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Survive Your First Gluten Free Thanksgiving

Updated on October 3, 2012

Going gluten free is a big step for any family. Whether only one person has gone gluten free, or the whole family has come along for the ride, a diagnosis of Celiac Disease is life changing. You learn to cook differently. You get a handle on dinners and lunches and breakfasts. Learn how to shop gluten savvy. Memorize the Gluten Free friendly brands, discover edible gluten free goodies (and a few inedible ones), and develop a whole new grocery store plan. You might even get through your first party or two before the next big shoe drops.

The Holiday. Not just any holiday, either, the big one. The one holiday that centers around food. The one holiday where food is not an optional part of the celebratory process. The one and only, Thanksgiving.

The first Thanksgiving after diagnosis with any food restriction, especially Celiac Disease, is intimidating. There will be food. There should be companionship. The gluten seems inevitable. And that thought leads to the next, and the next...and before you know it you're ready to go back to bed.

Pull the covers back off your head. Take a deep breath. You can do this. You can get through Thanksgiving, and enjoy your feast, too.

Plan Ahead

Like with all things food-related, now that Celiac Disease is a part of your life, you will need to plan ahead. It may not be your idea of fun, but planning ahead will save you a lot of headaches and a few stomach issues as well.

Where do you usually spend Thanksgiving?

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Host a Gluten Free Meal

One of the easiest ways to ensure a gluten free meal is to host it yourself. This means more work. It means your house needs to be neat and tidy, and that a whole mob of people (most of whom you invite and theoretically enjoy spending time with) will descend upon your house, ravenous for dinner. It means slaving away in the kitchen half the morning. But it also means that you know exactly what's in every dish, and don't have to worry about cross contamination issues. It means that after working hard, you get to relax and enjoy the meal.

Work Together

If you can't host the meal, or the job is simply too intimidating, you'll need to work with the host or hostess. There are some dishes that are generally, or easily made, gluten free. If they are willing to work with you and you bring your own dish or two, you can have a relatively stress free, enjoyable meal.

If they aren't willing to work with you, ask yourself why exactly you want to spend Thanksgiving with them? (Oh, right, they're family. And they're learning, too.) Even if they are willing to try, sometimes it's less stressful to bring a plate full of your favorite, safe, holiday foods. Just join in for the camaraderie. (Camaraderie and sparkling cider or eggnog, that is. Both are gluten free and taste better when shared with friends and family)

So, What's For Dinner?

Regardless of where the feast will take place, or who will host it, the main topic of any Thanksgiving discussion is the menu itself. When starting any gluten free meal planning, my first and foremost recommendation is to make a list. Sit down, sip some cider, and think about your favorite Thanksgiving dishes. Write down everything you love about Thanksgiving. Forget the gluten, your list will look gluten-tacious. Forget that all your old favorites are forbidden. They aren't. This will be a new, better holiday. Just bear with me.

Got your list? Good.

Unfortunately, I don't have your list. But I don't need it. I'll just go over a rundown of classic Thanksgiving favorites, use the info you can and skip the rest. Or maybe you'll discover a new favorite you've never explored before. If your personal favorite, can't live without dish isn't included, hopefully you can apply some of the gluten-substitution (I hate that word. Substitutions. As if it will be exactly the same, when it won't. Gluten free options is only marginally better. Maybe we should coin a new phrase, like "alter-gluten-nate". Well, whatever you want to call the process, hopefully this hub will help you turn your gluten filled feast into a fantastic gluten free 'feast'ivity.)

Let's see, where shall we start...

