excellent article from two years ago with his favorite gluten-free holiday dishes:

Paleo Ideas

  • Turkey, of course, or ham, lamb, etc.
  • Root vegetables roasted in coconut oil or Epic duck fat (find this relatively new item in the packaged grocery aisles)
  • Cranberry sauce (see recipe in the gluten-free article linked to above) 

Grain-Free, Gluten-Free Green Bean Casserole

This is vegan, paleo, and gluten-free.

  • 2 lb. fresh green beans, trimmed
  • 2 Tbs. olive oil
  • 1 tsp. balsamic vinegar
  • 2 c. mushrooms, sliced
  • 1/2 c. coconut milk
  • 1/2 c. almonds, sliced
  • 1 onion, thinly sliced
  • Sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

Directions: Preheat oven to 375ºF. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and prepare a large bowl of ice water. Add the green beans and cook for 5 minutes. Drain and immediately plunge into the ice water. Let sit while you prepare the onions. Heat a large skillet over medium heat and add the olive oil. Add the onions and mushrooms to the skillet and cook until well browned and caramelized. Add the vinegar, stir, and remove from heat. Drain the beans and transfer to a casserole dish. Drizzle with coconut milk and top with the mushrooms and onions. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove from oven and sprinkle with the almonds before serving. Makes 8 servings.

When In Doubt #2: Potluck!

Consider asking your guests to bring a side dish to share. This is the best way to ensure they will be satisfied, while also maybe introducing yourself and other guests to new foods. 

May your feasts be healthy and full of good cheer! 

Alchemy PaintingKrause Donovan Estate Law Partners, LLCMadison Waldorf School

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