How to Handle the Holidays When You Have Food Intolerances
A nutritionist with her own food sensitivities shares a few pieces of advice ahead of turkey day.
Like a growing number of people, I have food intolerances, or sensitivities. So I know firsthand that when you’re in this camp, enjoying Thanksgiving away from home can be very stressful.
When I look back on the days when I could nibble on anything I desired (like my sister-in-law’s awesome pumpkin bread!) without repercussions, I realize how difficult it must be for someone who doesn’t struggle with food intolerances to understand. So try be patient with with your family and friends, and know that you can and will get through this mother of all food-fests.
First, it’s important to note that food intolerances aren’t the same as food allergies. A food allergy is a much more serious and potentially life-threatening condition, which generally requires keeping an EpiPen on hand 24/7. For someone with a food allergy, I would recommend not eating anything unless you are 100% sure what’s in it, as well as how it was made. Even something as simple as using the same utensil in two dishes can lead to cross-contamination that could trigger an allergic reaction. A food intolerance is also not the same as Celiac disease, which is another very serious medical condition in which gluten must be avoided.
Food intolerances are different, and sometimes difficult for others to grasp. When you're sensitive to particular foods (such as lactose, gluten, soy, eggs, or corn), eating them may trigger a wide variety of troublesome symptoms, such as bloating or digestive upset, skin inflammation, itching, or a flare-up of an existing skin condition like eczema or psoriasis. Other reactions include headaches or migraines, brain fog, fatigue, irritability, and generally just feeling under the weather.
While not as serious as a food allergy or Celiac disease, a food intolerance can lead to problems you just don’t want to experience, particularly on a holiday weekend. So how do you avoid a reaction, especially when you’re dining at the home of a friend or family member? Below are some tips that have helped me.
Talk to your host about the menu ahead of time
I'm not suggesting you ask your host to make special dishes for you. But it’s perfectly fine to inquire about what will be served, so you can plan ahead. Explain your situation either over the phone or in person (don’t leave this up to text or email). Your host may not know what a food intolerance is, so briefly share your story. And be sure to clarify that you aren’t asking for any recipe changes; you just need to know which dishes to avoid, so you can feel your best and enjoy the day.
Bring a safety dish (or two)
At the end of your conversation, ask your host if it’s okay for you to bring a few dishes you know will be safe for you to eat. He or she will probably feel relieved by the suggestion. If so, bring enough to share, in case others want to sample your recipe.
If you know that the mashed potatoes will contain butter and cream and you’re dairy intolerant, for example, consider bringing oven roasted sweet potato wedges, seasoned with coconut oil, maple syrup, ginger, and cinnamon. If the green beans will be made with add-ins you can’t eat—like nuts or gluten-containing fried onions—bring some olive oil oven roasted Brussels sprouts.
Traditional Thanksgiving desserts are likely to contain a range of ingredients you may be sensitive to as well, so bring a sweet treat too. To prevent awkwardness or a sense of competition, bring something that’s not on the menu, rather than a modified version of something that’s already being served. This also increases the chances that others will enjoy the dishes you’ve brought too.
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Plan to have some snacks before and after
If you think your choices may be limited at the main event, consider eating something before you go, or have a meal at the ready when you get home. If you’re staying in a hotel, stock your room with snacks ahead of time, so you won’t be scrambling after all the stores are closed. If you’ll be out all day, stash something portable in your bag to bring with, and find a private place to nosh if needed.
Practice meditation or breathing
The holidays are already stressful. But being surrounded by foods you aren't able to enjoy—or having to explain (again) why you can’t try Aunt Jill’s homemade rolls—can add another layer of anxiety. Before you get to the gathering, find a quiet spot to complete a guided meditation. (Check out these 10 online meditation videos, all under 10 minutes.)
If you feel your stress level rising at dinner, focus on taking slow, controlled breaths. Or recruit a fellow guest to get outside for some fresh air or a neighborhood walk. If you receive push-back, or comments like, “It’s all in your head,” reach out to a friend who gets it, and may even be in the exact same situation miles away. A quick text exchange can calm your nerves and remind you that you’re doing the best you can to take care of yourself (despite how Aunt Jill feels about it).
Cynthia Sass is Health’s contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a consultant for the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Nets.