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If You Love Someone With Dietary Needs This Holiday Season


Holidays can be a wonderful time filled with warmth, friends, family and, of course, food. But for people with food-related diseases like Celiac disease or food allergies, holidays and family dinners can actually be a difficult time.

After several years of getting used to gluten-free holidays, I’ve finally come to accept how to deal with Celiac during the holiday season and family dinners in general. It’s a delicate balance of being supportive to both the family member with the dietary needs and the family who’s trying to accommodate those needs. I have five tips each for family and those with allergies to tackle the holiday season in a safe and loving way.

Five things the family of people with food-related diseases or allergies can do to help:

1. Ask questions and understand all the factors that make up their disease or allergy and what they need to be safe ahead of time.

Are they allergic to all nuts or just some tree nuts? Is it a wheat allergy or gluten? (Gluten is actually in wheat, rye, barley and triticale.) Find out as much as you can so you’re comfortable with the food you’re serving. And don’t assume if they’re allergic to one thing that they’re allergic to all things you might be making.

More importantly though, know what they need to be safe. Can their food touch other food containing allergens? Or do they need everything to be prepared separately? It’s super important to understand these things, otherwise they may be at risk to get sick, which would certainly ruin a holiday quickly.

2. If you’re not comfortable with cooking for them, it’s OK.

Most people with food-related diseases or allergies are used to taking care of themselves and are independent. We also tend to hate feeling like we’re an imposition on people, especially the people we love. If you really aren’t comfortable with providing safe food, it’s better to be honest than to risk making a loved one sick. Chances are they’ll be relieved you were upfront, and they’ll happily bring something for themselves.

3. Something as simple as a separate dessert or safe alcoholic beverage (for those of age, of course) can mean all the world.

I’m always so touched when friends or family go out of their way to prepare gluten-free snacks for me. It makes me feel normal and included in the excitement of the holiday and traditions of the family.

4. Know that holidays can be the hardest time for those with diseases and allergies, especially for those new to their diagnoses.

So many holiday and family traditions are tied to food. When we think fall, we think pumpkin spice and Halloween candy. When it’s winter, we think of warm peppermint-flavored drinks and homemade pies. Now imagine having some or all of those wonderful smells, tastes and traditions taken away from you at once. Even for those who are able to eat the many gluten-free alternatives that have become available recently, they don’t taste like how we remember from our childhoods. It can be a difficult transition.

5. Those with diseases and allergies may not like talking about it through the whole dinner.

As important as it is to educate people about our diseases and allergies, it can be really difficult to talk about it all the time. There have been times in my life I’ve felt like I’ve lost myself in my disease; that it was the only part of me, in part because it was all anyone wanted to know about me. There are so many other parts of my life that I want to share with my loved ones. Try making a point of asking those with allergies and diseases about other parts of their life. It will likely be refreshing for them.

Five things people with dietary needs can do for a more stress-free holiday:

1. Offer to bring your own food rather than relying on family or friends to take care of you.

We’re all used to our food needs — so much so that they’ve likely become second nature. For those who don’t spend every day dealing with them, it can be stressful and scary. Imagine being told, “Nothing Annie eats can contain or touch gluten, or she’ll be in terrible amounts of pain and her brain won’t function normally for as long as six months,” when you’ve barely even heard the word “gluten” before. That’s terrifying. Offering to bring your own food can be less stressful for both you and your host and can guarantee a symptom-free holiday.

2. Don’t be embarrassed to ask questions and make your needs known.

If you decide to eat food prepared by others, don’t shy away from making sure you’re safe. I have a habit of being terrible about this. With the way Celiac is often portrayed, it can be hard to stand up and make clear what I need, but it’s worth it. Being sick on a holiday isn’t fun for anyone.

3. Don’t get annoyed when people ask questions.

Yes, talking about what makes you different all the time can suck. But keep in mind they don’t live with your disease or allergies all the time. They care about you and want to understand what you’re going through and how they can help.

4. If this is your first year with new dietary needs, don’t expect things to taste the same.

They won’t. And it will be upsetting and hard. Some things you try will probably be terrible. But if you prepare yourself for it, you might be able to handle it better than I did. Which meant crying about how bad gravy tastes now (my mom and dad have since mastered the gluten-free gravy process) and thinking my life was effectively over. Life moves on, you’ll find things you like and new allergen-free substitutes are coming out all the time. Take a deep breath, and in the spirit of the season, remember to be thankful for what you do have.

5. Don’t let food be your definition of a holiday.

As I mentioned in the section for family, food is often what we connect to seasons and special occasions. Not being able to enjoy those foods can be really hard; they’re some of what we remember most from growing up. In recent years I’ve tried to reset my mind to the other things I like about holidays: catching up with family, sitting by the fire and enjoying time with those I care about most. Creating new non-food-related traditions and memories means not feeling like I’m missing out. It has made a huge difference.

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s one thing people might not know about your experience with disability, disease or illness during the holiday season, and what would you say to teach them? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Share Your Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images