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6 Ways to Manage Food Intolerance This Holiday Season

As the holiday season is rapidly approaching, those of us with celiac disease, eosinophilic esophagitis (EoE), IgE food allergies or other conditions that affect our ability to eat may feeling a profound sense of dread. How do we keep ourselves safe, participate in holiday activities, explain things to well-meaning friends and family and still manage to have a good time?

This is my 13th holiday season with celiac disease – my 13th gluten-free Thanksgiving and Christmas. Here are a few survival tips from a veteran celiac holiday partier!

1. Don’t ever expect safe accommodations.

In the early days of my celiac diagnosis, I trusted I could explain things to well-meaning family and friends and that would be enough. For instance, Thanksgiving could be a very traditionally gluten-free meal. Turkey is naturally gluten-free as are sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes and gravy if thickened with corn starch instead of flour.

One year, we traveled to my husband’s grandmother’s home for Thanksgiving. We had explained my needs beforehand and thought everything would be fine. No go. His grandmother had prepared the turkey with flour — without even thinking — just because it was the way she had always done it. That year, for Thanksgiving, I had mashed potatoes and some gluten-free pie I had brought for myself.

Since then, I have learned to check, re-check and triple-check every single ingredient and cooking process that happens at holiday meals. Holiday meals are steeped in tradition, and even the most well-meaning will sometimes do things just out of habit!

2. Take care of the things you care about the very most yourself.

I pick several dishes at Thanksgiving that I really want to make sure I can eat, so I volunteer to make those. For me, this includes pie, stuffing and some years, green bean casserole. There are great alternatives out there for almost any diet. Last year, I made my son who has EoE an apple tart out of rice, sugar, salt and cooked apples. He only had two safe foods at the time (rice and apples), and I wanted him to have something special to eat at dinner.

Also, make sure to clearly designate an area for safe food. Label it if there is a crowd. Make sure to explain cross-contact and request that the safe food always be dished out with its own utensils onto a clean plate. I always try to dish up my plate first just in case people accidentally forget. Nothing is worse than slaving all day over a gluten-free/dairy-free pie only to have it ruined by cross-contact with other foods.

3. Ignore the nay-sayers (easier said than done).

It always seems like there are a few people at every family gathering who don’t want to believe that yes, you really will get sick if you just have a taste of that pumpkin pie — really sick. I’ve heard stories of relatives who think my friends are faking their problems and bother them at holiday meals. What I’ve learned after so many years is to take the time to calmly explain that yes, what I am experiencing is real, and then I try to steer the conversation away from me and my food problems.

If this is your first year needing special accommodations, negative attitudes can be really hurtful. I promise it gets better. As time goes on, people get used to your new normal and will be more accommodating. My first few holiday meals with extended family were only moderately gluten-free and I brought most of the food myself. Now they are almost entirely gluten free and-people don’t comment on it any longer.

4. Start new food traditions.

Some traditions are hard to keep up with certain dietary restrictions. For example, it is hard to make delicious gluten-free and dairy-free cinnamon rolls, so we no longer have those on Christmas morning. Instead, we are doing a pancake breakfast — something that is easy to do gluten-free, and I can modify to fit various dietary needs. It is so hard to say goodbye to long traditions, but it is exciting to do things a new way and to create new memories with your new normal.

5. Handle all those neighbor gifts with care.

If your community is like mine, Christmas is a time for sharing. We receive so many gifts from well-meaning neighbors of things only my daughter — who has no food restrictions — can eat. Even worse is people who do know and try to accommodate, but don’t know enough to avoid cross-contact, so we don’t feel comfortable eating their treat.

I’ve always wondered how to best deal with this — should I tell people, or just let it go? Over the years, I got tired of seeing crestfallen faces when I explained that I couldn’t eat whatever treat someone had painstakingly made for me, so now I just smile and thank them. Usually, I end up bringing all of the goodies we can’t eat to friends I know that need a pick-me-up, or to my mom’s house where my extended family likes to gather. We’ve noticed over the years that people figure things out the more they get to know us. We’ve gotten many creative neighbor gifts over the years that are food-free as people have learned about our dietary needs.

6. Give yourself some love and shift your focus.

Finding your feet as the newly diagnosed at the holidays is difficult. There is going to be some sadness at seeing all the foods you used to be able to eat and no longer can. That’s OK. That sadness will lessen over time, and as you create new food memories with family and friends.

This can be especially hard if you have children with dietary needs. They may be extra upset at family gatherings, so prepare a special treat to bring for them and be prepared to give them lots of love and compassion. Try to shift their focus to all of the wonderful things they can eat and all of the food-free fun found at the holidays. My husband and I have decided over the years to try to stop focusing on the food. He is a rock star at this. He wants family gatherings to be all about the people, reconnecting with loved ones he cares about, even if he is only drinking water while everyone else is eating pie.

We try to create as many memories as we can outside of food. Over the years, we’ve found that having food issues has helped to shift our focus to the thing that really matters at the holiday season: our relationships with other people.

Getty image via Foxys_forest_manufacture.