Meal Plan

Our Guide to Making Thanksgiving Dishes Work for All Dietary Restrictions

November 10, 2016

Most holiday feasts come with a recurring cast of edible characters; classic dishes everyone expects on the table, every year. But when you or your guests have special dietary needs, preparing that menu suddenly gets complicated. Especially when you need to avoid dairy, wheat, meat, or sodium—or all of the above. But don’t panic or make extra dishes. Or worst of all, rely on an undressed salad to feed those with food restrictions.

Instead, divide and conquer! Use the following outline to split any course, making one half of the recipe the traditional way and the other with a special-diet twist. Just note: When splitting a recipe, you’ll may need to adjust the measurements of ingredients. So pay attention and grab a pen—it’s best to make some notes or rewrite the recipe before you make them, so that you keep track. Also, don’t feel like you have to cook both versions at the same time. As long as you set aside ingredients, you can do them separately for more sanity. And finally, remember to label which dish is which. The point here is your creating equally appealing versions of the same food, so you don’t want to forget which rolls are gluten-free!

The appetizers

Let’s begin small and simple. Because, when it comes to multi-dish dinner parties (like Thanksgiving!), appetizers should be just that: small and simple. This often means relying on cheese trays, dips, and spreads for ease. And, of course, crackers, for eating. But here are two easy starters that you can alter to make dairy and gluten-free.

Chevre Devils with and without dairy.

The traditional: Stuffed dates make the perfect party starter because they are raw (meaning, no oven needed) and you can prepare them ahead of time (or make your guests do it while you tend to the turkey). Plus, dates are naturally vegan, low-sodium, and gluten-free, so the only challenge here is the chevre.

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The twist: Instead of the cheese, whip up this cashew alternative. Then, in step 10 of the Chevre Devils recipe, divide the thyme and orange zest mixture in half. Add chevre to one and the cashew cheese to the other. Continue making the recipe as written, filling 12 dates with chevre and 12 with the vegan alternative. And tip: if you’re in a time rut or a space crunch, take a Thanksgiving shortcut and buy candied nuts.

Hard Squash Hummus with and without gluten.

The traditional: I love this recipe because it’s primed for altering—optional garnishes give guests freedom to prepare their snacks as they wish! So let’s make it even more dietary-friendly. Prepare the entire Hard Squash Hummus recipe as it is written—I mean, it’s already vegan, low-sodium, and gluten-free (without the crackers, but we’ll get to that).

Twist: As for your squash-delivery vehicle, give guests the choice of typical crusty bread, pita, or crackers. And, for a low-sodium and gluten-free option, make these Za’atar Spiced Chickpea Crackers with Maldon Sea Salt, which come together quickly and require no time to rise, thanks to chickpea flour. These crackers can be made a few days prior to the Thanksgiving marathon and kept in an airtight container.

The Gravy

Gravy with and without meat-based stock.

Gravy is the life preserver of a sinking Thanksgiving ship. When the Turkey, potatoes, and vegetables taste bland or run dry, gravy saves the day, providing extra moisture and flavor. Made from butter, flour, and turkey drippings, it’s hard to mess up. But those rich ingredients also land gravy on the do-not-eat list for many different dietary challenges.

The traditional: Start by making a normal butter and flour-based roux, with step two of this tutorial. Or if you have vegan guests, start with step one of this beauty instead.

The twist: Once made, split the roux of choice into two separate small pots. Add the stock and drippings to one, per usual. Just remember to adjust measurements accordingly (i.e. cut in half). Then, for the other pot of roux, make a quick mushroom stock by boiling umami-rich shiitake for 30 minutes or this Vegetarian Dashi made with half the amount of kombu. Use either substitutes in place of meat-based stocks and drippings— making it vegan and low in sodium. Continue with instructions as written, leaving out tamari or soy sauce if watching sodium!

The rolls

Rolls with and without gluten.

Most recipes for rolls, biscuits, and loaves usually contain flour. So you can always ditch the bread basket and make a grain-free recipe, like cornbread or Brazilian Cheesy Bread. But, chances are, if you are already baking bread from scratch, you clearly aren’t afraid of a scale or playing with your flours.

The traditional: In that case, start with any muffin, Cheddar Basil Pan Biscuits, or carrot loaf recipe that catches your eye. For this example, let’s work with these Heavenly Oatmeal Molasses Rolls. They are already low in sodium (thanks to a yeast starter) and easily adjusted to be vegan (see below).

The twist: Complete steps 1 and 2 as written. Then, when you get to step 3, divide the mixed ingredients into two separate bowls. Add 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour to one bowl and 1 1/2 cups of your favorite gluten-free flour mix to the other. Continue with the directions accordingly. And if you need to make it vegan, replace scalded milk with warmed coconut milk, butter with coconut oil, and the eggs with aquafaba (or chickpea water). Rolls for all!

the soup

Soup with and without sodium.

The biggest food challenge with soup will be the sodium in broth. You can always make something like this cauliflower or celery soup, that do not use broth but the savory taste of the ingredients to flavor the dish. But, if you have a favorite soup, here’s adjust it.

The traditional: Pick a soup that is already packed with strong, perky ingredients, like this creamy carrot ginger soup. Because celery tastes salty naturally, its presence will add balance without needing the shaker. Then, make the recipe according to the directions until you get to step 6.

The twist: Before adding any stock or broth, divide the onions, celery, and ginger into two separate pots. Add 2 cups vegetable broth to one and 2 cups of that quick mushroom broth to the other. Or even a blend of water and citrus juice or a little white wine for something even easier. Continue the rest of the recipe as written, remember to divide ingredients evenly between the two pots. And in place of sea salt, try using celery seed for more of that naturally salty kick. Note: If you don’t need to make it vegan, you can always replace the cashew cream with regular cream (which will also cut down on prep time). As an added bonus, soups make excellent gravies or sauces the next day.

