It was Christmas dinner and I was faced with a platter of cheese-filled, pastry-covered appetizers. Normally, this would be reason alone to celebrate, but not that day. I couldn’t eat them. I had just committed to a dairy-free, gluten-free, meat-reduced diet due to allergies and lifestyle choices. At the time, avoiding wheat, meat and cheese at Christmas seemed a Herculean task.
Fast forward a year, and I’m planning on making a stuffed squash without any dairy, wheat or meat for my partner’s allergy-free, meat-loving family during our first Christmas together. Until this year, I had never stuffed a squash before. A few times a season over the last three or so years, I would pick up an acorn squash, bake it with brown sugar and butter (or vegan margarine), and eat it for dinner, unaccompanied. I have bigger dreams this year.
Allison Landin, a holistic nutritionist with Le Soleil Health and Wholeness, tells me that she likes to stuff an acorn squash with sauted apples, shallots, pecans and quinoa. The dish appeals to me not only because it satisfies a craving for decadent, roasted flavours, it also fuels the body with an array of essential nutrients, including vitamins A and C, along with anti-inflammatory agents, such as omega-3 fatty acids. Alas, not every dish on the Christmas table will be made of squash. I expect there will be the usual suspects that I can’t eat, like dinner rolls and pie. And therein lies the challenge.
Food and the holidays are so interconnected that it’s difficult to deal with restrictions that mean you can’t indulge in the traditional items most people would have on their Christmas dinner tables. “You really want to be able to engage in that culture of celebrating the holidays together, and when you have to not partake or partake very awkwardly in the meal, it can definitely be a bit frustrating,” says Mike Brennan, co-proprietor of the vegan food truck Sailin’ On.
In a rather tragi-comic example from one of his first Christmases as a vegan, Brennan recalls: “In the early 2000s, I remember sitting there and eating a white bun with carrots and peas on it because that was the only vegan thing I could eat at my family dinner.”
I find an easy solution to food-related heartbreak at Christmas is to follow one rule: Make it and share it. I like to make one or two of my favourite dishes – something simple like arugula and fig salad or the stuffed squash – and share it with everyone at the table. That way, I can partake more fully in the meal and share new flavours with my family and friends.
When I first began eliminating gluten and dairy from my diet, the over-complicated dessert recipes were my biggest obstacle. This year, I ask the ladies who make up the Chocolate Doctors for a suggestion, and they immediately recommend making a raw vegan chocolate pudding. Simple, versatile and rich, raw vegan chocolate pudding packs big health benefits with avocados as the main ingredient. Avocados are rich in fibre, potassium and healthy fats and provide a silky smooth texture. The pudding satisfies many a palate (including my partner’s skeptical taste buds) and, if you have a blender – even a noisy red one like mine – you can make it.
Complicated vegan dishes in general are often best to avoid. I would rather eat and share my vegan roasted yam soup at the Christmas table then veganize a traditional recipe, which usually leads to complicated dishes with staggering lists of ingredients. Jenna Carton of Edmonton’s VegPalette, a new pick-up and delivery service of prepared vegan meals, agrees that “people are less likely to bite into a Tofurky if they’ve never had it at Christmas than if you made a pumpkin soup that is simple, delicious and less stressful.”
The outcome of my gluten-free, vegan, Christmas stuffed squash is unknown, but I can confidently say that my practice trials in our apartment kitchen have gone well. Thankfully, my experiments have shown squash to be a lot easier to work with than turkey. Simple and easy, just the way I like my Christmas to be.
Five Rules for Creating an Allergy-Friendly Holiday Feast
1. “The more ingredients you put in something, the less chance there is that people with intolerances or allergies will be able to eat it,” says Landin. She recommends avoiding gluten-free processed and pre-packaged foods because they are “often full of other allergens, like soy or corn, and just stick to whole foods – grains, fruits and vegetables – and you’ll be fine.”
2. When creating a holiday feast for guests who have food allergies and intolerances, you need to read and understand your labels. “You really have to check all of your ingredients on everything you’re buying that’s in a box or a can,” says Brennan. Take the time to read all the ingredients, so you can catch the “modified milk ingredients, corn starch, or wheat product far down the list that’s so easy to miss.”
3. If you are hosting a guest who has celiac disease or a non-celiac gluten intolerance, you must avoid gluten completely to prevent cross-contamination. For example, a surprising source of cross-contamination is oats because they’re often processed in facilities that also handle wheat and barley, using the same machinery. As a result, it is often not gluten-free and must be avoided. Products that contain barley, rye, triticale or wheat (including durum, graham, kamut, semolina and spelt) contain gluten. You will also find gluten in malt and malt-based products, usually derived from barley, and oats, often contaminated with both wheat and barley, according to the Canadian Celiac Association.
4. To help you create a gluten-free holiday feast, I recommend making use of both the Canadian Celiac Association (CCA) and Celiac Disease Foundation (CDF) websites. Shelley Case’s authoritative book on eating gluten-free, Gluten-Free Diet: A Comprehensive Resource Guide is an exceptional resource, cited by both the CCA and the CDF.
5. If you have guests who have nut allergies, you must be hyper-vigilant about reading your labels. Food labels usually list items the product “might” contain, and nuts are often on them. When you go grocery shopping with a nut-free holiday meal in mind, take your time and do your research beforehand. Additionally, freshly baked goods are often made in environments that aren’t guaranteed to be nut-free – so call the business beforehand and confirm that it can accommodate your needs.