How to Work With Dietary Restrictions on Thanksgiving

November 18, 2019
Photo by Bobbi Lin

Thanksgiving is just around the corner and you’re feeling prepared. You started a spreadsheet. You cleared out the fridge. You emailed relatives and friends and relatives’ friends, inviting them to the big feast.

Then, along with the RSVPs, they come in droves: the special diet reminders. Sarah is vegan now. It’s been more than a month but Aunt Kathy is still doing Whole30. Don’t you know Grandpa has Diabetes? We just found out that my daughter has a super-severe nut allergy, but she loves trying everything on the table!

Don’t panic. You’re already doing the heavy lifting of hosting, the least we can do is share some tips for how to best accommodate your guests. Today, we’ll talk about 10 common special diets and allergens, and provide you with recipes that are sure to please everyone at the table.

1. Vegetarian

You know this one, probably. Vegetarians don’t eat meat, but do often eat other animal products like milk, eggs, cheese, and butter. Classics like mashed potatoes and sweet potato or green bean casserole are typically already vegetarian (just make sure to use vegetable broth instead of chicken). Vegetarians won’t eat turkey or drippings-based gravy, but if you have a meat-free stuffing and plenty of veggie- and plant protein–based sides, maybe an extra salad or grain dish (not to mention dessert!), no one will go hungry.

A Few Vegetarian Favorites

2. Vegan

Vegans don’t eat any animal products, which includes meat, all dairy, eggs, and honey. This obviously excludes the turkey, but with hearty sides (and maybe an extra, cheese- and cream-less vegetable dish), you’re all set. Simple substitutes like nut milks and vegan butter or oil are easy to swap in when it comes to otherwise vegetarian dishes, like mashed potatoes, vegetable soups, and stuffing. But you may have to do a few extra steps when it comes to dessert like a custard pie or buttery cookies—say, using chia and flax eggs, or soaking nuts to make thick, creamy bases. Luckily, we’ve got you covered.

Your vegan guests are hungry, too

3. Gluten-free, Celiac Disease

Whether someone avoids wheat products by choice or is allergic to gluten as a result of Celiac Disease, wheat in all forms—like farro, einkorn, spelt, barley, rye, and some oats—is off limits when you’re gluten-free. This crowd can eat turkey and mashed potatoes, so you’re covered there (however, you’ll want to make sure to make a flour-free gravy, like in this guide). Use gluten-free sourdough or cornbread for stuffing and consider alternative flours, like chickpea, brown rice, and almond, when possible. Note: Check with your guests about how important it is that you avoid cross-contamination with wheat products, like using a toaster that typically houses regular bread or wheatless grains that aren’t certified gluten-free.

Cut the bread, make these instead

4. Nut Allergy

Avoiding nuts when it comes to Thanksgiving food isn’t too tricky, as long as you skip the pecan pie. While nuts tend to find their way into fall salads and vegetable dishes, they can easily be replaced with well-toasted seeds or bread crumbs. Unless someone has a super-severe allergy, (in which case, just forgo the nuts altogether) simply serve your toasted almonds for the salad or candied walnut topping for sweet potatoes on the side of a dish in a clearly-labeled bowl for other guests. Keep in mind: Some allergies are more serious than others; check with your guests about how important it is to avoid cross-contamination in the kitchen when it comes to utensils, dishes, and airborne particles.

No nuts? No problem

5. Lactose Intolerance, Milk Allergy

If someone is lactose intolerant, there may be some wiggle room about which dairy products you absolutely must avoid (this tends to be different for everyone—ask for clarification from your guests!). But when dealing with milk allergies, it’s best to skip dairy, period. Luckily, we live in an era where dairy-free milks (made with everything from oats to yellow peas) are wildly available. You can very easily substitute those non-dairy milks in recipes that call for cow’s milk, cream, or buttermilk—check out this trick for using onions (yep, onions!) as sub for cream. As with nuts, some allergies are more serious than others; check with your guests about how important it is to avoid cross-contamination.

Milk-free guests can still eat

6. Egg Allergy

All vegan dishes are eggless, but your egg-free guests might be fine with cheese, yogurt, milk, and meat. Other than stuffing, which is often mixed with an egg or two to keep it light, most classic Thanksgiving dishes like mashed potatoes, green beans, and turkey don’t call for eggs. You will, however, need an alternative for the pumpkin pie (this one just happens to be vegan). Note: Some allergies are more serious than others; check with your guests about how important it is to avoid cross-contamination.

