Thanksgiving on a Gluten-Free, Vegetarian or Vegan Diet

Balancing the feast for everyone

Most people associate Thanksgiving with roast turkey and traditional bread stuffing. But not everyone eats meat or gluten. Preparing a Thanksgiving feast for meatless or gluten-free guests doesn’t have to be constricting, says Lee Cotton, a registered dietitian based in Stuart, Florida. “It need not consist of a tofu turkey and green beans,” she says. You can make minor adjustments to the Thanksgiving repast to accommodate everyone, including vegetarians, vegans and people who follow a gluten-free diet.

It’s important to make everyone feel welcomed, regardless of their respective eating regimens. And the food preparation for people with diverse diets need not be complicated. “It’s not necessary to change the entire menu for the meal,” Cotton says. “There can be minor adjustments to the Thanksgiving feast to accommodate all guests. Switch up some simple ingredients in stuffing and serve some sides that can also serve as a main dish for people who don’t eat meat.” There are plenty of gluten-free items in grocery stores that can substitute for holiday staples, she notes.

Here are 11 ways to prepare a holiday feast where guests with dietary restrictions do not leave hungry.

Conduct pre-meal research.

When you host a guest or guests who have specific dietary needs, trying to make everyone happy can be challenging, says Beth Czerwony, a registered dietitian at Cleveland Clinic. “The best way to make sure everyone feels included is to first find out exactly what foods cannot be eaten,” she says. “Some people following a vegetarian diet do eat eggs and/or milk; some are pescatarians, which means they do allow fish and seafood in their diets. Guests following a vegan diet do not consume any animal products, so label reading will be important. Having more information can make meal planning and modifying recipes a lot easier.”

Keep it simple.

One of the biggest mistakes people make during Thanksgiving is to cook twice — once for carnivores and again for people who don’t eat meat, says Sara Patton, a registered dietitian with Deborah Heart and Lung Center in Browns Mills, New Jersey. There’s no need to cook two sets of meals. “If you’re hosting mixed company (carnivores and non-meat eaters) at Thanksgiving, plan on doing simple substitutions on all your side dishes,” Patton says. For example, in preparing stuffing, mashed potatoes and vegetables, replace chicken stock with vegetable stock. “It works just great and no one will know the difference,” she says. You can also use mushroom gravy and vegan butter.

Appetizers for everyone

You can create delicious appetizers for everyone while also meeting the dietary needs of your guests who require a gluten-free or vegan option, says Patricia R. Thomson, a certified plant-based nutritionist based in Dallas who is the founder and president of TS Wellness, a health and wellness company. For example, hot artichoke and white bean spread can be served with gluten-free pita chips or crackers or cut-up veggies including carrots, cucumbers, red peppers and celery. These appetizers are “a yummy and healthy way to start your holiday,” Thomson says.

Gluten-free main dish

Turkey is still a healthy option for people who adhere to a gluten-free regimen, says Dr. Kristi Artz, medical director for Spectrum Health’s Lifestyle Medicine program. She’s based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “Turkey is a lower calorie lean protein, and when paired with a plate full of colorful vegetables, can serve as a nutritious meal,” Artz says. Aim for a plate with a “plant slant.” That means half to three-quarters of your plate should be filled with tasty vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, with a small amount of turkey, if you choose.

Gluten-free sides

There’s no need to worry about providing tasty, gluten-free sides. There are plenty of delicious and healthy options, says Lise Gloede, a registered dietitian based in Arlington, Virginia. Whole roasted cauliflower and butternut squash risotto are good offerings. “Portobello mushrooms are also great ingredients to stuff and serve as a side dish,” she says.

Vegetarian/vegan main courses

Small recipe switches can produce tasty main courses for diners who follow vegetarian or vegan regimens, Cotton says. For example, gluten-free vegetarian lasagna and roasted cauliflower are tasty main courses for diners who abstain from meat. Acorn squash filled with quinoa, vegetables and dried fruit is another option. You can start a new main course tradition with a veggie loaf made of ingredients like beans, sweet potatoes, tomatoes and oats, Thomson says. For flavor, add rosemary, thyme and sage.

