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Recipe Roulette: Beat the Odds when Planning & Preparing an Inclusive Holiday Menu

The stakes can be high when it comes to mindful menu planning during the holiday season. How do you please everyone’s appetites while juggling food sensitivities like gluten, allergens such as dairy and dietary preferences that include vegan, vegetarian, low-sodium… the list goes on.


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Play it safe with useful advice courtesy of Andrea Leary, registered dietitian nutritionist and on-site registered dietitian nutritionist operations manager at Optum. Andrea coaches others on eating well and creating menus that almost everyone at the table can enjoy:

Q. What should folks keep top-of-mind when planning for guests with food sensitivities and allergens?

A: The holidays can be hectic for hosts, so planning ahead is key when charting out your menu. First, poll guests in advance and make a list of allergens and sensitivities; they’ll appreciate your proactive approach and who knows, they may even offer to bring a dish well-suited to their diet that can be shared with others. That’s a bonus!

Second, remember that every menu item doesn’t have to accommodate every guest. For example, if you’re hosting a vegetarian, plan to serve a side dish that could substitute as a main dish such as a hearty meatless soup or a quinoa pilaf boosted with lentils or legumes.

Q: Gluten is a red flag ingredient for so many; what are some essential gluten free swaps?

A: Keep in mind there are varying degrees of gluten sensitivities. If you’re hosting a guest with celiac disease where ingesting gluten can be devastating for him or her, my go-to website is www.Celiac.org, a resource with recipes and relevant tips from the Celiac Disease Foundation.

For guests that are gluten sensitive, some familiar swaps for wheat-based bread may be rice, corn or potatoes. There are many alternative flours, such as coconut flour, buckwheat and chickpea flour, to use in place of traditional wheat flour in recipes. And at the grocery store before purchasing foods you plan to serve, read the list of ingredients noting allergens and check the packaging for bursts that read “gluten free.” Also, this article offers more details on gluten sensitivities.

Q: Are there go-to tools to help home cooks chart out their inclusive menu?

A: We all wish there was a magic wand to insure no one is at risk! There’s one helpful App that comes close. Zipongo is a recipe finder and meal planning resource that offers users the ability to filter by dietary preferences, and you can adjust these specifics at any time. I’ve used Zipongo to plan a menu for a combination of dietary needs and it’s handy.

Andrea also recommends letting go of stress and focusing on what matters most. “It’s easy to get caught up in the holidays, but focus on spending time together and enjoying special moments with friends and family. Guests who have special diets will appreciate that you’ve taken time to meet their needs, and you’ll feel good about doing so.”