Thanksgiving + Special Diets: The Ultimate Guide to Coexisting Deliciously

Thanksgiving is a time for family and – let’s be honest – a time for chowing down!

With food the center of attention, Thanksgiving can be a bit dicey when it comes to the subject of special diets. Vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free – almost every family or group of friends has a special-diet guest at the table.

How to enjoy it peacefully? It’s as easy as 1-2-3.

I think it boils down to these three things:

  1. Practice mutual respect
  2. Expand your culinary horizons
  3. Consider shelving your personal feelings for the day (just hear me out!)

1. Mutual respect

While I talked about it more here, I really think a peaceful meal boils down this: Mutual respect.

Hosts, little extra effort (not a lot! Just a little!) to accommodate your gluten-free or vegan guest can go a long way. What does that look like? Well, usually, it’s about including one or two hearty sides that the special diet guest can eat but that everyone else will still love too. Lots of ideas below – keep reading!

Special-diet guests, bring something that you know you can eat to take some of the pressure off of the host – just make sure you talk to the host about it first so he/she can keep the addition in mind when finalizing the menu. Communication goes hand-in-hand with respect!

If you’re the host AND the person with the special diet (been there many times!) first you’ll need to figure out where you draw your line. If you’re a vegan, for instance, you might have a hard-and-fast rule: NO animal products in your home, period. If that’s the case, and you plan on serving a killer plant-based feast to your fam, great! Just give them a heads-up before the big day. Or perhaps you’re okay with someone bringing a meaty dish for the carnivores, you’re just not up for preparing it yourself. Or maybe you’ll be okay with cooking up the meat yourself – you just won’t want to eat it. Just figure it out and communicate with your loved ones beforehand.

Okay, so now, let’s talk food!

2. Expand your culinary horizons

For this section, I thought I’d point out foods that are off-limits, those that are generally safe, and potential minefields for four common special diets: Vegetarian, vegan, dairy-free, and gluten-free.

Keep in mind, just because I’ve listed something as off-limits or as a potential minefield, doesn’t mean there aren’t alternatives! At the end of each section, I’ve linked you to a collection of delicious Thanksgiving recipes that fit into that particular category (but should please everyone else too)!

Go on, get creative in the kitchen! It’s fun!

Vegetarians

Recap: Someone who self-identifies as a vegetarian usually eats eggs and/or dairy, but nothing with meat or meat byproducts.

Off-limits

  • Turkey
  • Gravy (usually made with turkey drippings or a meat broth)

Generally safe

  • Mashed potatoes – without chicken broth!
  • Cranberry sauce
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Veggie sides
  • Salad
  • Rolls & butter
  • Green bean casserole

Potential minefields

  • Stuffing – can have sausage or even oysters in it; even if it doesn’t, it might still be made with chicken broth
  • Jello salad – has gelatin, something vegetarians usually don’t eat
  • Anything with marshmallows – marshmallows also have gelatin! Dandies are a great alternative.
  • Pumpkin pie – does the crust have lard in it?

Recipe ideas

Vegans

Recap: Vegans eat no animal products whatsoever – no meat, dairy, or eggs.

Off-limits

  • Turkey
  • Gravy – usually made with one or more: meat drippings, meat broth, butter
  • Mashed potatoes – have milk and butter
  • Stuffing – made with butter and meat broth
  • Green bean casserole – usually contains dairy

Generally safe

  • Rolls – made without eggs, milk, or butter
  • Veggies – without cheese or other dairy, bacon, or eggs
  • Salad
  • Cranberry sauce

Potential minefields

  • Same as vegetarians

Recipe ideas

Rustic Sweet Potato & Beet Galette recipe

Dairy-Free

Recap: Someone who avoids dairy might do so because they’re lactose intolerant or even allergic. Usually someone who eats dairy-free can still eat eggs if they choose, and, of course, meat. If you’re having a hard time finding dairy-free sides, try searching the keyword “vegan” instead.

Off-limits

  • Mashed potatoes – made with milk and butter
  • Stuffing – often made with butter
  • Pumpkin pie – made with butter and milk

Generally safe

  • Turkey
  • Veggies – without cheese or other dairy
  • Salad
  • Rolls – made without milk or butter
  • Cranberry sauce

Potential minefields

  • Gravy (if made with milk or butter)
  • Green bean casserole (could have milk in it)

Recipe ideas

Gluten-Free

Recap: Someone on a gluten-free diet avoids wheat and all gluten-containing products including pastas, breads, crackers, and evening seasoning mixes.

Off-limits

  • Rolls
  • Pumpkin pie
  • Stuffing
  • Gravy (made with flour)

Generally safe

  • Turkey
  • Mashed potatoes
  • Cranberry sauce

Potential minefields

  • Cornbread stuffing – though many cornbread recipes are gluten-free, some aren’t

Recipe ideas

Three Bean Sweet Potato Salad

3. One last gentle suggestion: Put your personal feelings aside

Food can be an emotional thing, and when you put so much effort and love into what you make, its rejection can feel personal. Or when you have ethical concerns about certain food sources, emotions can run high.

So you may have some, shall we say, feelings about your son’s new refusal to eat your family’s time-honored dinner rolls because they’re not vegan.

Or perhaps you’re a vegetarian who’s not so fond of your grandma’s insistence on parading the turkey around the table every year.

Or, maybe, your daughter-in-law claims she can’t have gluten, but you’ve read there’s no such thing unless you’re a true celiac (which you know for a fact she’s not!)

I can’t know about how your family works, but if you’re able to put your feelings aside, I do know that a little grace – in every direction – can go a long way toward coexisting peacefully. Just something to keep in mind. 🙂 Of course, only you know where you have to draw your own line, but I’m just putting it out there.

(Let me just say, I believe that there are a TON of people who have issues with gluten, and not just those with celiac disease. But regardless of my view or yours, let’s keep our eye on the prize: Our families are together and enjoying one another along with some delicious food on Thanksgiving. And isn’t that what it’s all about?!)

Happy Thanksgiving!

Kare

Kare is a vegetarian home cook living among carnivores. She loves creating irresistible and flexible recipes that help multi-vore families like hers keep the peace - deliciously.