The mashed potatoes

Mashed potatoes with and without dairy.

Most classic mash recipes contain dairy in the form of butter, cream, and cheese, which can be a problem for those keeping vegan (not to mention those with dairy-allergies, on low-sodium diets, and on Paleo diets). So here's how to split the spuds and make it work for every guest:

The traditional: Diane Morgan's Classic Mashed Potatoes. Because it's genius.

The twist: Set aside half of the cooked potatoes. And then, before adding the butter, milk, or cream, add in this onion-based vegan cream instead. Or, for something simpler and requiring less time, take the potatoes on a coconut adventure. Replace dairy with the same amount of melted coconut oil and warmed, full-fat coconut milk. Proceed with the directions as usual. Balance out the sweetness by adding some warm spices, like cardamom or even a little curry powder.

the stuffing

Stuffing with and without gluten.

In stuffing, it’s the crusty, toasted bread that adds a textural balance to the sautéed vegetables and sauces. And while it makes stuffing the best part of the meal, in my opinion, it proves problematic for your gluten-free guests, as well as those keeping low-sodium.

The traditional: Start with a stuffing heavy in sautéed veggies, like this Butternut Squash, Brussels Sprout, and Bread Stuffing.

The twist: In step 2, make a hard stop after sautéing the celery and onion. Transfer half of the mixture to a baking dish or sheet. Then, add half the amount of bread to the pot and brown it as written. Continue the recipe per normal, dividing the remaining ingredients by half. For the other portion of sautéed veggies, which are patiently waiting in your baking dish or pan, replace bread with toasted cornbread croutons. Or better yet, a few cups of cooked wild rice, cooked quinoa, or cooked, firm French lentils. Continue the recipe as written, adding the remaining portions of broth, herbs, cranberries, walnuts, and seasoning.

the gratin or casserole

Gratin or casserole with or without dairy.

During Thanksgiving it is customary to drown vegetables with cream, cheese, and butter. And while you may choose a fresher route this year, you can also keep dairy-filled classics on the table with this easy trick.

The traditional: Start by making green bean casserole from scratch.

The twist: At step 5, melt 1 tablespoon of butter in one pan and 1 tablespoon of oil in another pan. Divide the mushrooms between the two pans, and cook accordingly. Tip: You may want to do this separately, versus at the same time, so you can give the mushrooms the attention they deserve. Then, continue the recipe as written, remembering to portion the garlic, nutmeg, wine, and broth evenly between the two pans.

In step 8, add 1/2 cup half-and-half to one pan. And add this cashew cream to the other. Divide the green beans, shallots, and salt and pepper between the two pans and mix to combine. Place the green bean mixture into two separate baking dishes or cast-iron skillets and continue as written. You can use the same substitution in this potato gratin, Brussels sprouts dish, or sweet potato situation.

The turkey

Turkey with and without sodium.

I feel like David Blaine. At first, this task seemed impossible. How do you make a bird that is both succulent from a salty brine but equally safe from high-sodium ingredients? But I learned, with a little magic (and spatchcocking), anything is possible.

The traditional: Start with this Spatchcocked Turkey and this dry brine.

The twist: Then, rub one side of the flattened bird with half of the brine mix. Rub the other with with an unsalted herb and spice mix (and don’t be afraid to play with flavors and unexpected spices). At step 6, instead of rolling the spatchcocked turkey back together and into a plastic bag, keep it flat and wrap each side (individually, so as not to mix the rubs around) in plastic wrap as tightly as possible, then continue the recipe as written. And if you feel safer actually cutting the turkey in half, go for it! You’ll most likely carve each side anyways for the big reveal.

the pie

Pie with and without eggs, gluten, or sodium.

The big problem with pie is the crust. Most homemade and store bought crusts contain butter, flour, and baking powder or baking sodium (i.e. sodium)—a holy trinity of holiday dietary restrictions! Here’s a simple remedy.

The traditional: Start with your pumpkin pie (or this vegan version) and double the amount of filling.

The twist: Fill your regular pie crust with half of the filling. Then, for the other half of your filling and something that’s easy and vegan, top with this crumble and bake. It's kind of like this crust-less no-pie pumpkin pie. And for something gluten-free and low in sodium, make macaroons. Halfway through cooking, use your thumb (carefully, it’s hot), to create a well in your macaroons. You can also do this as you form your macaroons if you don’t want to touch hot coconut. When fully cooked and cooled, fill the center of the macaroon cookie crust with your cooked pie filling. Top everything with Coconut Whipped Cream. And then make someone else clean everything up.

Do you have dishes you need substitution help with? Let us know in the comments!

52 Days of Thanksgiving
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Top-notch recipes, expert tips, and all the tools to pull off the year’s most memorable feast.

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In January of 2004, I received a diagnosis that changed my life. I was diagnosed with Lupus, an autoimmune disease that in my case attacked my kidneys and brain. Due to the intensity of the initial “flare up” of the disease, I became renal insufficient and eventually faced kidney failure. Amazingly, through great medicine, wonderful family and friends, and an enormous amount of support, I became stronger and healthier and miraculously, my kidneys partially regenerated. I no longer depend on dialysis and by regulating my diet, I depend on fewer medications. Five years later, I work part time and live a full and utterly enjoyable life. My dietary restrictions have transformed into a real passion for food and I hope to be able to pass along my favorite finds to others facing similar dietary challenges. Be creative, be friendly, and be full!