  • Turkey. Of course! The main dish. The centerpiece of any fantasy Thanksgiving (Unless it's vegan) is the turkey. This one is simple. It's naturally gluten free. Choose a bird that does not have any broth or seasoning injected into it. I understand that many food-safety experts actually recommend serving the stuffing on the side anyway, so leave that bird unstuffed! If you must fill it, use a gluten free stuffing.
  • Stuffing or Dressing. Regardless of what you call it, this is the grain based dish that no Thanksgiving is complete without. Even if you're a vegetarian, the stuffing makes the meal. Although most stuffings are made with breadcrumbs, you're in luck. If you've saved all those dry, cardboard tasting, 'what do you MEAN this is bread?" varieties of gluten free sandwich bread this is the perfect opportunity to rid your freezer of them. If you couldn't wait to ditch them, don't worry. You can buy more (or even use a tasty brand). You can use crackers. You can even look up a rice stuffing. And, lo and behold, there are some cornbread stuffings conveniently packaged and gluten free. Just add...whatever. Water, broth, etc. The trick with stuffing is to find the right seasonings. A bit of celery, some onion, and of course sage. Use your family's favorite proportions and you have a good chance at coming up with something both edible and delicious.
  • Mashed Potatoes. Any visions of Thanksgiving Dinner generally include a bowl full of creamy mashed potatoes drizzled with gravy. The mashed potatoes are traditionally gluten free. (If you happen to have the double whammy, gluten and dairy intolerance, that's okay, too. Plain rice milk or a bit of broth will enhance their creaminess just fine. They won't be as rich, but with the rest of the meal, you won't miss cream.)
  • Gravy. You can't have mashed potatoes without gravy. Well, you can. I actually prefer them that way. But some people can't, and they are the ones I'm addressing here. If you must have gravy, and you're making it from scratch, start with a gluten free flour mixture rather than your usual gluten-filled flour. You can also thicken it with cornstarch. Although you can get away with using raw gluten flour to thicken old fashioned gravy, if you're using a gluten free mix you should toast it lightly first. This is not as intimidating as it sounds. Simply toss the flour in the pan with your preferred fat, be it oil, margarine or old fashioned butter, and stir it until it reaches a lovely golden color. It should take all of three minutes and then proceed with your usual gravy making.
  • Sweet Potatoes. Everyone has their own favorite sweet potato dish. Luckily, this is another easy gluten-free side dish. Check the brown sugar, some people store it with a slice of bread to keep it soft. I don't understand the practice, but it apparently works. The trouble is, bread has gluten and gets gluten crumbs in the brown sugar. Make sure your brown sugar is gluten free (and breadless) before using. Cinnamon and nutmeg are safe, if you're nostalgic about that disgusting, er, excuse me, I marshmallow topping, just check to make sure that those marshmallows are gluten free. Most are. If you prefer a savory sweet potato topping, just check ingredients. Again, most sweet potato dishes are naturally gluten free. The few I've seen that weren't adapted easily by simply substituting a basic gluten free flour mix for the flour. No one will know the difference. It will still be delicious.
  • Greens. Green beans are the traditional vegetable side. There are a myriad of green bean casserole recipes. It doesn't matter which one you prefer, in your family, it is most likely the best. The only option. The only possible choice. And some of them have gluten ingredients. Look the recipe over, see which brands can be substituted for a gluten free brand. America's favorite red label may be unsafe for you, but there are a couple of gluten free alternate brands that will provide a similar taste. It may not be 'the same' but it will still taste good, maybe even close enough. Some casseroles also include a crunchy topping. If your personal family favorite is one of them, consider using potato chips, gluten free corn flakes, or your favorite gluten free crackers. You can also use gluten free breadcrumbs toasted with a bit of butter or margarine.
  • As an alternate to casserole, consider serving your veggies naked. That's right, no sauce slathered over them or cream curdling around your plate. Try a simple drizzle of oil or butter and a bit of salt for seasoning. Let the vegetable itself be the highlight of the dish. It'll add a splash of color and be festive, delicious addition to your meal. And, the less embellishing you do, the less work the dish takes.
  • Cranberry sauce. No Thanksgiving table is complete without the cranberry sauce. Luckily, this icon dish is also gluten free. Whether you prefer your cranberries jellied or cooked down into a chunky sauce, simply check labels and double check your recipe. It's a low risk addition to the table.
  • Rolls. This is the one potentially problematic part of the meal. The bread. You could easily 'forget' the bread and few people will even notice. Or you can use your favorite gluten free alternative bread, and toast it lightly with a bit of garlic butter (or margarine). Chebe Bread is a company that makes tapioca based dough and breadstick mix. You can serve garlic flavored breadsticks made from Chebe bread and get rave reviews. Or you can give in and let this be the one bit of gluten on the table. If there are gluten containing rolls or breadsticks, consider serving the meal buffet style. Keep the glutenous rolls separate from the rest of the meal, and have guests grab them last. Or serve them at the table with a small bread plate, fancy-restaurant style. Remember that crumbs like to travel, and they get all over the place, but they don't usually levitate. So minimize risks by minimizing where those dinner rolls travel.


Don't Forget Dessert!

I'm not going to lie. The dinner may have been relatively easy to convert to a naturally gluten free meal. But dessert is a different story. Baking gluten free is difficult, and if you have not yet gotten the hang of it a gluten free dessert on top of an entire gluten free feast may feel a bit too overwhelming. This may just be the area where you need to get creative and make a few compromises.

Pie is the traditional Thanksgiving favorite. For some people, Thanksgiving is all about the pie. For others, it's a dish that lives in the sidelines. If you're a sideliner, this first Thanksgiving with Celiac Disease will go a little smoother. If you'd rather not eat at all than skip dessert, prepare yourself. I'm not saying that a good gluten free Thanksgiving is a dessert-less Thanksgiving. I'm all for dessert. I'd live on desserts if it were healthy. The trouble is that pie crust is very difficult to make. Gluten free pie crust, doubly so.

