By Rachel Pennellatore (Boston.com)
For many people, the holiday season represents an extended opportunity to indulge in a smorgasbord of their favoritetreats; they ride a sugar rush into the new year while visions of sugarplums dance in their heads. But for the millions of Americans living with food allergies and digestive diseases, well-intentioned get-togethers are a nightmare before Christmas.
As someone living with Crohn’s Disease, I’ve become quite familiar with the awkward, “Sorry, I can’t eat that” routine. Those of us with dietary restrictions hate to make a special request for fear of imposing, which in turn makes our gracious hosts, who have spent a lot of time and effort preparing a meal, feel bad when they find out too late that they have nothing to offer that fits the needs of a special diet.
Accommodating someone with special dietary needs doesn’t have to be stressful or mean that you have to serve weird or bland food. Here are several suggestions for working with a few of the most common dietary restrictions (and where you can find foods that fit, if you don’t want to cook).
Wheat Allergy / Celiac Disease. People with Celiac Disease have an inability to tolerate gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. Fortunately, Glutenfreely.com offers hundreds of gluten-free recipes, proving there’s no dessert that can’t be modified. If you’re not a baker or don’t have the time, stop by Glutenus Minimus (697 Belmont St., Belmont) to pick up gluten-free cookies, muffins, cakes, and mixes. According to the National Institute of Health, most wines, hard liquor, and distilled beverages are gluten-free as well — but flavored wines or vodkas may contain gluten, so it’s best to stick to the plain versions or read ingredient labels carefully.
Diabetic. Diabetes is a lifelong condition for individuals whose bodies either do not have enough or do not respond properly to insulin, a hormone responsible for turning glucose (blood sugar) into energy. Sugar-free varieties of almost everything are widely available in major grocery stores, or look for those sweetened with sugar alternatives like sucralose (Splenda), stevia (Truvia), saccharine (Sweet N’ Low), or aspartame (Equal). If you’re baking yourself, you can use those same sugar alternatives in any recipe.
Lactose Intolerant. Lactose intolerant people are unable to digest lactose, a sugar found in milk and dairy products. For a quick, delicious snack, swing by A.k.a. Marvelicious (31 Germania St., Jamaica Plain) to try out any of their five varieties of dairy-free cookies (an added bonus: They’re vegan, too!), or pick them up at Harvest Co-Op (581 Mass Ave., Central Square). Dairy-free product lines like So Delicious, Lactaid, and Tofutti, which you can find in many large grocery stores, also provide recipes and resources.
Vegetarian / Vegan. Vegetarians don’t eat meat, while vegans go a step further and don’t eat any animal-derived products. While most desserts typically don’t contain meat anyhow, baking without eggs and dairy can pose more of an issue. Stores that specialize in natural and organic products like Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods are surefire places to find a wide variety of vegan-friendly products; the latter even has a section of its website dedicated to recipes for special diets. Happily, a lot of vegan desserts can serve double-duty for those with certain dietary restrictions, as many vegan desserts use dairy and wheat alternatives.
Digestive Diseases. This category is a little trickier because there are a wide variety of gastrointestinal disorders, and certain foods will bother some individuals more or less than others. General guidelines suggest avoiding dairy, fat, caffeine, alcohol, and insoluble fibers, which are often “trigger foods” that are difficult for someone with GI issues to digest. Also avoid anything with an extreme flavor profile; foods that are very spicy, sour, sugary, or greasy will more than likely upset the stomach of anyone with a digestive condition. Many desserts that are appropriate for someone with lactose intolerance, Celiac Disease, or those who follow a vegan diet are also appropriate for those suffering from digestive disorders. For more specific ideas, the ADAPT Cookbook also provides GI-friendly dessert ideas from two chefs who themselves both live with Crohn’s Disease.
Nut Allergies. Nut allergies are considered one of the deadliest types of allergies and can cause anaphylactic shock, the most severe type of allergic reaction. When baking, be sure to cook and store items containing nuts in separate, clearly labeled pans and containers, and avoid using the same utensils for desserts with and without nuts to prevent cross-contamination. When buying pre-packaged desserts, read the nutrition label carefully; companies are required to print allergy information on the packaging and will tell you if their product is processed in a facility that also handles nuts. Jeni Cakes and Hippie Chick Bakery are both nut-free bakeries serving the Boston area — but be forewarned, they take orders by appointment only. For walk-ins, you’ll have to head a bit north of the city to Cakes For Occasions (57 Maple St. Danvers).
When in doubt, it never hurts to ask your guests with dietary restrictions what they can and can’t eat; you can work together to find something and help all your guests enjoy the festivities.
Even if you or your loved ones don’t suffer from any food allergies or chronic conditions, everyone can benefit from eating a little healthier this holiday season. After all, you don’t have to resolve to lose the weight you never gained!