Vegan/vegetarian sides

You can get artistic with side dishes — just make sure you avoid incorporating meats, butter and other non-vegan cooking additives, says Alyssa Koens, a registered dietitian for Profile Sanford, which provides personalized weight loss plans for its clients. She’s based in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Vegetarians abstain from meat, fish and poultry, as do vegans. People on vegan regimens also exclude all animal products from their diets, including dairy and eggs. “Roasted carrots and fennel is a tasty complement to the Thanksgiving feast,” Koens says. Instead of a traditional stuffing, try to make one with cauliflower, she advises. “You can add a bunch of spices, onions and veggies to give it some bulk,” she says. A green bean casserole with cranberries topped with a Dijon vinaigrette is another good option. “Any sort of bean-based dish will provide great protein for anyone not partaking of the bird or other meats,” Koens says.

Consider soup

Nothing creates instant warmth and a feeling of being welcome like a delicious bowl of creamy butternut squash soup, Thomson says. “You can serve as an entrée or as part of the soup course for your holiday meal planning,” Thomson says. “Break out the treasured soup tureen to create a holiday-like presentation.” Other good Thanksgiving soup options include curried sweet potato; quinoa vegetable; corn and potato chowder; hearty lentil and roasted pumpkin. These soups are made entirely from plant-based as well as gluten- and dairy-free ingredients.

Don’t underrate plant-based food.

The most important thing to remember when planning vegan or plant-based dishes for your Thanksgiving feast is that these offerings are real food, says Dreux Ellis, executive chef at Café Gratitude, a group of plant-based restaurants in Southern California. “We tend to separate it, or put it in a category of its own,” Ellis says. “But there’s so much seasonal food that’s familiar to everyone, not just those who follow a vegan or plant-based diet.” As examples, he cites cranberries, butternut squash, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, mushrooms, apples, pumpkin, chestnuts, heirloom potatoes, persimmons and pomegranates. “All of these delicious foods are vegan by nature and provide a medium for endless creative combinations,” Ellis says.

Desserts for every diet

When it comes to desserts packed with refined sugar, it’s OK to indulge during Thanksgiving — in moderation, Koens says. “During Thanksgiving, it’s important to allow ourselves to enjoy the tradition of a little indulgence, but like in any situation, moderation is key,” she says. Swapping out sugar with other alternatives is one simple way she suggests to keep sugar content low. For instance, you can use unsweetened applesauce to bake pumpkin or banana bread. Greek yogurt works well as a sweetener in chocolate mousse. Dial up the flavor of desserts by incorporating spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger or even pumpkin pie spice. “Parfaits are another festive but lower calorie option you can add to your Thanksgiving feast,” Koens says.

Don’t overdo it.

“With all of the holiday gatherings coming up, one of the most challenging things for my patients is keeping portion sizes under control,” Artz says. “All good things should be taken in moderation, and that’s the key during the holidays.” Don’t forgo the holiday feasts all together, but try to fill half or more of your plate with fruits or vegetables. And remember that a portion should be about the size of your fist — this rule works both for children and adults. Try using a smaller plate to lessen your portion sizes and fill up with veggies first.

One way to avoid overindulging is to practice mindful eating. “Take the time to pause before each bite and enjoy the aromas, taste and textures,” Cotton says. She suggests these mindful eating strategies:

— Eat a regular breakfast or lunch before the holiday meal.

— Honor your fullness cues and listen to body signals.

— Stay hydrated and consume adequate water.

— Enjoy your favorite meals in moderation.

To recap, here are 11 ways to have Thanksgiving on a vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free diet.

— Conduct pre-meal research.

— Keep it simple.

— Embrace appetizers for everyone.

— Opt for a gluten-free main dish.

— Consider gluten-free sides.

— Prepare vegan/vegetarian main courses.

— Whip up vegan/vegetarian sides.

— Consider soup.

— Don’t underrate plant-based food.

— Dig into desserts for every diet.

— Don’t overdo it.

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