I'm not saying that a Celiac Disease diagnosis is a life sentence of pie-free gluten free meals. It's just that the first big holiday meal of the season is stressful enough without the emotional baggage of a potentially failed pie. (admit it. If you plan on pumpkin pie and it comes out miserable, the day will be tainted with disappointment. It's okay.) Idf you must have old fashioned pie, prractice in advance. Spend all of October trying out crust recipes. Try not to get too sick of pumpkin pie as you practice, enlist a lot of taste testers. But you do want to try this recipe out in advance and leave yourself time to perfect it.

It's okay if you don't have the time, energy or emotional stability to deal with pie crust making just yet. Someday you will. In the meantime, you have options.

  • Cookie crumb crust. Consider using gluten-free gingersnaps to make a crust for your pumpkin pie. It's not flaky, but it looks like pie and they add a nice, complementary flavor.
  • Make a crumble. Apple crumbles are much more forgiving than pastry crusts. They make the gluten-free adaption beautifully. Just pile your pieplate full of fall fruits, and add a streusally topping. Substitute an all purpose gluten free flour mixture for regular flour, or use gluten free cookie crumbs or cereal. It will look, smell and taste amazing. It won't be pie, though.
  • Go crustless. No, I haven't lost my mind. The best part about pumpkin pie is the filling, not the crust. I don't know how many plates of pumpkin pie I have cleared from in front of a child's seat (or a few nameless grown ups) where a lonely little shell of crust was left, abandoned by the preferred insides. So pull out your ramekins (that's a fancy word for 'custard cups'), and whip up your pumpkin pie filling (check the label of the canned pumpkin in your cupboard for a recipe if you don't have one) then pour it in. Bake until set. Serve warm or chilled, and don't forget the whipped cream!
  • Chill out. In some places, Thanksgiving falls when it's still warm outside. Pumpkin doesn't have to be baked into something. It can be served cold. Pumpkin ice cream is in fall freezer displays, and pumpkin sundaes would make a fun, unique end to the meal. Set up a sundae bar with chocolate sauce, whipped cream, pecans and whatever else suits your fancy.
  • Bake it up. Pumpkin and cranberry muffins or cookies are much, much easier to master than a gluten free pastry crust. The flops are much more edible, too. There are a ton of delightful options to choose from online, pick your favorite and get baking! Muffins (or cupcakes, if you add a nice frosting) and cookies tend to freeze exceptionally well, too. So you can bake in advance and have one less thing to worry about on T day.

What to Watch Out For

Since Thanksgiving only comes once a year, watch out for places old gluten crumbs may be hiding from last years feast. Just because they're old, stale and completely harmless when it comes to bacteria doesn't mean they are safe for someone with Celiac Disease. So make sure the breadbasket is clean (and rewash the liner) before you stock it with gluten free baked goods. Watch out for wooden spoons and serving platters, the wood doesn't harbor any nasty bacteria, but it is full of nooks and crannies that might be hiding microscopic gluten crumbs. Just enough to set that immune system off.

Check all labels. Everything is suspect, double check the label. Even if it's recently been put on your 'safe' list, double check. You also need to carefully inspect any special 'holiday' foods or normally safe foods with a holiday label. Some candies are safe in their boring old every-day wrappers but processed on different equipment when put into their holiday wrappers. Same candy, slightly different risk factor. Don't take drinks for granted, either. Specialty teas are sometimes flavored with barley malt. So read the ingredients on everything! Even the water (okay, so the water might be going too far.)

What's your favorite Thanksgiving dish?

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Be Thankful

Thanksgiving may not be exactly the same as it has been in the past. You may have opted to have a small family gathering to minimize stress and gluten-risks. You may have to alter your meal plan a little more than you'd like, but hopefully you've discovered that many traditional foods really are inherently gluten free, or easily adapt to be inherently gluten free. You might not have that flaky pastry crusted pie that's been on the table every other year. But, there is a lot to be thankful for. After all, this is your first gluten free Thanksgiving. That means it's the first year without gluten...the first year after diagnosis. It means this is the year you found answers. That in itself is something to be thankful for. Remember your support system, your family and friends. Remember that this meal, this gluten free feast, won't make you, or your Celiac family member, sick. So at the end of your feast, hold up your glass (of water, or cider, or eggnog, or whatever) and propose a toast to health, and happiness. There is an awful lot to be thankful for this year.


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    • msviolets profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago

      Thanks RTalloni!

    • RTalloni profile image


      6 years ago from the short journey

      Another fab hub--positive and encouraging with great tips! Voted up.

    • msviolets profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      Glad to help, doinglifewithgod! All food holidays seem overwhelming at first when you think about what you can't have...hoping this hub helps people focus on what they CAN! :-)

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      This is awesome. Well done. I live in New Zealand where we don't celebrate Thanksgiving, but what you've written probably applies very well to our Christmas, and as a GF eater, this is a wonderful resource for me.


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