No eggs here

7. Diabetes

There are two main types of Diabetes, both of which affect the way the body regulates blood sugar. Though there are nuanced differences in maintaining a diet for Type 1 and 2 Diabetes, ultimately both require limiting carbohydrates, animal fat, and sugar. Ultimately, your guest who has diabetes will be the best source when it comes to knowing what they can and can’t eat. Check with your guest to see if there are any ingredients they don’t eat at all, but make sure to keep a few dishes simple and nutrient-dense, which everyone (including those with Diabetes) can enjoy.

Guests with diabetes will be thrilled about

8. Paleo

Also known as the “Caveman Diet,” the Paleolithic, or Paleo Diet requires limiting refined sugars (some folks will also cut honey and maple syrup), grains, legumes, and dairy products (though some will still eat cultured dairy products like yogurt and certain cheeses). Meat, fish, eggs, nuts and seeds, fruits and vegetables, and fats like olive oil and avocado are all welcome on Paleo. Skip the marshmallows on the sweet potato casserole, add a couple naturally-sweetened and wheat-free desserts, and you’ll be good to go.

Paleo people will totally love

9. Whole30

Essentially a more strict version of Paleo, Whole30 is technically a 30-day elimination diet—all dairy (except ghee), grains, legumes, sugar (including honey and maple syrup, as well as artificial sweeteners), and alcohol are forbidden. Lean hard into fruits, vegetables, nuts, lean meat, and olive oil, and you’ll be great. A note on dessert: Technically, a Whole30 tenet is supposed to avoid sugar in all forms, as well as skip recreating “treats” with approved ingredients. However, if your guest is fine with making an exception for a holiday, use dates or date syrup as a sweetener.

Whole30-Friendly Recipes

10. Keto

The Ketogenic or Keto Diet is a low-carb, high-fat diet (remember the Atkins craze of years past? It’s sort of like that). In the world of Keto, meat, fish, eggs, cheese, butter, nuts and seeds, avocados, low-carb vegetables, and low-carb sweeteners like stevia are celebrated; fruit, legumes, root vegetables, granulated and brown sugar, and grains (from quinoa to farro to pasta) are given up. By replacing most carbohydrates with fat, the body enters a metabolic state known as Ketosis, and begins burning fat for energy. This means that your guests won’t touch the rolls or pie, but will fill their plate with buttered vegetables, roasted meats, and anything cheesy or creamy. Technically wine is off-limits on Keto, but in many recipes you can replace it with low-sodium chicken stock.

Dishes your Keto friends go nuts over

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the idea of making several extra dishes to accommodate myriad dietary restrictions, remember that there’s nothing wrong with asking for help! Instead of having guests who follow a special diet or have allergies bring wine or other host gifts, consider asking them to contribute a dish that they feel comfortable eating. Or, if you really prefer to cook everything, ask your guest for one of their favorite Thanksgiving recipes upon reviewing their RSVP. Either way, your guest will know the dish they brought or recommended is safe to eat, and you can focus on getting the rest of the meal on the table. You’ll both have a happier holiday, guaranteed.

What are your tips for accommodating dietary restrictions and allergies during the holidays?
52 Days of Thanksgiving
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Rebecca Firkser is the assigning editor at Food52. She used to wear many hats in the food media world: food writer, editor, assistant food stylist, recipe tester (sometimes in the F52 test kitchen!), recipe developer. These days, you can keep your eye out for her monthly budget recipe column, Nickel & Dine. Rebecca tests all recipes with Diamond Crystal kosher salt. Follow her on Instagram @rebeccafirkser.


Rahul G. November 19, 2019
I am on the Low FODMAP diet...lots of restrictions-would love to see more recipes!
Thalia C. November 18, 2019
This is great! Especially the quick reminders of what each restriction entails.
Stephanie B. November 18, 2019
Just decided to go vegan this Thanksgiving since I'll have more non-meat eaters than anyone else, and I'd rather make the diet everyone can eat so thanks for the helpful article! I tested a vegan pumpkin pie this weekend and I was not happy with it, but now I see this one from Gena Hamshaw!
Stephanie G. November 18, 2019
Sooo helpful! Thank you.