Top 20 Tips for Surviving Thanksgiving a la Gluten Free

Thanksgiving is a time for friends and family to get together and enjoy having these special people in our lives. It is the one day a year that I think we all seem to stop and give thanks for all the blessings we have.

Truly, I don’t think it can come soon enough here in the US with there being so much unrest with our new President-elect. I think we have all lost track of what is important We all need to take a step back and remember what’s important, remember to love each other, remember to appreciate each other and remember to be thankful for all that we do have.

As with any get together when you are a celiac or someone who lives a strict gluten-free diet, it is a place of absolute anxiousness. These tips are to ensure that you have a fabulous Thanksgiving. For us celiacs, that starts with being prepared and knowing a few key tips to not getting sick. Once a celiac knows they are safe and can let their guard down, it sure makes the rest of our time with loved ones that much more memorable. 

Tip #1: Not all Turkey is gluten free!

No, I’m not crazy here! A fresh turkey would be gluten free, of course; however, if you purchase one that is frozen they are often injected with broths that can contain gluten. In addition, if you purchase one that comes pre-seasoned, glazed, brined, or marinated they most likely contain wheat and/or beer and they are a not safe for a celiac to eat. 

So please be super careful here and double check all labels. If you are not hosting or making the turkey yourself it is important to double check with who is. Often when hosting a huge meal like Thanksgiving you’ll take some extra help wherever you can get it so it’s important for them to be honest if this is one place they have taken a shortcut.

Tip #2: Cooking bags not always great.

These are great ways to help keep meats moist; but, flour is often used to keep the bags from exploding. 

An easy substitute here is cornstarch again if you are not cooking the turkey it is important to double check with who is, sometimes a cooking bags is part of their secret to the perfectly moist turkey.

Tip #3: Gravy is a no-go!

Most traditional gravies are made with all-purpose flour to thicken so clearly that won’t work for a someone who is adhering to a strict gluten free lifestyle. In addition, some frozen turkeys come with gravy pouches pre-done for you that contain wheat - so those won’t work for us either. 

An easy fix is to substitute rice flour for all-purpose flour in your recipe, just note that your gluten free gravy will be lighter in color than you may be use to but still as good.

Tip #4: Stuffing or dressing?

The answer is neither are safe for a celiac in their traditional preparations, of course. 

However, an easy swap is to use gluten free bread. 

Stuffing is cooked inside the bird, so this will be a no go even if they used gluten free bread if the turkey was frozen of pre-prepared - as it will now have wheat and/or beer in it. Dressing is cooked in a casserole dish and is generally the best option as long as they used gluten free bread.

Special note to non-traditional types of stuffing - I have seen tons of stuffing dishes that include seafood, sausage and/or have nut variations and they are assumed gluten free but that is not necessarily true. If they cooked the seafood in gluten filled stock or added Worcestershire sauce it’s not safe for you. If they use a gluten filled sausage than that too is a no go for you. Or, if they added flour when glazing the nuts first unfortunately this is will be off limits to you too.

Cooking tip - be sure to toast your gluten free bread first. Gluten free bread generally soak up all the moisture and tend to become soggy, toasting definitely helps. And, since dressing is a favorite of mine, I always bring my own (if I’m not hosting Thanksgiving).

Tip #5: Mashed Potatoes a go-go!

Mashed potatoes are a perfect gluten-free food normally. Potatoes, butter, cream or milk are all gluten-free. However, every once in a while a cook will add a spoon or flour as a thickener, so it’s important to just double check this isn’t an old family recipe.

Special note about instant mashed potatoes that not all of them are gluten-free so be sure to double check the labels if you go this route. 

Tip #6: Au gratin or creamed veggies are a problem.

Most of these are made with either pre-packaged creamed soups or a béchamel sauce which uses flour as a thickener so these are a no-go for celiacs. 

An easy swap would be to use cornstarch or healthy creamy yogurt as a thickener; but, if you aren’t the cook, stay clear or bring your own.

Tip #7: Cranberry and cranberry sauce a yum!

No need to worry here these are gluten free in nature and so far I have yet to find any brand that has added wheat or gluten. So yay!  Just double check the labels to make sure cause companies are always improving their recipes.

Tip #8: Sweet potatoes a delicious favorite!

Just liked mashed potatoes these are gluten-free in nature and in most preparations they are safe. 

Beware though, if they are candied which traditionally adds flour in it’s preparation, so check with the cook or make sure not to add when if hosting.

Tip #9: Not all cornbread is created equal.

Depending on the brand that you choose or the recipe some call for both cornmeal and wheat flour, so be sure to double check that this is safe for you.

Special note about cornbread: sometimes corn bread is used in stuffings or dressings instead of bread, so please be careful here because this is not always a safe option for a celiac.

Tip #10: Rolls a no-no!

Skip these babies or bring your own if you can’t live without these. 

Gluten free bread, rolls and baking take time to master, so it is not the best idea to try for the first time Thanksgiving morning. 

Tip #11: Pies a la gluten free.

Crusts obviously contain gluten. 

It’s easy enough to make your own or buy a pre-made or frozen one. Several pre-made fillings are naturally gluten free like pumpkin. 

However, some apple, pecan and cherry fillings often contain flour so you have to double check the recipe. An easy swap is to use cornstarch instead. 

In addition, be careful with your spices (see Tip #12)

Tip #12: Not all spices are gluten free!

I wish I was kidding on this one. While individual spices do not always contain high levels of gluten, spices can sometimes be adulterated with wheat flour or wheat starch to reduce cost. Also, depending on how the spices are processed and packaged, cross-contamination with gluten is possible.

Please refer to the Gluten Free Watchdog's special report that goes into much more detail about the gluten that has been found in spices. 

Tip #13: If Thanksgiving dinner is not at your house, don’t expect the cook to get gluten free right.

There are so many in’s and out’s to cooking gluten free, that unless your host has celiac disease themselves it is unfair to add the burden of your health to their hosting duties. The best and most well intentioned hosts will get things wrong even when they try not too. 

That is why it is so important for you to either host the event or at the very least offer to help. Go food shopping with them, help cook with them so that you can teach them the how important it is to be extra careful or you will get sick. In addition, I always recommend bringing a few of your own gluten free dishes.

Tip #14: Keep your dishes covered

If you are cooking gluten free dishes right along side of your gluten filled dishes together in the same oven, make sure that all of the dishes are covered to avoid cross-contamination. 

It is important to note, that several recipes call for cooking the last 15, 30 or last hour without a cover and this will definitely lead to cross-contamination.  

Therefore, it’s important to have a schedule for gluten-free dishes so they are out before-hand and placed on warmers so everyone can eat at the same time.

Tip #15: Cross-contamination mistakes

If you are cooking a 100% gluten free Thanksgiving dinner than you don’t have to worry.

When someone asks what can they bring, suggest naturally gluten free items like a fruit or veggie trays, flowers or unscented candles for the table or a bottle of wine.

Should someone bring a gluten-filled dish be sure to keep it separate, label it, so it does not get confused and if there are a few dishes put them in a different area.

If you are not hosting, you have to explain to the host just how serious this is and it’s important for them to be honest and for you to help them. It is all too common and so unfortunate for the host to go through all the trouble of creating a gluten free item for you, only to use the wrong serving spoon that you can no longer eat.

Tip #16: Sorry but you can’t have just one bite

It is important to take your health seriously.  Yes initially it will be difficult when the table is filled with all your old favorites and you can no longer eat them. We all have that one item that calls your name, so be sure not to sit directly in front of it and sulk. Rearrange your spot at the dinner table with all the things that you can eat and that are safe for you.

Remember you teach those you love how seriously to treat your disease or condition. If you cave and have just one bite, than how can you expect your friends and family to take you seriously? That one bite, invites them to always expect you to sneak every holiday and get together. And, that one bite, truly just shows that all the extra effort that you and the host had to go through was for not because you will have a reaction, even if it’s not a major one.

It only takes 1/ 1000 of a gram of gluten (that’s equivalent to one crumb) to get into your system, to set off and trigger an immune system response in your body for the next three months, yes three months.

Tip #17: Serve yourself first

It is important to get your food before any mistakes happen. So being first in line or the first spoon in each dish is imperative. 

In addition, if you want some left-overs separate them before you put the dish on the table, put them away and mark them so that you know you have some yummy, safe deliciousness for later.

Tip #18: Oh those holiday cookies 

These little lovelies take a long time to do. I suggest having a gluten free cookie decorating party the weekend before. This way you can get some help - as well enjoy some extra bonding time with your friends and family.  Choosing all the gluten-free decorations serves as a great opportunity to explain a little more about your disease or condition in a non-threatening way. 

As an easy swap instead of making all of these from scratch is to use some gluten free sugar cookies, gluten free chocolate chip cookies and gluten free brownie mixes.

If you run out of time or are not hosting, there are several gluten free bakeries that you can order some from or at the very least bring some store bought ones because inevitably you will want to have one or two throughout the day. 

Tip #19: Preparation is key

Just like any large party or holiday get-together, this event is not the time to try out new recipes. Nothing screams a disaster quite like this. So do a test run or two ahead of time, there are still a few days so try out your recipes. 

And, lets be honest gluten free cooking and baking doesn’t always come out the way we expect, I have certainly made my share of dishes that went straight into the trash because something went wrong ;) so practice first!

Tip #20: Plan B is essential

It’s important sometimes to remember that the purpose of this holiday is to be grateful and thankful for those that we love. No matter how much we love and look forward to the food too. Mistakes or accidents will happen and you could find yourself eating a gluten free frozen pizza while everyone else is enjoying Thanksgiving dinner (that was me, on my first Thanksgiving dinner with my family). So always, have a back-up plan just incase, especially when eating at someone else’s home.

Best of luck to you all, hope these help. May you have a beautiful Thanksgiving being grateful for everything.